PTR Senior Staff Writer
A show called Touched By An Angel.
An angel named Monica.
This is Roma Downey’s television legacy.
One that almost seems incomparable in this day and age when what is left of scripted characters and dramas tend to dissolve into formulas and mediocrity by their third seasons – if they make it that far.
I consider myself one of the lucky viewers.
I grew up with Roma as my angel on television every Sunday night for nearly a decade, when television could still inspire us to want to be better people. I missed a couple episodes here and there, but when Les Moonves sent TBAA off into the good night in the spring of 2003, I stopped at nothing to watch the series finale. It still ranks as one of the best I’ve ever seen: a perfect balance of happy sadness as everything wrapped up, and Monica drove off into the sunset with a complete set of life lessons learned.
But this, of course, was back before the television blogosphere had exploded into what it is today, and before wee ol’ me ever fathomed one could actually write about TBAA on a weekly basis. Alas, part of me wishes I still could.
So what is the next best thing?
Welcoming Roma back to our television screens after nearly a five-year hiatus (or perhaps we should say semi-retirement) as she stars in the upcoming Hallmark Original Movie, Come Dance at My Wedding, premiering Saturday June 6th at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central) on Hallmark Channel.
The film, which also stars John Schneider and Brooke Nevin, is about a young bride-to-be who's father that she never knew shows up alive and well, holding the deed to her family's dance studio that she wants to sell so that she can pursue her dream of becoming a therapist. When it turns out dad isn't in all that big of a hurry to turn over the deed, or leave town, she turns to her attorney, Laura (played by Roma), for help.
“When this project found me, it really was just the sweetness of the story that tempted me because I’m just at that time in my life when I’m really enjoying being a mum, being around and being available [to my family],” says Roma.
And that, as it turns out, is exactly how one talks to a retired angel these days: on a recent late afternoon, after she’s just completed the second of her twice daily runs transporting her daughter and two stepsons to/from school – which is a 40 minute drive in each direction.
Call it one heck of a carpool schlep.
“I’ve become Queen of the Carpool,” she says quite proudly. “We joke that I’ve listened to so many books on tape because I have 40 minutes of company, and then 40 minutes of no company. Of course, then you double that because I have to go back and get them.”
As Roma tells me this, I think perhaps she should earn points in some sort of frequent driver program. She’d be in the Million Mile club in no time. And yet, for Roma, this is all part of that precious routine centering on being home and available for her family after the long haul commitment she made to Touched By An Angel.
“I made a choice, really, to have a life. There was a concept, right?” she says with a laugh. “Having come off almost a decade of being involved with Touched By An Angel, even though the rewards were great and I loved working on the show – loved being a part of that material, being part of that message – by the time we ended, I really was burnt out. It was a lot of TV hours. I decided rather than just keep jumping into what’s next, I realized how fortunate I was – how fortunate I am. And when the show ended, it was a time of big change for me. I think there’s always opportunity at those moments in your life to reevaluate where you are. And so rather than just continue to climb without really giving thought to where I was going, I thought, ‘What’s important?’ The rewards had been great for that decade, but the price had been high, too, in that I really felt I didn’t have much of a personal life. I just thought there’s got to be more.
“I didn’t want my tombstone to read, ‘Here Lies Roma: She Wishes She Had Spent More Time At Work,’ y’know?” she says with another laugh. “So, it really was about accepting and being grateful for the knowledge that I didn’t have to work – a tremendous freedom. A fantastic luxury – filled with gratitude. So, I really didn’t take a step back because that suggests backwards movement, but I actually feel that I took a big step forward because I made a real pro-active choice for myself, my happiness, my growth, my life and my soul-searching. I moved into the light of my own life. When you create space for yourself, it’s amazing what you can manifest. All sorts of wonderful personal opportunities arrive.”
Cue soft warm angel glow light.
For anyone wondering whether Roma really is this beautifully articulate, wonderfully insightful and incredibly inspiring in discussing life as she was in portraying the angel character of Monica, she is.
And yet, she does confess that being tempted by the sweetness of the Come Dance at My Wedding script made her wonder whether shelving the carpool crown for a couple of weeks would wreak havoc on her family’s schedule.
“I don’t know if you remember that game Ker Plunk?”
“Yes, I do,” I say.
“I was concerned that to leave town for any length of time would be the final straw, and all the marbles would come crashing down!” she says laughing. “But there was a moment, when I was laughing to myself as I was flying to Vancouver [where the movie was filmed] going, ‘Thank God, I’m going to work - I get a break!’ But this script just touched me. I thought it was a lovely story. I loved the fact that I could be involved in something but not overwhelmed, or not so involved to the exclusion of everything else. The most important thing for me [these days] is that I retain balance and harmony in my life.”
Part of that balance and harmony has involved a return to school. She’s currently finishing up the first year of a two-year Masters program at the University of Santa Monica (yes, irony in the name there), which will ultimately qualify her to be … wait for it … a therapist.
Now, it seems to me she already has nine years experience in that realm. Nonetheless, we could – at this time next year – be calling her Dr. Roma.
(And not in the honorary doctorate of law sense, which she also just recently received from Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management.)
Says Roma: “It’s really the most beautiful course imaginable – soul centered education. And, ultimately, one would I guess be qualified to be a therapist, but we’ll see how or in what way I might apply it professionally. But certainly, even just a year into it, I find the teachings so applicable as a parent – in relationship to anyone, really – how to listen better, how to be more present in your own life. And, I’ve always been interested in the study of human behavior – of why we do what we do. I guess, to some extent, it’s the work of the actor to analyze character and to figure out motivation and so on. So, it’s sort of an extremely deep version of character study.”
And though she spends a lot of time these days focused on her studies (in between carpool runs, of course), she’s also returned to her first love: painting. It is, for Roma, still essential to find creative outlets even if they aren’t along the acting lines.
“I’ve always been a big believer that if you’re a creative person, it can manifest itself in many areas,” says Roma. “When I left high school, I went to art school. I thought I was going to be a painter. And, at that time, I read something – I’ll paraphrase it here – that Van Gogh had written to his brother about being frustrated about his artwork; that it was no longer enough for him to be the painter, he wanted to be the paint. And I remembered thinking I didn’t want to be a painter, I wanted to be an actor. And it sort of seemed like that would be the paint. Now, I‘ve kind of moved into this time of my life where I think I might want to be the painter again. And while I’m doing painting, I’m actually also doing writing, which is kind of like the canvas, y’know? So, there are different means of artistic expression coming from the same root – the same essence of me – to express myself.”
But let it be said right now that her acting skills are nowhere near rusty. She still fires on all those magical Roma-esque cylinders in the film, and when I ask whether the protective mother in Laura is what she could identify with the most in the character, she agrees.
“That’s it – you’ve absolutely got that right. She wasn’t exactly sure of what John Schneider’s character [Tanner] motives were, and in the absence of the mother – who was her best friend who had passed away – she’d really moved into a very maternal role [for Brooke Nevin’s character of Cyd] because of her legal experience and her maternal feelings to protect and make sure the girl’s best interests were taken care of. So, particularly, the first ¾ of that arc for me to have to be a little tougher [was different]. I probably wrote the book on empathetic characters,” she says laughing once again. “We used to joke on Touched By An Angel that I was a professional sigher because every script – every act – would end with: ‘CLOSE ON MONICA. SHE SIGHS.’ I really have perfected the sigh.”
“So, that’ll go on the tombstone, then? 'Roma Downey – Professional Sigher',” I ask jokingly.
“Yeah, yeah!” she laughs. “But [in identifying with the character] it was the mom factor. Hey, it’s what I do.”
And what she also now knows how to do is line dance, thanks in no small part to the focus of the film’s story centering around a dance studio that was the heartbeat of a small town – and served to connect everyone to each other.
“The dance studio,” says Roma “became a metaphor for the heart – that it brought out the best in people, where everybody felt safe. In that feeling safe – in that loving space – everybody grew and became connected. So, if I felt moved by the script, it was in that which connects us, and the little dance studio became sort of the glue. And so, then, the fight to save the studio was really as much about saving that which joins us together as opposed to the metaphor of something new coming in and breaking us apart. So, [the film really is about] community, connection, oneness – and that love is the glue. I think the whole dancing thing, too, gives it a great energy. I learned how to line dance. I had never tried that before, and it was great fun. I think you could speak to anybody who participated, and it was hard not to laugh while doing it. I’m very proud and pleased to be part of the movie.
“Also, as a parent,” Roma continues, “I really love – and always have loved – to be in things that I’m comfortable to sit down and watch together as a family, and to not feel in any way compromised as a family because of content and so on. I don’t want to have to have my finger hovering over the channel changer just in case. So, this [film] is completely family appropriate. That’s something I always like to do.”
It’s at this point in the conversation I ask her what she feels is the ongoing legacy of Touched By An Angel - particularly in the context of viewers who may only be just discovering the show through the wonders of reruns and syndication.
“I think that the reminder of spirit – and spirit presence in our lives – was central [to the show],” says Roma. “And it ties back into what we were discussing earlier, which is that feeling of connectedness. I think the show touched that in people. I think it reminded people that God is ever present, and we always have a choice to make. And, it reminded us to reach for the higher road. There was always that beautiful moment in each episode where as the angel, I would be right there at the crossroads. Usually, the drama was set up each week that the person being helped was at some crises or other and had a choice to make. And, I think one of the healthiest aspects of the show was that I didn’t make the choice for them – I just showed them the better option. The choice was always up to the individual, in such as it is, too, in our own lives. We had so many letters from teachers, and parents and people in positions of influence where they would usually stop the episode at that point and ask for feedback from their classrooms – you know, what should the person do, what will the person do. Our writers were always so good at pulling from very pertinent, current situations in people’s lives of all the things that we all deal with all the time within family and death, adolescence, addiction and so on. And so there’s always a very relatable – and timeless – kind of quality to it.
“We were beamed all around the earth in many languages,” Roma continues, “and it’s a universal response by people who were touched by it. It really moved them – it, like, entered their heartspace. I think that will just resonate. And while you could tune in in another decade and the clothing may start to look outdated,” she laughs, “those themes will never get outdated because they’re still very human experiences, and they just keep surfacing from generation to generation. We’re all on the same journey, and we’re all just figuring it out. God is ever present, and those choices to be the best we can be are always there for each of us to make. And because I am a person of faith, it was such an enormous privilege for me to be the messenger.”
After hearing this, it’s hard not to feel as if I’ve been listening to Monica.
Ironic, then, that a few weeks later, when I had the opportunity to speak with her husband, Mark Burnett, he confirmed for me this very fact as we joked Roma’s commencement speech for the Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management seemed like one of those beautiful closing monologues from a Touched By an Angel episode – to which he had to follow with his own speech.
“She’s a tough act to follow – imagine following Roma? It’s hard because I’m much more rough around the edges," Mark says with a laugh. "But you know what the thing is? She is Monica. It’s like living with Monica. Roma sets this really high standard in our house – with the kids, the charity, the service. And she truly believes in the value of the heart and soul. That’s just very Roma.”
And that, one might say, is her legacy.
All on her own.
Roma’s PTR Quicktakes …
I’m most comfortable when I’m … with my family.
The best part of my day is when … I wake up.
Last book I read/listened to was … Eckhart Tolle’s The New Earth
The oldest thing in my closet is … and I keep it because … my Ugg Boots because they’re so comfortable.
The best piece of advice ever given to me was … and he or she said … my father said no matter where you go in the world, it’s the same moon in the sky.
The last time I laughed so hard I cried was when … we had a monk to dinner, and he sang the grace. My kids thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.
I’m most inspired when I’m … in meditation.
At this point in my life, I feel my greatest accomplishment is … my happy family.
After 9 years of Touched By An Angel the most important thing Monica taught me was … to listen with your heart.
If it came down to sailing the seas with Captain Jack Sparrow, Will Turner or an un-cursed Davy Jones, I’d sail the seas with … I get sea sick.
I want to extend a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious helping of thanks to Roma for squeezing me in between carpool runs and making herself so available to chat. It was truly a wonderful pleasure. PTR also extends our sincerest thanks to our fantastic friends at Hallmark Publicity. You can catch Roma in Come Dance at My Wedding Saturday, June 6th at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central). Check out HallmarkChannel.com for the entire scoop on the film.
And if you are missing Roma these days, or if one movie won’t be enough, you can try these remedies: keep an eye out for Touched By An Angel re-runs on Hallmark Channel; visit Roma's official Web site and join her official Facebook page (both run by the lovely Ms. Anna K, long time Webmaster of Roma's official site); subscribe to the Derry Air Blog – Roma’s own monthly contribution to IrishCentral.com; make sure you keep up with Roma's charitable work with Operation Smile and CVN.org; and watch us here at PTR as we go retro this summer and review selected episodes of two of our faves - Touched By An Angel (done by yours truly - gee, you knew that, right?) and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (tackled by editor-in-chief TVFan).