It was hot, dusty and working conditions were primitive, to say the least. When Roma Downey arrived in the Moroccan desert in early 2012 to
work on the five-month shoot of “The Bible,” cast and crew members didn’t know what to expect.
Downey was an exec producer on the 10-hour miniseries with her husband, reality TV titan Mark Burnett. She’d been integral to the development of the project over the previous two years, consulting with faith leaders to shape the interpretation of Scripture for a new generation of TV viewers.
Everyone knew that “Bible” was a passion project for the couple, who are deeply committed to their Christian faith. But few expected Downey to roll
up her sleeves on day one and firmly take the reins as producer.
“They took one look at me and thought I would last a week,” Downey recalls with a laugh of her start on “Bible.”
Burnett came in and out during the long location shoot as he juggled obligations to his many other series, including NBC’s “The Voice,” CBS’ “Survivor” and ABC’s “Shark Tank.” Downey was the constant presence, fulfilling the classic producer role of chief problem solver, trouble-shooter, and sounding board for the rest of the team. By many accounts, Downey was the first one on set every morning and the last to leave at night.
One of the mini-crises she tackled was difficulty in casting the small but important role of Jesus’ mother, Mary, Downey credits Burnett with convincing her that she was the natural choice to step into Mary’s sandals.
The success of the History miniseries and the 20th Century Fox-distributed feature film rendition, “Son of God,” cemented the actress’ credentials as a producer.
Downey’s evolution from being the actress best known for CBS’ “Touched by an Angel” to producer and president of MGM’s Lightworkers Media will be saluted Aug. 11 with the unveiling of her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
For Downey, the recognition etched into Hollywood’s world-famous thoroughfare, which honored Burnett in 2009, is a humbling moment that brings her full circle to her earliest days in Los Angeles. She’d been sleeping on a friend’s couch for a few weeks while pursuing acting jobs when she made her first visit to the Walk of Fame.
“With each step I saw one more movie star or one more producer whose work I admired,” she recalls.
A quarter century later, Downey is a power player herself. Lightworkers Media banner relocated to MGM when the Lion bought up full control of Burnett and Downey’s One Three Media venture with Hearst Corp. in 2015. Burnett now runs MGM Television and Digital Group as president while Downey spearheads the faith-based and family-friendly development arm.
Downey’s savvy and skill as a producer should not be underestimated, says MGM chairman-CEO Gary Barber.
“She’s a very insightful person,” Barber says. “She’s a great magnet for getting properties in this [family-friendly] arena. People want to come work with her. It inures to our benefit in getting great projects into the company. She’s a magnet across many spheres in the entertainment business.”
|Roma Downey on the set of “The Bible.” Courtesy of Paramount|
With recent productions such as “Bible,” NBC’s “A.D. The Bible Continues” and CBS’ “The Dovekeepers,” Downey has emerged from Burnett’s shadow as a producer in her own right. The pair have most recently worked together on MGM’s big-screen adaptation of “Ben-Hur,” set for release on Aug. 19.
“When she produces, she’s all in,” Barber says. “She’s on the set, she’s doing everything you want a producer to be doing.”
MGM brought Burnett and Downey onto “Ben-Hur” as a producer and executive producer, respectively, in spring 2014, early on in the development of the film. Barber says he knew the pair would add depth to the retelling of the story of the Jewish prince who endures years of slavery after being betrayed by his adopted brother.
Downey says “Ben-Hur,” directed by Timur Bekmambetov, touches on universal themes that could not be more timely.
“With everything that has happened in our nation [in recent months] and the tragedy and the tension that has ensued, the deeper messaging of a film like this becomes more important and needs to be heard,” she says. “It’s a big action-adventure movie but it also holds deep within its heart a message of forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and mercy. I think these themes are really resonating and suddenly feel very relevant.”
Downey spent weeks in Rome last year while “Ben-Hur” lensed. Working on an epic big-screen adventure is a far cry from anything she expected for her career when she left her native Derry in Northern Ireland to study acting at the Drama Studio London. From there, she joined Dublin’s Abbey Players troupe, which toured the U.S. with a production of “The Playboy of the Western World,” garnering strong notices for Downey.
Eventually, Downey took the leap of moving to New York in the late 1980s to focus on theater. She got a job as a coat-check girl at a swanky restaurant to make ends meet during her first winter in the city. She vividly remembers the night Regis Philbin surprised her with a $20 tip.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she says.
Downey didn’t have to wait long for her Broadway breakthrough. She was tapped for a supporting role opposite Rex Harrison in “The Circle,” which opened in fall 1989 and earned a Tony nomination for revival. The play brought her to the attention of producers of the 1991 NBC miniseries “A Woman Named Jackie.” Downey landed the iconic role of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The well-received miniseries put Downey on the map for film and TV work.
In 1994, she began a decade-long run starring opposite Della Reese and John Dye as the angel Monica on “Touched by an Angel.” The CBS drama about angels who came to the aid of troubled people was a perfect fit with Downey’s personal ethos, and it showed on screen.
“Roma was a consummate actor, professional and an amazing quick-study who didn’t just learn her lines but embodied them,” said “Touched” creator/exec producer Martha Williamson.
Williamson expressed her admiration for Downey’s blossoming work on the other side of the camera. During her run on “Touched,” Downey had the chance to star in and produce about a half-dozen TV movies for CBS. That was the training ground that set her on the path to a focus on producing.
In her pursuit of projects, Downey cites the inspiration she’s received from her close friend, pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church.
“Rick Warren has a wonderful book called ‘The Purpose-Driven Life,’ ” she says. “I feel that my directive is to be a purpose-driven producer. I am excited about the possibilities of bringing stories to the screen that uplift in some way. It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. That’s what I’m attempting to do, one project at a time.”