The Derry-born star of Touched by an Angel tells Molly Ferns about her new faith-based children’s series Little Angels.
Upon first hearing about Roma Downey’s new children’s series, Little Angels, some might guess that her breakout role as Monica in Touched by an Angel (1994-2003), a show that promoted Christian values, is what led Roma to her current multi-media faith-based productions. Others might believe that, as a celebrity with Christian appeal, Roma is simply sticking her name on projects, which, she acknowledged, “is sometimes the case with celebrities endorsing things.” But all those views would be missing the mark. The positive morals that Roma has tried to encourage began with her childhood in Derry.
“I was raised in a Christian home,” she explained during a recent phone conversation. “It was very congruent to who I am and how I try to live my life now. I think you can choose to see everything in your life as a miracle or nothing as a miracle, and I’ve always chosen to see everything as a miracle.”
Roma’s latest miracle is her new series, Little Angels, which, she explained, also comes from that “central inspiration of when I was a little girl growing up in Derry. We had a little prayer to our angels that my Dad would say at night. ‘God in heaven, my savior dear, watch over my children and draw them near. Send your little angels to be at their side, to light and to guard, to love and to guide.’”
Produced in conjunction with her new company, Lightworkers Media, so far Little Angels consists of three DVDs, three CDs and two storybooks “designed to teach young children practical life skills [like] ABCs, 123s and animals. It’s also been designed to teach values, what we used to call traditional family values. It does so through the lens of some beloved Bible stories, so it’s really a delightful project,” said Roma.
Little Angels is quite unique in that it is one of the few faith-based educational tools on store shelves for the preschool audience. Four-year-old twins Alex and Zoe have a mural painted on the ceiling of their nursery. When Mom and Dad aren’t around, the ten little angels in the mural come to life and engage with Alex and Zoe as their teachers and counselors. The twins face the same challenges that any preschooler might. They don’t always get along and sometimes have trouble sharing, but the angels act as a loving presence in their lives and “serve as a reminder that the kids are being watched over, looked after, protected and that God is always with us,” said Roma.
Though Little Angels’ audience is young, Roma and Lightworkers Media have worked hard to make sure that it implements all of the latest technology. “This age group is very discerning. If they’re not interested, they get up and they wander away pretty easily. There’s an angel with an iPad device and the kids all have been responding so much to her. I think you haven’t really seen that yet in animated characters, so that makes it very of the moment,” said Downey. She has also created an app for the iPhone and iPad based on the series.
“Honestly with all the things that are available today, I don’t know how any of us were raised or even raised our own kids. I think of all those endlessly long car journeys with the little voices from the back asking ‘Are we there yet’ and me desperately trying to think of yet another car game – ‘Who can find a red car? Okay now a green car?’ This little app is so cute and very interactive. There are memory games, matching games and little puzzles, all for the touch screen. There’s even an app for a daily prayer, which is a sweet little habit to start with your preschooler,” said Roma.
All of these features help to distinguish Roma’s Little Angels from other series like Veggie Tales, which she admits “was great and had a lot of value, but it’s been around for so long and I think there’s room in this market space for something new and exciting.” Plans to expand the series include two other DVDs in the works, a Little Angels Bible to be published sometime this summer, and a toy line that she hopes to have out by next Christmas.
“I’m really committed to this for the long haul. I’ve been out on the road a little bit already and I feel that there’s great excitement for this. A need for it, a hunger for it,” explained Downey. “It’s amazing how people are responding to it.”
Her efforts to spread the word thus far have included appearances on The View and Rachel Ray to promote the project, which was launched on February 14th. She also created a website, www.littleangels.com and even took to Twitter.
“You know, Reilly [Roma’s 16-year-old daughter] was laughing at me because just last year I started my Twitter account. When I first mentioned I was doing it, I didn’t even know the language. I’m a parent to three teenagers and there’s a lot of eye rolling that happens. I apparently really put my foot in my mouth because I said I was ‘twitting’ and Reilly’s eyes practically rolled into the back of her skull. She was like ‘Mom, it’s tweeting.’ So I’m slowly catching up,” laughed Roma.
She explained that raising her own children, who are now in their teens, helped inspire the project. Her children also took part in the production of Little Angels: Reilly sings and her oldest stepson James plays the guitar on the Little Angels CDs. “It was very nice for us as a family,” she said.
Roma, who is married to television producer Mark Burnett (The Voice, Survivor), is joined by her family in many of her other projects. Little Angels won’t be the only production under the Lightworkers Media banner – starting on March 5th, Roma and Mark embarked on a four-month trip to Morocco to shoot a ten-hour docudrama for The History Channel. Fittingly titled The Bible, the show will cover stories from Genesis through Revelations and is set to air Easter 2013.
“We’re super excited about that,” Roma said. “It’s such a thrill to do and so humbling to get to work on. We’re hoping it will be poised to be must-see family TV. It’s going to be epic to bring these stories we all know to life on television in a way that you’ve never seen before. For both Mark and myself, it’ll be the most important work we’ve ever made.”
An app called Bible360 was also created in connection with The Bible and is already available on iTunes. “I can’t begin to explain to you how amazing it is,” said Roma. “It’s taking what used to be a pretty solitary experience of reading your Bible and brings it to life literally in a 360-degree way, with art and maps and the ability to share scriptures and prayers. Then once we have footage from our new series, it will be added to the app. So you could be reading the story of Moses parting the Red Sea and with one click it will cut to the scene that we will film. What’s occurring is transformational.”
Mark, Roma and their kids are also involved with the charity Operation Smile, a volunteer group that travels to third-world and developing countries to operate on children with facial deformities, primarily cleft lip and cleft palate deformities. Roma has worked with the group since 1994, initially believing she had a responsibility for kindness toward others, a virtue her father valued above all else.
“But the truth is I go with a heart to give and I end up receiving. I go back again and again because a.) it’s the right thing to do and b.) because it feels really great to do it. To be present when, after just forty-five minutes and a couple of hundred dollars, the child is handed back to the mother who had never imagined her child having a chance at a normal life. To see that mother’s face is like witnessing a rebirth. It’s a beautiful and moving moment to see when a life has been transformed,” said Roma.
After Mark accompanied Roma on one of her trips to Honduras with Operation Smile, he quickly became inspired. Eventually, their children got involved by stepping in to volunteer and raise money at their schools. “It’s a real family affair. We teach by example,” she said.
Faith may seem synonymous with almost all of Roma’s projects, past and present, but it’s not that simple. For Roma, it’s more about the positive message. With Touched by an Angel, for example, she was just an actress looking for a job.
“If someone had been looking for a policewoman or a doctor, I would’ve tried my best to get that part too. But you know, I’ve often heard it said that coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. The fact that it was this script [Touched by an Angel] that showed up for me, this role [Monica] that I played; it was a privilege to be part of something that had such a positive message,” she reflected. “I loved that. So at this time in my life with Lightworkers, I don’t know that every project will be specifically faith-based, but I will say that they all will have a positive message. I would like that they all be uplifting or in some way shine a light.”
And just because Roma is busy with her new projects doesn’t mean she’s forgotten her roots. Roma returned to Ireland this past summer to visit family and she hopes to return again next year when Derry is honored as City of Culture. “You know, you can take the girl out of Ireland, but you can’t really take Ireland out of the girl,” said Roma. “It will always hold a very dear and special place in my heart.”