Once again, the world is waiting for you. The Amazing Race finally returns nearly two years after production was halted due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
We caught up with host Phil Keoghan before the Wednesday, January 5, premiere to get some insight into the filming of season 33 and what fans can expect.
“It was easy to make the decision only because we sort of had a plan in place earlier,” the longtime host, 54, exclusively tells Us Weekly of pausing shooting. “We knew how we were gonna deal with it, but it was also very difficult to stop it just because knowing the sacrifices that people had made to be on The Amazing Race. It’s a big deal to leave your families. People take breaks from their jobs. And so, to suddenly say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, all of this is over right now. Go home,’ It’s not easy.”
Still, Keoghan was confident the long-running CBS series, which premiered in 2001, would pick back up when it was safe to do so.
“I never worried about the show coming back,” he says. “I just knew, but I did worry about us being away too long because fans losing hope that we wouldn’t come back. I mean, we’re always gonna come back. It’s just a long time for people to have to wait. And also, we want to restart with the same cast. So it was also about making sure that we could just pick up from where we left off. That was our goal, not to clear this slate and start again, but to continue.”
To continue, production made some crucial changes, one of which was having cast and crew travel via a charter plane to keep exposure to a minimum. “It was a lot easier on the production collectively, being able to not worry about the long lines at the airports and immigration and customs,” Keoghan says. “Normally, a race is very random chopping and changing flights, people on multiple flights, people coming in from different directions, a lot more coordination with the air travel. This time it was more consolidated and it served a purpose, which was to keep our cast in their own bubble.”
This season’s cast includes singing police officers from Buffalo, New York, YouTubers from Portland, a couple from Love Island, two men who stopped a 2015 terrorist attack on board a train in Europe, as well as a man who was wrongly convicted of murder back in 2005 and spent 10 years behind bars before his conviction was vacated.
“We reached out to people that were part of the zeitgeist,” Keoghan explains. “That was sort of the impetus for the initial search. So yes, people that walked in to the audition room – and in those days we were doing auditions in person (laughs) – we knew their faces because of popular culture.”
As for the future of the Race, he assures fans: “I have no doubt we will be back in the next short while. We’ve proven that we can go out and shoot The Amazing Race with the challenges of COVID, and thanks to the hard work that’s come from the production team and CBS. So, we’ve proven we can do it and fans want more. And as long as the fans want more, we’ll keep making them.”
The Amazing Race premieres on CBS Wednesday, January 5, at 8/7c.
Watch our interview with Phil Keoghan above or scroll down to read the full interview…
Us Weekly: Take me back to filming in February 2020. What kind of conversations were being had between production and the network when it came to halting shooting due to the coronavirus pandemic?
Phil Keoghan: Well, before we left, we knew about COVID. There were rumblings about COVID. We were aware of it. We were tracking it. So it wasn’t like it just snuck up on us and we suddenly realized that we had to stop. We were aware and we were also aware that we may have to stop, but we also, like everybody else, didn’t really know – even when we stopped the race – we didn’t really know the extent of what COVID [was or] what impact COVID would have on everyone’s lives. Not just everybody on Amazing Race, but just in general. How is this going to affect our lives going forward? But when it did happen and we made that decision, it was easy to make the decision only because we sort of had a plan in place earlier. We knew how we were gonna deal with it, but it was also very difficult to stop it just because knowing the sacrifices that people had made to be on The Amazing Race. It’s a big deal to leave your families. People take breaks from their jobs. And so, to suddenly say, “Hey, I’m sorry, all of this is over right now. Go home,” It’s not easy.
Us: Did you ever worry that the show wouldn’t be possible in the world we live in right now?
PK: I never worried about the show coming back. I just knew, but I did worry about us being away too long because fans losing hope that we wouldn’t come back. I mean, we’re always gonna come back. It’s just a long time for people to have to wait. And also, we want to restart with the same cast. So it was also about making sure that we could just pick up from where we left off. That was our goal, not to clear this slate and start again, but to continue. I was just wanting us to be able to get going as soon as possible, bearing in mind that we knew that we had to do it when it was safe.
Us: What was the energy of the racers when they came back to film?
PK: I mean, when everybody came back, everybody was in high spirits. There was a tremendous amount of anticipation, tremendous amount of camaraderie. People were closer than they’ve ever been before because their friendship extended so far back. They knew that they would eventually be coming back. So yeah, it was a very different feeling from any other race and any other start. This was a restart, but from just a start in general, is very different in a good way. Super exciting, very emotional, you know, because also hearing people’s stories and hearing what people have been through. It’s not been easy for people. Everybody has faced hardships, job losses and lost people who are close to them. And all the challenges that we’ve all dealt with. I mean, the world got turned upside down and who knew it was gonna take this long to get back? I certainly can’t say that I thought it was gonna take this long. I thought maybe three, four months, maybe six months or something. I didn’t really have a clear picture in my head about what it was gonna be, but I wouldn’t have thought it was as long as it ended up being.
Us: How much of that is addressed on the show? And I know there are a couple teams that had to drop out due to scheduling. How is that handled?
PK: Yeah, we address everything openly and honestly right at the start. The restart begins with acknowledging that the world has changed and that their lives have changed. And trying to catch up, [we want to] get the viewer up to-date with what’s changed in the lives of our cast and to just be open and honest about that. We are not wanting to hide everything or gloss anything over – to acknowledge that we stopped the race because safety was our No. 1 concern, and that restarting the race going forward, our No. 1 concern was going to continue to be the safety. I’m pleased to say that we restarted the race, we finished the race and we got everybody home safely. So it’s been our No. 1 priority from day one, from 2001, when we first shot The Amazing Race, and continues to be. And it’s why we made that a very difficult decision to stop.
Us: Speaking of safety and changes, this season you used a private charter plane. Can you kind of talk about how that, what that looks like? How does that affect the race?
PK: Well, I loved it (laughs). I know it was a lot easier on the production collectively, being able to not worry about the long lines at the airports and immigration and customs. We still had to deal with those things, but it was much easier when you’re going to a private part of the airport and the processing that’s established there is just for you. People got more rest than they’ve ever got. I got more rest on this race than I’ve had in 32 seasons. I slept more, the schedule was more regimented. Normally, a race is very random chopping and changing flights, people on multiple flights, people coming in from different directions, a lot more coordination with the air travel. This time it was more consolidated and it served a purpose, which was to keep our cast in their own bubble. And, we were able to avoid long lines at airports and the risk of exposure with someone in the public. So it worked very effectively and it’s pretty cool to see a plane, a 757, a beautiful 757 with The Amazing Race on the side. I think when we come back for another season, depending on what the status is with COVID, it’s more than likely that we would do the same thing again.
Us: One of fans’ favorite part of the race is contestants interacting with locals. Obviously, racers couldn’t really do that the same way. Can you talk about how you handled that?
PK: So, a big part of race is obviously connecting with people, local people where they live, and we’re still able to do that. We just had to do it in a different way, like the way that we have to interact with people today, distancing. Like, [if] we know that we’re going to a particular farm or a particular facility, just knowing that those people are not riddled with COVID. So it’s just a lot more logistics, ensuring that the people we’ve come into contact with didn’t have COVID and that’s just testing and it’s just a lot more work. Tough as Nails was one of the first productions to get back into production after COVID, and the COVID protocols on our show were just enormous. I said to someone, when you’ve got COVID protocols to follow, and you’re making a show, it’s almost like producing two shows at one time. And there’s only one show that the audience gets to see, which is the TV show, but the COVID show (laughs) eats up a tremendous amount of time. But the logistics and the work involved is like producing another show at the same time. It’s almost like you’re doing two shows. It’s very stressful.
Us: Any other big changes did you have to make? What about public transportation?
PK: There’s public transportation, but again, with drivers that we know have been tested. And so there’s less of the, with public transport, random connections with random people who we can’t say have not been tested. There’s still public transport, it’s just that we know that the people who are doing the public transport are safe to be interacting with.
Us: In an interview with the executive producers, they mentioned that watching the pre and post-COVID filming footage was pretty jarring. Did you experience that as well?
PK: Yes, I’ve been watching all the cuts and it is. We address that right at the start. We just remind the viewer, “Listen, what you’re about to see was a world that existed before” where random strangers would sometimes hug and connect physically with strangers, meaning our cast. So, it is jarring when you see it, because you’re like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” You know, it’s just not something you do today, right? So I think that’s gonna be a change across the board. In some cultures, people don’t shake hands. They’ll bump fists or they’ll bump elbows, or they bow. I think we’re gonna see an adjustment, certainly in the short-term, an adjustment in how we greet people. I mean, we’ve already started to do it. Where you would automatically extend a hand to somebody to shake a stranger’s hand, now it’s more like you stand back and you acknowledge them with a nod or you might fist bump, or you might elbow bump, but you certainly don’t go hugging people randomly (laughs). So, yeah, it is different in the first few episodes before the restart, you’re gonna see a different interaction with people.
Us: The cast is full of some notable people. Were you aware of their stories before they were cast? How familiar were you with some of these teams?
PK: Yes, because we reached out to people that were part of the zeitgeist. That was sort of the impetus for the initial search. So yes, people that walked in to the audition room – and in those days we were doing auditions in person (laughs) – we knew their faces because of popular culture. So absolutely, Akbar and Sheri [Cook] was a story that we’d heard about, an afterschool program that they started up. They’re both teachers. Akbar’s a principal and Sheri is a teacher. Anthony [Sadler] and Spencer [Stone], who you may remember were on the train that was going to Paris, where they attacked a terrorist and wrestled him to the ground. Anan and Natalia [Kubar], they are just fans, to be honest with you. They weren’t people that we knew before, but Natalia has been a fan of the show since she was, like, 8 years old. I love having super fans on the show cause it’s like a dream come true for them, to come on the show that they’ve been watching all their lives. And then with Connie and Sam [Greiner], that’s like a real-life …. it’s almost like The Blind Side movie part two, where Sam is a high school teacher and he brings a young man into their home to look after, to give him a solid foundation and some love and support. You’ve [also] got singing police officers who, you know, their stuff became viral, and Kim and Penn [Holderness] who do the fun, pajama dancing, family videos. And if you remember that viral wedding video where the couple were dancing, Taylor and Isaiah [Green-Jones]. And then one story, which is really heartfelt, is Ryan [Ferguson] and Dusty [Harris’] story where Ryan was wrongly convicted of a crime and spent 10 years behind bars for a crime that he didn’t commit. So yeah, very deep stories, really rich stories this season. We’ve always been about diversity and we’ve always been about rich stories that the audience can connect with.
Us: What do you think about the future of Amazing Race?
PK: I have no doubt we will be back in the next short while. We’ve proven that we can go out and shoot The Amazing Race with the challenges of COVID, and thanks to the hard work that’s come from the production team and CBS. So, we’ve proven we can do it and fans want more. And as long as the fans want more, we’ll keep making them. And quite frankly, I think Amazing Race is more relevant now than it’s ever been, just because we are more connected globally than we’ve ever been in the history of the world. And a lot, in large part, because of the way that we connect with each other globally, and the importance of us feeling like we’re a part of a global community rather than just individual countries. Even 20 years ago, when we started, it was a lot about “I’m from America, I’m from us Australia, I’m from this country.” And I don’t think we saw each other as connected as we do today. And part of that has to do with the fact that when you’ve got a virus like coronavirus, you realize we really are connected. We’re breathing the same air. We’re living on the same rock, floating out in space. And without getting cheesy and whatever, but this is the only place we’ve got right now to live in. And, I feel like with a show like Amazing Race, it is a way of celebrating the things that are right in the world and the reasons why we need to see ourselves more as a global community – looking after each other, whether it’s helping with the spread of a virus or looking after the environment, or feeling like we’re a part of something collective rather than little isolated pods of people that don’t care about what’s going on on the other side of the world. We have to care because we’re sharing the same space.
Us: After 20 years of making Amazing Race, are you still having fun, Phil?
PK: Yes, and somebody asked me that the other day, and I said, “as long as I’m still having fun, I still want to keep doing the show as long as they still want me.” I get as excited each season as I did from season 1. And it’s because the job never feels the same. I never feel like we are repeating ourselves. I always feel like it’s fresh and different. And if I was doing a studio show for 20 years and I was going back to the same place, I don’t know whether I’d have the same enthusiasm, but with Race, I’m enthusiastic about it every time because I never feel like I’m doing the same thing twice. It always feels fresh with a fresh cast, going to new places, doing new things. It always feels like a new adventure, and I can’t wait to get on the plane and go and be a part of it.