Drew Seely. Hallmark Channel

Roma Downey: A Late Blooming Athlete

Roma Downey plays a sports-loving mom with a family full of competition-crazed athletic types in the Hallmark Channel Original Movie “Keeping Up With The Randalls,” that has its premiere Saturday, July 16 (9 p.m. ET/PT, 8C).  But she admits that in real life, she probably has more in common with the not-so-athletic girl her character’s son brings home for a family weekend.  “She’s brought into this kind of jock-like family, and they’re all good at everything, and she’s a city girl,” says Roma.  “I certainly felt, in that situation, more in touch with her apprehension about being in the great outdoors.”

No wonder Roma can identify.  The Derry-born actress, with her ladylike manner and gentle voice that retains a soft Irish lilt, confesses that she herself is “a reluctant athlete.  I have, surprisingly, through my forties, grown into my athleticism.  Probably I would attribute that to my marriage and my choice of husband and his love of the outdoors.”

Roma, of course, is married to top television producer Mark Burnett, the man responsible for bringing viewers shows including “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” and “The Voice.”   

“When we were dating, he gave me a very, very large bag,” she recalls with a playfully ominous tone, “so I knew it wasn’t the earrings I had been hoping for.  And in the large bag was a wetsuit and all of the paraphernalia that would go along with scuba diving.  And I said, very casually and trying to disguise the rising panic that I was experiencing, that I did not know how to scuba dive.  I didn’t have a lot of interest in knowing how to scuba dive.  And he said, ‘Oh, but that brings us to my second gift, which is scuba diving lessons!'”

“What can I tell you?  I’m a certified scuba diver.  I’ve been swimming around the bottom of more oceans than I ever dreamed I would.”

Sitting in the living room of her home that overlooks the sparkling Pacific for an afternoon’s conversation, Roma adds, “We go hiking.  Here in Malibu we have some beautiful trails.  We also are into horseback riding, which is lovely.  I can’t profess to be a massively-experienced rider, but I ride.  And I’m probably, I think, in better shape than I’ve been in 25 years.  That’s not bad for a girl who just turned 50.”

She’s a vibrantly beautiful, age-defying 50.  Apparently all that movement and fresh air agrees with her. 
“Thank-you.  I feel great.  I feel like I’m in good shape.  I feel like I’m probably still keeping my weight down.  It’s a challenge, but I’m doing it,” she says. 

“When this movie came in we were laughing because I had recently increased my routine with my trainer and I thought, ‘It’s interesting how you can draw roles into yourself.’  Ten years ago I would have laughed and said, ‘Why did they ask me to be this sporty mom?  I’m clearly not that.’  But you know, even though I don’t have the sergeant major personality, I have great discipline.  We had lots of fun doing this.”

Kayla Ewell of “The Vampire Diaries” plays the beleaguered girlfriend, budding fashion designer Alicia, in the movie.  Thad Luckinbill (“The Young and the Restless”) plays Will, and TV legend Marion Ross stars as family matriarch Grandma Dorrie.

“It’s a great young cast—and in that I include Marion Ross, who is one of the youngest older actors I know,” Roma says.  “She has the most extraordinary energy, stamina, humor and heart.  She was so loving and gracious, and she was hopping in and out of our van with more energy than the 20-year-olds in the cast.  She was amazing.  She’s who I’d like to be when I grow up.”

Speaking of growing, and continuing to grow, Roma notes thoughtfully, “I think it’s important, maybe particularly as we get older, to keep expanding how we view ourselves so that we move out of limitation and into possibility.”

She’s talked about how Mark influenced her in that regard.  How has she influenced him? 
“He’s expanded my physical journey, and I believe his presence in my life has expanded his spiritual journey,” she responds. “And then, together, we overlap our emotional journey, through our love.”

Roma’s abiding interests led her to earn her master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica.  She graduated in 2009.  “It was great.  They all came—my daughter and my stepsons and my in-laws and Della Reese and her husband Franklin,” she says.  Reese, her “Touched by an Angel” costar, remains a best friend and mama figure.  “They came to Royce Hall at UCLA for my graduation.  It was very exciting, as I worked hard to get my master’s, and I had a great sense of accomplishment.”

Beyond enjoying her role, the story and her cast mates, Roma was happy to take on “Keeping Up With The Randalls” because shooting took place close to home—a crucial matter to the actress whose daughter, Reilly, from her earlier marriage is now 14 years old.  Mark’s sons are 17 and 13.  “Yes, three teenagers, God help me,” she says with a laugh.  “No, they’re good kids and thank God everybody’s well…But you certainly have the awareness that time is moving so quickly now.  In the blink of an eye, you know the kids are growing up so fast, and with that in mind, I find myself reluctant to consider work opportunities that take me far away for a great period of time.”

The journey of life so far has been an amazingly rich one for Roma, whose childhood, in humble surroundings in embattled Northern Ireland of the 1970s, was far different from that of her own offspring.  “I don’t even know if I could have imagined back then, growing up in The Troubles, where I’d be now,” she observes.  “I had a little room at the back of a house.  It rained, at least in memory—it rained throughout my entire childhood.”  Now a U.S. citizen with a long list of credits and awards to her name, Roma looks out at the loveliness of the seaside landscape near her home, and says, “I’m living here in this country with all the blessings that my life has given to me, and I’m just so grateful, really.”
“Keeping Up With The Randalls” Premieres Saturday, July 16 (9 p.m. ET/PT, 8C).

Sneak Peek at "Three Weeks, Three Kids" On Hallmark Channel May 7

“Three Weeks, Three Kids,” a Hallmark Channel Original Movie World Premiere Saturday, May 7 (9p.m. ET/PT, 8C), is part of Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Mother’s Day” celebration.
Anna Chlumsky (right, “Veep,” “My Girl”) stars as Jennifer Mills who lives her life carefree, without commitments—unlike her older sister, Mandy (Chelah Horsdal, left, “Debbie Macomber’s Call Me Mrs. Miracle”), who married young and settled into family life.  But their mother, Kathryn (Susan Hogan, center, “Battlestar Galactica”), sees Jennifer’s wild ways as a fear of settling down and hatches a secret plan to take her from playful to parent in just three weeks. 

Peter Facinelli: Scripting His Wife’s True Love

Photo: Courtesy of The Hallmark Channel
Peter Facinelli’s acting career was just beginning to catch fire when he was inspired to write his first script back in 2003.  It stemmed from a traumatic Easter spent dressed up in a bunny outfit to entertain his two young daughters with wife Jennie Garth.  “I hopped around the yard like crazy while the girls looked out the window of our house for eggs,” he recalls.  “And I was just in hell.  It was hot, I was sweaty, it totally sucked.  And I thought, I wonder what the guy who has to be in that Barney suit all day feels like?”
So he sat down to write a story about a children’s TV show actor in a rabbit outfit who hates kids and hates his job.  It came together as a love story, of all things.  Facinelli showed the script to friends, who gave him notes that helped him sharpen and improve it.  And finally, he and co-writer Charles Thomas Daniels sold what would become the Hallmark Channel Original Movie World Premiere “Accidentally in Love” that has its debut on Saturday, February 12 (9 p.m. ET/PT, 8C).
It wasn’t necessarily supposed to turn out like this for Facinelli, who not only hasn’t quit his day job but finds his acting career exploding.  He’s currently shooting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana the final two films in the blockbuster “Twilight” feature film franchise, in which he stars as the vampire Dr. Carlisle Cullen.  He’s also flying high as the smug Dr. Fitch Cooper on the hit comedy “Nurse Jackie.”
Having this sort of performing resume’ of late certainly didn’t hurt Facinelli to sell “Accidentally in Love.”  Neither did the fact he’s married to “Beverly Hills, 90210” alumnus Garth, with whom he celebrates a 10th wedding anniversary on Jan. 20 (or a little more than three weeks before the movie’s premiere).
But Facinelli, who bears a somewhat striking resemblance to the young Tom Cruise, didn’t really set out to craft a TV-movie – or a romantic in which his wife would play the love interest alongside an actor other than him.  That, however, is how it turned out.
“And the truth is that I’m thrilled at how everything went down with ‘Accidentally in Love’,” Facinelli stresses.  “The thought I had while I was writing and endlessly retooling the screenplay was that it would eventually be done as a feature.  But then I couldn’t get it off the ground, so I put it back in a drawer for a couple of years, took it out again, revised it some more and finally gave it to a director friend of mine, David Burton Morris.”
Morris loved the script and took it to Hallmark, which had more notes and suggestions.
“And then we made the thing, with Morris directing,” Facinelli recalls.  “It was the first thing I’d written that actually got produced, and it was just surreal to watch it all come to fruition out of an idea that just happened to pop into my head.”
“Accidentally in Love” stars Garth as Annie, a struggling waitress, widow and single mom to an adorable little girl named Taylor (Dannika Northcott) who is tragically losing her eyesight due to a degenerative condition.  One day, Annie gets into a car accident with Eddie (Ethan Erickson), who it turns out is the actor inside the bunny suit as the beloved children’s TV icon Mulligan the Rabbit.
Just like Facinelli on that fateful Easter Sunday, Eddie badly wants out of the bunny world to tackle more substantial adult work.  But now Taylor has melted his heart, and her mom ain’t so bad, either.  Things get a little bit tangled up, but we’re still pretty sure that love will win out in the end – particularly considering how Valentine’s Day falls just two days later.  Laughs are also on the menu via the supporting performances of the great Marilu Henner (“Taxi”) and comedy legend Fred Willard.
But why is Ethan Erickson standing there kissing Facinelli’s wife in the climactic scene of “Accidentally in Love,” while her real-life husband – who scripted the thing – is forced to stand on the sidelines and watch?
“There’s a logical reason for that, I promise,” Facinelli maintains. “I mean, I originally wrote this script for maybe me and my wife to play it.  But then I got a little busy.  I was doing press on (the 2010 ‘Twilight’ saga) ‘Eclipse’ at the time it was shooting, and I had no time to act in the film.  Ethan wound up doing a great job, though.”
That wasn’t the only reason for Facinelli’s deciding to take a pass on playing opposite his beloved in a love story.
“I also worried that this would become the Jennie Garth-Peter Facinelli movie instead of a film with two characters,” he adds.   “Our playing together could have detracted from the believability of the story and become a distraction.  So I took a step back and let my wife kiss someone else.”
 And how did that feel?
“You know, I was an artist looking at actors, nothing more,” Facinelli claims.  “I wanted the performer who was best for the role and someone my wife would be happy to work with.  She actually enjoyed being able to do it with somebody else and actually told me, ‘Honey, I don’t think you’re really right for it.’  And I’m like, ‘But I wrote it!’ Maybe she was just tired of kissing me and figured it was time to kiss someone else.”
But that wasn’t how Garth was behaving on the day when she’d be shooting the big kissing scene in “Accidentally in Love.”   She called Facinelli up and told him she didn’t think she could go through with it.”
“And I’m like, ‘But you have to kiss him’,” Facinelli remembers imploring.  “I’m fighting with my wife to convince her she’s got to kiss this guy and make it look real, right? So then later she calls me back and says, ‘OK, we did it in rehearsals and its working.’   I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, how well is it working?’
The moral of that story: Be careful what you write, particularly if your wife is an actor.  Yet rather than being discouraged by the trauma of watching his wife making out on camera, Facinelli has decided he likes this writing thing a lot.  He’s penned a couple of other scripts, including one that’s sprouted into the indie feature “Loosies” in which he also executive produces and stars alongside Michael Madsen and Joe Pantoliano of “The Sopranos” fame.  It’s due for release in 2011.
This isn’t to say that Facinelli has any plans to bag his acting career in favor of his scribe life anytime soon.
“I love writing because it opens up so many opportunities and doors,” he says.  “You’re no longer the guy going in begging for a job; you’re the guy creating jobs for other people.  As an actor, you’re just a cog in a wheel who goes in and says other people’s lines.  When you write it and produce it, you’re able to see the project all the way through.”
And sometimes, you’re even able to create a kiss-and-tell story for your wife.
“Accidentally In Love” premieres Saturday, February 12 (9p.m. ET/PT, 8C).