When Roma Downey speaks, you know you’ve heard that golden voice before, but as you listen, the Irish-born actress is reading aloud a children’s book, The Sweetest Story Bible. She’s telling how much God loves us – with stories chosen specifically for little girls.
“I tell about some of the female characters from the Bible so girls can be inspired and empowered and uplifted,” she says. “They can see themselves in these characters. They can see themselves in these women. That they can understand that they’ll be called on to step into faith, to be strong and to make good choices about themselves.
“You know, it’s presented in such a cute way,” she says, “as sweet thoughts to think about and easy Scripture verses to remember – all which connect a little girl’s life to God’s Word. My hope is that it will help them see just how wonderful God’s love really is.
“It’s really, really sweet and wonderful and I enjoy lending my voice to it.”
And that voice is so instantly recognizable. Although her long-running TV drama “Touched by an Angel” has been off the air for almost ten years, Downey can be shopping unnoticed until she speaks.“Inevitably,” she says, ‘someone will turn around and say ‘Is that you? I recognize your voice.’ So, I think perhaps that’s why they asked me if I would do The Sweetest Story Bible.”
“In the stories, these little angels live on the ceiling of the children’s nursery,” she says, “and when the mom and dad aren’t around, they come down and teach the kids Scripture and how to live in the world – how to be kind, how to be respectful, how to be obedient – you know, all the things we want our children to learn.”
Several years ago, she had to mask that trademark voice, her gentle Londonderry brogue. In the Emmy Award-winning miniseries “A Woman Named Jackie,” she played First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who had a very un-Irish voice.
“I had to work with a dialect coach,” recalls Downey. “We nicknamed him the ‘brogue basher.’ He was on the set and anytime he heard a hint of my Irish accent, he would stop everything.”
In March, she will play Mary the mother of Christ in a 10-hour mini-series, “The Bible,” that she and her husband Mark Burnett produced for the History Channel. Yes, Mary will have a golden, Irish voice, but there’s much more behind the role than an acting career or a trademark voice, says Downey.
“All these projects have been ways of combining my faith with the things that I’ve learned in life. In the books, I’m trying to find ways to look back and reach the wee ones. It’s been a very fun and loving and engaging project.”
She was raised in a single-parent family after her mother died when Roma was 10. Her father filled the gap as best he could. “My dad used to sit me on his knee and read from the Bible to us. We were a praying family. Ours was a family of love and a family of prayer.
“Some of my fondest memories are of kneeling next to him and slipping my little hand into his. He was such a great guide and mentor to me. His love and his teaching me about my heavenly Father’s love allowed me to get through tough times — to be comforted and to feel the unconditional love that the Lord has for us.
“Those childhood experiences have taken me forward every day since he passed away. There is not a day in my life goes by that I don’t feel his love. That’s one reason I’ve made a choice in the career that I have — to honor my parents and to honor God.”
And that’s one reason she’s so excited about “The Bible,” the 10-hour mini-series, co-produced with her husband. “It’s the best work of our careers,” she says. “I mean we are just on fire with this. An early version of the script referred to ‘Young Mary’ and ‘Old Mary,’ We have a young actress playing Mary during the nativity and the early years of Jesus’ life. Then 30 years go by and I am on camera as Mary. But when I stepped into the role, I said, ‘You know, could we have ‘Young Mary’ and ‘Mother Mary’?’ Oh, vanity! Being ‘Old Mary’ was more than I could deal with.”
“We’ve been involved in the project for three years. We developed it and hired the crew. Then we flew to Morocco where we spent most of the first part of this year on site. All 10 hours are just beautiful. It’s from Genesis through Revelation. It’s very ambitious. We tackled the whole Bible. I wish we’d had 10,000 hours. This project has the potential to touch millions of people’s lives. It will go to places where they’ve never even seen a Bible.”
Shooting it hasn’t been easy.
“It’s taken three years of all our days and nights to bring it together and to make it the best it can be — so we’re very, very excited,” she says. ”It’s been very, very difficult and sometimes challenging, but I think that it’s going to breathe fresh, visual life into stories that we all know but haven’t quite seen like this before.”
She’s also aware she’s stepped off onto into potential controversy, “but you have to step out there,” she says. ” We’ve hired amazing actors to make emotional connections that will open your heart. We’ve made it exciting and compelling. For visual effects, we hired an Oscar Award-winning team that has brought to life on the screen miracles like you’ve never seen them — Moses’ burning bush, the fourth man in the Fiery Furnace, Jesus walking on the water. To see computer-generated imagery applied to the miracles of the Bible is just thrilling. You will see things you never been seen before.
“We’re hoping that we will pull teenagers and reach a new generation not only in this in this country, but globally — so it’s very, very exciting.”
“I know it’s epic, and I think it will be the must-watch event of the spring. It is being made with full hearts. We’ve had help. Mark and I are not pretending to be biblical experts. We brought in scholars and theologians once the scripts were created to take a look to make sure we were accurate and true to the Bible, but obviously we’re making a movie, and so we breathed creativity into it.”
“Mark,” is Roma’s husband – Mark Burnett, the producer of one of TV’s most-popular shows ever, “Survivor.” He is also the creator of TV”s “The Apprentice,” “The Voice,” “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? “ “Shark Tank,” “Oprah”s All-Stars,” “Martha Stewart, “ “Sarah Palin”s Alaska” and scores of other shows. Recently, he made TV history by having a renewed series on each of the four major broadcast networks.
He and Downey share great expectations about “The Bible” mini-series. “It offers God’s Word to people who may never have an opportunity to step inside a church,” Downey says, “but they may get a chance to turn a TV set on. As someone who has loved Jesus my whole life, it was wonderful to get to step into the role of His blessed mother. It was a great privilege. It was just extraordinary.”
But Roma will always be known as “Monica,” the angel. What are the chances of a “Touched by an Angel” reunion movie? Nothing’s planned, she says. The show concluded its nine-year run on CBS in 2003. Even so, Downey continues her close friendship with fellow “angel” and co-star Della Reese – who is an ordained Christian pastor and performed Roma and Mark’s wedding.
The show is enjoying new life in re-runs – a few weeks ago, cable’s GMC network scored its best-ever weekend ratings with a “Touched by an Angel” marathon. The network is now airing episodes weeknights at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
“It’s fantastic that it’s on GMC,” says Downey. “It’s reaching a whole new generation of people with its beautiful message of faith. I loved being on that show. I loved it. I loved playing Monica. I loved being the messenger, the believer. I loved being part of a message that went out weekly reminding people there is a God and this is God’s purpose for you and God will be part of your life and most importantly that God loves you.
“I got to deliver that message every week for almost 10 years to millions of people a week.”
“Still to this day, wherever I am in airports or shopping malls people tell me, ‘Oh, that show has changed my life.’ or ‘That show helped my family heal’ or ‘You’ll never know what that show did for us’ and so I’m thrilled that it’s back at a regular spot in the television and has a chance to heal and touch people’s lives all over again.
“I’ve been there, too, needing an angel — I can tell you. Over the years I’ve found myself wishing sometimes my angel would show up. I could use a little uplift, a little reminder.
“And then you know, and it’s available to everybody at all times. You’ve just got to turn your attention into your own loving heart where God exists inside of all of us.”
“There’s a timeless quality to the story,” she says. “It was always stories of people at certain crossroads in their lives when a decision was to be made. The spirit would show up and help you make that good decision. You know, there’s no magic wand. Somebody didn’t come down and fix it for you. All we did as the angels was to come down and to remind you that you were a child of God and God loves you and God wants the best for you, that God has a purpose for you and that you have to reach into your own heart to see it and believe it and then out of that place, make a good choice for yourself.
“It was very empowering in that way. It wasn’t some easy fix, because life isn’t filled with easy fixes. But when you pray and really trust and hand yourself over to God, you know that God has you and holds you in his heart and in his hands.
“You know there’s no better feeling.
“If I were to look back at my career, I think my greatest achievement is very simple.
“I’ve been able to make choices where I could glorify God.”