Roma Downey — Touching Interview With An Angel

Circa 2004

For almost a decade, families across America gathered to watch angels Tess, Monica and Andrew help their human assignments face crossroads in their lives on PAX TV’s Touched By An Angel. Although the cameras have stopped rolling and the crew has long since moved on, one of the actors refused to hang up her wings and has made the seamless transition from on-camera to real-life angel. Her work is changing the lives of children, their families and their communities in many of the world’s poorest countries. In Vietnam she has personally shared in the joy of bringing smiles to the faces of 127 children.

Born and raised in Derry, Northern Ireland, Roma Downey is the youngest of six children; her father was a teacher and her mother a homemaker. Downey earned her bachelor’s degree at Brighton Art College in England before attending the London Drama Studio where she starred in many classic productions. She has toured the United States with Dublin’s famous Abbey Players in a production of The Playboy of the Western World, and has starred in numerous on- and off-Broadway productions. Best known for her Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated role as Monica on Touched By An Angel, Downey was first noticed for her portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in the mini-series A Woman Named Jackie and recently hosted PAX TV’s signature series, It’s a Miracle.

Roma Downey is much more than an actor, and her gifts extend well beyond the stage. Her first children’s book, Love Is a Family, was published in the fall of 2001 and her debut recording, Healing Angel, a spoken-word and Celtic music album, was released in 2002. She is an artist and a designer, a doting mother and compassionate humanitarian. ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper recently spoke to Roma Downey about her time as an angel, her passionate work with Operation Smile and the exciting projects that line the horizon.

Chet Cooper: You are most recognized for playing Monica on Touched By An Angel. How did you come across the role and what did you first think of the character?

Roma Downey: It was pilot season of ‘94, and I was reading through endless junk scripts that were being sent my way. Typically the roles were to play his wife or his girlfriend—leading roles for women were few and far between. Suddenly a very unusual script turned up. “Now this is curious,” I remember thinking. Because I’m a person of faith, the spiritual aspects got my attention. Also, the actress in me was delighted to read a show that had not one but two strong female roles—female angels. I was to audition for Monica, and I very much liked Della Reese, who of course ended up playing Tess.

CC: Were they looking for a foreign actor for the role?

RD: The role was written American, and I remember when I read it they said, “But Roma, you’re from overseas, right?” I thought, “Oh, here we go again. I’ll read it Irish and that’s all they’ll hear. They’ll forget that I can do an American accent, and I’ll become the interesting alternative foreign choice for the casting of an American girl.” Suddenly the dialogue came off the page and came to life in a way that really lent itself to the lyricism of the brogue. It just worked, it really clicked. I knew the role was going to be mine, and sure enough they made an offer.

CC: But the show wasn’t an instant success.

RD: We were the laughingstock of that first season. When we premiered, TV Guide labeled us as the “iffiest new show of the season,” saying that chances were by the time you read their little blurb we would be cancelled. It was with great relish several years later that I received a TV Guide award for favorite actress on television.

CC: When they presented you with the award, was there any mention of the “iffy” comment?

RD: (laughs) I quoted it to them during my acceptance speech. How glad I was they were wrong! The show found a following from the middle of the country. While a lot of the more popular hits start on the coasts, in New York or L.A., I think you can trace our success to the Midwest and the South, the small towns and families. We had a very loyal following for many, many years.

CC: At what point did you first learn about Operation Smile?

RD: The first season of Touched By an Angel, in 1994- 1995, we were approached by Dr. Bill Magee to build an episode with the organization as the central theme. That was my first introduction to the work they were doing. Last year, when our series ended after nine seasons, they approached me to ask if I would join their board of governors and consider the possibility of becoming a national spokesperson and going on some missions with them.

Having played an angel for so long, you can imagine that I’ve been asked to endorse any number of causes over the years. Obviously I have to limit my participation with any charity, so I decided to really concentrate on my love of children. Suddenly with free time on my hands, I jumped at the invitation to join them and participate more actively. At the end of last summer, I found myself in Vung Tau, which is in the south of Vietnam, actively participating in a hospital and helping to change the lives of, I think, 127 children on that mission. Next to the birth of my own child, it was the most moving experience of my life. I had forgotten that it’s in giving that you truly receive. I went there thinking I was doing them a favor, but truth be told, I came back feeling richer and fuller.

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CC: What prompted you to choose that particular location?

RD: I think Operation Smile is in more than 22 countries, mostly third world. It just happened that my schedule opened up at the time they were heading to Vietnam.

CC: Do the doctors work with local medical teams in the countries they visit?

RD: Operation Smile invites the local medical teams to try to learn the skills required. Their philosophy is that if you give a man a fish he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish he’ll eat for his lifetime. They’re really trying to show these local doctors how to…

CC: Fish?

RD: (laughs) Perform the operation.

CC: What medical procedures do they offer on their missions?

RD: It’s primarily the reparation of cleft lips and cleft palates. Typically both operations aren’t done at once because it’s an awful lot for the child to deal with. In Vung Tau, where I worked, they’ve already planned a return trip to the same location. For example, if a child requires both operations but just received one last summer, chances are when we go back the following summer that child will be on the list for the second one. I think the hardest part of the mission for me was that we only had provisions and time for about 130 children, but more than 400 turned up.

CC: That must have been difficult.

RD: The reading of the list was just devastating. For every joyful scream there was a sob of heartbreak. Having a daughter myself, I was able to identify with these ABILITY 39 moms, because you would do anything to help your child live a normal life. What I had failed to realize was [the full extent of] what they’ve been going through. [The children] are not just dealing with visual deformities. If you don’t have a palate, you can’t eat properly; therefore, many of these babies are malnourished. Without a palate, you also can’t speak correctly, so there’s an assumption in many of these cultures that these children are mentally retarded, when in fact they’re not at all.

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I saw how the operation affects the child, as well as the child’s family and often the village. In an interesting way, the operation becomes almost a metaphor for hope and optimism. A little child can have a new face with a smile restored, and suddenly his mother’s smile is restored and his father’s and the outer family’s…and they bring him back to the village and the village is delighted and they think it’s a good omen. The ripples and effects of this are fantastic.

CC: The influence of their work extends far beyond the individual. What was your role while you were there?

RD: The majority of the children whom we had to turn down were sent home simply because we didn’t have the resources to help. That’s where I come in. I was making a documentary film to try and raise funds for the organization. I was so impressed by the doctors, particularly by the surgeons, and the intricacy and the beauty of the work that they do in giving each operation their absolute best. They do their finest stitching in trying to restore these beautiful little smiles and the children’s dignity. While I can’t do that, it’s not my skill, I believe that we can each be part of the team. It requires working together and standing shoulder to shoulder.

CC: We can all contribute.

RD: I’m happy to use my celebrity to draw attention to this. I also know how to ask people for money and I have no shame about doing that. I’ve seen up close and personal how deeply this organization is changing lives. If you have donated, these children may never know your name, but they will never forget your kindness.

CC: Has the documentary been produced yet?

RD: Yes. We worked on it throughout the course of the year and it just hit the airwaves with fantastic feedback. We’ve had to beg, borrow and steal airtime. We’re basically asking people to contribute in any way they can, but we’ve been overwhelmed by the numbers of people who were calling up and not wanting to just make a minimum donation, but actually wanting to buy smiles. A smile costs about $240.

CC: Who produced the documentary? You are dating somebody qualified to do that, right?

RD: (laughs) Yeah, but he (Mark Burnett) had nothing to do with it. He’s way too busy. But he did feature Operation Smile on his show, The Apprentice. Jessica Simpson is the youth ambassador for Operation Smile, and an episode of The Apprentice featured a team managing a charity concert she put on. Donald Trump came on stage and pledged a donation.

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CC: I saw that episode. He pledged $25,000. Craig Kilborn just donated money as well, right?

RD: Yes, he did. I just did his show, The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn. Typically this is not the material that they want for nighttime entertainment. When I was on the phone with him during the pre-interview I could hear the silence on the other end. I knew they were thinking, “Well, gosh, this isn’t a barrel of laughs.” The deal was that he would mention Operation Smile on the front. Then [the night of the show] we went to commercial break and he hadn’t mentioned it, and I just said to him, “You better bring this up!” (laughs) He’s such a nice guy and he gave me that look, and I said, “I mean it Craig, I will not leave. I’m going to stay in this chair. I don’t care if your next guest comes on, I’m going to stay. You mention Operation Smile!” (laughs)

CC: That’s great…and apparently your technique worked! (laughs)

RD: Not only that, but he gave me a hundred bucks.

CC: For you to leave?

RD: (laughs) After we finished taping, I went outside and met up with Dr. Magee who had gone to the studio with me, and I handed the hundred bucks right over.

CC: At $240 a smile, that’s…

RD: It’s almost half a smile.

CC: You mentioned having a daughter. How has your work with Operation Smile affected her?

RD: I have an eight-year-old, Reilly. She has been very active in her own little world. Every lemonade stand we have here in Malibu benefits Operation Smile. We live on a very nice street where suddenly you’re getting five dollars for a glass of lemonade because it’s for charity. She has raised quite a bit of money that way. This past May she made her first holy communion. A lot of my family had come over for the event, and they brought with them congratulations cards for her with money in them; it is tradition in Ireland that you’re given money for your first communion. Without being asked she put all the money together, in the delighted way that eight-year-olds do, and then she halved it and handed half to me. She said, “Mommy, how many smiles will this buy?”

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CC: She certainly has a sense of community and an entrepreneurial spirit.

RD: Yes she does, I’m really trying to encourage her already very loving heart. And I appreciate that she also has a business head. To be honest, I really like the fact she didn’t hand over all of her first communion money. I think it showed a little wisdom that she kept some of it for herself. She’s the love of my life.

CC: Are you thinking of having more children?

RD: I’m the youngest of six children; both of my sisters are housewives and they each have four kids.

CC: Four each? So you’re saying you need three more?

RD: (laughs) I had Reilly in my early thirties. For the longest time, when I went home I would run into girls I’d gone to school with who had three, four, five, six kids! Irish Catholic tradition. They’d be pushing strollers down Main Street with children hanging off them. At that time I’d been working primarily in theater, Broadway and off-Broadway, and I had made news back home because of it. I’d run into them and they’d say, “Oh, Roma, isn’t this great? You’re havin’ a great career and you’re on Broadway, but you have no children yet!” As if I wasn’t a real woman. After my daughter was born, I remember dressing her up, putting a little pink bonnet on her and proudly pushing her up Main Street in a stroller and running into these same women, who said, “Oh, so this is your little girl, is it? And you just have the one?” It made me laugh. Yeah, yeah, I just have the one. I think I’m probably finished. (laughs)

CC: Do you have plans for her to accompany you on a mission?

RD: I think I’d like her to be just a little bit older, because it’s very intense. I’d rather she be a little bit more mature and better prepared to deal with the…

CC: The reality?

RD: The reality. A photograph is one thing, but being right there you see how distressed everybody can be.

CC: But following the distress comes the joy.

RD: The worry and concern of a mother who is handing her child over to foreigners is gripping. Then they disappear with the child into the [operating room]. Afterward I was given the fantastic job of being the one to hand the baby back to the mother. To be so close in that moment, to see this mother gaze on her child’s face that is now whole for the first time—it was an amazing experience.

The joy and the relief were deeply moving. We were all in scrubs and hugging. The mother had no idea that I’m an actress or that I’m not a doctor; I was just the person giving her back her child. I was the hero at the moment. There was no language needed. There are some moments that transcend language.

CC: Smiles also have a way of transcending language.

RD: Yes, smiles instigate a longing that we all have. We all appreciate the laughter and the smiles of our children. A smile knows no nationality, no skin color, no religion. Every child deserves one.

CC: Are surgeries performed on adults as well?

RD: Typically our patients are young children. However, we had a man who was in his late thirties, early forties. For a number of years he had declined his place on the list because a baby was being turned away. He was so compassionate and giving that he kept saying, “Take this baby instead of me.” They finally said, “Your place is nonnegotiable. You have to go in this time. No baby gets your place.” They practically made him go in, and when he came through from the surgery, he asked for a mirror. The irony wasn’t lost on anybody, that for forty-some years he’d had this cleft lip, and then in forty-odd minutes his life was changed. He’d never been able to kiss his wife or his children. As tears of gratitude and relief rolled down his face, there was a moment of silence in the recovery room, and everybody was deeply moved for him.

CC: Does the team return to the same location year after year?

RD: Usually they do, so there’s a little hope left for the people [we couldn’t accommodate]. If we didn’t get to you this year, you might move up the list for next year.

CC: Outside of your work with Operation Smile, how are you expressing your creative energies now that you’ve moved on from Touched By An Angel?

RD: I’m about to launch a beautiful line of jewelry that I’ve been working on for the past year. It’s kind of Celtic-meets-inspirational. I’ve really dipped into some of the Celtic folklore and mythology, emphasizing the richness of my country’s history and how it’s attached to the artistry of those times. Along a similar theme, I have a line of greeting cards. I’m hoping that by year’s end I will be on a very well-known national greeting card.

CC: (laughs) Who do you know that starts with an H?

RD: It might just possibly begin with an H. (laughs) I’m very excited. This is different for me, but I have an art school background.

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CC: Really?

RD: Before I decided to become an actress I had aspirations to be a painter. It’s been fun for me to delve into the more artistically creative side of myself. In this transitional period, it’s important I gain focus before I return to acting full-time, assuming I choose to do that. I was kind of burnt-out after so many years on the show. I also decided that if I were to return to another TV series there needed to be some distance from the persona. I think it’s a lot to expect fans of your show to just automatically switch off and see you as something else.

CC: Which would probably mean not playing an angel in the near future?

RD: (laughs) My preference would be to do a non-angel role. I’ve done that for so long, and I’ve been so close to that character. When you play a particular character for so many years—for me it was about 250 episodes—people start thinking of you as that character. It’s hard for them to remember that you’re actually an actress playing a role.

CC: Or a human.

RD: Or a human. Absolutely. But it was a fantastic show and experience. We became such family, and we all loved being a part of what the show had the potential to do, which was to touch people’s lives in a very positive way.

CC: What prompted your move from Utah to Malibu?

RD: I had an extraordinary experience. I’d been reading a pictorial essay in a magazine and it showed the interior of a beach home of an actor friend of mine. I just loved the look and feel of his home. I pulled out the pages from the magazine and put them in an envelope and on a post-it I wrote with all the confidence I could muster, “One day I shall have a Malibu beach house.” I sealed the envelope and put it in the back of the drawer and promptly forgot about it. I hasten to add I’m not the kind of person to have envelopes in drawers all over my house.

Two or three years later I was visiting Malibu contemplating buying a house. I was a single parent and I had some reluctance. I went back to Salt Lake, having viewed the house that afternoon, and I was on the phone with my business manager, who said, “Well, if you are interested in buying, you might need to make an offer because there’s another interested party. You don’t have a lot of time to think about it.” I said, as I normally would, “I’m going to pray about it, and I’m going to sleep on it, and I’ll let you know in the morning.”

We moved on to the other business of the call, and a brief time later I needed to write something down. I opened the drawer of my desk and it stuck. I gave the drawer a strong pull and it flung open, ricocheting the envelope from the back of the drawer. I looked at this mysterious envelope, having forgotten all about it. I cradled the phone in the nook of my neck as I opened this envelope, and lo and behold I pulled out the pictures and the little post-it that said, “One day I shall have a Malibu beach house.” I told him, “Buy the house!” He said “What? I thought you were going to pray about it?” I said, “I did and I just got my answer.”

CC: And the rest is history.

RD: This was about halfway through the show’s run, and I purchased it as a holiday home or weekend retreat for my daughter and myself. When the series ended we moved down here to the beach. We’re just loving it, but what’s not to like living on the beach?

CC: And you had another envelope in there that said, “Someday I’ll interview with Chet Cooper, editor-in chief of ABILITY Magazine?”

RD: (laughs) Since then, of course, I have envelopes everywhere. All sorts of pictures. All sorts of things in them.

CC: Are there any other organizations you’re working with?

RD: I worked for a long time with Save the Children [a child-assistance organization dedicated to making a lasting positive change to the lives of children in need], and I also support a few Irish organizations.

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CC: Which organizations?

RD: One is the American Ireland Fund, which helps Americans of Irish descent or Irish people who have done well in this country give back to the old country. A lot of the money has gone to rebuild Northern Ireland, which is near and dear to my heart because that’s where I’m from. Another group doing wonderful work is Project Children. It was set up in New York to bring children from Northern Ireland over to the states. They bring a dozen Catholic and a dozen Protestant children, and they put them to work together painting a house or on a similar project. I think a lot of Americans don’t realize that as the war escalated in the North, our communities became very segregated. You wonder what hope a community can have when there’s such division, because that division breeds suspicion and hatred. This little organization was set up to bring the two sides together to show how much alike we really are, to highlight our similarities away from that environment.

CC: It’s always nice to see celebrities using their status to do good work.

RD: I’ve always found the idea of celebrity a little bit embarrassing. I’m really a very reluctant celebrity. Occasionally it gets you a good seat in a restaurant, but other than that it’s kind of funny really, and this country seems to be so obsessed with us. “Right this way,” they say. I understand when people who have done extraordinary things are famous, but particularly in my profession, we’re just people who pretend to be other people. It’s not brain surgery. (laughs) But when it comes to something like this, I put all that aside and say, “You know what? If my celebrity can draw awareness to this organization and that translates into the possibility for a child to have his or her smile restored, then bring it on.”

For more information on Operation Smile, visit

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