George Xanthis and Abe Martell as "John and Big James" (The Chosen)

The Sons of Thunder Reflect on "The Chosen"

For George Xanthis and Abe Martell, actors of The Chosen, the set and crew have become a place of family, connection, and a new familiarity with historical figures
Susan Severson

When I first heard of The Chosen, it was early in the Covid-19 pandemic. I had seen advertisements for the show, but wasn’t interested in another cheesy Christian production. I don’t know what prompted me to wade into the first season, but I’m glad I did. I was pleasantly surprised with the immersive dialogue and the moody cinematic style. It was even more impressive that the show was completely crowd-funded and the episodes were free to view (made possible by patrons that were “paying it forward” by contributing funds to make it free for others to view). Knowing that the creation of The Chosen was driven by the desire of many to see the life of Jesus played out on the screen made each episode more beautiful. The series, now in its fourth season, picks up when Jesus is already an adult, and over time unveils the many facets of his public ministry before he is condemned to death. The first episode of season 1 is titled “I have called you by name” and echoes Isaiah 43 throughout: “But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, Jacob, and formed you, Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine.”

I wondered about the actors themselves and whether playing the roles of Christ’s disciples had impacted them and I was surprised when an opportunity to interview the men who play the “Sons of Thunder,” James and John, fell into my lap. In our short Zoom interview, it became apparent that George Xanthis (John) and Abe Martell (James) have met something on the set of The Chosen that is different from sets that they have been a part of previously.

How is it different acting on this stage about the life of Christ? I'm sure many people see it as a ministry. Is it easily reduced down to just another job, or is it somehow different than that?

George: I think the show means a lot to many people, but Dallas Jenkins [the producer of The Chosen] is actually the first person to say it's definitely not a ministry. That's something for people to differentiate between, because obviously there's a lot of creative license that's been taken. There are a lot of people on set that are from different walks of life, and faiths, and backgrounds. Having said that, the show definitely feels more like a family. I think it's more down to the human beings that have been brought together to tell this story more than anything and that's just fascinating. That people from all over the world -- I'm from Australia and Abe, from America with Mexican and Egyptian heritage, and Shahar from Israel -- makes for a very unique set. I have been on other TV shows, but I didn't feel that family vibe of The Chosen. So, yes, it is a professional job for us, we are actors, we're conditioned for this because our managers got a casting call, but it is definitely a family affair I would say. It feels like we're at home, hanging out with our friends and family.

Abe: Yeah, I would echo the sentiment. I do think that the subject material that we are creating is impactful. It's definitely an exploration of a very impactful time in history and it happens to impact people on a level that's beyond the historical – it almost transcends cultural value. I think that's why you're seeing us go through many many international screenings and the receptions that we get are really amazing! So, this project is unique just on its own and it's really breaking through many barriers and I think that, along with what George is talking about – the camaraderie on set, the diversity of the people – are making it happen. I think that's amazing enough in our industry. It’s an anomaly.

You mentioned the historical time period. I am wondering if playing James and John has made you more interested in those historical figures themselves? Abe, have you heard of the Camino de Santiago?

Abe: I used to teach a class in Spanish in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the second part of my course was on the Camino! So, you know, everything came full circle with this role, with my ability to speak Spanish. The fact that I was familiar with the history even before I started with the show. Now, I'm not gonna lie, I knew him as Santiago. When I came on, I was like, Big James? They don't sound the same at all. Initially I was confused and it took me actually delving into the Bible in an English translation context to really get up to speed. You grow up with a certain culture and the reverence of the saint feels unique to your culture, but different cultures venerate in different ways.

George: I have a similar experience with this. You could look at the serendipity of this for hours. The first ever job I tried to be a part of was about the end of the world and I played the part of someone who was foreseeing it. His name was John Patmos. And I was like, why is this guy named John Patmos? Now, I was very young when this happened and I researched it and I saw that there's someone named John who was on the island of Patmos. Clearly it left my head because when I landed this role, I thought I had gotten [the role of] John the Baptist. I didn't even know there was a John the Apostle. And I'm just like, oh my goodness, it was all there written for me in black and white. That character from before – people associate John with Patmos because that's where he was exiled to in Greece. Where he wrote the Book of Revelation. I have a Greek background and a huge interest in history…that historical part of it has been super fascinating to both of us, me and Abe. We can geek out over the history any time of the day. And can I just say very quickly, there is a mini Camino you can do for John if you go to Patmos!


George: It's not publicized, but you can do your own Camino! As a Hellene myself, I would always promote tourism to Greece. You can go to the Dodecanese and then to Patmos. You can visit John's cave where he wrote the Book of Revelation. So you can do a John Camino. A Camino de Patmos!

Abe: The Camino de Juan. Everybody's invited!

What is something special about your work with The Chosen? Something that your viewers may not know? Something that makes you grateful to get to partake in this role?

Abe: I feel like from the first time I read this script, I knew that this project was different. Did I ever expect to be on the ride that I am on right now? Absolutely not. I don't think anyone could have foreseen that. But from the page, from the first time it came in front of my eyes, I knew that something was truly different about this show. And you just kind of hope that those projects that you end up doing make it. At the level and at the size that it was, even when I joined in season two, it still had the potential to only exist for that amount of time. And so to see where it is now – there are so many growing pains – but it truly has been special from the moment I read it.

George: I was just going to say something that maybe people don't realize is that, I was talking about the people coming from all different faiths and backgrounds on the show, but I do thoroughly believe that Jesus wanted to speak to everybody. And I feel like the show – even if you're not of Christian background – has a global message. Everybody can understand this message.

We get to listen to those parables, like six or seven…sometimes 12… times over, because we need to get Jonathan [the actor who plays Jesus of Nazareth] from different angles. We get to really listen and hear these stories for the first time, every single time. Because they’re parables and not direct answers, there are so many different meanings that we can deduce and analyze as not only actors, but as the disciples. So when you hear parables from Jesus that many times, you realize, wow, this hits in so many different ways. And James and John, more than anybody, probably need that because they're a little bit fiery. So they need the parables to sink in a little bit more. It is good that the actors get that!


After our hurried leave-taking and words of gratitude for the interview, I was left with my thoughts. What had I expected from their answers? Maybe I had envisioned two men gushing about their opportunity to evangelize to the masses via the cinematic realm. Or maybe just a glimpse into the glamor of the day-to-day life of an actor. What I received instead was wholly unexpected.
The two men certainly gave me new insight and awareness into the mechanics of film creation. The shooting of one scene over and over again in order to achieve the artistry that the audience enjoys could, I’m sure, be considered monotonous. It could also certainly be reduced down to “just another job.” Surprisingly, being able to talk to Abe and George made me look at my “job” as well. They couldn’t have known by our little ZOOM call that I was to deliver a new son the very next day!

In the weeks since conducting the interview and the birth of my fifth child, I have reflected on the reality that the way Christ calls us can be reduced to the daily grind — even my own motherhood. My surprise that the portrayal of an apostle of Jesus in a critically-acclaimed television series could possibly be perceived as “just another acting job” became laughable to me. Why should this scandalize me when I regularly shrug off and even complain about the beauty and importance of being a mother and educator to our five children? This is by no means a criticism, but a recognition of a gift given to me by Christ! Xanthis further reminded me of this when he fervently stated that hearing the parables again and again on set made them new. Yes! Everything can be made new through Christ. Even me. It is with affection and gratitude that I can say that this isn’t the first time that these two men have made me aware of Christ’s presence in my daily life.

For me, The Chosen is a beautiful reminder of a great gift: Christ was made man in a particular time and place. He called fallen men and women to follow Him. He knows me and calls me by name to follow Him in my particular circumstances. Through the work (monotony and all) of the actors of The Chosen, men like George Xanthis and Abe Martell are giving a face to the first followers of Christ.