Roma Downey grew up in the Bogside and went on to become a much-celebrated US actress with roles such as Monica in Touched by an Angel. Now she and her husband Mark Burnett have produced TV miniseries The Bible, now released in the UK, which flows from Genesis to Revelation and looks closely at the life of Jesus. Roma tells JOANNE SAVAGE about the challenges of adapting the Book of Books and playing Mary, the Mother of God
It’s quite easy to see why Londonderry-born actress Roma Downey was cast as kind-hearted angel Monica in the US hit show Touched by an Angel - a role which made her hugely famous in America.
Beautiful, with an air of peace and serenity enveloping her, and a person of devout Christian faith, Downey was raised in the Bogside and attended convent school Thornhill College before taking up acting and treading the boards of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Emigrating to the US she soon enjoyed a huge amount of success as an actress on prime time American TV: for her role as Monica, the angel bursting with kindness, warmth and a boundless need to help others, she received two Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and became something of an American sweetheart, her ready smile, easy poise and obvious beauty aiding her in the process. She has hosted Saturday Night Live, played Jackie Onassis and been voted one of People magazine’s Most Beautiful People.
But 53-year-old Downey’s new epic project - a TV series which takes in the full sweep of the Bible’s narrative arc from Genesis through to Revelation, full of the special effects required to capture miracles and with a gorgeous score by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer - has reached seismic levels of success in the US.
The Bible premiered on the History Channel and was produced by Downey and her husband Mark Burnett with Roma also playing Mother Mary in the latter stages of Jesus’s life and the Son of Man played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado. Filmed in Morocco and moving through key moments in the Old and New Testaments - taking in Adam and Eve tempted in the Garden of Eden to the travails of Moses through to the birth of the Messiah and his journey with his disciples, his many miracles, his death and final resurrection - the project was hugely ambitious and fraught with the potential for failure. The Bible is one of the most revered books on the planet and its words are sacred to millions across the world; adapting it for television could have failed disastrously. Yet the US market have taken The Bible to their hearts - it shattered sales records in its first week of home video release, selling 525, 000 units to become the top-selling TV miniseries to date.
It is now showing here on Channel 5 and Burnett and Downey have produced a movie version of the series, Son of God, which is due to be released in February, 2014.
“I had a hugely traditional Catholic upbringing,” says Roma on the phone to the News Letter from LA, her voice still retaining the slightest hint of a Derry lilt.
“I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy from the ages of five until I was 18 - and we used to jokingly call them the Sisters of No Mercy!,” and here she laughs naughtily, tongue-in-cheek.
“I wanted to make The Bible series because I have a very strong faith in God and I wanted to make something that would glorify Him.
“But I also wanted to reach people who maybe don’t have faith by touching their hearts and showing all the excitement and wonder of the biblical stories. It was about making the Bible relatable.”
How, I ask, did the idea to undertake such a gargantuan project come about?
“It had been whispering in my heart for quite some time,” confides Roma. “And then I mentioned it to my husband over a cup of tea - all the best ideas come about over tea don’t they? - and he was gobsmacked. He said:‘You want to film the whole Bible? It can’t be done!’ But then we thought about it, we prayed, we shook hands, and we decided we were going to do this. It was a bold, exhilarating and terrifying thing to do.”
Downey and Burnett were meticulous, having consultations with a whole host of theologians and faith leaders in order to ensure the accuracy of their script and narrative arc.
“The series is an opportunity for people to hear the world of God. Really the Bible is a story about love and that is uplifting and I think people very much want to have hope and to be uplifted. The ratings show that people are hungry - they are hungry for God, for hope and love.”
I ask Roma how it felt to play Mary in the series, a sacred and revered role .
“I’m a mother and I opened my mother’s heart to this role, The scenes of the Passion was so emotional and poignant to film. All of us on set were deeply moved and there was a feeling of profound reverence.”
Coming from Londonderry, and growing up there in the 1970s when the Troubles were at their height, Downey confides that it was hugely important to her that The Bible series would be unifying - appealing to all denominations.
“For me, coming from Northern Ireland where we have had problems with different Christian denominations, it was very important to me to find the places of overlap, that this would not be a divisively Catholic take, but would tell the Christian story of Jesus in a way that would be open to everybody.
“If the Christian community can agree on anything we can agree that we love Jesus. This was a project that we wanted to be unifying and it was important to us to have approval from faith leaders across denominations.
“This is a story about love. The Bible is a love story. Who could fail to be uplifted by that?
“What we always need to do in life is to figure out how to get back to God and God is love.”
Downey was back in her native Londonderry this summer to take in the sights and sounds of the City of Culture, and was particularly moved by the Peace Bridge; when she was growing up the Foyle itself was a symbol of division - Protestants on one side, Catholics on the other.
“It was vibrant and creative when I visited and I was so moved to see the Peace Bridge which I had the privilege of walking along. In the 1970s during my formative years Derry was so segregated, so divided, now there is literally a bridge of connection and a flow between these two historically divided communities - it is just so wonderful.”
The Bible airs on Channel 5, December 21 and 22 at 10pm with the DVD available to buy December 26.