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Toronto Star

Terry Fox Hope Lives in Shawn Ashmore
- Rob Salem

It was 25 years ago, next month - and again, yesterday afternoon - that the determined young runner, Terry Fox, emotionally addressed an exuberant crowd of well-wishers in Nathan Phillips Square on the pivotal local stop of his cross-country "Marathon of Hope."

Back on July 11, 1980, there were an estimated 10,000 gathered on the outdoor plaza of Toronto's City Hall - yesterday, they were represented by a few hundred strategically arranged extras in period casual attire (t-shirts, ball caps and Adidas-wear), recreating that historic afternoon for Terry, a new TV-movie retelling of his inspiring story, shooting through the end of this month for broadcast on CTV in September.

Standing in for the marathon man himself was the very up-and-coming young Canadian actor, Shawn Ashmore, returning home between Hollywood blockbusters for a much more intimate and emotionally invested performance, an iconic role in an inspiring true story that remains close to all our hearts.

No one here moreso than Judi Fox Alder, Terry's surviving sister, who sits quietly off to the side of the camera, dabbing at her welling eyes with a tissue while smiling ear-to-ear.

Many here have personal memories of that original afternoon - Gail Harvey, one of the Terry film's executive producers, was a news photographer at the time, travelling with Terry and his team, shooting for the United Press. She, too, fights back tears as she watches and listens to Ashmore, eerily evoking the heroic figure.

Behind him at the podium are the actors portraying Fox's family and friends: David Huband as father Rolly, Catherine Disher as mother Betty, little Vivien Endicott-Douglas as the pre-teen Judi...

Everyone's eyes are locked on Ashmore as he repeats Fox's moving words, over and over, take after take, with remarkable focus and consistency. Tourists and other passersby who have stopped to gawk find themselves getting caught up in the emotion of the moment.

"What's going through their minds?," the adult Alder wonders. "The people that are standing here... Are they feeling what I'm feeling? I mean, I'm believing it - he is so much Terry, it's just incredible... He obviously has worked so hard to get Terry down."

Indeed he has.

"When I heard that they were interested and the part was available, I jumped on it," enthuses the affable Ashmore. "But there was about two seconds there...

"I mean, I had to be sure I'd have the time to train, to do it right. As much as people suspend their disbelief, Terry's such an icon, and such a visible person, through the photos and images... you want to make sure you don't screw it up."

To that end, he trained with a Stratford movement coach, and with one-legged runner Grant Darby, who is also his body double from the back and waist down (in other scenes, computer graphics will replace Ashmore's actual leg with a digital facsimile of Fox's prosthesis).

And he studied - everything he could get his hands on. "There's so much there," he says. "The documentary footage, Terry's diary, talking to people like Gail, who were there...

"So as much as it's been a huge and daunting task, in a way it's sort of been easy to fall into."

Ashmore was just a toddler at the time that Fox made his actual run.

"I was born in '79, so my first memories were from when I was 10 years old, doing the run at school and stuff. My original discovery of Terry, he was already a hero. So this was really cool, to be able to go back and really learn about the man ... the boy. He was 22 then, younger than I am now.

"Just standing up there talking, looking out at people's reactions - there's real emotion there. It's amazing. It's honestly more than I ever could have imagined."

It's certainly a far cry from the role Ashmore is best known for, the nascent Iceman of the X-Men movies. About a month after he wraps on Terry, he's off to Vancouver for the third film in that series.

"That's gonna be fun, too. A whole different colour in the spectrum. I haven't seen a script yet, but I have seen certain scenes that look really good."

Ironically, Ashmore's superhero sideline might have nixed Terry. If his original X-Men director, Bryan Singer, had had his way, Ashmore would be in Australia right now, portraying cub reporter Jimmy Olsen in Singer's franchise-resuscitating Superman Returns.

"Of course, I was kind of bummed (at the time)," he allows. "But it is what it is. If I'd have done Superman, I would not have been able to play Terry Fox. So it all worked out. These things happen for a reason. I truly do believe that now."

And alternating between Canada and the U.S., between big popcorn blockbusters and smaller, meatier, more resonant roles is exactly where he'd like his career to stay.

"It's the best of both worlds," Ashmore beams. "I like big, huge, fun movies, but as an actor... you just don't want to get stuck doing the same thing all the time. I want to mix it up a bit."

Back up at the podium, he is choking out the words (you would never suspect it was for the dozenth time) that Terry Fox spoke from this same spot some 25 years ago.

"...and even if I don't finish, we need people to continue the fight against cancer. It has to keep going, no matter what..."

Terry is the testament that it has. And now, even the onlookers have started to mist up.

The Toronto Star / Transcript by Pam