This week Roma Downey, the Derry-born actress most famous for her highly successful 10-year stint in the CBS series Touched by an Angel, is launching a new animated DVD for children called Little Angels.
It’s an exciting new project for Downey, who for the last 18 months has been the executive producer of the new series created exclusively for preschool-aged children to teach them their ABCs, numbers, animals and along the way impart some time-honored family values through well known Bible stories.
It’s part of Downey’s longtime commitment to produce programs that uplift and inspire, she says.
“The characters are little angles who live on the ceiling of the nursery of four year old twins Alex and Zoe,” Downey tells the Irish Voice. “Each day the little angles come to life and serve as mentors and guides to the kids. They encourage them to be kind, cooperate and share, what we might call old-fashioned family values.”
Downey, who is married to mega reality show producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice, The Apprentice), is speaking to the Irish Voice from her ocean view home in the upscale neighborhood of Paradise Cove in Malibu, California. It's a world away from her modest origins in Beachwood Avenue in Derry.
“It’s lovely here today,” she confesses. “I’m getting text from my family in Derry all week saying that they’re frozen in the cold snap that’s hit, and I here I am in shorts and flip flops. I’m always a bit reluctant to share that with them.”
Downey readily admits that Paradise Cove deserves its name.
“I’ve always been drawn to the water. I do like to be near it,” she says.
“And maybe that’s from growing up and knowing Donegal. I’ve always done my best thinking near water. I think it’s because we’re island people. As I’m speaking to you I’m looking out at the blue of the Pacific. There’s something very calming to it.” Downey is a graduate of Thornhill, the most famous girls school in Derry, and she still recalls those days with laughter and affection.
“I’m a Thornhill survivor. I was there from when I was 11 until I was 18. My entire Derry education was with the Sisters of Mercy, or as we called them, the Sisters of No Mercy,” she says.
Her Derry accent is clear as a bell too, completely undiminished by her decades in the limelight and life in the U.S. And her enjoyment of the many memories she brought to the U.S. from Derry is remarkable.
“As I recall, one of the running themes used to be if there were no bad girls there would be no bad boys. That was the height of our sex education at Thornhill,” recalls Downey.
“But I actually loved the place and I have great and happy memories of it. I was just back in Derry this summer with my 15-year-old daughter Reilly. As well as visiting family I did have a night out with the half a dozen of my old Thornhill girls. I still keep in touch with them. We went out for a few drinks and a few laughs.
“I have such fondness for those times. My daughter will be 16 this summer and to get to share that with her has been great.”
Like all Derry people, Donegal is Downey’s natural hinterland and the site of countless magical holidays.
“We used to escape to Buncrana in the car if we were lucky on a Sunday afternoon. Honestly all the photos of us in Buncrana, I laugh so hard at them now, we’re always pictured on the beach there, and we’re all wrapped up with huge sweaters on,” she laughs.
“This is in August. The height of summer. With that wind always coming down Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle. And here I am today on the beach in Malibu.”
It was the early passing of her parents that made leaving home that bit easier to branch out as a young woman. Downey's mother tragically passed when she was just 10, and her father passed when she was attending college. Some people might have been derailed by the dual misfortunes, but somehow she found the strength to move on.
“I haven’t lived in Ireland since I was a girl,” she confesses. “When I graduated from Thornhill I went to college. My mother had died when I was 10 and when I was in college in London my father passed away. So the wee house that I grew up in on Beechwood Avenue in Derry was sold.”
Downey hasn't lived in Ireland since. For years whenever she'd visit she became Auntie Roma in the spare room.
“I returned in the decade after that filled with tremendous homesickness. But eventually I figured out that the longing was really for the past, for a time that was no more, you know?”
You can still hear the cost of that time in her voice. “Losing a parent shapes you and you grow up around the loss,” she confides. “I felt that my mammy’s death really created a hole inside of me and the woman I became. And I just adapted to living with it.
“When my own daughter was born I felt whole again for the first time since my own mother had died. Becoming a parent restored to me a relationship I had been longing for. With Reilly's birth I really felt a healing come in.”
If her mammy and daddy had lived would she have emigrated, or at least emigrated with such ease?
“I just kept stepping forward into the unknown fearlessly. I moved first to Brighton to art school and then to London to drama school and then I hopped over to New York for a bit working in theater,” Downey recalls.
One of Downey's first and least glamorous jobs in New York was as a coat check girl. Her first great American moment arrived, she says, when she checked the coat of Regis Philbin at a society affair. She was pleased to see that he took the time to say hello and give her some face time.
"I remember that struck me about him and he left a very generous tip. Years later when I was starring on Touched by an Angel I was invited to appear on his show. I told him about being a coat check girl and he blushed and said, ‘You are only telling that story one for two reasons, either I completely stiffed you or I left you a good tip.’”
Downey knows she is an example of the American Dream in action, and she’s certainly grateful for the blessings she’s experienced.
“At the height of the run of Touched by an Angel we had 25 million people watching the show. It was a huge hit. It was like a lifetime we spent working on it and we all became so close in the filming of it,” Downey says.
“Five years in I got to re-negotiate my own contract, and that meant I’d never have to work again. I never would have dreamed of that growing up in my modest three up three down house in Derry.”
Actors depend on the emotions they have lived through themselves, she says.
"I think that sometimes born out a great personal hurt is the ability to find compassion and empathy for people who might be hurting. Having developed that skill it was a way to bring that role to light,” she says.
Compassion, empathy and healing hurt have been themes in her work for years, and now with Little Angles she's hoping to pass those skills on to a new generation. The inspiration was easy to come by.
She just had to look at her own daughter.
“Little Angels is a big departure for me, but it’s something I’ve been working on for 18 months and I’m hoping that families will recognize they have value. When I was raising Reilly I sometimes had to sit her down with a DVD while I took an important phone call and it occurred to me it would be better if she could watch something that supported our values, you know?"
To get the word out this week Downey's coming to New York to do The View and Rachael Ray and then on to Chicago to talk to Rosie O'Donnell.
“I’m committed to Little Angels and I’m in it for the long haul,” she says. "I really believe once families discover it, it will speak for itself you know?
“The challenge is to let people know that it’s out there. All I ask is that you get along to Target or Best Buy and check it out!”