(Featured image courtesy of Noah Asanias)
As we arrive at the anniversary of the month that all of our lives suddenly got a lot smaller and a lot lonelier, it’s become obvious that one of the biggest ways that all generations have powered through the pandemic has been with stories of positivity. As news stories of triumphant successes or even lucky coincidences became more and more scarce, America as a whole opened their bookshelves, Spotify accounts, and streaming services to seek out anything that would simply make them smile for a little bit. (Fellow Gilmore Girls bingers, I know you’re out there.) For anyone who chose the Hallmark Channel, period drama When Calls the Heart was sure to be their beacon of hope in the tough times.
The series follows Elizabeth Thatcher, a young schoolteacher who finds herself relocating to the frontier to teach in Coal Valley. The small coal-mining town had been struck by a terrible accident, leaving most of the women widows and forced to work in the dangerous mines themselves. Despite the somber premise, the series has been praised for its dedication to an uplifting energy and providing stories about compassion and the human spirit. One of the best examples of these themes is Florence Blakeley, a widow played by Loretta Walsh whose eight-season transformation and battle with grief is still far from over.
TV Wasteland had the opportunity to speak with Walsh about the benefit of playing make-believe, how having many jobs has aided her career, and the importance of stories about women.
Loretta grew up in “middle-of-nowhere rural Australia, not quite the outback, but farmland), and so my childhood was very much: ‘Go outside and play.’” That freedom cultivated a love for make-believe and invention in her, and she recalls coming up with games and stories that could keep her entertained for hours. “It really just came from a place of boredom, in a way.” Without the constant entertainment that can now be provided by the Internet, her imagination became a playground inside of her head. Her family was already artistically inclined, so after starting ballet classes and her first performances in musicals in the local community theater, she’d officially caught the bug. That love was only compounded when her family got their first VCR, suddenly making classics like The Sound of Music and Grease available for rewatch upon rewatch whenever she wanted them. Joking that the latter may not have been entirely appropriate for kids, she acknowledged how “back in the day, some of the adult humor and themes just went over kids’ heads.” Looking back on it, Walsh remembers how her special love for Olivia Newton-John stemmed from both how “fabulous” she was and how she was able to play both the wholesome, squeaky-clean Sandra Dee and the more rebellious Sandy with ease. “I even intuitively enjoyed the differences that she was finding in her performance.”
Over the past decade, Loretta’s career has grown with numerous appearances in programs like Psych, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Life Unexpected, saying, “I’ve always had really positive experiences” on those guest roles. Even picking a favorite would be difficult for her, because “I feel like I’ve learned something and have had appreciation for every part that I’ve done.” Recalling her episode on Bates Motel, she praised Vera Farmiga for being “such a leader” on set, always welcoming and open. Batwoman truly opened her eyes to the incredible work that stunt people do, and the long night shoot for that series gave her a better understanding of “how much actors and everybody have to learn how to focus and conserve their energy… It’s tough trying big monologues and dialogue at four in the morning.” She acknowledged how actors can often become so focused on what’s going on in the shot that they forget about everything happening beyond the camera’s eye, the people “who are making extraordinary things happen.” So, on every set she does her best to simply observe, which has helped her gain a huge amount of respect for every person’s role in the storytelling process. “I’ve been really lucky.”
When Calls the Heart has been particularly special for Walsh because with the eight years that it’s been on the air, the series has provided a “long-term collaboration” with a very special cast and crew. “I had in my mind that I really wanted to do a show that was about the power and the intimacy and the importance of friendships between women. I’ve had, and do have, extraordinary women friends in my life… but at that time, I wanted to honor how important those relationships are.” When Loretta read about the plot of the show, she realized that it was exactly what she was looking for. She flew back to Vancouver from her vacation to meet director Michael Landon Jr. at the audition, though at that time it was for a different part. “I didn’t have a feeling I was going to end up getting Florence, and I didn’t have a feeling that this was going to go and be so successful.” The entertainment business is extraordinarily “fickle,” depending almost completely on what happens to resonate with people and what can penetrate the zeitgeist in just the right way at just the right time, but When Calls the Heart ended up doing exactly that. “These Hearties [nicknames for fans of the series] are a movement of kindness, really, which I can totally get behind.”
“When we first met Florence, she was very cranky. She was very brittle and tough and very judgmental,” but Loretta found a way to connect with her through her loss. “If you lost somebody really close to you, you have a choice… to move through all of those feelings and be honest about how you’re feeling, or you have to develop a way and keep going.” When we first meet Florence, she’s going through a period of deeply devastating grief, but instead of addressing what’s going on inside her heart and mind, she’s chosen to toughen her skin and forge on. “She’s been on a journey of healing over the seasons. She’s been trying to not just survive but to actually thrive and enjoy her life and hold certain people accountable for their actions in Hope Valley.” Through developing her confidence and sense of ownership in her telephone operator job and finding a long-lost letter from her husband, Florence has found a way “to be able to not just survive but to really thrive.” In the currently-running eighth season, we’re going to see some things from the character that we haven’t seen before. “This season, more than any, is a transformational season for this character. We’re going to see her in different ways emotionally [and] physically… so I’m very excited to share that.”
When asked about what Walsh would personally like to see for Florence, she answered, “I would love to see her find love again… a second chance.” She thinks that after the closure that Blakeley has found after her husband’s death, it would be “a wonderful surprise,” but not an unwelcome one in the middle of all the work she’s doing for her family, her job, and her town. “I would also just really like to continue to see her have some empowerment.” As a character who’s often had power taken away from her, Loretta would love to see her renew her sense of importance.
One her favorite memories from set came during the first season, in a scene where Florence was covered head-to-toe in coal dust. “One of my first days on set, I came into my trailer, and they had covered all of the furniture with blankets.” After putting on her costume and going to makeup, she thought, “never in my life have I been so filthy.” It was an exciting introduction to the show, and it reminded her of that place where all of her passion started: the make-believe and the play. “That’s always been the attraction for me, as an actor, is not just playing myself but really getting to play very different characters.” She considers herself to be lucky to play very elegant roles with a lot of wealth but also inhabit characters who are much grittier and more down on their luck. “It’s so fun to be able to stretch and do all of that.”
The current season of When Calls the Heart was filmed in the midst of COVID-19, and Loretta admitted how “in the beginning, I had quite a bit of anxiety about going back to work,” and she knew she wasn’t alone in that nervousness. “This whole pandemic has taught us, if we didn’t know already, that this life thing is a team sport.” Though that fear was allayed as soon as she did start working, due to constant testing and even more so the comfort that the entire team was able to provide, knowing that they were all in it together. “There’s no other group of people who I would’ve rather gone through that experience with… As cheesy as it is, we sort of have our own Hope Valley community within that group.” Due to that camaraderie and the stakes involved, both personal and professional, “I think everybody felt a real responsibility to make good choices.” Walsh specifically identified production manager Mike Magnusson as someone who ensured that everyone was safe and comfortable at all times, along with showrunner John Tinker, but she emphasized how it only increased that sense of a team environment, especially between the actors who did have to take their masks off for scenes. They were one of the first projects to go back to production in their area, so a lot of very special care was taken in planning the production, even in adjusting the story. “There are guest stars who come to Hope Valley, but a lot of the storytelling focuses on the local residents.” They kept crowd scenes to a minimum and put scenes outdoors whenever they could. “It was positive, and we got through it without any incident, which is incredible.”
The recently-released romantic comedy A Picture Perfect Wedding was Walsh’s first film after the outbreak, and there was a similar level of care taken, especially with sanitizing dozens of props between takes. She enjoyed director Jason James’ passion for comedy as well as the opportunity to play a more villainous character, of course one that was more along the lines of Legally Blonde than James Bond, though still tough and calculating. “I always joke with my husband. I always get to play these parts a lot of the time that are pretty mean,” and as someone who is obviously never trying to ruin any relationships or derail any weddings in real life, “it’s always fun to play someone who’s bad or mean.” However, Walsh teased that Maxine, her Picture Perfect character, still has a transformation in store as well, with a lot of things to learn along the way.
Loretta has quite the extensive resumé beyond acting, with prior jobs at an airline, with a wine company, as a teacher, and countless more. “It’s only really recently for me that I’m an actor and a mom, but I’ve always (even pre-pandemic) had three jobs.” All of that time working has allowed her to enjoy her time as an actor even more, the time that she’s taking to pursue her dream. “This can be a really difficult career path, with sometimes not a lot of control, so I am so incredibly grateful… to have extraordinary experiences and contribute to entertainment.” As someone who is fascinated by “what makes people tick,” she’s also thankful for the understanding she’s gained from working with so many different kinds of people. It’s the kind of experience that has informed the characters she plays, because she can look at the script and immediately say, “Oh my goodness, I used to work with a woman like this! Got it.”
Years ago, Walsh also began her own theater company, Kindred Entertainment in Vancouver. “I love theater. It’s my first love, and I’ve been so changed and impacted by theater that I really wanted to offer that experience to other people.” When she began producing plays, she didn’t have the big long-running job that she has now, and knowing how essential it is for creators to develop their craft all the time, “I was really driven to produce plays and put myself in those plays so that I could play these fantastic roles.” She quickly realized after the first production that everything was so much bigger than her. “This is not about my performance and my ego… it’s about creating really interesting experiences for people to come and be impacted.” Even though the current situation has obviously impacted the theater, she believes that people are going to be “hungry” for live performance as soon as it’s available again, so she’s excited to get back onto the stage again.
“The thing about being in this business is that there’s a lot of uncertainty. Sometimes you just don’t know. I don’t know when I’m going to get another job, but that’s also really exciting because things can happen so quickly. Something wonderful can come your way, and all of a sudden, in two days you’re working on something with extraordinary people.” Loretta would like to do any project that can surprise her, and she wants to ensure that the parts she is playing are “representing women in a really complicated and deep way.” She’d love to do an ensemble dramedy, but she feels open to continue seeing what’s possible. Being an Australian in Canada, if using her natural accent in a project is possible, she joked that that would be ideal as well.
Wherever you might see Loretta Walsh in the future, you can be sure that it’ll be something fresh and exciting, and we personally can’t wait for what could be coming next. For now, you can see her in the eighth season of When Calls the Heart, currently airing on Sundays on the Hallmark Channel.