Before Liz Tabish auditioned for the role of Mary Magdalene in The Chosen, she was broke, depressed and considering giving up her dream of acting.
Having moved from theatre to film, TV and commercials, the Texan-born actress was in despair about ever finding a good female character to play.
Speaking to Eternity via Zoom before The Chosen Season 3 finale is screened in cinemas on 3-4 February, Liz describes how her life has changed utterly – from night to day – since winning the role of the formerly demon-possessed follower of Jesus.
“When I first booked it, I was in a state of depression. I was broke; I was living with my mum. I was really in a state of despair. I was self-medicating and couldn’t see what was next – and this was the last thing I expected,” she reveals.
“I was trying to quit acting because I thought I was chasing a dead dream’. And then when I got the audition, it kind of shocked me – [the role] felt like it was written for me and I was connecting so much with Lili and it felt so cathartic just to audition for it.”
“My eyes are opening to how wonderful life can be, and a sense of joy and peace has taken over from that sense of despair.” – Liz Tabish
(When we first meet Mary Magdalene in The Chosen, most of the characters refer to her as Lili. After Jesus heals her evil spirit, she resumes calling herself “Mary,” her birth name, and refuses to answer to the name associated with her spiritual oppression.)
“Just playing those scenes for the audition was so cathartic,” Liz continues.
“And then it’s just been this very gradual, slow-moving sense of growth, episode by episode, season by season. My eyes are opening to how wonderful life can be, and a sense of joy and peace has taken over from that sense of despair that I used to feel – to the point where these days I’m like, ‘Who was that?’ I don’t know. I don’t recognise her.’”
Now that the blockbuster multi-season retelling of the life of Jesus and his disciples is three seasons in, and looks like finishing the planned seven seasons, Liz can see how God used her suffering to draw her to him.
“I was depressed, and it feels silly because I feel so removed from that. I’m like, ‘Was that even real?’ But as I look back, I’m like, ‘No, that was rough.’ Now I’m here, I feel I had to go through certain things in order to play this character. And I feel like God was with me the whole time and has been able to use that pain for something good.
“I feel like that’s also Mary’s story. So there’s just these parallels that constantly amazed me.
“I feel like God was with me the whole time and has been able to use that pain for something good.”
Liz explains that Mary Magdalene is one of the best-written female characters she’s ever played in her life.
“This was the first time that I connected so personally to a character. I loved the psychological complexities in her, especially in episode one, Season 1, but also we can see those throughout the rest of the seasons of her living with PTSD. You know, there’s some trauma that she’s gone through and we see her triggered in Season 2, and I just love the way it’s written.
“She can be viewed through a psychoanalytic lens of someone who’s gone through trauma and is now living with it. Her demons may be literal or figurative, but they’re real to her and tormenting her. Then [we see] what real love and Jesus does in her life, which completely transforms her – which that love and Jesus can do – but she is still living with triggers, still getting scared of Roman guards or having anxieties or fears. She’s a very human character and, I think, very relatable because of that.
“I love that she’s written in that way, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s also a spiritual journey too. It’s rare that you can get a character who could be analysed in a cerebral way and spiritual way. Hats off to the writers for that.”
Playing Mary has been a spiritual journey for her too, she says.
“It’s been life-changing, the whole experience of not just being on a show that is growing, and not just getting to do what I love as a living – which I was not expecting – but to play a character that I hold so dear in my heart, this historical figure that means a lot and loved Jesus so much, that all these years later, that’s what we remember – and it’s inspiring and moving and her spirit is with me often on and off set.
“It’s inspiring and moving, and her spirit is with me often on and off set.”
In episode six of Season 3, Mary has a revealing scene with Tamar – another disciple who supports Jesus financially – in which they finally confront each other’s pain.
“Their tension keeps building. It’s these like micro-aggressions with each other for the episodes leading up to that,” Liz explains.
“So much of it is miscommunication. So much of it is just like a little underhanded comment that maybe isn’t meant to hurt the other but does, and they’re not being sensitive to each other. They’re focused on their own sensitivities; they’re both focused on their own pain. And in episode six, they let it all out and are genuinely honest with each other, even if it means saying hurtful things, but it’s in order to arrive at some sort of understanding of each other.
“Tamar says to Mary, ‘Jesus forgave you and you choose to hold onto your shame and guilt of the past.’ And it kind of snaps Mary out of this focus on herself and on her own sensitivities. Then on the flip side, Mary had no idea what Tamar had gone through and they connect over their own shared pain. By the end of that scene, they’re able to focus on each other and focus on each other’s sensitivities. There’s so much healing that comes from that when you stop focusing on yourself.
“It’s so cool to see what they end up doing too. They end up working well together, and that means financing the ministry, which is a bigger thing beyond both of them.”
“There’s so much healing that comes from that when you stop focusing on yourself.”
Liz confesses that before joining the cast of The Chosen, she had been cynical about religion, seeing Christianity and Christians as judgmental and exclusive. But now, her view of Jesus and his teachings has led her to reconsider.
“This show is reminding me of what Jesus was teaching. It was revolutionary and beautiful and moving and compassionate and inclusive and non-judgmental,” she says.
“And so it’s enlivened an excitement for what he was teaching and for who he was. I think that’s also what other people have been so hungry for in watching this show, why there’s been such a beautiful response to it – ‘Oh, that’s the Jesus that is in the gospels but come to life,’ instead of other people’s interpretations of what he was saying.”
“It’s enlivened an excitement for what he was teaching and for who he was.”
This inspired her to go back to the source material and read the gospels for herself.
“It started at the very beginning of Mary Magdalene being possessed by demons because I don’t remember that. It’s just one line in the gospels that Jesus exorcised seven demons from her. You read it and don’t process what that means, what that looks like, what is leading up to that moment. And what’s fun about The Chosen is we get to see how just one sentence in the gospels comes to life, what all that might entail in a culturally and historically pretty accurate way, you know?”
There’s a scene at the end of the first episode where Jesus comes to the bar where Mary is drinking and claims her with these beautiful lines: “I have called you by name. You are mine.”
Liz explains the resonance of those lines from Isaiah: “The whole episode opens when Mary’s a little girl and her father is reciting that to her, and she finishes that Isaiah passage and throughout the episode, she keeps returning to it as a source of strength. But she almost can’t do this alone. And so when Jesus says that, it means so much more. This passage comes into being by him saying that.”
“What’s fun about The Chosen is we get to see how just one sentence in the gospels comes to life.”
For Liz, the scene she found hardest to play but is now one of her favourites came in episode six, Season 2, when she returns to Jesus in his tent after a relapse.
“I was really nervous about doing that whole scene and honouring it and making sure that it was real and real to me. It’s one of those things you don’t want to perform or phone in because it means so much. And I put all this pressure on myself, and then of course on the day, you have to surrender. You have to do these very emotional things over and over, different angles, and you’re like, ‘How will I get through this day?’
“You just take it bit by bit. And having wonderful scene partners like Jonathan [Roumie] and Vanessa [Benavente] made it easy. The writing was just so beautiful. It ended up being really fun to be able to do.”
Liz says she has been moved to tears in nearly all of her scenes.
“I mean, there’s a few scenes where I haven’t cried. It’s a very emotional character, for sure. Well, the whole story is emotional, like seeing strangers come up to Jesus and he heals them. The whole thing is moving. It’s really hard not to be moved while we’re filming.”
“It’s really hard not to be moved while we’re filming.”
And knowing how the story ends, in Jesus’ crucifixion, how does that weigh on the cast?
“It’s just been growing over the years. During the first season, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to do the next season. We’re at this point now where we’re like, ‘Okay, I think we’re really going to do this.’ And so it’s becoming very real that we’re going to have to portray these moments that I know are going to be really hard and painful and intimidating. But the writers are so incredible that I think it’ll be done in the special ‘Chosen’ way, which is smart, moving and authentic.”
Liz says she has not seen the finale to Season 3 because she is not in a lot of the bigger scenes, and she can’t wait to watch it on screen.
“I have no idea what it’s going to be, but I’ve been told by people who have seen little sneak peeks that it’s going to be just mind-blowing.
“I don’t like church. I have always loved Jesus.”
Before our time on Zoom finishes, I ask Liz if she now considers herself a Christian.
“I have always loved Jesus, and I’ve always loved what Jesus taught, and I have been so disappointed with churches and the understood version of Jesus that they’ve taught,” she says.
“I don’t like church. I have always loved Jesus. And I see Christianity in people who don’t call themselves Christian. I see Christian behaviour and Christian hearts and people that don’t consider themselves churchgoers. And I am so moved by true Christianity: true love for others, true turning the other cheek, true loving your enemy and forgiving.
“I hope that I can call myself Christian. I keep trying, I keep wanting to be Christian and I follow Jesus. I consider myself, as much as anyone can try, a Christian. But as far as going to church and doing all of the things, no … It’s a way of being. It’s not a noun, it’s a verb. That’s how I see it. It’s about helping others. And as much as I can do that, then I am.”
The Chosen finale is in Australian and NZ cinemas on 3 and 4 February. For locations and more information, visit www.TheChosenTV.com.au.