'Survivor' exclusive: Jeff Probst dishes on heroes, villains and lots more
Seriously, could "Heroes vs. Villains" be any more entertaining? More exciting? More unpredictable?
The 20th season of "Survivor" proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that aging is not a bad thing. Not for our "Heroes" and "Villains" and certainly not for the mother of all competition reality shows. Even Emmy-winning host Jeff Probst just gets better with time.
With only the three-hour finale left to air on Sunday (final episode plus the reunion show), it's still anybody's game. Isn't that the best gift our TV sets could give us?
Thursday night's episode narrowed the finalist pool to maniac Russell, shrewd Parvati, intuitive Sandra, mature Jerri and Colby. Colby, Colby, Colby, what we can say about you except that you're still a nice guy, except when you're in a bad mood, which is, like, every day in Samoa? (P.S. What do you have against chocolate?) Buh-bye, Rupert. Don't let all that wood you chopped in the middle of the night hit you in the butt as you snuff your torch. (Sheesh, what happened to the lovable pirate?)
"Survivor" still wins its time slot, is averaging 13.5 million viewers and is up 5% from the first Samoa season, which introduced us to the mighty villain Russell. From Sugar's commitment to competition —running topless when her top fell off — to Coach sobbing in Tyson's arms, to Boston Rob fainting (or what was that?), to James getting injured again, to Tyson and J.T.'s boneheaded moves, to Parvati's double Immunity Idol takedown and Danielle's Tribal Council breakdown, this edition of "Survivor" has been, without a doubt, one of the best shows of this TV season.
Here's my exclusive chat with Probst, who is in New York preparing for what will undoubtedly be a terrific reunion show. Our conversation may be as lengthy as a Tribal Council, but Probst doesn't hold back.
Who took their Hero or Villain role and hit it out of the park?
When you come into this game with expectations based on past performance, Russell certainly has lived up to expectation and hype. He was as much of a villain this time, if not more, and I think he gave the audience everything they would have hoped for.
I think Parvati also delivered as expected. She’s become a fantastic player in this game, and she’s doing it again in terms of strategy and knowing how to handle somebody like Russell and keeping an alliance together.
Sandra: While it doesn’t appear that Sandra does very much, if you go back and watch the season that she won, “Pearl Islands,” she did the same thing. She only made moves when she really needed to, and they were usually pretty big moves.
Colby, I think, is the standout disappointment and surprise. And I think Colby will say the same thing. The fact that he’s still in the running speaks to why you should never give up on the game. He’s still got a shot to win this thing. With the jury filling up with Heroes, if Colby got to that final vote, he’s got a shot to win for no other reason than the Heroes don’t want a Villain to win.
And most people still remember him as the nicest guy in the world.
Colby’s got a lot going for him. But in terms of how he’s played this season, even Colby would have to admit that he’s not lived up to what he hoped it would be. He’s stepped out of more challenges first than, I think, anybody.
What do you think happened?
Well, age. Ten years after he played the first time. But I think the biggest thing is that he just got off on the wrong foot. He got embarrassed by Coach in the opening challenge, and the fact that he and Tom and Stephanie were on the wrong side of the alliance on the Heroes tribe, it just discouraged him. He was down. He seemed very discouraged at times. The old Colby would have fought to stay in the game, but the other thing I think Donaldson learned is that it’s easy to be in a good mood when you’re winning. When he played in Australia, he dominated to such a degree that nobody could really touch him. This season, there were a lot of really good players.
It’s really been surprising because he’s still in fantastic shape. He’s older, but it’s not like he’s an old man.
He came out in absolutely phenomenal shape. The way your body looks and how much body fat you have is really no precursor to how well you will do on “Survivor.” Look at Boston Rob. He’s in the worst shape he’s ever been. The guy had a full-on belly and man breasts, and he could have kicked anybody’s ass in any challenge in that game. And he did. He was unstoppable. But when he took his shirt off, you were like, ‘Whoa! You look like a fat old Italian man!”
Before we go on a Boston Rob tangent, let’s talk about the last of the final five. This is a very different Jerri.
I am so happy for Jerri because, from my very humble seat at Tribal Council, it seems to me that Jerri finally achieved what she wanted. It feels like she’s truly come into her own, into who she truly is, which is a woman who is basically a very nice person, who has a spiritual side to her that she honors and also wants to play this game called “Survivor.” I think the pieces all came together for her. And Jerri has a very good shot of winning this game. She might be right now in terms of the jury the most liked and maybe the favorite to win. She hasn’t irritated a lot of people. She’s been really honest about how she wants to play. I’m just happy that she finally found a place to live within that game that still feels true to who she is. I remember during the visit with the loved ones, when her sister was playing with her, there was such happiness that she and her sister were enjoying this experience together. Colby was admonishing his brother for not getting it done fast enough. Very different approaches.
Don’t you think Rupert also has been very different this time around? He was Mr. Nice Guy.
He’s been a grump. He’s been a grump. He’s. Been. A Grump. He’s been a know-it-all.
Exactly! What happened?
I don’t know what happened. I agree. I felt that Rupert was a bit of a bully. And maybe Rupert suffers a little bit from “I’ve been reading my own press" too much. "I’m the greatest guy in the world.” Everybody has their flaws and everybody has their Achilles' heel. And I think that Rupert’s might be that he’s lost touch a little bit with how he’s perceived because I don’t think everybody on the show loved Rupert. I think they got a little bit tired of Rupert as well.
I still miss Boston Rob and I consider it a travesty that he’s gone. If Tyson hadn’t made his stupid move, don’t you think Boston Rob would still be around?
Most likely, yeah, because Russell or Parvati would have been gone. Rob had the strategy right and Tyson blew it. I’m sure Rob is thinking Tyson cost him a shot at a million bucks. Rob was so in control of how to play the game. I’d say that Russell, Rob and Parvati are probably the three best overall players. Russell’s always going to struggle with his social game, and that’s one element of it. And Rob can struggle with his social game as well. But they’re all three very good players. If I had to pick one player to bet on every time, I’d bet on Boston Rob. If I had to pick one player that had the best chance of winning every time, I’d bet on Parvati. Which I can’t believe I’m saying because the first time she was on, I thought “eh.” OK. Parvati has now become a bona fide “Hall of Fame” Survivor player.
There are so many different ways of playing. You can be like Natalie and align yourself to the right person and beat them in the end. You can be the really hard-core person, like Parvati, and people respect that and you win the end. What makes the very best player?
I think the first essential element is the ability to adapt moment to moment. When you look at all the different winners, there’s no one single strategy that will ever work. It’s always depended on the people you’re playing with. When Natalie won, her strategy was, “I’m gonna hook up with this terror of a man, Russell, and hang on and see if I can make it to the end and then beat him in the vote.” When you’re someone like Tom Westman, in his season, he was so physically dominant that he really had to keep winning or he would have been voted out. And I think that what all the winners do, from Richard Hatch to the end of this season, all of them are really good at day by day. Parvati is a master of the day by day. She looks and assesses: "There’s a time when I will tell Russell something, and there’s a time when I won’t. And then I’ll deal with not telling him when he finds out." That, I think, that’s the really big key.
And Russell will tell you that his strategy works just fine for him. He made it to the end the first time and he’s in the top five now. And for him telling people works because he gets more loyalty from them and he’s a guy that needs loyalty from people. I’m with you. I don’t know that I would. Also it depends where you are in the game. Sandra is so deep in the game now that it’s not going to hurt you with many people. But if you find that Idol on Day 5, you may have to tell some people.
Like Parvati was smart about who she told.
Yeah, what did you think of Danielle’s breakdown?
Oh, my God. I wish I could see that entire Tribal.
Yeah, that was pretty good.
What happened to her? She was doing so well.
I know. I think it was just wear and tear.
The rest of the players didn’t have the advantage of having seen Russell play. [Seasons 19 and 20 were filmed back to back in Samoa, months before Season 19 aired]. Did you tell the players anything about him?
We told them that there was one person you don’t know. But you should read into the fact that in one season, he made it into the top five most notorious men to play this game. And you should read into that everything you would imagine would come into making it to this point. And everyone nodded and knew. We felt it was an advantage and a disadvantage on both sides. The two points in question are: You don’t know how he plays his game, so that’s an advantage for him and it’s a disadvantage for him because it brings a target on his back. On the flip side, Russell doesn’t know any of you guys. He has no relationships. He’s never been out to have a beer with you, or your families haven’t visited each other over the last several years. So he has no relationships coming in. That could work against him. On the other side, he hasn’t pissed any of you off. So that could work for him. So we felt it very much evened everything out, and anybody who uses the excuse, “Well if I had known how Russell plays, I would have gotten rid of him earlier,” well, you know what? He showed his true colors pretty damn early in this game.
Russell didn’t know he hadn’t won Season 19 when he played 20. Do you think that in his mind he thought he’d won and that affected how he played this?
Yeah, I think he thought he’d won. And if he had insight into how he played, he might have played differently. But it would be easy for him to say that. I’m not sure it’s really true. Russell seems to be pretty true to who he is. So I’m not really sure he could have played differently.
What about Coach? I was let down by Coach this time. He wasn’t the big character he was before. He did have his breakdown, which I appreciated very much.
In context, he’s on a season with 20 gigantic personalities. Normally on “Survivor,” you have one or two big personalities, and he happened to be one of them. This season, you had to be huge to stand out.
It almost seemed sometimes like he was ready to go.
No, I never got that feeling.
I think the Tribals this time have been so exciting. I could watch an hour of just Tribal Council.
Keep writing stories like that, because I agree with you. We have so much story to put in, and Tribal is very short in our shows. It serves its purpose, but I’m like you, we had Tribal Councils this year we could have aired in their entirety. They delivered. Every single person that was on the show this season gave us what they promised they would. I was really impressed. Even starting with Sugar first off, she didn’t quit. She came out giving us a great moment in the opening challenge when she went topless. All the way to the final episode, I was really proud of the choices we made and impressed by how this group of people delivered.
One of the things that makes Tribal great is that you have this way of bringing out information and you don’t take crap from people, but you’re also not mean or rude to them. Do you have any rules going in?
The only rule I really have is that I’m the audience. I’m just saying what I think, and I feel pretty confident that I watch the show the way most people watch it at home. I’m not playing for $1 million. But I’m going to ask all the questions that you’re thinking at home. Like, “Colby, why so much attitude over me just handing you some chocolate? I’m just offering you chocolate. There’s no trick." And then if Colby says something lippy, I’m going to say the same thing someone at home would say, which is, “Dude, back up. I’m still hosting this show last I checked.” And that’s all in good fun. It can get a little heated at times, in the moment. But upon reflection, I think everyone associated with the show knows that we’re all doing our part. Russell’s a maniac to be around. But that’s his job on the show. And my job is to ask questions and get information, without giving anything away or editorializing too much. And sometimes it appears you’re beating somebody up or being kind to somebody else. But I always feel that at the end of the Tribal Council, that no one feels they were unfairly picked on. It’s usually pretty universal. Just due to the time constraints of our show, we can’t show all of Tribal Council. So you only see five or six questions, and they’re the five or six questions we need to ultimately tell the story. But if I ask somebody: “Do you feel you’re pulling your own weight?” I’ve asked that question of everybody in some form or another. Most people don’t walk away going, “I knew I was going because of the questions Jeff asked me.”
How long do they go?
They can easily go an hour. But I’m getting better at my job. There’s different layers of psychology to it. On one level, Tribal Council is serving the need of climaxing that week’s episode. But on another level, it might be me setting up somebody for two Tribal Councils from now. Someone that I can tell is deep in an alliance and not going anywhere, and I might want something from them in a couple of weeks. So I might drop a couple of bombs at Tribal that have nothing to do with that night’s episode merely to get inside their head. With those kinds of ideas in mind, sometimes you’ll do a Tribal that’s an hour long, just to keep them there an hour and annoy them a little bit. Or maybe try to teach them some lesson. Another time, we go for 15 minutes and we’re done. They never ever have an idea of what it is you’re looking for. Sometimes you’ll ask 12 questions and say OK. Next night you’re asking 112 questions, and you still seem frustrated when they leave, so they’re never sure. I don’t want them spending time trying to figure out me.
Is the finale going to be huge?
I think it’s going to be lively. I think it’s definitely going to be a lively event. I’m excited to talk to everyone. It’s a good finish, I think. There’s still a lot of game left to play, and it’s exciting to watch in the final two-hour finale. And then I think we’re going to have a really fun reunion show. There’s going to be some animosity, for sure. Regardless, win, lose or draw, people have strong feelings for each other, and there’s a lot of animosity between the Heroes and Villains that I think is going to come out in the live show.
— Maria Elena Fernandez
Top photo: At the Tribal Council in the May 13 episode, from left, Colby Donaldson, Jerri Manthey, Russell Hantz, Parvati Shallow, Rupert Boneham and Sandra Diaz.
Second photo: Survivors and loved ones participate in Reward Challenge on the May 13 episode.
Third photo: Parvati Shallow.
Bottom photo: Rupert and Russell.
All photos courtesy CBS.