Roma Downey with 'Touched by an Angel' cast members John Dye and Della Reese. Photographs: Chris Maddaloni and Cliff Lipson/CBS
Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. Photograph: Chris Maddaloni and Cliff Lipson/CBS
Irish actor Roma Downey and her TV producer husband Mark Burnett tell SIMON CARSWELLabout the strong faith which led them to make a mini-series dramatising the Bible
The creator of some of the world’s most popular reality TV shows and a Golden Globe-nominated actress originally from Derry in Northern Ireland may seem like unlikely co-producers of a television mini-series about the Bible, but husband-and-wife team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey say they had a calling to make it.
Burnett, the force behind shows such as The Apprentice, The Voice and Survivor, and Downey, who was best known in Ireland for playing JFK’s wife in the 1991 Emmy award-winning mini-series A Woman Named Jackie, were inspired to make the 10-hour series, The Bible, after watching some Hollywood biblical classics.
“We have three teenagers,” says Downey. “It was Easter time, maybe three years ago, and were trying to get them to watch The Ten Commandments, which had been such a staple part of my childhood. Midway through what were spectacular special effects in their day, the kids kind of rolled their eyes at each other and said that this was a bit lame.”
Around the same time the couple saw another artistic telling (which Downey didn’t want to name) that had “a very dark point of view about God.” That was the trigger to make The Bible “for a new generation.”
“I whispered and my husband took action. He doesn’t take no for an answer; he just hears the words ‘new opportunity’,” she says. “I would have been out there knocking politely on doors to see if anyone would make it, and he comes up and he just kicks the door down. Between us, we got it made.”
The Bible will be broadcast for the first time on the History Channel in the US on March 3rd. Made for $22 million (€16 million) and shot over five months in Morocco last year, the mini-series covers a broad account of the best-known and some little-known biblical stories, from the book of Genesis right through to Revelation.
When we meet to discuss their latest project, Burnett and Downey have just heard Barack Obama speak at the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event in Washington DC since 1953 bringing together Republican and Democrats, as well as church and community leaders from 140 countries. The president spoke about being sworn in for a second four-year term a few weeks earlier on two Bibles, one previously owned by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jnr, and how he reads biblical passages every day for wisdom.
The Hollywood-based couple have attended the prayer gathering a number of times but this year’s event has much more significance because their latest project will appeal to many of the 3,000 people gathered in Washington. A media dinner the night before played extended clips from the mini series.
“We are people of faith. We believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God. We pray every day and seek strength in prayer. I can’t imagine not having that every day,” says Burnett. The London-born former soldier, a Falklands War veteran who emigrated to the US in 1982, says The Bible was made for educational purposes, though he acknowledges that the series is also entertaining.
Burnett finds it strange that despite there being 60 billion copies in circulation, the Bible is not taught in public schools in the US, and is shocked that some of the Christian faithful in the country don’t know its contents.
“There is a percentage of American Christians who think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife,” he says. “Or that Sodom and Gomorrah lived happily ever after,” says Downey, “and were married,” adds her husband. “That made us laugh, but we were also a bit – whoa man,” says Burnett. “That wasn’t a motivation for us to make this but it made us think about it a lot.”
“The motivation was to create a project that glorifies God,” says Downey, finishing her husband’s sentence – as they do throughout a half-hour interview.
“They say that the average American family has four Bibles in their home,” says Downey, who is a practising Catholic and a member of Our Lady of Malibu parish in southern California.
“I don’t know if the average American family is reading the four Bibles in their home. We are hoping that in the experience of this series it will turn people to picking that book back off the shelves.”
Burnett says that the couple didn’t need to make The Bible; he is one of the most successful television producers in the business. They have shows in five number one slots being watched in American homes every week – The Apprentice on Sunday nights, the singing talent show The Voice on Mondays and Tuesdays, Survivor on Wednesdays and Shark Tank, a US adaptation of Dragon’s Den, on Fridays.
“We couldn’t be more abundant or blessed,” says Burnett. “That gave us the opportunity to get this made.” He is proud of the success of his shows. He has sold Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? in 58 countries, and The Apprentice and Survivor each in 40 countries, he says.
“Our shows are universal – it is characters you can relate to and just storytelling. One thing we have learned – The Voice is in 60 countries – it doesn’t matter whether it is in Asia, Africa or South America, the stories are universal. I think the Bible is universal. The universality of the truth and of that story in particular and of storytelling – isn’t it a great book?”
Burnett has little time for the badly produced reality TV shows that trail celebrities. “People talk about reality TV – they are just crappy shows that just take a camera and follow someone around and hope for the best. That is not storytelling,” he says. “Ours are made like movies. There is a reason why The Apprentice is cool. You are on the edge of your seat and you yell at some people and you hope for others. It is just classic storytelling. To us, The Bible is not a reality show. It is a reality. The book is alive. It is the truth.”
Burnett believes The Voice has grown popular at the expense of other singing talent shows such as Pop Idol, X-Factor and Britain’s/America’s Got Talent, which have slipped in the ratings. The Voice hasn’t because it doesn’t seek to demean guests like those shows, he says. He was drawn to the programme after discovering that his children watched singers audition in the original series in The Netherlands in Dutch on YouTube. He spotted the opportunity quickly.
“You need dramatic moments and you get those in the make-play between the coaches. The blind auditions really worked – they showed that you don’t need to humiliate and be mean to get great ratings.”
Downey grew up in the Catholic area between the Bogside and the Creggan. Her mother died when Downey was 10 and her father encouraged her to leave Derry to study. She studied arts in Brighton before training to become an actor in London. She experienced “little bits of racism in England,” she says, and so, when she moved to New York in 1986, she thought she had “died and gone to heaven.”
“Everything that was Irish about me – which somehow I felt that I was expected to apologise for in England – was celebrated in New York. Americans love the Irish,” she says.
One of her first jobs was working as a coat-check girl in a cloakroom in New York. The first coat she took off a celebrity belonged to talk and game show host Regis Philbin. He tipped her $20. Four years later, Downey was a guest on his show. Philbin apologised for the poor tip.
She moved from theatre in New York to television and after the success of A Woman Named Jackie, she landed the part of Monica, a kind-hearted angel, on the popular American TV series Touched by an Angel, which ran for 10 years and was viewed by 25 million people at its peak. “It never did well at home,” says Downey, “maybe we are a bit too cynical for it.”
Downey had a religious upbringing, she says. She was educated by the Sisters of Mercy – “or as we jokingly called them the Sisters of No Mercy”. Hers was a typical Irish Catholic home; there was a picture of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” in the kitchen with a little votive light and a picture of Mary (whom Downey plays in The Bible) above the mantelpiece, where a little bust of John F Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president, also stood.
Her older brother is a Catholic priest.She is still faithful to her Catholic beliefs. The only time she left the five-month shoot on The Bible on location in Morocco was to attend her daughter’s confirmation.
The Bible is the first collaboration between Burnett and Downey. They are planning to make a feature-length version of the life of Jesus for cinemas and are also developing another project relating to the Bible.
“To still be speaking to each other is the real miracle,” says Downey, with a smile. She jokingly refers to a scene in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the matriarch in the film attempts to convince the patriarch to allow his daughter to work outside the family business.
“She says that he might be the head of family but she is the neck and anywhere the neck moves, the head must follow,” says Downey. “We joke that I am the neck here.”