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‘Survivor’ star Mark Burnett takes on ‘The Bible’ with his wife

Show will make History with the ‘wow’ effects of drama and flair

In a sea of televised swill, reality show honcho Mark Burnett ("Survivor") is about to part the waters. With a little help from his own personal "angel," his wife, "Touched by an Angel" star Roma Downey.

Beginning March 3 at 8 p.m. and running for two hours every Sunday through Easter on History (formerly The History Channel), "The Bible" is reviving The Greatest Story Ever Told, but with more flair than your typical donkeys-and-sandals epic.

"There's a calling involved in making this," Mr. Burnett declared during a joint interview with Miss Downey in Washington to promote the series. "The Bible is God's truth. This series is treating the Word of God as truth, in a straight line."

The series was shot mostly on location in Ouarzazate, a provincial capital in south-central Morocco that also hosted 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia" and 2005's "Kingdom of Heaven," among others. There were plenty of historic sites -- and desert places -- conducive to taping, the couple said.

Mr. Burnett's first joint project with his wife, "The Bible" "placed the two of us shoulder-to-shoulder," Mr. Burnett said.

"We each bring different strengths to this," said Miss Downey.

"We used each other," she said, "as sounding boards" during the production process, which spanned several years and culminated in five months of shooting during the spring and early summer of 2012, going from chilling cold to blazing heat.

Two of the notable cast members are Diogo Morgado, an actor and model famous for roles in numerous soap operas in his native Portugal, and Miss Downey, who portrays Mary, the mother of Jesus, as an adult who watches her son -- and God's -- nailed to a Roman cross.

Miss Downey said Mr. Morgado gives "a remarkable, strong performance" as Jesus. Taking on the role of Mary wouldn't have been possible for her "before I had children," said the mother of three children ages 19, 16 and 15. Being a parent, she said, gave her the empathy and understanding necessary for the role.

A native of Derry, Northern Ireland, Miss Downey gained notice for playing the role of Jacqueline Kennedy in 1991's "A Woman Named Jackie" shortly after moving to New York following acting studies in London.

Miss Downey's theatrical and television background helped her husband cope with the difference between producing a "reality" television show with everyday people and "working with the actors" on "The Bible," Mr. Burnett said. "Here, my lack of experience would have been a challenge but for Roma."

In turn, Miss Downey credits her husband for help in working on so lengthy a project in less-than-air-conditioned splendor. She said it was also a challenge working with three sets of directors on different elements of a story that sweeps from the dawn of history to the apostle John's vision of Christ's return.

Miss Downey acknowledges that while "some poetic license" was taken in the script -- based in part on the New International Version of the Bible -- it is faithful to the Scripture's theme. "We strove for accuracy," she said.

That doesn't mean History, a cable network owned by the A&E Networks conglomerate, is going into the preaching business, however.

"History has a legacy of delving into important subjects to which all people are connected," Nancy Dubuc, president of entertainment and media for A&E, said in a statement. "There's no question the Bible is one of the world's most significant and most popular books, which holds within it the incredible and powerful stories that truly changed the course of history and religion the world about."

To Mr. Burnett, that means the network "is acknowledging it happens to be the most important book in the world. In the end, [the series is] honoring the book."

Advance praise for the series from Christian leaders has been building.

"It's the best thing I've ever seen," the Rev. Rick Warren raved last month It was a rare product plug by the evangelical megachurch pastor, after declaiming about religious liberty at Georgetown University.

Others lauding the film include Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, along with websites spanning a range of Protestant and Catholic viewpoints.

Asked whether there was any resistance in Hollywood toward the production, Mr. Burnett cited this year's Grammy Awards, in which participants such as Carrie Underwood, LL Cool J, Jay-Z and Diddy "first thanked God" in their comments.

"People who are extremely cool are also people of faith," Mr. Burnett said.

During taping, Miss Downey said, "We had the source book available. The actors would sit around and read Scripture."

She added, "While not all the actors were believers, they all believed in the project. Who wouldn't be touched by the story of Jesus?"

What the couple are hoping for is that this series will be "a legacy project," viewed decades after "Survivor" is a memory.

The two are especially pleased with the special effects: From the parting of the Red Sea to the post-resurrected nail-pierced hand of Jesus, the couple worked to ensure Miss Downey's teenagers -- turned off by the decades-old effects of earlier biblical epics -- would sense the realism.

"After they saw it, they said, 'Wow, that's so cool,'" Miss Downey said with a smile.

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