Through Mary's Eyes
Roma Downey on her new project, The Bible
By Robyn Lee
Irish-born Roma Downey is most known for her role as Monica on the hit TV series Touched By An Angel. Now Downey and her husband Mark Burnett have produced a 10-hour miniseries, The Bible, which will premiere on March 3 on The History Channel.
The series, scored by Hans Zimmer, will cover everything from Genesis to Revelation. Downey stars as Mother Mary in the series and here she shares what it was like to play the mother of Jesus.
What was your inspiration to create miniseries, The Bible?
Mark and I wanted to create a project that would glorify God and be a legacy to our love and our faith. We had seen an idea for a documentary that was very negative—questioning what kind of a God would allow bad things to happen to people. Clearly we were not going to have anything to do with a show like that, but it actually ended up serving as an inspiration to create something positive.
We have three teenagers, and we watched the Ten Commandments with them. I was raised with the tradition of watching this movie every year. I thought that they might enjoy sharing that tradition, but of course the bar is set so high these days for expectations with CGI (computer-generated images) that while they respected the fact that I like it, for them it is a bit dated. One of our intentions for the miniseries was to bring these stories to life in a new and fresh way that would be appealing to this younger generation.
How did you make the stories of the Bible come to life?
We’ve been able to bring miracles to life on the screen in ways that haven’t been seen before. We’ve hired a company out of London that won the Oscar for the CGI on Gladiator, and they’ve been able to bring to the screen Jesus walking on water, Moses parting the Red Sea, the burning bush, the fourth man in the fire—we have this epic-quality 10-hour movie that’s a great, grand embrace. It is like a big, sweeping love story. It is a movie made to meet the expectations of the modern day moviegoer.
The scene of Paul’s conversion is particularly moving. What impact has that had?
I have to say, that scene has been touching people’s lives whenever we’ve shared that clip. I have seen grown men cry after watching it. Con O’Neill, who played the part of Paul, did such beautiful work depicting that place of brokenness where grace can move in. Paul is a broken man, and he asks for forgiveness and forgiveness is available to him. You just feel grace moving through it. Con gave such a vulnerable performance, and there is something in the humanity for each of us. We can all relate to that moment of thinking, I messed up, I didn’t get it right, and I’m weak. Yet God’s love is always available for us. His love is unconditional. As Paul experiences that unconditional love, his healing begins. In each of our lives, experiencing that love becomes the beginning of healing for us, too.
What was it like to play the mother of Jesus?
As you know, I was raised Catholic; I’ve loved the Lord my whole life, and I’ve loved Mary my whole life. What a privilege to portray her on screen—to step into the part, see the story through her eyes, and feel the story through her heart! It was a great, meaningful, and poignant personal experience for me. Particularly moving was the scene at the foot of the cross. I have looked at the crucifix my whole life, but it was so moving to be up on that lonely hillside filming that scene and looking up at the actor playing Jesus—to see all the things he was going through—and experience that through Mary’s eyes and heart, knowing that Jesus was still taking care of her and still loving her from the cross. One of the few things he spoke up there was to tell John to take care of his mother. It was deeply touching. I hadn’t always planned to play the part, but in retrospect I’m very glad I did.
How did you prepare to play the role of the Blessed Mother?
I could say in some ways I’ve been preparing for it my whole life. I did what I did for most of the angel revelations scenes on Touched by an Angel: I prayed. And my prayer was the Hail Mary. My father slept with a rosary under his pillow every night, and when he passed away, his rosary was given to me. I had the rosary on set with me, and I made sure it was always near me. I actually wore it around my neck, hidden inside my tunic.
In terms of physical preparation, I worked very closely with Diogo Morgado, who played the role of Jesus. It was important for us during the shoot to get a sense of each other so the relationship between Mother and Son would be believable on screen. We read Scripture together and spent time together offscreen, working to build trust together because much of the relationship on screen is played out without dialogue. A lot of that relationship is played out through loving eye contact—the connection of heart to heart and eyes to eyes. It was important that we trusted each other and felt a connection with each other. I’ve been an actress most of my adult life, and I can say without hesitation that this was the most beautiful role I have ever played. It was such a privilege and such an honor to be able to step into the role of the Mother of Christ.
Can you talk about how prayer influenced the making of this show?
We are a people of faith, so prayer is a very important part of our daily lives. From the moment Mark and I decided to do this, we prayed about it and asked our friends to join us in prayer. Prayer really came into play in the early days of casting. We were just a few months away from beginning the principal photography, but we had yet to cast the role of Jesus—which, of course, was the most important piece of casting. We had a vision of the kind of actor that we were looking for. We knew we wanted an actor that was physically strong and believable as having been a carpenter, but was also someone who could portray gentleness. We wanted an actor that could be both the lion and the lamb. It was a difficult search. We put it out in prayer circles, and everyone was praying that we would find the right Jesus. I’m happy to say that the prayers worked very quickly. It was less than a week after we had asked people to join us in prayer that we had an opportunity to look at Diogo’s audition tape. We asked to meet with him, and we knew immediately when we met with him that he was the one.
Have you experienced any signs from God during the shooting of the film?
Yes—it was if God showed up on set and said, “Here I am.” We were filming the scene where Nicodemus slips down in the quiet of the night because he is so intrigued by Jesus. He wants to meet with him. They were gathered around a little campfire. Nicodemus is asking Jesus to speak on what it means to be born again. Jesus says to him, “You have to be born again in the spirit, and the spirit moves like the wind.” Then suddenly, as if on cue—as if we had designed it, as if we had a wind machine sitting in the wings waiting to blow—the wind picked up and blew the hair of the actor playing Jesus and blew the robes of Nicodemus and whistled through the camp and created such a stir that all of us gathered around the monitor looked at each other in amazement. We could feel the goose bumps on our arms, because clearly something supernatural had just occurred—it felt like the Holy Spirit had just blown through the camp. It was beautiful.
Can you talk about your Catholic upbringing?
I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy—or as we used to call them the “Sisters of No Mercy” (laughs). I was raised in a Catholic home in Ireland. My brother is a priest. My daughter just made her confirmation, and that was the only time I left the set in Morocco in five months.... I grew up with such affection and admiration and love for the Blessed Mother. My middle name is Mary. I was only 10 when my own mother passed away, so I have needed her in my life to be a mother for me ever since. I called on her so often and still do. I prayerfully approached my role in the film, asking that there would be less of me and that I would be able to portray her in a way that would make her proud.
How did this role influence you as a parent?
Loving Mary has widened my heart. She fills me with strength. She was this human girl chosen for an extraordinary journey. She gave birth to the Savior. She was chosen among all women, and she had to step into her faith. She didn’t know everything that would happen to her, but she trusted in God. She said, “Let me be the handmaid.” Mary brings grace to our life. There were moments when we were filming the crucifixion where I thought, How could you stand there and watch that happen to your child? I can’t even to begin to imagine as a parent what she must have been going through and feeling. But she stood there in order to be there for him; she stood there with strength. He looked down lovingly on her from the cross and made sure he took care of her. It is so beautiful to see the flow of love between them.
What advice would you give to a person who wants a better relationship with Jesus?
There is nothing more powerful than prayer. We’ve talked about the rosary for people who want formal prayer, but for many people prayer is just being in a quiet, personal exchange.
What are your hopes for this show?
One of the most exciting things is that it will reach people who have never been inside a church, never had the opportunity to open a Bible. They’ll get to see this series, and it will bring the word of God alive for them.
How does it feel to be God’s instrument with this project?
It is so humbling. Every day my husband and I pray that there will be less of us and more of him. We know we were called, and we answered the call. It is both exciting and terrifying. We’ve felt every step of the way that the right people have been brought to us. We feel very supported. It is a great opportunity to bring the Gospel alive for people.
I’m a big fan of Touched by an Angel. How does it impact your work?
Touched by an Angel is still in reruns. It’s great that it is still out there. There is a scene in Touched by an Angel every week where I show up and tell the person that I’m an angel sent by God and that God loves him or her. The central message of each episode was so disarming because it always came with that unconditional love. It’s the possibility that, no matter who we are or what we have done, no matter how far we have fallen, the opportunity for forgiveness and redemption is available to each and every one of us, and the Lord meets us exactly where we are. That’s what we’ve tried to bring to life on the screen.