BRITISH COLUMBIA

Aussie Daniel Lissing plays Mountie in Wild West series 'When Calls the Heart'

04/10/2014 03:31 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT
LANGLEY, B.C. - They say the Mounties always get their man — even if he's an Australian.

Daniel Lissing knew next to nothing about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before he auditioned to play one on "When Calls the Heart." The Sydney native grew up in Bondi Beach, a South Pacific playground tourist community a ferry ride from Sydney Harbour. The only Mountie he'd ever heard of, thanks to his dad, was '60s-era cartoon constable Dudley Do-Right.

"When I got the job," says Lissing, carefully maintaining his Canadian accent on the set of the series, "my old man posted a video on my Facebook page of a singing Mountie from a film."

That would have been Nelson Eddy, the operatic film star of the '30s. The romantic lead cemented the image of a singing Mountie opposite Jeanette MacDonald in "Rose Marie."

Eddy wasn't Canadian, either, hailing from Rhode Island. Canadians have played Mounties, of course, most memorably Gordon Pinsent in "The Forest Rangers" (1963-65) and Paul Gross in "Due South" (1994-99).

Lissing was living in Los Angeles (he'd been on the short-lived submarine series "Last Resort") when his agent contacted him about "When Calls the Heart." The family drama, set in the fictional village of Coal Valley, is based on characters created by Alberta native Janette Oke. Her "Love Comes Softly" series has been adapted into other Hallmark Channel projects and premieres in Canada Wednesday on Super Channel.

Executive producer Michael Landon Jr. — whose dad was the actor/writer/director behind such iconic, family-friendly dramas as "Little House on the Prairie" and "Highway to Heaven" — adapted Oke's first "Love Comes Softly" book for Hallmark in 2003.

"It took me 10 years to get it set up," says Landon, who grew up on his dad's sets. "Every studio and network thought it was too soft, that there was no audience for it." Finally, Hallmark picked it up and it became the highest-rated movie in the history of the channel. A sequel, also produced and directed by Landon, did even better.

More than 10 million DVDs were sold of the series, says Landon, proof that there is an audience for TV projects in an era where dark dramas such as "Breaking Bad" or "True Detective" get all the attention.

"They're hungry," Landon says of audiences seeking more heartwarming family fare. "It's just a matter of getting the gatekeepers to say OK to projects like that."

The series took a long and winding road back to Canada. Landon originally shot a two-hour series pilot, also titled "When Calls the Heart," in the U.S. which aired on Hallmark in 2013. That version did star a Canadian Mountie: Toronto-born Stephen Amell.

By the time it went to series, Amell was already locked into "Arrow." Canadians Vicki Sotheran and Greg Malcolm came on board as producers along with executive producer Michael Shepard ("Package Deal"). Some of the props and set pieces, including a stage coach, were borrowed from shuttered Calgary production "Hell on Wheels."

The role of the female lead was also recast. Erin Krakow ("Army Wives") won the part of novice school teacher Elizabeth Thatcher, who survives a bumpy stage coach ride and robbery to come to this Wild West coal dust town.

The Philadelphia native, who grew up in South Florida, began her acting career in New York. She got word of this project as she was set to make the transition to Los Angeles.

Being laced into corsets and long skirts helped her get into character for this story, set in 1910. She studied the era and understands the pride Canadians feel about their iconic police force. "I'm American myself, but I totally see how special that is and we're really excited to be able to showcase the Mounties on our show."

Neither Krakow nor Lissing had ever even been to Canada before relocating to Vancouver for the series. Fellow American Lori Loughlin ("Full House") joins them as the widow of one of the coal miners lost in a devastating accident.

"It's God's country," says Loughlin of the B.C. production base. "The mountains and the set they've built are extraordinary. The costumes we get to wear help you with setting the right tone. You don't have to use a lot of your imagination because it's right there visually for you to see."

Canadian actors are part of the mix, including Martin Cummins ("V"), Chelah Horsdal ("Hell on Wheels") and Charlotte Hegele ("Bomb Girls"). Lissing praised the work of the Canadian juveniles, singling out Mitchell Kummen, a 15-year-old from Winnipeg. He previously played a young Grapes in "The Don Cherry Story."

"He's done more work than I have," says Lissing, who started out as a musician.

Veteran Canadian director Anne Wheeler was calling the shots on the brisk but sunny day reporters visited the set last December.

Lissing is so self-deprecating he could be Canadian. He totally stumbled into acting when his music agent suggested he audition for a few commercials. He booked one and thought, "This is easy — walk up on set and pull a face." He'd never been to an acting class.

A short film led to some small parts in Aussie dramas. Then America and "Last Resort" and now this.

The cold winter — even in Vancouver — caught him off guard. "When I first started wearing this uniform it was really hot at the start of September," he says. "Now I'm loving this uniform — the more layers the better."

He dismisses his horse riding as "passable." He works on his Canadian accent and says he's become a Canucks fan, although he understands already this wasn't exactly the best season to start following the local NHL team.

When he was a teen he had his first Canadian crush — a female basketball player who bonded with his sister and billeted with his family.

His sister told him he was too young and to get lost.

He remembers thinking at the time that Canada just seemed so far away. "As a kid, it seemed out of reach." Later, in his 20s on Bondi Beach, he found Canadians had a similar sense of humour to Australians.

"You can travel to the weirdest places in the world," he says, "and you'll find a Canadian and an Australian."

You might even find an Australian playing a Canadian.

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While in Langley, B.C., Bill Brioux was a guest of Prairie Productions Inc. Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.