IN THEIR THREE BEDROOM BRICK ROW house in the working-class area of Deny in Northern Ireland, actress Roma Downey's family kept a plaster bust of John F. Kennedy right next to a statue of Jesus. "You've got to remember that JFK was the first Irish-Catholic President of this country," says Downey, 28, in a delicate brogue. "We claimed him as our own—that's our boy!"

Now it's Downey's time to be proud. Over three nights, Oct. 13—15, she's playing none other than Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis in NBC's six-hour miniseries A Woman Named Jackie, based on C. David Heymann's gossipy, best-selling 1989 bio of she who is the alpha and the omega of modern celebrity.

Downey, best known in the Stales for a stint as a British aristocrat on the ABC soap One Life to Live in 1988 and, earlier this year, for her role on a failed NBC series Black Jack Savage, is admittedly still in the alpha stage. But playing Jackie from age 16 to 60 (Jackie herself is now 62) could change that for the 5'4", 105-lb. actress.

"This is a great role that should make her an instant star," predicts executive producer Lester Persky, who chose Downey, two weeks before shooting, over scores of other Bouvier aspirants. "I kept thinking, there still had to be somebody with the charisma of Jackie," says Persky, "someone who could hold the screen for six hours. Roma's face is so incredible—it locks you in."

Roma (the name is a contraction of her grandmothers' names, Rose and Mary) professes nothing but admiration for Jackie: "She has come through the most extraordinary of circumstances with the utmost dignity." But that dignity can be intimidating. "There's always the feeling," says Roma, "that my performance will be compared to the real lady."

More challenging was that she had only a few weeks to learn the part. Downey studied frantically, watching tapes between fittings (she has 160 costume changes), reading Kennedy books and working with a voice coach to develop I hat breathy Jackie delivery.

Still, playing Jackie was more than a matter of being able to wear a pillbox hat just so. "God knows, Jackie Kennedy had a lot of loss in her life," says Stephen (Tattinger's) Collins, 42, who plays a slightly-less-bouffant-than-usual JFK. "And Roma has had to deal with a lot of loss. She's had a tough life."

Growing up in Northern Ireland's Catholic minority in the 1970s was indeed "a very tough time," says Downey, the youngest of six children. She remembers her brother Lawrence's shoulder being broken by a rubber bullet from a soldier's gun at a protest against Britain's military presence in the country; other brothers, she says, were thrown in jail from time to time without cause.

The family also witnessed one of the bloodiest events in recent Irish history on Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972, when an illegal march by civil-rights demonstrators ended disastrously. "The British Army shot into the crowd and killed 13 people," she says. "My house was just up the hill from where all this happened. People came running up, saying, 'Oh, my God!' I was at home with my sister Ann and our main concern was, where were our men? Where was my brother Pat and my father, who were at the march?" They got home safely, she says. "Then the names started being announced—16-year-olds, 17-year-olds. Dead. I knew quite a few of them. Man who lived up the street, seven children, his wife pregnant."

All that violence, she says, "only made me stronger. It made me who I am. But I don't think that it was until I was 18 and left Northern Ireland for England and art school that I realized the tremendous tension we were living under."

Downey's deepest sorrows were more personal. Her mother, Maureen, a housewife and sometime actress, died of a heart attack in her mid-40s, when Roma was only 10. "It was devastating," she says. "One day she was there and the next she was gone." Roma was devastated again 11 years later when her father died, also of a heart attack. "H had become everything to me, my Da," she says. This time, though, there was an unforgettable lesson. "I remember strongly him saying, 'If you can bury your Da, you can do anything. T'ere isn't anything you won't be able to do if you can do that.' And five months later I was standing in the rain in Derry cemetery as they lowered him into the ground and finding a strength in that."

She thinks it was her father's death that she was "tuning in to" ft her miniseries scenes at JFK's funeral. Whether her own short-lived marriage to an American actor provided any emotional shadings for Jackie's ups and down with Jack, well...

They met in London in 1985, says Downey, a year after she had graduated from Brighton Art College, where she studied painting. But the problem, she discovered, "was that painting was so solitary. I was a team player." Like her mother, she was also a player in local theater. She enrolled at the London Drama Studio, where her husband-to-be was a fellow student. In 1986, she says, "we were wed in Rome, hoping it would be like a fairy tale." Immediately after, they moved to New York City, where the fairy tale began to fall apart.

"I was sorely tempted to go home," recalls Downey, who is currently dating another actor. "But, not to be deterred, I concentrated fully on working." When the roles—including a part with Rex Harrison in his last Broadway appearance, The Circle—finally began to accumulate, she was ready to move to the showbiz capital, Los Angeles. Being robbed in Manhattan was an additional spur. "Young kid with a gun: Gimme jour money," she says. "You just feel so violated."

Downey now lives in a three-bedroom house in Venice, surrounded by reminders of the old country (of which she is still a citizen): Irish new-age singer Enya on the stereo, a volume of Yeats's poems at hand and—out back, behind the hot tub—a street sign that reads: DERRY, 2.

"More like 2 billion miles," Downey sighs, even though she visited the folks only a few weeks ago. They, at least, understood perfectly that Roma is no second coming of Jackie. "I said to my little niece, 'Go an' put the kettle on.' My sister screams, "Make your own tea—you're not in Hollywood now!' "

TOM GLIATTO
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff.