The family that prays together makes Passion Plays together.
Or so it is when the family is reality-TV king Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey, whose History Channel mini-series The Bible attracted 13 million viewers last year.
The Jesus segments of the 10-episode run have been distilled into a theatrical feature film, Son Of God, which is what had them in Toronto on a promotional tour a few weeks back.
And as often happens when Catholics get together - whether lapsed (me), partial (Burnett, of Scottish Catholic and Presbyterian stock) or full-on rosary (Downey, Irish Catholic from Derry) – talk turns to superstar Pope Francis, who’d just made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
“And when you heard about that,” Burnett says, “did you think about Rolling Stone and rolling the stone away from Jesus’ tomb?”
No, but awesome job of staying on-message!
“Think of that. Things are happening. It’s a story being written and all of us are playing a part, of trying to treat others right and do the right thing. It’s really, really beautiful right now.”
Burnett, of Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice fame, and Downey (Touched by an Angel), really talk like that. But you never get the idea while engaging their faith that they consider you Hellbound. “As Christians, sometimes we get defined by the things we are against,” Downey says. “We want to take the opportunity to speak about the things that unite us,” she says, by way of mentioning the multi-denominational support Son Of God has already received from Christian faith leaders.
They’re even up for a little bit of playful provocation. I suggest that the Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado looks a lot like Brad Pitt. And I bring up Fox News’ Megyn Kelly’s on-air assertion that Jesus (and, ahem, Santa) were white. Isn’t this vision of Jesus a Western construct? Wouldn’t the real, Middle-Eastern Jesus be likely profiled by Homeland Security if he tried to enter the U.S.?
“Diogo’s good-looking, but he’s Latino. Are you saying he’s too good-looking to be Latino?” Burnett says, challengingly. Um, no.
“I thought all of our Disciples were quite hunky, actually,” interjects Downey, who plays Mother Mary in Son Of God.
In fact, it was the chemistry between Morgado and Downey that first put the idea in Burnett’s head to spin Son Of God off from The Bible – that, and a fascination with Michelangelo’s Pieta (which is replicated in freeze-frame by Morgado and Downey in a scene post-Crucifixion).
“Before we’d finished the miniseries, we already decided to make the movie. We had 10 hours to do the whole Bible, and six months of footage from Morocco. A lot of stuff wasn’t going to make into the series.
“We also felt watching the dailies that there was something charismatic about the screen presence of Diogo and Roma’s relationship with him. We just knew it was meant for the big screen.”
Adds Downey: “Jesus hasn’t been on the big screen in 10 years (since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). And it’s been 50 years since his whole life story was told in The Greatest Story Ever Told. So it’s time.”
“It was important we got this right,” Burnett says. “We were bringing Scripture the screen.” There were editorial decisions of course. “When people are upset, they say, ‘I wish you’d included this.’
“But Herod Antipas was in the miniseries already. We dealt with (John the Baptist) and the Temptation there as well.
“But the success we’ve had is opening doors for other projects of faith, like Noah (with Russell Crowe) and Exodus (with Christian Bale as Moses).”