The Touched by an Angel star talks about escaping The Troubles, dealing with the loss of her mother and her friendship with another well-known Derry Girl
It’s another beautiful Californian morning and Roma Downey is in her element. The “in between times” — dawn and dusk — are her favourite times of the day. Today, as every day, she takes stock, quietens her mind and focuses on the day ahead. Life is slowly coming back to normal; her kids who moved home for a while have moved out again and she recently received her vaccine.
“I feel I’ve gotten my life back,” she tells me in her still-intact Derry lilt. “We’ve all been prisoners of fear and uncertainty. Once I got to two weeks after the second dose, it felt as though the jail door had been opened.”
Her softly spoken manner belies the fact that Downey is probably the most powerful Irishwoman in American entertainment. She has her own star on the Hollywood walk of fame, has starred in one of the most popular TV series in the history of American television — Touched by an Angel — and has written a New York Times best-selling book, Box of Butterflies, which shares the lessons she has learned from grief in her own life. Along with her husband, Mark Burnett (who is also the chairman of MGM), she helms Lightworkers Media, a production company which makes family-friendly movies.
The latest of these, Resurrection, was directed by Irish auteur Ciarán Donnelly (who also worked on Vikings and The Tudors) and premiered this spring to rave reviews in the US. It’s a fresh take on the story of the Passion and the Resurrection and features a heart-rending performance from Greta Scacchi as Mother Mary.
“The Bible gives us a great factual account of what would have been happening, historically speaking, during that time period but what we wanted to do was to breathe life into the emotions that people would have felt at the time,” Downey tells me. “Greta brought such dignity to the role, she presented Mary as not cowering and meek, but strong and courageous and the character of the Blessed Mother is not always presented to us in that way.”
Strong women have been a theme running through Downey’s life. She was named after her grandmothers, Rose Downey and Mary O’Reilly, but nobody ever called her anything but Roma. Growing up in the Bogside in Derry in the 1960s, she was increasingly aware of The Troubles and she remembers the British Army coming into the city. “It was very odd because at first there was great relief. Initially, they had been sent for peacekeeping and then it emerged that wasn’t the case. I knew there was a lot of anger at the injustice in our community and a civil rights process, inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States.”
In 1971, when she was just 11 years old, her mother, Maureen, passed away suddenly after suffering a heart attack. “Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her,” Roma tells me. “She didn’t have an illness, so there was no preparation. She had been on her way to the library when she had a very serious heart attack. She was taken to the hospital and she passed away. For me, it was as though the lights had been turned out and the music had stopped. It was just so traumatic.”
She had aunts and teacher-mentors who were good to her, but her teenage years were tough. “My father was a very quiet man and I think he internalised the loss of my mother. She wasn’t spoken about much. When I would try to see her in my mind’s eyes, I could picture hugging her and what it was like to touch her, but then, eventually, I was only able to see a photograph when I got to her face.”
Then, as now, faith was a big part of her life and she says it was this which sustained her through this difficult period. “If it hadn’t been for my faith, the promise of heaven and seeing her again, I don’t know that I could have coped with that.”
The unrest in the city meant she felt that she would have to leave to make a life for herself. America represented hope and opportunity. “I can remember looking out over the backyard and I was playing a cassette — I had very few of them — on my cassette player. It was the Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and I must have worn it out, I played it so often. I didn’t know much about America — aside from the TV of the era which was the likes of Kojak and Charlie’s Angels, all big cars and wide streets, but the poetry of Paul Simon awoke something in me. It seemed to capture the American dream.”
There wasn’t even a cinema that was open in Derry at the time; culture is the first thing to go in a time of crisis, she observes (something that has also been true during the pandemic). “And so the idea of doing acting as a profession never entered my imagination, people like us didn’t do things like that.”
Her father was a schoolteacher and always told her that her education would be her passport. She went to art college in Brighton and had aspirations of becoming a painter, but during her dissertation, she read a letter that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, which changed her mind. “He described getting more and more frustrated with his painting. He wrote that he was no longer satisfied with being a painter, that he wanted to be the paint. And it struck me as such a profound statement.”
For Roma, “becoming the paint” meant performing rather than painting. She moved to London to attend drama school and then joined the Abbey Players in Dublin. She was cast in Playboy of the Western World which moved to Broadway. “I remember the opening night there was a party at [legendary New York restaurant] Sardi’s. And everyone was clapping as we came in and it was one of those memorable evenings in a young actor’s career. I went into the bathroom and I became emotional. I had always had the mentality ‘Once I get there I will be happy’ and, of course, that’s not the case. It was as though the goal line had been moved to the next thing and you can keep chasing your whole life if you’re not present.”
While she was on Broadway, she got cast to play Jackie Kennedy in the NBC series A Woman Named Jackie. “She was still alive at the time and she was the most famous woman in the world; tall, beautiful, iconic and I was quite small and a Derry girl.”
The producers of the series hired a dialect coach to smooth out her Derryisms. “I called him the brogue basher,” she laughs. “When I’d come in in the morning, he’d say to me, ‘You must have phoned home because your accent is stronger.’ The series was a hit and won the Emmy award for Outstanding Miniseries.
She moved out to LA and stayed with a friend on Sunset Boulevard, and while there, had what was probably the biggest role of her career after she was cast in Touched by an Angel, in which she played Monica, an angel who brings guidance and messages from God to people who are at crossroads in their lives. Some 27 million people tuned in every week and it was the number-one show on TV in the US for several years. “There are so many actors who arrive in LA every day and to be one of the ones who not only gets cast in a big show, but one that runs for over a decade, was almost like winning the lottery.”
Previously, the most popular TV series, like Dynasty and Dallas, often depicted catty relationships between their female protagonists. Touched by an Angel, by contrast, featured a warm friendship between Monica and her supervisor Tess, who was played by the late Della Reese. Downey and Reese were also extremely close off-screen.
“She was an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind woman. She lost her own daughter when we were working together. That was so heartbreaking for her. And I had lost my mother at an early age and we were both women of faith.”
Roma had married David Anspaugh (who directed TV series like Miami Vice) in 1995 and they had a daughter together, Reilly, who was born in 1996. The relationship would break down and they would eventually divorce; in court papers, Anspaugh wrote that he found it hard to cope with Roma’s success. During the following years, Della gave her comfort. “She said to me, well obviously you haven’t chosen well in the past so I suggest this time around your prayer is not ‘God, find me a man’ but ‘God, please choose a man for me and let me know him when he gets here.’”
Her prayers were answered in 2004 when she locked eyes with television mogul Mark Burnett across a hair salon in LA. “There was a feeling like when you fancy someone, your heart flutters, and I was having this whole dialogue in my mind, like, is this the guy? And I went to pay my bill and he’d just left and, as casually as I could, I asked the receptionist who was that guy who just left. And she said, he just asked me who you were. Anyway, he got my number and we started dating.” Roma introduced him to Della at a Lakers game. “He was quite nervous because it was like meeting someone’s mother and when they met, she hugged him and whispered into his ear, ‘That’s my baby girl, if you hurt her, I will hurt you.’”
Burnett proposed in 2006, while he and Downey were on holidays in Mexico, and they married in 2007 at their Malibu home, with Della officiating at the ceremony. Roma also became stepmother to Mark’s two sons from his previous marriage, James and Cameron. “Mark brought two beautiful boys into my life and Reilly is such a wonderful daughter. In between all the professional achievements, to have such an incredible family has been the ultimate blessing for me.” She and Burnett also head up Lightworkers Media and she says it’s easy to work with him.
“I have girlfriends who joke with me that they couldn’t even bear to hang wallpaper with their husbands, yet Mark and I work very well together.”
The company has a number of movies in post-production, including A Wing and a Prayer, which will star Dennis Quaid, about a pilot who has a heart attack and dies while flying a plane. Another project is Redeeming Love, a romantic drama which is an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Francine Rivers. The film will feature Derry Girls star Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, and Downey. “She and I got a chance to hang out together before lockdown”, Roma says. “She’s a lovely person. It was great to be with another Derry girl.” She adds that she really enjoyed Derry Girls, the series, and says it captured a lot of the local wit. “Derry people are incredibly resilient and even in the chaos of the period, people managed to find humour.”
Downey’s life was rocked in 2017 by the death of Della Reese. “We took a walk, not long after her daughter died, and she said to me, ‘I knew God brought you into my life because you needed a mother but I didn’t know that he brought me into your life because I needed a daughter.’ She was a godmother to my daughter Reilly and she was a part of our family.” Downey wrote her 2018 bestselling book, Box of Butterflies, in Della’s memory. Writing it made her feel vulnerable, she says, but it was also a gratifying experience. “I felt that I had something to share for anyone who has experienced loss.”
A few years ago, she went back to college to do a Masters in psychology from the University of Santa Monica.
“I think that interest in human behaviour is what drove me into acting in the first place”, she says. “Why do we behave the way we do? This is the question every actor must ask themselves. That experience of going back to college helped me to deepen my understanding of my own choices, as well as developing my compassion for others. I have the heart of a storyteller.”
She still travels to Ireland at least once a year and keeps in contact with her family in Derry and Donegal, as well as the girls she went to school with at Thornhill College, and some of her old teachers. It’s her birthday a few days after we speak and she says she has no issue with getting older.
“As the daughter of a mother who didn’t get to live into old age, I have no problem with ageing myself. I know what the alternative is and I’m so grateful for my life as it is.”
Resurrection is available on Discovery+; discoverplus.co.uk