It's a long way from rainy Derry to the sparking beach at Malibu, but some people can make the transition without a blink. Derry-born actress Roma Downey, 53, certainly has thanks to her celebrated career as a Hollywood actress.
Downey lives happily in the tony Pacific coast town with her British born husband Mark Burnett — the famed reality TV producer of shows like Survivor and The Voice — children Reilly and James and her beloved Irish wolfhounds.
Now she’s also a successful producer, but no matter how big her star has grown she’s kept faith with the town that she loved so well.
Downey’s own life hasn’t exactly been a breeze toward stardom and riches. She’s known real tragedy, with her mother dying of a heart attack when she was 10, and then her father passing away when she was 20.
That’s the kind of heartache that can unmoor a life but Downey pressed on, first exploring the idea of becoming a painter at the Brighton College of Art before settling on acting as her greatest passion.
Moving to Hollywood she won role after role until the character Monica the angel in the CBS series Touched By An Angel turned Downey into a household name here in the 1990s, winning her a legion of devoted fans along the way.
On February 28 Son of God, the film she co-produced (and co-stars in) with Burnett, will open on 3,000 screens nationally. The film tells the story of Jesus from the nativity to his ascension, and it’s edited from the couple’s wildly popular The Bible series which pulled record audiences for the History Channel when it broadcast last year.
What’s truly remarkable about Son of God’s rollout is how many differing Christian faith traditions – who normally fail to agree on anything – have come together to endorse it.
“That’s a story that’s waiting to happen,” Downey tells the Irish Voice, admitting the cross-denominational support is astounding.
“I don’t know that it has ever happened. Everywhere we go we’re meeting pastors, priests and bishops, across all faiths. They’re all united in their love for the story the film tells.”
At the heart of Downey’s own story is a story of love and inclusion in the face of opposition. Burnett is a former British solder who once did a tour of duty in the North. There was a time when that could have gotten her (a nice Catholic girl from Derry) tarred and feathered by militant Republicans, but times have changed and their unlikely union has turned out to be a match made in heaven.
Downey and her husband often joke that many other couples couldn’t even work in the yard together, but they’ve found a way to run a massive international production company.
“We’ve been doing this for five years together and we rarely have a cross word,” says Downey. “Certainly we have our artistic differences but we’ve figured out a great partnership. Our friendship is stronger than ever, our marriage has deepened, and we have a lot of laughs.”
The biggest hardship of this particular period of publicizing the new film on the road is being away from the kids, she says. They’re not babies any more, but she misses seeing them when she tours.
“Mark and I bring completely different skills to this, yet they’re very complimentary. He’s the hammer and I’m the heart,” she says.
“I might still be gently knocking on doors to get the series made. Mark watches me asking and knocking, then he asks me to step aside and he kicks the door down. It’s very effective. My husband gets stuff done. All the parts I’m not comfortable with.”
In the last week the pair have been all over the U.S. promoting their film. “On Monday I’ll be in Chicago, and on and on. I’m trying not to get two or three days ahead of myself because it starts to become overwhelming,” Downey confesses.
The actress and producer admits she’s delighted Son of God is being distributed by 20th Century Fox, but compared to the other big budget films the studio releases the marketing budget is peanuts.
“That’s why we’re out combing the country. We’re making a whole lot of noise really,” Downey offers.
“The film is beautiful. It’s a two-hour stand alone experience that shares with you Jesus’ story. It’s epic. It’s got all of the ingredients of a great big dazzling film.”
There’s a private and personal dimension to her mission – and it has been a mission for Downey – to share the film’s message of inclusion and love.
“You know Cahir, coming from where we do, this was an issue for us our whole lives,” says Downey. “I have a real personal heartbeat on this. When I was back in Derry this summer nothing pleased me more than walking across the Peace Bridge.
“I grew up in Derry and it was a city completely segregated. The Protestants lived on one side and we lived on the other. They went to these schools and we went to those schools. They even shopped in different stores. It was completely divided.
“To be able to go home now in this new peaceful era that we have in the North and to see the symbolism of the Peace Bridge and the constant flow of people back and forth is truly a blessing.”
In the Christian faith headlines are so often made about what people are speaking out against, and the things in the divide us, Downey says.
“I’m much more interested in the things that we can say we’re for. The things that connect us,” she says.
“I think if Jesus came back today he’d look around at all these many denominations and fragmentation in the greater church and he’d say, ‘What are you guys doing? Didn’t I come to bring all people together?’”
Downey says when the Son of God opening credits come up on the screen she finds it incredibly exciting.
“Can I tell you how many rainy Sundays I spent at home in Derry looking at that logo? On the first viewing of it on our film I just screamed!” she laughs.
Does she have any ambitions left?
“I haven’t met the Pope yet,” she laughs. “I’m wild to meet him. I just think he’s amazing. I think he’s made it cool to be Catholic again.
“He’s brought our message right back to that beautiful, loving, inclusive message of Jesus. He speaks on behalf of the poor, he’s reminding us to be kind, he’s reminding us that it’s our duty to take care of each other. He’s been so eloquent and accessible and relatable. I think he’s amazing.
“I can’t wait to meet him. I hope he gets to see Son of God. I think he’ll love it.”
Thanks to Son of God Jesus is back on the big screen, where he hasn’t been seen for a decade says Downey.
“It’s been 10 years since The Passion of the Christ. That was a brilliant movie but it was only three days in his life and it was in Aramaic,” she says.
“Our movie tells you the whole life of Jesus from his nativity. I cannot wait for people to see it.”
Son of God opens nationwide on February 28.
Where does the term “the luck of the Irish” come from?