“Just don’t make it lame, okay?” That was the advice given to actress and producer Roma Downey by her teenage stepson when she announced that she and her husband Mark Burnett were going to adapt the main books of the Bible into an epic television series.
Downey, 49, laughs at the memory of his command, adding that she was glad to be brought back to earth by his plea to focus her efforts on the biggest task of all -- not to make the Bible look dumb on screen.
That simple suggestion also made the massive international scale of the project feel somehow less daunting, she says. It also reminded her that her task was to tell the story the Bible and to tell it well, to introduce it to a new generation.
Apparently she has succeeded. On Sunday The Bible pulled in a record breaking 14.8 million viewers, the History Channel’s largest ever audience. The New York Times scoffed that the show was just a trip through a Christian theme park, but the public hasn't shared the paper’s disdain.
In fact the audience numbers are only expected to rise as the series of five two-hour broadcasts moves toward its conclusion on Easter Sunday. So now that the astounding audience figures have been realized, it's a vindication of the hard work of Downey and Burnett.
“Last night we knew it was being received well because it was trending on Twitter, but whether that would translate to ratings we didn't know,” Downey told the Irish Voice on Monday.
“We woke up this morning to learn it's a huge hit, it was the number one show of the night and it pulled in the History Channel’s biggest ever audience. It's just so thrilling.”
The show will be replayed on the Lifetime network. Other viewers will TiVo it or download it online.
These are already the kind of numbers that producers can only dream of. Downey credits their success to the approach they took to the whole project.
“It's not preachy. It's told in an engaging way. It's gritty and realistic and authentic,” she says.
“These were our goals, you know? The bar is set so high for this young generation with what is possible in films thanks to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and all these fantastic movies that are out there.
“We knew we had to acknowledge that as we made the series. So the best news we had last week was when one of our teenagers asked if we could take clips into high school.”
Trying to convince Hollywood producers to back a series about the Bible cannot have been easy, but co-executive producers Downey and Burnett didn't back down.
“It was not easy, but thankfully my husband doesn't take no for an answer. He uses the phrase ‘the next opportunity.’ His skills at kicking the door down to get this on were phenomenal,” she says.
“It helped that this wasn't just a job for us. This was a passion project that we felt called to do.”
Burnett, Downey’s husband of almost seven years, is the British-born mega-producer (and former soldier in Northern Ireland) of reality hits Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank and many other smash TV series. He knows from experience what will have broad appeal.
But the truth is, The Bible was taking them in a completely new direction. So before they started they researched the show with audiences to find out how much the general public actually knew about the Bible, so as to decide how to tell the story.
What they discovered was that in the United States many people didn’t know anything about the Bible at all. One person told them he thought Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Absurd answers like that made Downey and Burnett certain there was a need for this work.
During preparation at one point, Downey reveals, she took photographs from iconic scenes from the Bible to an advertising agency in California when she was getting the project together. One photograph she brought illustrated the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac.
“I did a little survey in the office and not one person there could identify the scene. So the value of this series is that it can educate people about the value of these stories,” Downey says.
As well as producing the show, there were other major challenges for Downey, who also stars as Mother Mary in the series that covers the Old and New Testaments and tells some of the best-known stories from Genesis to Revelation.
“I think that one of the most exciting elements of this is how all corners of our Christian faiths have come together. The Bible has been endorsed by evangelicals and by Catholics. When does that happen?” Downey asks.
Although she co-produced The Bible, Downey is best known as an actress – she starred as Monica on the CBS hit Touched by an Angel for several years.
Playing the role of Mother Mary is one of the biggest challenges of her career, she says. “I have loved Mary my whole life. My own mother died when I was a little girl and I have always had such devotion to the Blessed Mother,” she says.
“I have always found such comfort in loving her. It was a great privilege to step into the part.”
In conversation, Downey reveals that she never planned to play the role herself.
“We had already cast a young actress to play her through the Nativity, but we needed an older actress to play her 30 years later. Eventually my husband said, ‘Roma, I think you're missing the obvious here.’
“So I prayed about it and I decided to step in. I brought to it the heart of a mother. All I could do was to imagine what she must have felt like. Those scenes at the cross (which will be broadcast at Easter) were very demanding for everyone involved.”
The nuns who taught her at her old school in Thornhill, Co. Derry would be happy with the result, she joked.
“I can't imagine they would have picked me as the girl most likely to make a series about the Bible. I don't know that that's the title I would have been given.”
Although making The Bible was the biggest challenge of their careers, testing them professionally and personally in unexpected ways, Downey has no regrets about working so closely with her husband on it.
“I think our marriage has deepened from the experience of this. There have been a few moments along the way and we didn’t always see eye to eye, but it has been an epic journey,” Downey reveals.
“It was really exciting to wake up this morning and see the audience figures.”
Downey and her husband are very conscious that the series is coming out at a particularly challenging time for the Catholic Church.
“I believe that there are no coincidences,” she says. “The fact that our series debuted this particular weekend, the first weekend we find ourselves without a Pope, is amazing.
“I think God is moving in all of our lives. If nothing else, I think this series will get the conversation going, to get people reengaged in a new way.”
The Bible also has a host of accomplished Irish actors on board, she boasts.
“I think the Irish community should know that our Moses is Irish and played by William Houston. St. Paul is played by Con O'Neill. And yours truly plays Mary. We're well represented! Get the word out!”