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Toronto Star

TV Stardom Can Come In a Heartbeat
- Jim Bawden

Local boy Shawn Ashmore had better get accustomed to the attention

At first glance the young man dressed in jeans could be any good- looking teenager strolling through the lobby of the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel.

But look again. Would an average teen be posing quite so casually for a Star photographer?

Shawn Ashmore had better get accustomed to such attention. He's on the verge of TV stardom with the lead in the new series In A Heartbeat, which premieres Sunday night at 8:30 on the Family channel.

The drama series, which is made in Toronto by Alliance Atlantis, dramatizes the exploits of teen paramedics in an unnamed American city.

Teenagers as life savers? Ashmore swears the premise is true. In dozens of medium-sized U.S. cities and towns, teenagers step in to provide medical support until ambulances can get to the scene of an accident.

These teens are volunteer staff members of Emergency Medical Services and they've been trained as EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians).

They are trained to give first aid, drive ambulances, administer life support. They help at unscheduled childbirths, poisonings, accidental gunshot wounds, near drownings.

"I thought the premise was exciting," says Ashmore. "But I'm not certain if I could do everything my character Tyler does. He's a super- committed guy."

The 21-episode series was made last summer and fall using Scarborough locations to simulate the look of a small U.S. city. Birchmount Stadium stands in for the high school stadium where Ashmore, as Tyler Connell, is one of the football stars.

How did Ashmore get the part?

"I think I'm pretty good at auditions. I've done enough of them. It really depended on how I reacted with actors up for other parts."

He tested several times with different actresses who would play his budding girlfriend Val Lanier, and eventually the gorgeous Reagan Pasternak was chosen.

Also in the cast is Christopher Ralph as the "bad" teen Jamie Waite, who has been sentenenced to community service while out on probation. There's Danso Gordon as handsome and caring student Hank Beecham. And Lauren Collins plays Val's spunky kid sister Brooke Lanier.

Ashmore says he has total respect for real teens who work as EMTs. "I mean, they might have to deal with somebody passing away and they' re only 16 or 17 themselves. Or they have to act quickly in helping out at multiple-vehicle accidents."

Ashmore says he considers Tyler "Just an all-around volunteer. It' s his nature. He's trying to compensate for a less than great relationship with his stepfather. Tyler's had a crush on Val for a while. They talk about sensitive things when they're together."

There's a medical advisor on the set to steer cast and crew in proper procedures that must be dramatized. In the premiere the teenagers come upon a distraught woman with a dog that's experiencing cardiac arrest. And one of the teens obligingly performs mouth to mouth resuscitation on the little nipper.

Ashmore volunteers the scene wasn't as gross as it seems. "It was a stuffed dog. But the scene looked real!"

In another scene Danso Gordon, as Hank, gets emotionally involved when he witnesses a small boy wedged in a truck that's crashed.

EMTs are trained not to become involved, which is easier said than done. Hank is later passed the word that the boy will survive, although he'll need therapy to completely recover.

Another scene finds an injured man resisting treatment from the teenagers.

"You're 12-year-olds!" he shouts. "I want a real doctor!"

He's bluntly told he's losing blood fast and to survive must cooperate with the teens until the paramedics arrive on the scene.

There are 150,000 EMTs in the United States, although only a fraction are teenagers. Some U.S. squads, however, are completely staffed by teenagers and they are "chaperoned" by a mature adult who is frequently a doctor.

Why would teenagers volunteer for such dangerous assignments? Ashmore says many of them want to be doctors (like Val on the series) and look on the job as valuable training.

An EMT-1 must be at least 18 but is trained to give IV injections, defibrilate a heart, perform antishock and other advanced life-support systems. In the show Hank is a qualified EMT-1 while Tyler and Val at 17 are EMTs having accumulated at least 120 hours of training.

Ashmore has a twin brother, Aaron, who was up for the part of Jamie "when I knew I was up for Tyler. We knew only one of us would get it, if that. But that's been the case before. It's part of the acting process."

Born in Richmond B.C., Ashmore made his acting debut at 10 doing commercial work in Edmonton. When the family moved again to the Toronto area "my mom found an agent. It was something my brother and I enjoyed doing."

At 13 Shawn garnered a Gemini nomination as best actor for the TV movie Guitarman. "I didn't expect to win but I got to wear my first tux and go to the awards, where I saw a lot of famous people."

He reports "I went to a normal high school and tended to really work on weekends to keep my school work up."

And then he volunteers this ultra-secret bit of information: "I' m really 21."

But he can look anywhere from 15 to 25. He's finished high school and thinking of taking courses at Ryerson, if he ever gets the time.

For somebody so young he's done a huge amount of work already. His big-screen credits include X-Men with Patrick Stewart (Ashmore figures a sequel is coming) and Married To It, with Beau Bridges.

On TV he's been in movies with Jane Seymour (Black Out), Joanna Kerns (At The Mercy Of A Stranger), Bonnie Bedelia (Any Mother's Son) and Delta Burke (Melanie Darrow).

He also had a lead in the kids' TV series Animorphs, opposite Christopher Ralph, "so it was great getting back with him."

Ashmore is wary of the pitfalls facing young actors: so far he's avoided horror movies. He'd like to work in L.A. "on a specific project but I don't want to live there."

When the Disney Channel premiered In A Heartbeat in the U.S. a few months back, Ashmore received the full blast of publicity, including interviews in such teen mags as Tiger Beat, which he says was "pretty much fun."

He's now back in Toronto and waiting to see if In A Heartbeat gets picked up for a second season (the word is expected next month)

"The series is getting better. After six months together we really got along. I hope it gets back. I think it shows teenagers as responsible and that's great."

The Toronto Star / Transcript by Pam