'Survivor': Jeff Probst Previews the 'Ghost Island' Cast

Here's what Probst tells THR about the season 36 castaways, a group that includes a furniture maker, a music teacher, an army veteran and an 18-year-old disguised as a 23-year-old.
Courtesy of CBS

Thirty-nine days. 20 people. One Survivor cast preview, courtesy of executive producer and host Jeff Probst.

According to the Emmy-winning mind behind the veteran reality franchise, the cast of Survivor: Ghost Island are bound together by at least one common trait, beyond their shared desire to win the million-dollar prize and Sole Survivor title: each and every one of them is a fan of the show, first and foremost.

"Massively important," he tells The Hollywood Reporter about the decision to cast fans on the upcoming iteration of Survivor, which airs its two-hour season premiere on February 28. "It was really the only criteria, that they had to be superfans, or they have a really good knowledge of the game. They don't have to be superfans. But that was fun. It's who I prefer. I prefer people who know how to play Survivor. I'm not one of the people who thinks it's interesting to have somebody who doesn't get the game. It does makes for interesting gameplay, so sometimes we'll do that, but personally, I would rather play with players every season. That would be my choice."

Whether or not every single castaway was a fan of Survivor before the opportunity to play came about? You can make that judgment call for yourself in the weeks ahead, as we begin the process of rolling out our preseason interviews with the various contestants. First, read on for Probst's preseason preview of the cast.

We begin with Naviti tribe, clad with purple buffs. Back row, from left to right: Wendell Holland, Chris Noble, Sebastian Noel, Bradley Kleihege, and Domenick Abbate. Front row, from left to right: Morgan Ricke, Angela Perkins, Desiree Afuye, Chelsea Townsend, and Kellyn Bechtold.

Chris Noble
Age: 27
Hometown: Florida Keys, Florida
Male Model

"Chris is a question mark for me. The reason he's a question mark is that on one hand, he's a really compelling guy. He has a big reason to come play. He has had a family situation for a long time, and he's here to play for his mom. He's a good-looking, big, strong guy. On the other hand, I can't tell if Chris is really good socially or really bad socially. That's why he's a question mark. If he ends up being the first one out, I won't be surprised. If he ends up at the final six, I'll go, 'Yeah! Not surprised!' I just don't know."

Sebastian Noel
Age: 22
Hometown: Melbourne, Florida
Occupation: Fishing Guide

"I love Sebastian. I think he's going to be a kids' favorite. I hope so, at least. I hope we're right about him. He has a bit of a Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High attitude about him: 'Ah, dude! It's all good! I'm going to get out in the ocean and catch some fish, and I'm going to rock the fish!' The question about Sebastian is, is there more to his game? He's a young guy. If he gets with the right people, maybe his vibe really works. If he ends up with maybe some older people? I don't know."

Bradley Kleihege
Age: 26
Hometown: Haslett, Michigan
Occupation: Law Student

"I love Bradley. He's the kind of guy I wish we could have every season. He's really bright, and he gets the game. He puts together thoughts in a way similar to a Cochran or a Zeke where it sounds familiar, but he says it in a fresh way, so you kind of lean into him. He's either confident or arrogant, depending on your definition. I don't really know the difference, sometimes. But I know I find it very appealing."

Domenick Abbate
Age: 38
Hometown: Nesconset, New York
Occupation: Construction Supervisor

"Domenick walked in, and I wanted him for the show immediately. He's that quintessential East Coast dad with a colorful past; he's still a family man, but he'll talk shit about people. I like Domenick. The one question I have for him this year is this: is the age of people going to work against him, or will he be able to latch on and they will gravitate toward him? Because I like him. I think he's going to be a great storyteller and a great interview at Tribal, and I know he'll play the game."

Wendell Holland
Age: 33
Hometown: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Occupation: Furniture Designer

"Wendell is my choice to win. But I have to say this: every time I pick someone to win, I kill their game. What I'm hoping is that since this is Ghost Island, Wendell will reverse my curse and actually win to show I'm not cursed! I like Wendell. When he walked into casting, I etched a couple of quick notes, and they basically said, 'Home run.' Wendell is a guy we had to fight to get on the show, ironically, because there's somebody who didn't like him, and everybody has a voice. [Executive producer Matt Van Wagenen] and I had to get down and get busy and say, 'You need to give us this one. We believe in him.' And now he's here."

Morgan Ricke
Age: 29
Hometown: New Albany, Indiana
Occupation: Marine Animal Trainer

"We almost put Morgan on last season, but we didn't really feel like she fit the theme. The only tribe we could sort of consider was Hustlers, and it didn't feel right. We waited, and fortunately she was able to get the time off this time to play the game. We obviously really like her. In some ways, she reminds me of Kim Spradlin who won Survivor: One World. I don't know if she's as good of a social player as her. But her attitude toward life… she's physically fit, and she seems like she has a really big spirit about her. I don't know if she can win. I haven't seen it yet."

Angela Perkins
Age: 42
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Occupation: Army Veteran

"I really like Angela. She's coming into the game in the middle of a life transition. She had a military career for a long time. She has two kids. Now she's not in the military, she's no longer married, and both of her kids are off to school and are gone. She's actually entering Survivor midstream of 'Who am I?' That's really appealing. I admire her for coming out and letting us watch her figure out who she's going to be. That's one of the reasons why I believe the show is so popular: we vicariously watch through others, but the reason we're able to do it is because they're actually letting us watch. They're not just putting it on on the surface. They're letting us see them high and low, happy and sad… Survivor brings out some of your less attractive qualities, and like Michaela once said, 'I'm all of that.' I really like those kinds of people."

Chelsea Townsend
Age: 24
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah
Occupation: EMT

"If she flamed out fast, I would be bummed for her but not surprised. If she ran an alliance, I also wouldn't be surprised. It comes down to this: how much of her EMT training and experience can she apply to this game? She says, 'People see me as a young and pretty woman, and they forget that I'm in life or death situations. I'm not going to be the one panicking when the vote's coming, or in the middle of a challenge, or if we can't get the fire going.' If that's true, then those are some really amazing skills. But as we've all seen, it's one thing to say it and another thing to do it."

Kellyn Bechtold
Age: 32
Hometown: North Manchester, Indiana 
Occupation: Career Counselor

"I love Kellyn. Kellyn would be my second pick to win. If I could pick a man and a woman, I would pick Kellyn and Wendell. What I like about Kellyn is that she's empathetic and so curious. I think the part of me that's most attracted to her energy is that she's not ashamed to say, 'I like to dance with the universe. I like to play.' Some people get uptight. 'I'm an accountant, this is what I do, and I have my two children…' Kellyn says, 'Yeah, I could be all that, but I also like looking up at the stars and wondering what it might be like to live on one.' I love that spirit and playfulness." 

Desiree Afuye
Age: 21
Hometown: Newark, New Jersey
Occupation: Student

"Desiree is a definite threat to win the game. I don't think I appreciated that as much in casting as some other people did, but the more I talked to her, the more I realized it. She's super young but does not come across that way. She's super bright, but you might not guess it. She's athletically gifted, which you might know from looking at her. But those are some very great skills, and she's playing with a lot of people in her age range that she could do really well with. She would be a delightful winner. I think people are going to like her."

We move onto the Malolo tribe, outfitted with orange buffs. Back row, from left to right: James Lim, Jacob Derwin, Laurel Johnson, Michael Yerger, and Jenna Bowman. Front row, from left to right: Stephanie Gonzalez, Brendan Shapiro, Stephanie Johnson, Libby Vincek, and Donathan Hurley.

Libby Vincek
Age: 24
Hometown: Houston, Texas
Occupation: Social Media Strategist

"Libby reminds me a lot of Andrea Boehlke. When Andrea was first on the show, we liked her, but we weren't sure if she would stand up and be counted or if she would fall over. Libby, I feel the same way. I could see her being a perennial returning player, and I don't know anything about her! And yet, if she got slammed in the second episode, then I would say, 'Well, that's okay. You could always try again.'"

Laurel Johnson
Age: 29
Hometown: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Occupation: Financial Consultant

"We've wanted Laurel for a while. It just didn't work [for season 33]. We had too many people and it didn't seem right. We kept in contact with her, and she kept her energy and her spirit and her belief in us. Laurel's biggest problem is she has so many threatening qualities that I think she'll have to downplay them. The other thing is she'll have to mix well with others very quickly. In the room, in casting, she was very social. But when I was watching her on the first day at the marooning, I wasn't sure if she was nervous or what. My question for Laurel is going to be, 'What is she doing right now on the beach? Is she engaging, or is she a little standoffish?'"

Jenna Bowman
Age: 23
Hometown: Detroit, Michigan
Occupation: Account Executive

"Jenna is another one I really root for going into this. She too is looking at her life right now and saying, 'How can I make it better? How can I be a better person? How can I represent who I am better to the world?' One of the things we talked about is just how she comes across with her smile. She's been working on that! She's said, 'My dating life has changed. Everything's getting better.' I always think if you have momentum coming into the show from a point of growth, that could be really advantageous — unless you start walking around trying to help everyone else grow, in which case you become a preacher, and nobody wants that."

Stephanie Johnson
Age: 34
Hometown: Boise, Idaho
Occupation: Yoga Instructor

"She's a mom and a tri-athlete, and we've been talking to her for a while. Note to future Survivor players: when we say you're not out of the mix, you're really not. Sometimes it just doesn't work, for reasons that have nothing to do with the player. I have mixed thoughts on her. I've heard a lot of people saying they love her, and I've heard other people saying she's too much. I guess that's kind of my mix, too. She's really engaging and probably a really good friend. On Survivor, there's that balance: 'Okay, Stephanie. I just need a moment!' But as you know, I know nothing. You and I are sitting on a table here, and they're out there on the beach, living!"

Stephanie Gonzalez
Age: 26
Hometown: Ocala, Florida via Puerto Rico
Occupation: Graphic Sales

"She's a shit-talker, a tomboy, seems like she knows how to work men. She works in her family business. A lot of what she does appears to rely on her ability to get people to stop and talk to her. If all those skills are honed? Those are some great Survivor skills. To be able to talk to somebody where they are and not have them always have to come to you? To get them to stop and say, 'Yes?' That seems like a pretty decent skill."

Brendan Shapiro
Age: 41
Hometown: Herndon, Virginia
Occupation: Physical Education Teacher

"He's been applying for a long time. We talked to Brendan for Millennials vs. Gen X, and we thought about him for Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers — and while we loved the guy, he just doesn't really fit. We really almost put him on season 35, and at the last minute we decided he wasn't the right fit. But now he belongs here. I think as often happens, Brendan will be glad he waited. This makeup of people seems really suited to him doing well. Brendan could absolutely win the game. He has all the skills. He's really gifted in terms of talking and telling stories, and moving people without them feeling like they're being moved. He's physically super fit. He's been around. He's started a business. He's not going to get excitable by a lot. I really like Brendan. I would put him in [the winner conversation] with Wendell and Kellyn. That's a nice pizza party!"

Michael Yerger
Age: 18
Hometown: Knoxville, Tennessee
Occupation: Real Estate Agent

"He lives his life as a 23-year-old. We're not saying sometimes he buys beer. He lives his life, in his career, as 23. Nobody ages up! Mostly they'll go, 'I'm actually 32,' and then you look on their Facebook page and they're 70! I'm impressed going into this. Michael carries himself, for the most part, not like an 18-year-old. I don't think anyone is going to think he's 18. He's physically strong. He's a good-looking guy. He's super likable. The only thing that would concern me for Michael is that he really is only 18. You can't have the maturity of a 23-year-old when you're 18. You can fake it like you do, and maybe you're ahead of the game a little, but he is an 18-year-old kid. I'm curious how that's going to go."

James Lim
Age: 24
Hometown: Los Angeles
Occupation: Business Analyst

"At the risk of sounding redundant, James is yet another guy who is working on something while he's out here. A lot of it came from our casting. He came in as a Harvard track captain with an IQ that's so high it's a squiggle. It's off the charts: 150 with a squiggle next to it. That's insane! The one thing he doesn't seem to have is emotion. I was just playfully saying, 'You seem more like a machine than a human. You seem really close to a human! But more like a machine.' He went upstairs after we were done [during casting], went up to his room, and immediately started watching Tony Robbins to figure out what I was getting at. I was just playing around! But to his credit, he took it to heart. He came back and said, 'I know what you're getting at, and I'm going to work on it. By the time I'm on Survivor, I will have mastered the social part of the game.' Tall order, but the guy has a squiggle next to his IQ!"

Donathan Hurley
Age: 26
Hometown: Phelps, Kentuckyy
Occupation: Caretaker

"I love Donathan. One of the things Survivor offers is this adventure — this once in a lifetime adventure. Some people come on Survivor, and while it's a great adventure, you can tell they're going to have other great adventures. Donathan has never had anything like this. He's spent most of his life in his town taking care of others, looking out for his family, and looking out for everybody else. He's living a life where he can't fully be himself because it's not accepted, and there's not even that world there for him to socialize in. For him, to take this big of a leap and say, 'When I finally go, I'm going big; I'm doing Survivor.' I don't know how people will be able to resist rooting for him. He's so likable. You want that guy to do well. You want him to win. You want him to take care of his family. And you want him to take some more vacations! Hollywood, or New York, or some other big city where he can thrive! I hope this is the first step of a very cool journey for him."

Jacob Derwin
Age: 22
Hometown: Merrick, New York
Occupation: Music Teacher

"He's a very likable guy. He's very fun to be around. He had a great audition tape. When we met in person, I found him really engaging. I hope he does okay. He had a big reaction when we [revealed the Ghost Island theme at the marooning]. His eyes got wide. That's the kind of excitement that makes me excited, when people are in it on it, and they're willing to say, 'I'm down with that! Let's go do it!' I think Jacob is probably going to make friends fast. I would love to see him go deep in the game."

Hear more from Probst and the other Survivor castaways in the first episode of our preseason podcast series, First One Out: Ghost Zero, embedded in the player below:

Catch up on all of our preseason interviews:

• Angela Perkins
• Bradley Kleihege
• Brendan Shapiro
• Chelsea Townsend
• Chris Noble
• Desiree Afuye
• Domenick Abbate
• Donathan Hurley
• Jacob Derwin
• James Lim
• Jenna Bowman
• Kellyn Bechtold
• Laurel Johnson
• Libby Vincek
• Michael Yerger
• Morgan Ricke
• Sebastian Noel
• Stephanie Gonzalez
• Stephanie Johnson
• Wendell Holland

What do you make of Probst's thoughts on the Survivor: Ghost Island cast? Make your own predictions in the comments below, and keep following THR.com/Survivor for daily Survivor coverage.