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Why cast and crew of ‘The Chosen’ love filming in Utah’s version of the Holy Land

For the first time, a production not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is using the Jerusalem set in Goshen, Utah County

Jonathan Roumie, wh plays Jesus, walks toward trailers during filming of a faith-based streaming series on the life of Jesus Christ called “The Chosen” at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Jerusalem set in Goshen, Utah County, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
Jonathan Roumie, wh plays Jesus, walks toward trailers during filming of a faith-based streaming series on the life of Jesus Christ called “The Chosen” at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Jerusalem set in Goshen, Utah County, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

On a warm October day with a light afternoon breeze, a small army prepares to re-create one of the remarkable miracles of the New Testament.

Inside a replicated section of old Jerusalem, complete with stone-covered facades, pillared courtyards and a maze of passageways, the director huddles with his producers. Crew members make last-minute wardrobe adjustments and check equipment. Actors and a flock of extras, in full costume with makeup, sit nearby, patiently waiting to be called to the set.

Every face has a mask and people speak in hushed tones, although off the side, the actor playing the role of Jesus Christ, dressed in a tunic with a beard and shoulder-length hair, holds a cellphone in one hand while sharing a lighthearted laugh with the actor playing John the apostle.

Moments later, Jesus dons sandals and a colorful robe over his tunic. With the cameras rolling, the man representing the Holy Messiah kneels and speaks comforting words to a lame man by the pool of Bethesda.

The powerful biblical scene, orchestrated to convey the humanity of Jesus, will be one of many featured in Season 2 of “The Chosen,” a faith-based multipart streaming series currently being produced near the small town of Goshen in Utah County at the Motion Picture Studio South Campus, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

George Harrison Xanthis, who plays John, laughs with Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus, during a pause in filming of a faith-based streaming series on the life of Christ called “The Chosen” at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Jerusalem set in Goshen, Utah County, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
George Harrison Xanthis, who plays John, laughs with Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus, during a pause in filming of a faith-based streaming series on the life of Christ called “The Chosen” at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Jerusalem set in Goshen, Utah County, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

This is the first time a production not affiliated with the church has been allowed to use the Jerusalem set, an authentic re-creation of significant locations in the ancient city that roughly covers the area of a football field or two. “The Chosen” cast and crew started filming in early October and are scheduled to continue until mid-November.

Those working with director Dallas Jenkins say he’s been like a “kid in a candy store” from the moment he was introduced to the set in central Utah’s desert with topography resembling the Holy Land.

“The opportunity to use this set is once in a lifetime,” Jenkins said. “Every day we film here I’m grateful because there’s just no way that we can re-create this set anywhere else. There’s nothing like it in the world. I mean, you can’t even get this in Israel.”

Producer Chad Gundersen said he was awestruck with the size and scope of the Jerusalem set.

“Let’s just say the actors don’t have to do a lot of imagining because they are actually in it,” he said. “It’s all there.”

Actress Elizabeth Tabish, who plays Mary Magdalene, confirmed what Gundersen said.

“It’s by far the most beautiful set I’ve ever been on,” she said. “It feels so real. It’s intricate. It’s detailed. Between the set itself, the art direction and the designers, every time I walk on set you just feel transported.”

“The Chosen” was interested in filming at the Utah set even as it produced its first season in Texas. But the church had not permitted outsiders to use the set before and there were a lot of logistics to work out. As “The Chosen” filmmakers persisted in asking this year, preventing the spread of COVID-19 was also a major concern, Jenkins said.

The turning point came in July when some church leaders saw the show and were willing to discuss the idea of making the set available. They were kind enough to have a conversation with Jenkins during a month when church leaders normally take their vacations, he said.

“We found that we had the same goal in mind, which was to make Jesus known around the world,” the director said. “That’s not an endorsement of the show, but they thought, ‘I think allowing them to film here is something that is worth exploring,’ and once that meeting took place the rest fell into place quickly.”

A crew member, left, talks with director Dallas Jenkins during filming of a faith-based streaming series on the life of Jesus Christ called “The Chosen” at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Jerusalem set in Goshen, Utah County, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
A crew member, left, talks with director Dallas Jenkins during filming of a faith-based streaming series on the life of Jesus Christ called “The Chosen” at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Jerusalem set in Goshen, Utah County, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A lease was signed in August, according to Derral Eves, an executive producer.

While securing use of the already-built Jerusalem set may have saved the show millions in building a set, “The Chosen” has dumped more than $750,000 into virus testing equipment and protocols. Any visitor to the set must submit to a test in advance, then be tested again upon arrival. Valuable time is consumed in testing everyone three times a week, scheduling longer meals so people can eat a safe distance apart, and constantly sanitizing each hair and makeup station.

At times it feels overwhelming, but Jenkins says they are happy to do it.

“If we get even one person with a positive test it could end up shutting us down,” he said. “We have to be extra cautious.”

It helps that Jenkins can walk away from the set each day into a grove of cedar trees designated as the Garden of Gethsemane set for “prayer and alone time with God.”

“I need that every day to kind of center myself, to remind myself of why I’m here and who I’m doing it for,” Jenkins said. “That’s the beauty of Goshen. You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of industry. You feel like you’re in God’s country in many ways. I don’t have to walk far to get some alone time and feel like I can connect with God each day.”

Since arriving to start production, the cast and crew has received a warm reception in the area, including many fans of the show. More than once Jenkins and some of the actors have been recognized and approached on the streets of Provo.

“Utah is clearly ‘Chosen’ country,” Jenkins said. “The hospitality has just been extraordinary.”

Only one couple positively identified Tabish through her sunglasses and mask. The actress from Austin, Texas, prefers to keep a low profile but is impressed by the Provo restaurant scene.

“All the restaurants downtown are fantastic,” Tabish said. “Every time I go somewhere I’m like, ‘This is really good.’”

An extra sits in the background during filming of a faith-based streaming series on the life of Jesus Christ called “The Chosen” at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Jerusalem set in Goshen, Utah County, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
An extra sits in the background during filming of a faith-based streaming series on the life of Jesus Christ called “The Chosen” at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Jerusalem set in Goshen, Utah County, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Being part of “The Chosen” has been deeply gratifying for Tabish, who endeared herself to fans with her moving portrayal of Mary Magdalene in Season 1. Having experienced depression, anxiety and other personal challenges, she felt prepared for this “dream role,” she said.

“Working on this show has really renewed a sense of faith in God and in the possibility of wonderful things happening in this world,” Tabish said.

Watching “The Chosen” series has had a similar, hopeful influence on Kurt and Connie Nofziger, Christians from Pettisville, Ohio. Two years ago when the Nofzigers saw Jenkins’ low-budget pilot episode, “The Shepherd,” they made a sizable contribution to the show. The couple relished the opportunity to visit the Jerusalem set last week and mingle with the cast and crew.

Connie Nofziger’s favorite moment was seeing actors Jonathan Roumie (Jesus), Shahar Isaac (Simon Peter) and Noah James (Andrew) walk into the VIP tent for lunch together. She tried to capture it on her phone.

“Here they are, compadres, friends, walking right alongside of Jesus,” Connie said. “I think Jesus wants us to take a hold of him and walk alongside of him. That just touched me to see it today.”