Hollywood star Roma Downey on her love for Derry and her latest project, Ben-Hur

Roma Downey with her good friend, Bishop Edward Daly.  Photo: Courtesy of Roma Downey
Roma Downey with her good friend, Bishop Edward Daly. Photo: Courtesy of Roma Downey

Since Roma Downey left her home on Beechwood Avenue , the Hollywood star has come a long way.

She has recently received her very own star on Hollywood Boulevard and her latest $100 million co-production (with husband and best friend, Mark Burnett) is ‘Ben-Hur’.

“I dedicated my star on Hollywood Boulevard to the people of Derry. It’s important to have a dream for all those young people in Derry, to encourage them to follow their dream if you work hard and get the breaks,” Roma told the ‘Journal’. “I love Derry, love its people and I love to get home, at least once a year.

“I’m many years gone since I left Thornhill and went to Belfast, then to Brighton and London and New York and then Los Angeles. They say you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl!”

As Roma’s star was unveiled in Hollywood, her family and friends back home in Derry were able to watch thanks to live streaming allowing them to see it all as it happened.

“I wish my mum and dad were around to be part of this, and see this, but I thank God for my faith and that they are around me in spirit,” said Roma.

This is ‘Ben-Hur’, fresh and updated, and for a whole new generation

Roma Downey

Roma paid tribute to her good friend, the late Bishop of Derry, Dr. Edward Daly, who, she said, had keenly followed her career. She was deeply saddened at his recent death.

“He had been a good friend to my family and to me, for many years. I have known him since I was a little girl in the Feis and the variety shows at St. Columb’s Hall. I visited him every time I came back and would try to go and see him and I saw him as recently as this past April,” she recalled.

“I had a dinner with family and friends in the City Hotel. Bishop Daly came and joined us there and led us in prayer. He has always been very supportive and encouraging. He had done so much for Derry and for peace and he was such a diginified and elegant and gracious person. He will be sadly missed.

“It’s a great loss and a sad loss for all of us. Look at the outpouring of love - it shows you how many people he affected.”

The former Thornhill College pupil said Bishop Daly was excited to hear about ‘Ben-Hur’ which she described as a re-imagining of the 1959 classic, featuring Charlton Heston; a tale of passion and betrayal set during the life of Jesus.

Roma says it was the themes in the movie that interested her.

“There is enough fear and division, chaos and confusion in the world that we are living in, with so much random violence out there, and certainly all that we went through in our own province and our city over the years, and that we finally figured it out.” she said. “Every time I can come to Derry, I walk across the Peace Bridge. I just found it so encouraging there is tangible evidence of outreach and how communnity can come together, and how the world can look to our nation to see how we built bridges, literally and metaphorically, and I’m interested in those themes showing up in my work.

“Our production company is called LightWorkers Media, and we’re interested in films that bring hope and shine some light in the darkness. I’m just thrilled I get to do what I get to do.

“Ben-Hur is a story about revenge but, ultimately, it’s a story about forgiveness and reconciliation. I certainly hope the people of Derry will come out and support this movie and bring their families and create a memory.

“I remember being a young girl watching it in Beechwood Avenue, and I am sure it came on every Easter and it became an annual event.”

On the next chapter of her career, on the other side of the camera, Roma said: “Being executive producer on ‘Ben-Hur’, what’s really exciting is, here I am in my fifties and having a whole new second chapter of my career.

“It’s incredibly exciting to come back on this side of the camera, and bringing these great stories to the screen.

“I’m really interested in adding value to cinema and television. I think, as producers, as film makers, we have a responsibility to create content that’s uplifting.”

Roma said she was thrilled to be able to work with her husband, Mark, on the blockbuster. She has worked alongside her husband on “The Bible,” “The Dovekeepers,” “Son of God” and “A.D. – The Bible Continues.

“We have a good laugh, and it’s important you enjoy what we do. He’s my best friend and we both have a star! I don’t know that many husbands and wives that have ‘his and her’ stars,” she said.

‘Ben-Hur’, which is released in Ireland on September 9, pulls together two big Hollywood studios - MGM and Paramount Pictures - and features “a great cast led by Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston,” said Roma.

“There are two big set pieces in the movies, a naval battle scene, which is breathtaking, and the famous chariot race, which is absolutely extraordinary.

“For a new audience, it’s really exciting. It’s a big blockbuster movie, yet it has these tender stories woven throughout it.

“Morgan Freeman must have the most famous voice on the planet and it was just such a treat to work with him.”

Roma hopes the movie will attract new fans.

“Sixty years is a long time. The world has changed in that time and cinema has changed in that time.

“I think there are many people under the age of 40 that, perhaps, have never see that version of ‘Ben-Hur’ and have never even heard of it.

“This is ‘Ben-Hur’, fresh and updated, and for a whole new generation,” said Roma.