After this weekend, Roma Downey hopes people will be talking about Jesus, thanks to a new movie she's co-produced and appears in: "Son of God," which opens on 3,100 screens nationally on Friday.
The film, which tells the story of Jesus in key elements of his life, comes on the heels of "The Bible," a wildly popular 2013 cable TV miniseries. Mark Burnett, Downey's husband, is co-producing both projects, in which Downey portrays Mary, the mother of Jesus.
"After the success of 'The Bible' series, one of the comments that we heard most repeatedly was that it allowed an opportunity, around the water cooler, or around the kitchen table, for a larger conversation to occur," she said. "And it's our hope that when 'Son of God' opens, that the same thing will be true. That families and people in the workplace will be talking about faith, will be talking about God, (and) will be talking about Jesus."
In a telephone interview, Downey discussed the film and its prospects.
Deseret News: This film is creating quite a bit of buzz, quite a bit of discussion. Did you imagine that it would be this big?
Roma Downey: I don't know that we could have dared to dream this big. We knew that when we were filming "The Bible" series, we knew as we started to see the Jesus narrative unfold and ... when we saw Diogo Morgado's performance and we saw how epic it looked, I said to Mark (Burnett), "I wish we had been making a film, this is spectacular." And he said, "Well, why don't we? Let's shoot additional footage while we're here; let's have an editor start working on it." So, this became a notion back before the series launched, but we didn't know if we would get distribution. We didn't know, you know, what life the film would have.
We sent it out to a few folks to look at, and we had a most encouraging call from 20th Century Fox, and they said they'd seen the film, they loved it, and they wanted to distribute it. It's been very encouraging as we've gone out around the country with pre-screenings and with church groups and across denominations, to feel a love and support for the film, as evidenced by these amazing theater takeovers that are occurring. Many, many churches are buying out entire megaplexes and giving the tickets to their communities and their youth groups, and it's really been an amazing few months for us.
DN: It's been quite some time, has it not, since a movie covering the full arc of Jesus' life made it to a commercial theater.
RD: Yes, it's been almost a decade, exactly to the weekend, since "The Passion of the Christ" came to the big screen, and it's been almost 50 years since the entire life of Jesus was told in a cinematic presentation, and that was "The Greatest Story Ever Told." So we knew that there's a whole new generation that hadn't seen the story of Jesus presented in this way. I think that the movie is a movie for the ages. It's presenting His story, updated in a way that a contemporary audience expects. It's gritty. It's realistic. It has amazing special effects, a beautiful international cast, (and) an extraordinary score by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe.
To have Hans put the score together and to hear it in surround sound, in community — I think that's one of the extraordinary things about this it's not so much that you see it, but you feel it, it's an experience to feel the movie.
DN: Part of this involves getting communities in, and you had mentioned bringing large numbers of people in because churches are buying out theaters. What was the origin of that?
RD: We feel that to bring the Gospels to the big screen came with a big responsibility, to make sure that we told the story accurately. And to that end we have worked closely with theologians and scholars and also with faith leaders around the nation, from across denominations. Many of these faith leaders have been involved in guiding us and helping us. ... so it was only natural that when the film was ready to be seen, that we took it out to the church community, and I think that the church recognizes that it's a beautiful film, that there's an opportunity for the film to be used as a resource by the church, to bring an aliveness to scripture, and with that new way of considering it. You go back to the Bible, you go back to church, with these new images in your mind.
We've been just so encouraged by the enthusiasm from the likes of (megachurch pastors) Rick (Warren) and of Joel Osteen, and Cardinal (Donald) Wuerl (Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C.), and Sam Rodriguez (senior pastor of New Season Christian Worship Center in Sacramento, Calif.) and Bishop (T.D.) Jakes; it's been such a wave of love and support from all the churches.
And we've had support too from beyond the churches. We had a beautiful endorsement that came out just yesterday (Tuesday) from Abraham Foxman and the (Anti-Defamation League), whom we have worked with to bring the story sensitively, to ensure that we told the story showing the political and direct context of the time. Mr. Foxman said he believed the film would really help to bring about healing after the controversy that had been created in the Jewish community (over) "The Passion (of the Christ)." So we are just very encouraged.
DN: You did get a little bit of attention by saying or perhaps writing a bit about "casting out Satan" from the movie.
RD: I did. I did cast him out. It was such a distraction, and I felt that it was taking away from the focus of this, which was to share the love and life of Jesus. As you know, there was a random comment made online, an unfortunate comment that our actor who plays Satan (in "The Bible" series) bore a slight resemblance to (President Barack Obama). It was upsetting that it became so newsworthy, and that it became so hateful. I didn't want the movie to be hijacked; I didn't want the message of the movie to be used in any way to create division, because the intention of the film always was to connect us in his love. I think it was the right thing to do to cast (Satan) out, to leave the devil on the cutting room floor. This is a movie about Jesus, and when it opens on Friday, it's Jesus that everyone is talking about.
DN: This isn't a scene-by-scene, frame-by-frame progression from birth to death and resurrection.
RD: First of all, it's two hours, and we wanted to tell the (story) in a fresh storytelling. I grew up in Ireland, and I have memories of seeing those old 'donkeys and sandals' pictures and I have memories, when I was a little girl, of how the characters all floated through the screen and they were very holy.
We know that the disciples didn't know they were in the Bible. They were real people living real lives, and as moviemakers, we wanted to ensure that the story was relatable, that you could connect, that you felt engaged. As I mentioned, we did work with advisers to make sure that what we did put on the screen was an accurate portrayal from the Gospel. But I think the movie at times it plays almost like a political thriller because there's the Romans led by Pontius Pilate, we have the temple leaders, who are shown to be anxious because the disciples are approaching Jerusalem, and the three groups are on this collision course with the fast approach of the Passover and a dramatic element of the film that plays out like a ticking clock, and, of course, you know, the explosion that occurs around the arrest of Jesus and the trial of Jesus and the death of Jesus, which is an extraordinary sequence. It's deeply touching and it's hard to watch, but we move into the glory of the resurrection and film ends with the Great Commission and the call to action for each of us.
DN: For those who have not seen the film as yet, what would you want them to have in mind as they take their place in the theater?
RD: I think that at the beautiful and sensitive performance of Diogo Morgado, they will fall in love with Jesus. I think if you are already a believer, you will just fall in love with him again, and if you're coming for the first time and you don't know the story, I think it's a great opportunity to discover him. We know that many people in the church find it hard to ask somebody to go to church with them, but it's very easy to ask them to go to a movie with you. Even if you don't share our faith, you ought to know about Jesus because his life is so very extraordinary.
DN: And for parents bringing their children, is there something you'd like them to keep in mind as they bring their families?
RD: Well, we did get PG-13, and though the Crucifixion is still hard to watch, I think a parent should explain to a child that the scene might be painful, (it) might be a moment to close their eyes, but the beauty of the story is that it doesn't end there; that Jesus returns triumphantly in the Resurrection and the film, I think, is a great teaching tool for kids. Almost everything I ever learned, I learned from the movies, so I think that when a child will see this, that it will imprint in their minds and in their hearts and it will be a great visual anytime they return to Scripture.
DN: You talk about Diogo Morgado and his performance. What has this experience done to him? Has it affected his faith in any way?
RD: I think that it has. He was raised in a Christian family in Portugal, but I sense that it has profoundly impacted his life. He said that while, you know, he prepared as well as he could, ultimately there is no preparation. He just had to make himself available, get out of the way and allow the (Holy) Spirit to flow through him, and I think that's evident on the screen. I think that his performance is inspiring and will touch people for generations to come.