Under the Radar

Roma Downey Talks 'Son of God'

The Bible

Actress Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett, the producer of reality hits like Survivor and The Voice, met a lot of resistance when they decided to make a television series based on the scriptures. The Bible was a breakthrough hit on the History Channel last year and that success led to a separate feature film about the life of Jesus that combined scenes from the miniseries with previously unseen footage. Son of God was a surprise box office hit this year and the film has now been released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital.


Many readers will remember Roma Downey from her role as Monica on Touched by an Angel, the successful '90s TV series where she played an angel who appeared to people in need to remind them of God's love. She's notably upfront about her desire to use mainstream Hollywood success as a way to share her faith. She talked to us about the movie and the opportunities created by its success.

Thanks for talking to Military.com about "Son of God."

Very briefly, I'd also like to say that my husband, Mark Burnett, is a former military, British Military, and he fought in the Falklands War many years ago. You know that we appreciate the service of the men and women of our military and we certainly keep all of them in our prayers daily.

Five years ago, I felt a whisper in my heart to bring to the screen the stories of our Bible. I prayed on it. I brought it to my husband Mark over a cup of tea. We talked about it. We decided that we would pray some more about it and see what came forward and we ultimately decided to make a ten-hour series. We shook hands and we've never looked back. Now, most couples can't even work in the yard together, so for us to embark on this journey of creating a production company and bringing something as challenging as the Bible to the big screen has been quite a journey.

At first, many people in our circle thought we lost our minds, that we were risking our resources, risking our reputations on a series that perhaps nobody would watch. But when The Bible was aired on the History Channel last year, it became the most-watched series in cable for the year, with a total viewership of over 100 million people, and the series continued to ripple around the world as it aired in various countries. And I think the success of it speaks to the hunger that people have for God and the hunger people have for connection to story as revealed through our Bible. They are the greatest stories.

And I think that there's a relevancy to the stories, that we wanted to create characters that came off the screen in a way that they were accessible, that you could relate, that you could identify, remembering, of course, that there are no perfect characters in the Bible except Jesus. Everybody else is flawed. Everybody else makes mistakes. They have the same hurts and hopes and losses that we have.

It was our job to make sure that it was a series that spoke to a whole new generation. I think we all understand that many kids no longer read the Bible. There are many young people who have stopped going to church or who have fallen away from church. And here was an opportunity through television to remind people of how amazing God is and what a great love story our Bible is. Ultimately, that we as a hurting world, fallen away from grace and God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to bring us home.

We had an editor with us while we were filming the series in Morocco. As we started looking at the dailies and the footage from the Jesus narrative, we knew we had something very special. We decided there and then that we would put together a film on just the life of Jesus. And that was the birth of the film, Son of God.

Son of God released in theaters across the states in February of this year. What we're celebrating and talking about today is that just this week 20th Century Fox have released the Blu-ray and DVD of the movie, Son of God, making it now available to all those people that, like myself, that are too busy raising families, that are too busy working to get to the theater, and so now the theater comes to you. And that’s a beautiful two-hour-plus experience of Jesus' life from his humble birth in the nativity right through his mission and the miracles, his death, and his resurrection.

The Bible

I wanted to ask you about the experience of selling a movie about the Bible in Hollywood. Anyone who knows the history of film knows that over the last hundred years Hollywood has enjoyed great success with Bible stories.

In those early days, when we were out there putting The Bible series together, we met with quite a bit of resistance. I think that the feeling just was that there wasn’t an appetite for it, that no one would want to see it. That while those big movies like The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told, movies that I remember from when I was a very little girl, had seen so much success throughout the 50's and early 60's, studios believed that a new movie like that wouldn’t hold up. It required a certain boldness from us to move forward anyway. Of course, success has many fathers, always, and we're encouraged to see that Hollywood has paid attention. That clearly there is an audience.

People of faith spoke up and said, “We want to see this. We will come out to see this. We will turn our TVs on. We will come to the theater.” And nothing sends a message louder to Hollywood than an audience showing up. So consequently we're seeing a resurrection in Biblical-themed films coming out and coming down the pipeline, and I find it very encouraging.

When you have a TV show on the air each week that’s bringing the stories of the Bible to the screen, that becomes water cooler conversation. And when people are standing around the workplace or sitting around the kitchen table and they're talking about God and they're talking about faith or they're talking about Jesus, I find that very exciting. My husband and I were on talk shows across the country, the morning shows and on the nighttime shows. We have spoken out about our faith, how important our faith is to us. We're probably the noisiest Christians in Hollywood and it's been lovely just to see that there's going to be a lot more of this kind of programming coming out of Hollywood.

Many years ago I starred in a television show called Touched by an Angel and at that time there wasn’t really anything like that on network television that took such a strong position that there is a God, that He loves you, that He wants to be part of your life. Every week for over 20 million people it was my privilege to deliver that message. As an angel, I showed up and reminded people that God loves them. And before those scenes, I would pray. I would pray that there would be less of me and more of God, that I could get out of the way, that that could be used. And I made the same prayer in putting The Bible series together and in making this feature film, Son of God, that there would be less of us, there would be more of God. We made these projects really to glorify God and to bring hope to a hurting world.

The Bible

There’s news this week that you and Mark are working on a remake of "Ben-Hur."

We're working with MGM and Paramount to bring to the big screen an epic retelling of the amazing story of Ben-Hur. As you may know, the original book was called Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. So as well as it being action-packed and exciting and it will have a completely totally thrilling chariot race. It will be a story of forgiveness and ultimately a story of redemption. And we couldn’t be more excited to get to work on this.

I remember seeing the '59 movie as a child and have seen it repeatedly over the years, but there's a whole generation of moviegoers out there who don’t know the story. And it's for that generation that we're most excited about bringing it to the screen. And remember too that the '59 version, yes, it was amazing, but we have so many technological advances available to us now in terms of CGI, special effects, and I'm confident that what we will be able to achieve will be epic.

We are making Ben-Hur under the banner of our production company, LightWorkers Media. Mark and I were tired of cursing the darkness. We wanted to be able to create content that added value, that was uplifting and inspirational. And certainly The Bible series fit that bill, as did Son of God, as will Ben-Hur. You can see the themes that are woven in here are very similar.

The Bible

We’re also working this year on two other network projects. One is a four-hour miniseries, which we're producing for CBS, which is called The Dovekeepers. And it's based on a best-selling novel by the writer, Alice Hoffman. It's the story of Masada and really told uniquely through the eyes and the hearts of four courageous women. And it's a beautiful story about the triumph of the human spirit.

And then for NBC we're about to start filming a brand new series that will air Easter Sunday 2015, called A.D. That’s A, period, D, period. And it will reset the story after Jesus' death and it will follow the 11 remaining disciples in those dark and dangerous days. A.D. is going to play out like a great political thriller, but it's essentially the Book of Acts dramatized.

I’m speaking to you from New York City today and I've been in here doing press today for the DVD launch. The movie about Jesus has just been a labor of love for us, so it's been something that we feel passionate about because we know that it's touching people's lives and that it's opening hearts. It's healing hearts. Just a movie, but I think that it's just another way to reach people.

Somebody asked me today if I had a hidden agenda to evangelize with the movie and I said, absolutely not. There's nothing hidden about it. I do. I do hope it's part of a new evangelization. I believe and if this is the good news then I want to share the good news. And as a filmmaker and as an actress, this is how – a way that I know to be able to do that through my craft. And so there's no greater story. Jesus hadn't been on the big screen for ten years since The Passion of the Christ. And to be able to sit down with your whole family and put on this film and take you on the journey through the gospels is a blessing.

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