Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Roma Downey: Northern Ireland's golden girl

Roma Downey tells our reporter about hit TV series The Bible, her belief in angels and why she may make a film back home

Roma Downey as Mary in The Bible mini-series
Mark Burnett and Roma Downey
Roma Downey on the red carpet

Compared to the panicky PR girls who set up this interview, Roma Downey sounds positively serene on the line from her 7,300 sq ft Malibu mansion.

It took five calls to confirm and reconfirm a 15 minute interview - lesser stars never warrant such a fuss, but the PRs are dealing with one half of Hollywood's most powerful couple here and their joint production of The Bible, an epic blockbuster TV series and DVD which Downey's producer husband Mark Burnett aims to have seen by one billion people.

Not too shabby for a former Venice Beach T-shirt salesman and a Beverly Hills coat-checker, Bogside-born Roma's first job when she moved to Los Angeles in her 20s. Despite the years - she's a suspiciously youthful looking 53 - Roma's Derry lilt is still lurking in that dreamy voice and she sounds a lot more Irish on the phone than she does on screen.

"It got diluted a lot by a voice coach when I was playing Jackie Kennedy - he was known as the brogue basher," she explains.

"My accent gets more pronounced when I've been talking to people from Derry," she explains.

"I've been on the phone to home all morning - my husband can always tell when I come off; I've slipped right back."

The former Thornhill College pupil became a star after the Emmy award-winning A Woman Named Jackie in 1991 and went on to achieve international fame in the hugely popular, sentimental TV series Touched By An Angel.

Her wealth is estimated at £200m, a figure boosted by her marriage to London-born Burnett, the highly successful producer of The Voice and the Survivor reality series.

From the tactile body language between them in inteviews, they are obviously very devoted and contented.

Although she admits it's a miracle that they are still speaking to each other after working hand-in-glove together for a year on The Bible, Roma has described this period as the very best time of her life: "I've never been happier, more grateful or more in love."

The power couple were wed in a private ceremony at their lavish home in Malibu on April 28, 2007 officiated by Roma's Touched By An Angel co-star Della Reese, who -- with her husband Franklin -- stood in for her parents on the walk down the aisle. Roma's mother, Maureen O'Reilly Downey, died from a heart attack at the age of 48, when Downey was 10. Her father Paddy Downey, a school teacher by training who worked as a mortgage broker, died when she was 20.

"I lost both my parents young - but I have felt their presence throughout my life," she says in that calm, dreamy delivery.

"I have felt comforted by my dad often and I know I will see him again."

The Downey family often said the rosary together at home in the Bogside; Paddy Downey was a believer in the adage 'the family that prays together stays together,' and the faith he instilled in Roma is still as strong today. She goes to Mass every Sunday at the picturesque Our Lady of Malibu chapel and will be attending the Christmas Eve service, an earlier version of the traditional midnight Mass, on Monday evening.

The holidays will be spent quiety with her teenage step-sons James and Cameron and daughter Reilly (17) from her first marriage to director David Anspaugh, which floundered after only two-and-a-half years, apparently leaving her very hurt.

Appropriately for someone who played an angel on screen for almost 10 years, the actress is a firm believer in the angelic realm and has followed the progress of modern Irish mystic Lorna Byrne, who recently landed a lucrative American publishing deal for her best-selling memoir Angels In My Hair and its two follow-ups.

"I think we all do have a guardian angel," she says simply. "I believe they work through us all the time, when we are thoughtful and good and kind to each other."

She visits Derry often in the summertime -- "I'm not a fan of Irish winters any more" -- and supported Martin McGuinness' bid for the Irish presidency in 2011, joining Angelica Huston, Fionnuala Flanagan and Colm Meaney by video-link at a rally for him at the Mansion House in Dublin. "I know him to be a visionary," she said at the time, urging voters to support Mr McGuinness. But when I asked her if she was disappointed the Deputy First Minister hadn't made it to the big house in Phoenix Park, she was muzzled by an audible kerfuffle in the background.

"Yes, I --" is as far as she got before some fast muttering set her off on a blatant non sequitur.

"... oh, did you get to attend any of the City of Culture events Una? Aye, yourself Una?" she waffled. "I was so encouraged to see how vibrant and alive Derry was. It was such as pulsating celebration, such an honour. I've been following it on the website."

She's more skilful at diverting the conversation back to The Bible, the epic Emmy-nominated, epic 10-hour mini-series currently on Channel 5 and coming to Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on Boxing Day. The English actor Robert Powell is one of the narrators for the impressively ambitious project which spans the Old Testament, from David and Goliath, to the Resurrection in the New Testament.

I wondered if she was as enchanted by him as the rest of her generation who watch him in 'Jesus of Nazareth' in the often repeated 1977 mini-series.

"Oh yes - who can forget those dazzling blue eyes! It's a brilliant tie-in to have Robert involved. He has a wonderful voice as well as wonderful eyes."

The Bible comes 10 years after Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ, which shocked millions of cinema-goers all over the world with its almost unbearably graphic scenes of Jesus's flogging and crucifixion.

Roma is keen to highlight the difference between Gibson's film and The Bible, which has been edited down to a feature film, due for release in the US in February.

"I found Mel's film profoundly moving," she admits. "Yes it was violent and the crucifixion was a painful scene to watch. We wanted to make sure ours got the PG 13 certificate - it's not gratuitous; the heartache is played out on the faces of those by the cross.

"Mel's film covered three days in the life of Jesus; ours is the 33 years from the nativity to the crucifixion. It was a huge responsibility to undertake. We had extensive consultations with biblical scholars and theologians to get it right, and it was a privilege to do so."

While The Bible series has been monumentally successful, some critics have pointed to historical inaccuracies. Roma and her husband have countered that the exclusions and amendments were were intentional and were used to help the viewer's understanding of complex story lines and overall narrative.

Other TV critics have unfairly taken a swipe at the production values in what is essentially a beautifully shot and atmospherically lit high-drama, filmed over five months in Morocco. Roma is taking the flak in her airy stride.

She says: "One of my pet peeves about biblical epics was that the characters' costumes always looked like they're just out of the dry cleaners. We got the best team we could to make sure the production values were as exciting and as gritty and as authentic as possible. Morocco was ideal for its great epic vistas -- Kingdom of Heaven and Troy were set there. "The setting was so important. I wanted the audience to walk in step with the great characters of the Bible. They had the same struggles as ours. That's why the Bible has held up -- the issues are still relevant."

The series hit the headlines over the controversy surrounding the alleged resemblance of the actor playing Satan to President Obama.

Roma -- who has said she "loves and respects Obama" - told Oprah Winfrey she felt the production was 'hijacked' by the fuss, whereas Mark Burnett brushed it off, saying, 'It's a free country and you got to accept that.'

"The night before that broke in the news, 'Jesus' had made his first appearance on the screen and I was so looking forward to Monday and knowing that Jesus would be on the lips of everyone," Roma said of the show, which attracted 11.6 million viewers for its US conclusion on Easter Sunday. "For Satan to be the point of conversation was really heartbreaking."

In the series, Roma plays the older Mary, mother of Jesus, and from a sneak preview I saw on line, she acquits herself very well, her beautiful face appearing genuinely distraught.

"They were the most moving scenes I've ever had as an actress," she says of the role - one of her least glamourous - " I played Mary as the mother of a son, and finding the humanity in that affected me very deeply. The faithful have flocked to see it - they know the stories but they are seeing it in a new way - and it was so important to get young people watching it. We have young teenagers ourselves and I know what a sophisticated audience they are. Their instruction to us was to have great special effects - 'don't make it look LAME; make it look cooool,' I was told!

"It has started a big conversation about God around the water-coolers and kitchen tables, and we've had all denominations supporting us -- Catholic, Protestant, evangelical. That's so heartening for me, to find a place where we can agree, instead of something that divides us. Our intention was built on a foundation of love - to spread the word but in a coool and compelling way."

This is rare Hollywood actress who takes her religion very seriously. Five years ago she graduated from the University of Santa Monica with a degree and a masters in Spiritual Psychology.

"I've always been interested in spirituality - as an actress you have to study human nature and I've been studying it my whole life. It has been very helpful in my own relationship with my soul, and with my husband and family. And it has made me a better wife, mum and friend."

So how about making a film back home, Roma? "I would never say never to that. I hold Ireland very dear to my heart. As they say, you can take the girl out of Ireland but never the other way around."

The Bible Release date is December 26, priced at £29.99 for Blu-ray, £24.99 for DVD and £19.99 for Digital HD

Factfile

The name Roma originates from the names of her two grandmothers, Rose and Mary.

She has one child; a daughter, Reilly Marie (b.1996)

Chosen by "People" magazine as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. [1997]

Mother, Maureen, died when Roma was 10.

Has two sisters, Jacinta McLaughlin and Ann Flood. Has two brothers, Lawrence who is two years older than her and a much older brother John, who is a Roman Catholic priest.

The Irish lass was once turned down for a TV commercial for Irish Spring Soap because she didn't sound Irish enough.

She was one of the two women originally considered for the role of 'Xena: Warrior Princess', along with Vanessa Angel.

She was offered the role that made Lucy Lawless famous but turned it down as she was offered the role of Monica on 'Touched by an Angel' at the same time. She chose an angel over a warrior.

Eloped and married her first husband, Leland Orser, in a Roman Catholic ceremony in Rome, Italy.

Della Reese is the godmother of her daughter.

Mark Burnett proposed to Roma during a trip to Mexico in December 2006

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