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Shawn Ashmore
Terry Fox, X-Man, Canadian
- Si Si Penaloza

It's high noon on the longest day of the year. I rush to Toronto's City Hall like the Mad Hatter, late for a very important date. I come up behind a crowd, immediately engulfed in their shoulder pads, parachute pants and tube socks. Nathan Phillips Square is in a bit of a time warp today, as if an 80s episode of Star Search has exploded.

I have a hard time glimpsing the stage, considering the foot high afro in front of me. The cheers hush as a young man takes to the podium and begins a speech that sparked a nation's pride 25 years ago.

Canadian-born actor Shawn Ashmore stands and delivers, shining in the role of Terry Fox. I'm on the set of CTV and Shaftesbury Films new biopic Terry, based on the life of the spirited 21-year-old marathoner who battled bone cancer to begin a run that has, over time, raised more than 360 million dollars for cancer research.

Ashmore speaks his lines with a beautifully observed grace and subtlety. He's given himself completely to the character, without holding anything back. It's a surreal scenes, coincidentally arriving at this very moment: I'm the real journalist scribbling notes, standing behind the ersatz journalists holding up prop mikes to the actor at the podium.

When you see actors play exemplary historical figures, they often indulge in winking and nudging the audience from inside the role. Ashmore hasn't got that self-referential narcissism in him. His likeness to the hero of my youth stops me in my cynical tracks. The crowd of extras lets out a cheer as Ashmore waves and breaks into one of Terry's vulnerable smiles. The performance is so evocatively reminiscent; I have to bashfully hang my head. After all, it's not everyday I'm caught crying in public.

Director Don McBrearty shouts, "Cut!" The crew flocks in and Ashmore steps to the side and comes out of character. To say he's filling some seismic shoes today would be an understatement.

A somber woman watches from the sidelines. I'm later informed that she is Judi Alder, Terry Fox's younger sister, who flew in from Vancouver to visit the set. After we're introduced, we watch Ashmore do a final take. She whispers to me, "It gives me chills to see Shawn work. He's mastered my brother's gestures, even down to the most minute detail. The wave is bang on, and the mischievous grin is pure Terry."

The first thing to say about Shawn Ashmore in the role of Terry Fox is that he looked the part. The stylists on set have graced his face with the signature crown of cherubic curls the great marathoner was known for. It's amazing how much a physical transformation carries the audience into the character. No one could sit through Brando in Last Tango in Paris, for example, and imagine that the man behind the performance was a blithe and sexually contented beanpole.

Ashmore was born one minute after his twin brother Aaron in Richmond, British Columbia, on October 7, 1979. At the tender age of seven, a casting director approached their mother and invited the boys to audition for an Irwin Toys commercial. Aaron got the part, but due to illness, Shawn was the one who actually got to do it. He then rose to the spotlight with this Gemini nominated performance in Guitarman.

He earned much of his early acclaim for playing budding superheroes or extraordinary mutants. One could argue it was on the strength, literally, of his DNA that he won many of his coveted early roles. A casting director just had to take one look at Ashmore's eyes, which are not so much a colour as they are an existential exercise, or a visceral landscape. That is to say they're not so much blue as they're positively arctic. It's this chilling, otherworldly hue that attracted directors looking to cast a new generation of genetically gifted heroes.

The superhuman look paid off with winning a role at 17 on the Nickelodeon's series Animorphs, which led to frequent guest starring roles on The Outer Limits and Smallville. Of course, his ethereal face hit Klondike when director Bryan Singer tapped Ashmore to play Bobby Drake, AKA Iceman, in 20th Century Fox's X-Men franchise. This past fall, Ashmore appeared in the leading role in Earthsea for the SCI FI Channell, starring alongside Isabella Rossellini, Danny Glover and Kristin Kreuk.

If actor Richard Harris was once described as looking like "five miles of bad country road", Ashmoe is the prettiest stretch of Pacific Coast Highway I've ever seen. Far too charming to be trustworthy, there's nevertheless a devil-may-care quality that makes him a more entertaining interviewee that many a doe-eyed Tinseltown wannabe. He ambles over to chat with me between takes. He's excited to meet me, excited about lunch, excited to shoot the famous run down University Avenue after lunch. He's a most excitable, amicable young man.

"I can't wait to shoot that scene, it's the iconic visual that everyone remembers," Ashmore says, with the air of a young actor who appreciates he's at an exciting moment in his career. If Bobby Drake was his breakthrough role, Terry Fox may prove to be his victory lap.

Producer Christina Jennings invites me to join the cast and crew for lunch. I follow the caravan, startled to see Shaftesbury Films has commandeered the entire first floor of City Hall's common area as production headquarters for the day. A surreal motley crew of extras hunkers down at the mess hall-style table settings. There is enough food, literally, to feed a small army; a line up snakes around a dozen heaping chafing trays. The extras have set up a leisure camp like it was a day at Toronto Island: doing crossword puzzles, playing badminton, sneaking in naps. An impromptu knitting circle adds to the whole "Am I at the YMCA? Is this 1982?" trance-inducing atmosphere.

After lunch, I watch the crew set up the next location. There's no showiness in McBrearty's directing or Ashmore's performance, no need for visual or calisthenic gymnastics; why force the cameraman to race and swoop when your best special effect is in the potent, determined gaze of your star? He possesses a lightness of being, a joy in his acting, refusing to be too precious about it.

A few days later, Ashmore and I sit across from each other at the Four Seasons Hotel. Ashmore is currently giving a very convincing performance as the young buck who has everything. "I can't believe how things have worked out for me, cinching two dream roles back to back," he muses. Out of his Terry costume, he wears a classic white shirt and jeans. Ashmore's milk-fed version of "fresh-faced" makes Hollywood's favourite endangered child Dakota Fanning look tired and strung out.

If you asked a marketing team to come up with a blockbuster formula with built-in youth appeal, they just might get back to you with a simulation of a handsome actor approximating Shawn Ashmore. Ashmore, of course, cringes at the thought of focus groups and corporate piggybacking. He's no apologist for Hollywood, "I'm wary of the way corporations try to manipulate youth culture. It's a complicated relationship. I see young actors falling into the pit of partying and posing with corporate swag and sponsors. They become more obsessed with making a scene than actually preparing for a scene." In an industry where mainstream movies masquerade as thinly veiled advertisements for pink cell phones and customized SUVs, he certainly makes little secret of his ambivalent regard for celebrities pushing product like puppets.

Furthermore, Ashmore's impressively cognizant of how he makes his choices. "The role of Terry Fox is the part of a lifetime." He recalls, "Half of me was nervous, 'Man, do I really want to screw this up?' Terry is a treasured and recognizable figure, there's such a weighty significance to it - this would not be the part you'd want to flake on or not be able to grasp."

To prepare for the role, Ashmore dedicated himself to five strenuous weeks of training with a personal trainer. "Terry was an athlete to the core," he observes. "I trained with a personal trainer to get in shape, to achieve some definition because I'm not as well built as Terry. He ran 3,000 miles before he even started the run."

"It was vital for me to nail it physically," he insists. "I didn't want the audience to be removed from the film's emotion because they were too distracted thinking, 'that's a guy faking limping down the road'. I'm lucky to have both legs, so yeah, I can't begin to put myself in Terry's shoes. But relaying the details was so important to me: the way he loosely held his thumbs when he ran. He had a distinct "double bongo" style, and I was determined to capture those specifics.

Clearly, Ashmore was undaunted by the physical challenges of the role, eager to put his budding skills to the test. In order to edit together convincing establishing footage, the director enlisted Grant Darby as a photo run double, to stand in for Ashmore in long shots and tracking shots. Ashmore recalls fond memories of following Darby around for a day, "Grant's a high school teacher so I ended up tagging along to class with him. Then he put me up at his house. I watched him cook breakfast, hop to the bathroom, go up and down the stairs. I was so excited to absorb all the physical particulars of the role first hand." Darby also took Ashmore on the first 5 km run where the actor tried to master Terry's gait.

On the psychological front, Ashmore immersed himself in Terry's archive, as the producers had secured all the runner's journals. "It's here that I discovered what moved him, why he was doing it," he remarks. "I was struck by Terry's sense of conflict, how hard it was for him to keep up the pace, yet still acknowledge all his supporters in every city along the way. He had to balance getting in the mileage he'd set for himself and spend time with the people that he was doing it for. The journals made his internal struggle real for me."

Emphasizing Terry's unique sense of humor was very important to Ashmore. "Most people don't realize just how goofy his humour was - he would start food fights and pull crazy pranks. When I spoke with Terry's brother and sister, it's this aspect of their brother that was irreplaceable, that they miss so terribly," he recollects. His point, I think, is that you can't have heroism without anecdotal fables - that a people's love affair with a hero is a narrative wrung from a composite of a person's private and public life. A sentiment the actor is indeed taking to heart. From playing a comic book superhero alongside Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman to playing iconic legend in Terry, Shawn Ashmore's taking his charmed career in stride.

Nuvo / Transcript by Pam