The irony of God choosing Mary, a young girl from the despised town of Nazareth, which in John1:46 (NIV) says, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.
Well, Roma Downey, who for many years starred in “Touched by an Angel,” did just this and fell in love with the character of Mary, which she played in the “Bible” mini-series and then in “Son of God,” but like Mary, she hails from a most unlikely place, the Bogside, the troubled area in what was called “Free Derry” in Northern Ireland, which was featured in Bono’s song, “Sunday, Bloody, Sunday.”
The troubles began on the morning of Sunday January 30. 1972, when around ten thousand people gathered in Londonderry for a civil rights march. The British Army had sealed off the original route so the march organizers led most of the demonstrators towards “Free Derry Corner” in the nationalist Bogside area of the city. Despite this, a number of people continued on towards an army barricade where local youths threw stones at soldiers, who responded with a water cannon, CS gas and rubber bullets.
As the riot began to disperse, soldiers of the 1st Parachute Regiment were ordered to move in and arrest as many of the rioters as possible. In the minutes that followed, some of these paratroopers opened fire on the crowd, killing thirteen men and injuring 13 others, one of whom died some months later.
So, during an interview with Roma, for my Front Page Radio show, I asked Roma if she ever imagined that, as a child brought up in such a violent area, that she would be ever be playing Mary in a movie?
“No,” she laughed. “We did do a few Nativity plays when I was a little girl at school, and I think I was once one of the Wise Men. That was as close as I got to a principle role and I had a very bad fake beard.
“I was raised Catholic in Northern Ireland in the city of Derry and my own mother died when I was just a little girl. So I had great love and affection for Mary. as she represented the great nurturing mother to me in the absence of having a mother of my own.
“During my formative years, which were primarily the 1970s, through my early childhood and into my early teens it was particularly troubled there. We had ongoing conflict that was often very violent and war that unfortunately became a kind of religious war, even though it was really a political war. You had Catholics on the one side, Protestants on the other. and a lot of violence in between.
“In the community I lived, there was a river down the middle, the River Foyle, and as a little girl, the communities never mingled. There was almost a complete segregation of the Protestant community living on one side and the Catholic community living on the other side of the river.
“And I think if you’d asked any of us back then if that would have ever changed, if there’d ever been a hope of peace and reconciliation, I don’t know that anybody really would have thought the answer could be yes. Yet, here we are in 2014, and that river now has a beautiful walking bridge built across it that is aptly known as ‘The Peace Bridge’ and there’s a natural flow between the communities of people moving back and forth.
“Our government there now is a power sharing government with a Protestant and Catholic minister in the first two positions of power in the local parliament. The British army are no longer there and the communities live peacefully work together. It’s just been marvelous to see the healing and what peace can do, because the truth is that at the end of the day, we all are very much the same aren’t we?
“We all want the same things for our families. We all want to live peaceful lives and be in community and have a few laughs and have our children be healthy and have enough change in your pocket to get a Starbucks now and then.”
I shared with Roma that I had once visited her home area of the Bogside with its many murals depicting the events surrounding sectarian violence and civil rights protests in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and so I wondered what it was like for her to be living there during such a terrible period.
“Yeah,” she said, “it was an extraordinary time there with often a lot of fear for me, particularly as a child, not really understanding what was going on. We had the British army presence in the town — it was an army of occupation – with tanks and guns and soldiers on the streets and, so often, on the way home from school, they would be attacked by the IRA and we would have to duck down behind cars because we would get caught in gun battles, or we would get caught up in riots, or the army would respond with rubber bullets or CS gas and that gas is very toxic and there was no escaping it. It would burn your eyes and the back of your throat it would make you nauseous.
“So I remember a lot of fear and uncertainty from those years. Yet, amazingly, even in the midst of that, there was that great Irish community. I remember great humor within the community. There was a sense that, even if you couldn’t get home to your own house, somebody would take you into theirs and there always was a great strong sense of communal spirit and the community looking after their own. And, you know. that still remains as part of the fiber of the Irish people.”
I then pointed out to Roma that “a great miracle” had occurred in her own life, when she married, Mark Burnett, a former British paratrooper. Mark, a wildly successful British-American television producer, now based in Los Angeles, and the visionary behind “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Bible,” and “Shark Tank,” was from entirely the wrong background for his lovely Ulster-born wife, for before his meteoric rise in the entertainment business.
Burnett, who was born in Dagenham, a suburb of east London, England, joined the British Army Parachute Regiment at 17 and served from 1977 to 1982. He was even awarded active service medals in both the Northern Island and Falklands conflicts.
So, I asked her, how on earth this happened?
“It is a little bit of a Romeo and Juliet story,” she smiled. “It’s amazing really, and I think that our love story becomes a little microcosm of what is possible, and out of our love story together as a husband and wife producing team, we were able to bring the Bible series to television last Easter here in the United States on the History Channel. People thought that nobody would turn up that nobody would watch it. And of course we now know that a hundred million people watched it in America alone.
“And it has gone out and continues to ripple around the world. And then it was from the Bible series that we were able to craft with additional footage and bring in a standalone big screen experience the beautiful two-hour feature film ‘Son Of God’ which opened here in the US at the end of February and has been a big success and continues to be through Easter.
“It’s the perfect film to go and see with your family and with your friends. Jesus has not been on the big screen for ten years since ‘Passion of the Christ’ and almost fifty years since his whole story was shown in ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told.’ So we knew it was time for a whole new generation to get excited about the narrative of Jesus as told on the big screen.
“We poured ourselves into it and you know it was really hard work. I mean we loved it, but we worked so hard, and to know that it’s touching people’s hearts and that maybe people who don’t know Jesus, are doing to see if because they’ve heard it’s a great movie. They’re getting to know Jesus for the first time and people who do know Jesus are coming and getting a chance to fall in love with him all over again.”
Now, back to her playing Mary. I asked Roma how she prepared to play such a challenging role.
“It was such a privilege for me to be able to step into the role, and I prepared for it prayerfully as I did through the whole project,” she said. “As you know, not only did I act in the movie, but I also produced the movie, and I was down in Morocco and we had been filming for some time. We’d already filmed the Nativity scene.
“We’d already cast a lovely young actress to play Mary throughout the Nativity and we were looking now for an actress to pick up the story 30 years later for the Passion of Christ. We needed an actress that would also resemble in some way this younger actress. And we were having a challenge finding someone to fill the role.
“Then my husband said to me, ‘I think you’re missing the obvious here, Roma. Would you not consider stepping into the role yourself?’ And I’m so glad that I did. I’m a mother myself and all I really could do was to bring a mother’s heart to the role; to feel as a mother would; to see from a mother’s eyes; because we know that Mary was the mother of the Son of God, but first and foremost she was the mother of a son.”
Roma went on to say, “I have loved Jesus my whole life, but I’d never really considered what his mother must have been feeling before. I have gazed on a cross lovingly my whole life, and I suppose I must have always imagined about what Jesus was feeling on the cross and how much Jesus loves me because that’s what the cross represents, but I’d never considered what it must have been to be his mother seeing your son die in such a horrible cruel way. But I think it speaks of Mary’s courage and that she stood there as a witness, when all the disciples, except for John, had fled she stayed she remained.
“I learned so much from her. She so much trust in God and when the angel Gabriel came to her she said ‘yes’ to God, and then when she stood at the foot of the cross, she continued to say ‘yes. It just showed such courage. But you can only imagine how heartbreaking that must have been.”
Do you think that she really understood that her son, Jesus, was going to be resurrected, or do you think that was a huge shock for her?
“I think that she trusted,” Roma stated. “We have a scene in the film where when Jesus falls with the cross and Mary pushes through the crowds desperate to get close to him to touch him to help him in some way, to connect with him, and in the film Jesus echoes the words of the angel Gabriel and says, ‘Don’t be afraid, with God everything is possible.’ And we see in that moment that she knows that this is what he came to do and it can’t be stopped. Jesus came to die for us. So we have a moment where she makes a choice to help him up with the cross, and I think, had she been allowed to, she might have carried that cross down the street for him.”
Roma concluded by saying, “My hope is that every Easter many will get to see ‘Son of God’ again and again and that it will go out into countries and to reach people that we may never meet. We may never know their stories, but their lives will be changed forever.
“Many of these countries where they live, people don’t have access to get to church, or they maybe have not been exposed to the Bible or Christian literature. But it’s much easier in some ways for people to see a film. People can now even get films on their phones. It’s just a way to reach the modern audience and I find it so encouraging.
“We know Hollywood is paying attention, which is great. There’s a big audience, and a hunger out there. People are hungry for hope, hungry for purpose, hungry for spiritual connection, and hopefully we’ll see Hollywood respond in a big way and that we’ll see other kinds of faith projects coming down the pipeline.”
Get an in-depth look at Roma’s new movie with our exciting Son of God – Movie Review
Looking for more Christian celebrity news? Check out U2’s Bono Proclaims New Faith in Jesus
Dan Wooding, 73, is an award-winning journalist who who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 50 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS) and he hosts the weekly “Front Page Radio” show on the KWVE Radio Network in Southern California and which is also carried throughout the United States and around the world. He is the author of some 45 books, the latest of which is a novel about the life of Jesus through the eyes of his mother called Mary: My Story from Bethlehem to Calvary.