"We actually were only six weeks away from beginning principal photography and we still had not cast the role of Jesus," Downey tells PEOPLE of producing the hit History channel miniseries. "To say that we were anxious is an understatement."
In desperation, Downey sent out an email to friends with the subject line "Looking for Jesus."
"The prayer circle went out and the prayer was answered," the former Touched by an Angel star says of a friend suggesting Diogo Morgado for the role.
After watching Morgado's taped audition, Downey was eager to schedule a meeting but was worried meeting in person would prove difficult for the Portugal-based actor.
"I was a little disheartened and didn't know logistically how I was going to make that work," says Downey, who also plays Mother Mary in the series. "I spoke to his agent and he said, 'Actually, he's traveling and in Los Angeles.' I said, 'Hallelujah.' "
In less than 24 hours Morgado, 33, was walking down the garden path of Downey's home to meet with her and her husband, producer Mark Burnett.
"I grabbed Mark and we peeked out the window to see him approach," Downey says. "I turned to my husband and said, 'There he is. That's our Jesus.' "
The Portuguese television actor will be featured in the second half of the 10-part miniseries, which airs every Sunday through Easter (see a preview of this Sunday's show below). And Downey is confident the actor will make a major impact on viewers.
"I think he will define this role for generations," she says of Morgado. "He's just a beautiful actor inside and out. This is going to make him a big star."