'Survivor': Jeff Probst Introduces 'Island of the Idols' Cast and Twist

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with the CBS reality franchise's executive producer and host in a special edition of the Series Regular podcast.
Robert Voets/CBS

Clearly, former champions Boston Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine are at the forefront of Survivor: Island of the Idols, premiering September 25 on CBS. No, really, it's as clear as day: gigantic statues of Rob and Sandra's heads reside on the titular Island of the Idols, where players will learn tips, tricks and trades from the Survivor legends at various points along the way. But are they the stars of the season? Not if the twenty new castaways have any say in the matter.

Executive producer and host Jeff Probst spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on the first morning of production on Island of the Idols, the 39th season in Survivor history. Among the topics discussed: Boston Rob and Sandra's reasons for serving in a quasi-producorial capacity as coaches and semi-showrunners of their small slice of Fiji, and how the new crop of players will come to interact with the two Survivor veterans, alternately operating as teachers and tormentors depending on the day. 

Hear much more about all of that in a special Probst-heavy edition of Series Regular, The Hollywood Reporter's all-in podcast on genre television (with the sporadic Survivor exception):

Beyond the theme, Probst provided an overview of the new cast of players, which is one of the most diverse lineups in recent Survivor memory. Ages range from 23 to 60, with half the cast 30 years or older. Some of these players are only just beginning their professional lives, with even a few of the 20-somethings already embarking on their second careers. Still others are more than established in their fields: professional competitors and athletes, two of whom are retired at this point — one of whom is under 30 years old. 

While it's not a wide-sweeping given across the board, the majority of these players are dedicated Survivor die-hards who have seen every episode, have consumed countless hours of podcasts and otherwise revisited gameplay footage just as fans, let alone as prospective players. Many of them have applied multiple times, some of them getting so close to their dream as to have already graced the shooting location in Fiji prior to the season. Heading into the season, Probst at the least is very happy with the Survivor class of 39.

"We've changed our storytelling dramatically," he told THR. "We're going through much deeper dives. The culture is going through a major shift right now, especially with gender. Let's just go and find interesting people and see where it leads us. It sounds like what we always do, where we sit down and ask ourselves, 'What is it we do again? Why do we we want people on this show?' We have a new [casting] team in place, and we've come up with the most diverse cast we've ever had, no compare. Even the cast noticed it when they were all together at Ponderosa and we met with them. They all said: 'Oh my god. There are so many different people from so many different walks of life.'"

These are the people, both by the facts and in Probst's own words from the preseason, sorted by tribe and in alphabetical first name order.

Name: Aaron Meredith

Tribe: Lairo (Orange)

Age: 36

Occupation: Gym Owner

Current Residence: Warwick, Rhode Island

Jeff Probst Says: "Aaron is a really great example of 'don't judge a book by its cover,' because this is probably the biggest guy out there. And we have some big dudes this season, total coincidence. But he's 6'2" or 6'4", runs a gym, but if you talk to him, he's a soft guy who relates in life as a dad. That is a really powerful role out there, that figure. And when you have it in his body, it's not like Joe [Anglim], who's a single guy, this good-looking I-win-everything. Aaron feels more protective. At least that's what I would hope for him is that he would play the role of, 'I am strong and I'm powerful and you can get rid of me but you don't need to right now. I got kids. We're going to do this together.' That can sometimes shift, especially if you align with younger people."

Name: Chelsea Walker

Tribe: Lairo (Orange)

Age: 26

Occupation: Digital Content Creator

Current Residence: Los Angeles

Jeff Probst Says: "Chelsea has been in the mix more than any person I can remember. She would know how many times. We almost put her on the show several times, and it was heartbreaking every time we had to call her and say, 'It's just not going to work.' And I think there was a point where Chelsea probably thought, 'They're just bullshitting me.' But we kept bringing her back for a reason, and this season, it was perfect. I don't know if she was slightly different or if we saw her in a new light or if it was just the combination of people, but she was such a favorite of all of our producers that we should put her on the show. I think her biggest liability is going to be that she's been in the cage for so long, ready to get at the game, she might overplay. But if she can slow down, not talk as much, she's super switched on."

Name: Dean Kowalski

Tribe: Lairo (Orange)

Age: 28

Occupation: Tech Sales

Current Residence: New York

Jeff Probst Says: "Dean thinks my first impression of him wasn't favorable. And it wasn't that it wasn't favorable, I just thought he was so cocky. I mean, he swaggered in like a player: 'Look, check out these sweats I got on, Probst. You wish you could wear something like this.' And I'm like, 'Oh my God, this guy's full of it.' But then I found myself after he left going, 'I'm still thinking about him.' And then the next time we met him, I really got a kick out of him. I started to understand him that he does have swagger. That's how he goes. And so long as he doesn't just turn everybody off and he's first out, then I actually think he's probably a pretty reliable alliance partner. Super gifted athletically. I think he's going to help his tribe a lot. I can see him going deep. And I think he's the kind of player that people might say, 'I wasn't sure I liked him at first, but now I like him a lot.'"

Name: Elaine Stott

Tribe: Lairo (Orange)

Age: 41

Occupation: Factory Worker

Current Residence: Rockholds, Kentucky

Jeff Probst Says: "Elaine is, I think, a one-name player if she lasts long enough. I've never known anyone like Elaine. I mean, she's sort of like Lauren, I guess, in that she's self-deprecating and very funny, but Elaine's a whole other level of Tasmanian devil. She's just really funny. So she just puts you at ease, or at least, she puts me at ease. I want to have a beer with her immediately."

Name: Elizabeth Beisel

Tribe: Lairo (Orange)

Age: 26

Occupation: Olympic Medalist

Current Residence: Saunderstown, Rhode Island

Jeff Probst Says: "Elizabeth is probably the number one or number two most energetic person out there. I love her. When she walks in the room, I get happy. I think there's something about her, at least for me, that's just so likable and positive. And then you look at her background, the discipline that it takes, like I would know, to be an Olympic athlete just blows my mind of how many mornings she had to get up or how many laps she had to swim. And then to be a captain on the Olympic team, to have other people trust you. Next to Michael Phelps, I mean, this isn't a woman who's going to tire easily or let the rain get her down or losing a couple of challenges. She knows how to deal with that. She probably lacks a little Survivor experience. She's a newer fan, but if she can get around that hump I think the audience is going to love her."

Name: Karishma Patel

Tribe: Lairo (Orange)

Age: 37

Occupation: Personal Injury Lawyer

Current Residence: Houston, Texas

Jeff Probst Says: "Karishma is one of my favorite people this season, and it's for a very specific reason. She's so clear in why she's doing this, and I love it. I love that she will tell you, 'I'm here. Even though I know my culture that, being Indian-American, other women like me may look at me and say, 'You shouldn't leave your husband. You shouldn't come play this silly game. That's not what we do.' And her attitude is, 'It's what I do. And I should be able to do this and still be everything I am to everyone else. Be a wife and a friend and all of those things.' It's very powerful for her. And when somebody shares their story like that, it gives all of us permission to do what we think we should do. You know, we get so caught up in this, 'Oh, I have to work. I can't take it. Well, I got the kids. I can't…' Well, you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. And I feel like that's what she's doing right now."

Name: Missy Byrd

Tribe: Lairo (Orange)

Age: 24

Occupation: Air Force Veteran

Current Residence: Tacoma, Washington

Jeff Probst Says: "I think people might underestimate her in the beginning or think, 'Ah, she's just a kid.' Especially some of the older people. But man, Missy has been through a lot in life. She's accomplished a lot. She has a great attitude. She's at a point in her life right now where she's a bit of a vagabond. She's just living this nomadic life. I like Missy a lot and I think Missy is going to end up in an alliance with women. And it could be our women this season are really powerful." It could definitely be a perfect time for the women to look at each other and say, 'Listen. Not only is the culture in the world changing, the culture on Survivor is about to change. Let's run this game.'"

Name: Ronnie Bardah

Tribe: Lairo (Orange)

Age: 35

Occupation: Pro Poker Player

Current Residence: Henderson, Nevada

Jeff Probst Says: "Ronnie is a really layered, cool dude, and the more I talk to him, the more I like him. When you look at him, he's got a darker look, an intensity. He's a pro poker player and he spends a lot of time not showing any emotion and just studying everybody else. So that can give a first impression of, 'Man. Not sure. Don't know if he's open to me talking or if he's going to punch me.' But when once you crack him open, he's a super soft, likable guy who will share anything. He seems very much a community guy that would be a good friend and would be there for you. And then when you put that together with his ability to quickly assess a situation about whether I should stay in the hand or get out of a hand, I think it could make him a really good player. My hope for Ronnie is that he gets an alliance going with people who trust him and then they'll find out they can."

Name: Tom Laidlaw

Tribe: Lairo (Orange)

Age: 60

Occupation: Former NHL Player

Current Residence: Greenwich, Connecticut, originally from Canada

Jeff Probst Says: "If you're a hockey fan, you know this guy. I'm not a hockey fan, so I didn't know Tom from that. I've since watched quite a few videos. Wow. He's a bruiser, man. And when you see Tom, he's a big dude. He's 60, I think, or close to it and really fit. I mean, he's a big, strong guy. I hope I look like that! He's also a big personality. And I think Tom's biggest thing, and he will tell you this, is how is he going to do with a bunch of other people? I think Tom's one of those guys like, 'I can build my own damn shelter. I'll go grab a fish with my hand, I don't need a spear.' But he knows he cannot be the guy that says, 'Here's how we're doing it.' And the question is, can he not be the guy? Does he have it in him? You know, our nature is so strong, so I don't know. But I love Tom. I mean, the minute he walked in, I was like, 'Oh, please, please, please be as good as you seem like you are.' And he gets better every time."

Name: Vince Moua

Tribe: Lairo (Orange)

Age: 27

Occupation: Admissions Counselor

Current Residence: Palo Alto, California

Jeff Probst Says: "There's never been anybody like Vince, ever. I can't imagine there'll ever be anybody like Vince again. I hope Vince isn't first out. He's the only person I've ever met who truly has two distinct personalities, or personas, I guess is better. He has this 'homeboy,' as he says, and then the other guy who works in college admission and is upstanding and speaks differently. I mean, he sounds like a different person! He's like an improv guy. He can just go in and out of any story. I don't know where the 'homeboy' part of him's going to come into play with this group, but it might. He might find a younger person maybe that connects with it or maybe there's some weird connection with somebody like Laidlaw, who thinks this is charming. I don't know. But he's a smart guy. I think he'll be underestimated because he's just peculiar to be around. But his biggest strength is that he knows he's peculiar and he's been through so much. When you talk to him about the way he was raised, I don't think you're going to shock him with anything. I don't think he'll be unsettled by anything. But I do think he can be reactionary, and that could hurt him in the end."

Name: Dan Spilo

Tribe: Vokai (Purple)

Age: 48

Occupation: Talent Manager

Current Residence: Los Angeles

Jeff Probst Says: "I think Dan has the mind to play this game. He won't hesitate to make moves. I wouldn't trust him at all, as you shouldn't anybody out here. That's not a slap. That's affection. It's not because he's a talent manager. There's just something about the way he talks to me [that] makes me think, 'You know more. You're good at reading me.' And that scares me. So, my hope for Dan is he needs to be a little bit of the blustering fool around camp or something. Because otherwise, he's so penetrating that I think, 'You know more about me than I know.'"

Name: Jack Nichting

Tribe: Vokai (Purple)

Age: 23

Occupation: Graduate Student

Current Residence: Harrisonburg, Virginia

Jeff Probst Says: "We almost put him on the show last year, and it just didn't work, but we asked him to come out as an alternate. Sometimes we bring alternates. And he was nice enough to say okay. So he came out here for a week. And our pitch to him was, 'We're not promising you you'll be on the show, but we really like you. If it just doesn't work right now, this would at least give you some insight.' So he came out and spent a week at Ponderosa, and now he knew the lay of the land of how things go. And when it came time for this season, we brought him back and he was more mature. I think he was even better. I think he's probably better off this season than he would have been last season."

Name: Jamal Shipman

Tribe: Vokai (Purple)

Age: 33

Occupation: College Administrator

Current Residence: Providence, Rhode Island

Jeff Probst Says: "Jamal was another guy we tried to put on the show once. There's a theme here: if you've been in the mix on Survivor, keep pushing. It's not that we don't like you, it's got to be the right season. And Jamal had a very different look when we first met him, longer hair. When he came back in, I didn't even recognize him. But same guy, very likable. Similar to Aaron, he has a big presence but a much softer energy. I like Jamal a lot. I could see Jamal being in an alliance with women or with guys who were in touch with their softer side and weren't all bravado. And I think he's a great storyteller. His own personal story is really interesting."

Name: Janet Carbin

Tribe: Vokai (Purple)

Age: 59

Occupation: Chief Lifeguard

Current Residence: Palm Bay, Florida

Jeff Probst Says: "Janet was on the show about five seconds after she sat down in the chair and started regaling us with stories of being a lifetime lifeguard, running a beach with a hundred other lifeguards or some crazy number of people that she leads. You look at Janet and you just get it. She doesn't care about how she looks. She doesn't care about what you think about her. She's just, 'I'm me. This is what I do. People seem to like me. It's been doing okay. I think this beach full of men that work for me dig me. I think my tribe's going to dig me. I will be the best swimmer out here.' She doesn't know there's an Olympic swimmer on the other tribe. And I think Janet is also similar to Elizabeth, the other swimmer, in that she doesn't care if it's raining, it's nothing. She's nearly 60. People are going to be surprised to find out her age because she's pretty hardcore."

Name: Jason Linden

Tribe: Vokai (Purple)

Age: 32

Occupation: Personal Injury Lawyer

Current Residence: New York

Jeff Probst Says: "Jason is one of my favorites. I like Jason's chances in this game a lot because he's really sophisticated in driving a situation in a way that benefits him. And maybe it's because he's a personal injury attorney. He's very good at cherry-picking the one flower out of the vase that will prove his point. But whatever it is, every time I'm around him, I feel very heard. I feel like he gets me. And I'm always aware when somebody's making me feel good, that that's a skill they're showing me that they have. I feel that with Jason. He's very disarming but I think he's a killer."

Name: Kellee Kim

Tribe: Vokai (Purple)

Age: 29

Occupation: MBA Student

Current Residence: Philadelphia

Jeff Probst Says: "I try to meet people where they are. Kellee doesn't, she makes you come to her: 'If you don't want to come to me, I guess we're not going to work together.' At least that's been my impression of her. So while there's a polarity there that I find really interesting, it would be hard for me to align with her even though I'd be drawn to her because she's different. And that's what I wonder about and worry about with her is if she could find the yin to her yang, they could be a great couple. But she's going to have to lean in to somebody a little bit and say, 'Hey, I'm open. I see you. You don't have to come walking over to me all the time.'"

Name: Lauren Beck

Tribe: Vokai (Purple)

Age: 28

Occupation: Nanny

Current Residence: Glendale, California

Jeff Probst Says: "What happened with Lauren has only happened once in my entire Survivor history. People come up to me quite often and they say, 'Hey, I got a friend. I think they'd be really great on Survivor.' And I go, 'Great. Send me a drive or send me a YouTube clip or something.' No one's ever gotten on the show that way. I have a good friend who said, 'Hey, hate to do this to you. Very good friend of ours. Thinks she should be on Survivor.' And as they handed me the drive, Lauren walked up behind him and said, 'It's me. I'm the one. That's me on that drive.' And within about, I'm not kidding, seven seconds, I went, 'Oh my God, she's going to be on the show and she has no idea.' And I went, 'Well, hey, man, it's really cool to meet you. You seem great!' I get back home and I immediately send the drive to our casting director and to [executive producer] Matt Van Wagenen. And I said, 'Tell me what you think.' They both went, 'Wow, she's amazing.' I go, 'Exactly. Check the story out. She's a friend of a friend. It finally happened, someone actually got on the show.' And she's great. Super likable, beautiful, great spirit. And man, I think she's a real player. I would not be at all surprised if Lauren made it to the end and won."

Name: Molly Byman

Tribe: Vokai (Purple)

Age: 27

Occupation: Law Student

Current Residence: Durham, North Carolina

Jeff Probst Says: "Molly was the first person we put on this season. We committed to her early. We met her, loved her, everything about her. She's bright, she's a student of the game — literally studies the game, draws graphs and all that stuff. And yet she has this real sort of a thrill-seeker, I'll try almost anything at least once, a combination of smart and risky that makes for a great Survivor player. She called us and said, 'I'm in law school. I got to pay my tuition. Am I in or out?' And we said, 'Don't pay. We're committing right now.' And that was months ago. And we don't commit early to anybody because, until the last minute, we're not really sure what we're doing. But we committed to her."

Name: Noura Salman

Tribe: Vokai (Purple)

Age: 36

Occupation: Entrepreneur

Current Residence: North Potomac, Maryland

Jeff Probst Says: "Noura is a wild card. We love Noura. She's got this great energy. I think she's either a great fit as an alliance member who will spark about and maybe do some of the dirty work and get inside and find things out, or she's outside the alliance and she's in trouble. Right now, she's probably making decisions that are going to determine if she survives her first couple of days. She has the kind of personality that could be too much for somebody, especially when everybody's cagey, but she also has the type of likability that people could go, 'She's not going anywhere. She's super cool. She's easygoing.' It just depends. In those early moments [of the game], you have to read the room."

Name: Tommy Sheehan

Tribe: Vokai (Purple)

Age: 26

Occupation: 4th Grade Teacher

Current Residence: Long Beach, NY

Jeff Probst Says: "Tommy is a guy that I think everybody's going to like. He's a big, good-looking dude. Your first impression will be, 'Oh, he's a physical threat. He'll be great in challenges.' And then you find out he's a fourth-grade teacher. I think a lot of people will go, 'That's super cool.' He's young, who knows if he'll teach his entire life or this is something he's doing now. Then you talk to him and he tells you about how he teaches and he sounds like [Robin Williams in] Dead Poets Society. It's really infectious, and then you dig a little deeper with him. He tells you, 'When I was young, I didn't look like this, and people picked on me and it wasn't easy. So now, I'm the champion of the underdog.' It's a great story. That's a guy you want to be in an alliance with and if you stay loyal to him, he might be one of the few people who would remain loyal."

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Follow THR.com/Survivor for more coverage leading through the September 25 season premiere.