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Roma Downey felt ‘inspired’ to bring ‘The Bible’ to TV

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Courtesy photo Roma Downey stars as Mother Mary in History's “The Bible.”

By Scott D. Pierce

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 28 2013 03:53PM
Updated Mar 5, 2013 10:49AM

Former "Touched by an Angel" star Roma Downey has a lot of great memories of her decade in Utah, but right at the top of the list is the 2002 Winter Olympics. On the day of the Opening Ceremonies, she was one of the torch-bearers carrying the Olympic flame through Salt Lake City.

"It was one of the highs of my time living in Utah, and I loved living in Utah," she said.

She has the same feelings about her latest project, the five-part, 10-hour dramatization of "The Bible" that premieres Sunday on the History Channel.

"In my prayer and meditation, I imagine somehow running into a stadium carrying this," Downey said. "The light is not the Olympic torch, the light is the series. And as I come into the stadium, instead of people standing and cheering, I feel like everybody’s running down and grabbing a bit of that light and running with me."

She spoke excitedly about being in the "homestretch" of a project that proved to be "a huge undertaking" — the dramatization of big chunks of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Among the highlights are the stories of Noah’s ark, Exodus, and Daniel and the lions’ den.

"Three-and-a-half years ago, I felt the call to do this," Downey said. "I got my husband to share the vision. He is a great man for making things happen. He doesn’t hear the word no."

Her husband of almost seven years is Mark Burnett, the producer of "Survivor," "The Voice," "Shark Tank" and many more TV series. Downey said her spouse is "deeply humbled to be given this once-in-a-generation opportunity to breathe new visual life into the Bible’s profound stories."

And Downey is grateful that he came on board.

"I probably would still be there knocking on the door politely asking if somebody would like to buy it. Thankfully, Mark came up and kicked the door down," she said. "We got this thing sold, and it’s not easy to sell a Bible project in Hollywood."

Having faith • The History Channel isn’t known for religious programming, but Nancy Dubuc, president, entertainment and media for A&E Networks, said the series is a great fit.

"History has a legacy of delving into important subjects to which all people are connected," she said. "There’s no question the Bible is one of the world’s most significant and most popular books, which holds within it the incredible and powerful stories that truly changed the course of history and religion the world about."

Make no mistake, "The Bible" is a series about faith. For Downey, it was a calling.

"While there have been times I’d hoped that an angel like the Monica I played [on ‘Touched’] would show up, we know that God speaks to us in much quieter and subtler ways," she said. "It’s in the quiet times that that voice called. I felt the tug of it."

Downey and Burnett also felt a "huge responsibility" to get it right. To that end, they consulted more than 40 scholars and theologians "to guide us and to ensure that we were accurate."

More than that, they were trying to balance faith and accuracy with entertainment

"We didn’t want this to look like some old donkeys-and-sandals movie that was made 50 years ago," Downey said. "We want it to feel like it is of this age, told for this generation — but still, at its heart, be a loving heart of faith."

Downey and Burnett are raising three teenagers who, not surprisingly, were not at all interested when Downey suggested sitting down and watching the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments."

"My kids thought I’d lost my mind!" she said. "The special-effects element just doesn’t hold up. If you’re a young person, the bar is set very high for CGI. So we knew if we were going to bring miracles to the screen, we were going to need some incredible special effects."

They hired the team that won a visual-effects Oscar for "Gladiator" and "it looks like we spent $100 million," Downey said. The actual budget was about $22 million.

"When I left for Morocco, the kids said, ‘Please don’t make it lame,’ " Downey said. "And I’m happy to report that, as I’ve showed it to them, they’re, like, ‘Phew! This is so not lame. We can watch this with our friends.’ "

Making miracles • It was Downey and Burnett’s faith in the project that drove it forward. And, somewhat to their surprise, their different skill sets complemented each other.

"My husband’s experience of shooting ‘Survivor’ and the helicopter shots he used — we were able to use that large-scale, big-crew-in-remote-locations experience to tackle getting the best of that crew over in Morocco," Downey said. "And we were able to use my experience of producing movies that are all about the intimacy of relationships, the connections between people.

"We were very reliant on each other. We’re having the time of our lives. And the miracle is that, after 3 1/2 years, we are still speaking to each other," she said with a laugh.

Most of the cast will be unfamiliar to American viewers — a lot of British stage actors and Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado as Jesus. The one exception: Downey as Mary, the mother of Jesus.

"It’s a cameo role," she said, "but it was such a privilege to play her. To see it through a mother’s eyes, to feel it through a mother’s heart was deeply poignant and so humbling."

She’s hoping that viewers will go read the Bible after they watch the series. Including those who may not have read it before.

"I think the faithful are going to find the series," she said. "But I also think that it speaks to people maybe who’ve never read the Bible. People who’ve never had a chance to go to church but who may discover the stories of our Bible by turning the History Channel on."

spierce@sltrib.com

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