'Survivor' Season 35: Cole Medders Explains That Baffling Idol Play
Plus, the latest castaway reveals his side of the "food mongering" drama, the status of his relationship with Jessica and much more.
Welcome to The Hollywood Reporter's Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers regular season coverage! Every week, we're bringing you exit interviews with the latest person voted out, recaps from THR's very own Dan Fienberg and weekly check-ins with executive producer and host Jeff Probst. Bookmark our season 35 one-stop shop to make sure you don't miss out on any of it.
Warning: spoilers ahead for season 35, episode nine.
Apologies for using Ken McNickle's favorite word, but apparently, Mike Zahalsky's immunity idol play was a bit more nuanced than it appeared in the latest episode of Survivor.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, human mountain Cole Medders opened up about his fellow Healer's decision to play his hidden immunity idol at the latest Tribal Council, a baffling move given that Mike didn't even cast a vote for someone on the opposing alliance; he voted for Cole, sent home due to his physical prowess in the challenges, as well as some bad behavior around food.
For his part, Cole feels like some of the eating drama was a touch overblown, not unlike the wilderness therapy guide's own bloated belly after sneaking scoops of peanut butter from his tribe. (If anyone's curious about Cole's Thanksgiving intake, by the way, the climbing aficionado's holiday feast included "turkey, some ham, some sweet potato souflee, dressing, stuffing, pecan pie and all the works," according to the man himself.) Rumors of Cole's "food mongering," as he puts it, were greatly exaggerated by one of his rivals — and that's just one of a few social shackles placed upon him in the final stretch of his game.
Read on for Cole's revelations about Mike's immunity idol play, the way folks like Ben Driebergen and Chrissy Hofbeck were dismantling Cole's game, the status of his relationship with nurse Jessica Johnston, his thoughts on some of the remaining players (and things like that), his single greatest regret, and what he would do differently given a second chance at Survivor.
What happened at Tribal Council? Did something happen that we didn't see?
There was a pretty large part you missed. Mike's Statue of Liberty speech, as we like to call it in our group text, was a little bit more involved and longer. He went on a whole spiel about how he thought there were a bunch of hypocrites in the group who were putting a target on my back for things that had not actually happened, while they themselves were being dishonest and manipulative. He was scolding them, hoping they would vote for him and his idol. Also, Mike pulled his idol out before the votes and put it around his neck. He pulled out a fake idol and put it around Joe's neck.
Oh, wow. How did people react?
I wasn't clued in at all. I knew Mike had his idol, but I didn't know he had a fake idol. Earlier in the day, Mike asked me if I had an idol, because if I had an idol, we could make something happen tonight. I wasn't sure if I could trust Mike, because I knew he was in with Ben. I gave him a half-hearted answer: "I don't know, man. I might!" Maybe if I had told him, "No, I don't. I absolutely don't." Maybe things would have been different. But he thought I still had the idol from the beach.
How did Joe react to the fake idol? Did he seem surprised?
He seemed a little surprised. He didn't know what to make of it. He obviously knew it was a fake idol. I think a lot of people suspected it was fake. But it was enough in everyone's mind to solidify the plan: "Yeah, we're still voting Cole."
Did it look convincing?
It was just as convincing as some of the other idols I've seen played in Survivor history. He collected all of the tassels and beads off of the tribe camps he had been to, and combined them all together. He wrapped it in the parchment with the write-up for his idol, in order to make it look more convincing.
There's a moment at Tribal where it looks like you're shrinking to slip under the radar. Did you ever think you had a chance to dodge the vote that night, or did you feel confident the axe was coming your way?
I was ninety percent sure I was going home. It was in no way a blindside for me. Devon had actually come up to me earlier in the day and said, "Hey Cole, I think you're taking flak for some stuff you don't deserve. But I want to let you know that you're getting voted out tonight. You're a big physical threat. I really like you and I want to be honest to your face and tell you we're all voting for you. Save yourself if you can, but you're probably going home." He came up to me on the beach and told me that to my face.
Did you appreciate the head's up, or would you have rather not had that hanging over your head all day?
No, I appreciated it. I knew it was coming. It showed me that for most of the people who voted for me, a lot of them told me similar things, that it was in no way personal. I think it was personal for Ben, but outside of that, I think it was strictly the physical threat kind of thing.
What were you being blamed for that you shouldn't have been blamed for?
Back at the [Yawa] tribe, the extent of my food-mongering was taking a couple of extra scoops of peanut butter, which I did while people weren't paying attention — though I guess they noticed! It was two extra bites, and that's it. I guess Ben saw me eat a fish to myself. In my defense, I was catching everyone fish every single day, so I was going to eat that fish to replenish my energy. When we got to the merge, Ben very masterfully went and told everyone what I had done and exaggerated it to a point where when it got back to me eventually, I went, "Whoa, that never happened. It never went down like that." I was trying to make people appreciate me by cooking for everyone at almost every meal, but Ben was telling everyone that I was adding in extra portions of rice while I was cooking, so me cooking was actually hurting my game! (Laughs.) The whole thing that happened with Chrissy at the beach with the idol scramble, she came back and told everyone that I had just gone down and tackled her out of the blue while she was dealing with a migraine. Of course her alliance kind of believed her. I think that's where some of Desi's ill feelings [toward Chrissy] came from. And then the vote [during Desi's final Tribal Council] where I flipped, nobody believed I had voted for Joe, because of that missing vote from Lauren. They all thought that was Lauren's vote, and that they hadn't read my vote because it didn't matter [to the end result], and so they all thought I was lying.
So, you had some stink on you that was going to be very difficult to scrub off. Did you feel like even if you reached the end of the game, it would be impossible to wash it all off?
It felt pretty hopeless at that point, honestly. I knew I was going home soon. I knew my only chance was an idol or winning immunity. That was it. No one was going to work with me. A lot of people came up to me that day on the beach before the vote and told me how it was going to go. I don't know if it was just jury management, but I felt I had done a pretty good job of at least making people like me. I thought I was fun to be around at camp. I had stopped any sloppy eating habits at that point. Maybe if I had gotten to the end? I don't know. I'm hoping my likability would have come across at that point, but it would have been really hard to reverse.
In terms of the eating, what would you say to someone entering Survivor with a similar physique. You lost a good amount of weight, all muscle mass. Is that an inadvisable way to enter the game?
Well, [Jeremy Collins won Survivor: Second Chance], so he obviously he could do it. It makes it difficult, but I don't think it's an excuse. Everyone's struggling out there, and there were other athletic guys out there, too. I do have a unique metabolism and a unique diet plan, but if I had been mentally prepared for what was coming, I could have controlled those impulses to eat more. I would have been more self-aware. I didn't understand how significant the food depravation was going to be. I didn't get it. When you watch the show, they don't focus necessarily on that all of the time. They focus on the gameplay. Here I was thinking they would give us protein bars behind the scenes, but no, not at all. At it's best, you have a handful of rice a day.
If you had a secret stash of orange soda somewhere out there…
Oh, it would be a game changer.
I want to ask you about a few of the people still in the game, starting with the final two Healers on the board: Mike and Joe…
Joe and Mike are probably two of my favorite personalities from this whole cast. They're hilarious. Some people don't find Joe's sense of humor quite as funny as Mike's, but everyone adored Mike. He's just such a nice guy. He has a great sense of humor. From the get-go, Mike and I had made a final two pact that wasn't shown. We honored that most of the time. Before he voted me off, we had a conversation where he felt bad voting for me. I told him: "Mike, I'm gone at this point. There's no hope. Vote me to keep yourself in favor, and go win this thing for me. I can't win at this point." But watching Joe and Mike interact? It was a riot. They would entertain the whole camp just by interacting with each other. They had almost this brotherly love type of argument with each other, where they're putting each other down, but it's hilarious at the same time. It was a blast to be around both of them.
How about Chrissy, who has taken some heat in the exit press over the last several weeks? Do you share those sentiments that some of the other players coming off of the show seem to have toward her?
No, I think every single person in this cast is an incredible person. I think they've all done pretty amazing things with their personal lives at home. I don't think you should be held accountable personally for the things you do out there. You're playing a game for a million dollars. Going into it, everyone knows that it's a cutthroat and manipulative kind of game. That's how you get to the end. She's a really sweet person, when I've had the chance to talk to her. I didn't get to know her that well in the [game] and I know she's part of the reason I had so much pinned on me, but that's just part of playing the game. Some people get rubbed the wrong way, but I probably didn't take the game personally enough, which was one of my biggest flaws: separating the game from personal interactions and turning the game on and off, when it should always be on. Chrissy never rubbed me the wrong way. I think she's a sweet person with an amazing family.
Let's bring up the Cole Slayer, Lauren Rimmer, who bested you in your final immunity challenge. Is she playing a better game than people might realize?
Lauren has done an amazing job of being on the bottom and flipping it to her advantage somehow. She uses people's information really, really well. People would share things with her and she would just take that and use it against them in a way that I was trying to, but never could. She did it very well. She was a rock in that immunity challenge. I was so surprised when my urn fell off. Good for her. That was such an impressive win.
You mentioned Ben's role in exaggerating your food-mongering ways, as you put it. Was it always contentious between you two, or was their some level of mutual respect for one another?
Watching back the confessionals, it's hard to know if he had any level of respect for me. I'd like to think he did. He told me to my face: "I'm coming for you, Cole. You're a threat, and I'm coming for you." I respect that, and he got me. Good game for him. He told me he was coming for me, and he got me, so good job there. I think he's playing a really strong game. I don't hold any of that against him. That's how you win Survivor.
Did you have any kind of relationship with Ryan?
We did! Believe it or not, we have a lot of similar tastes in terms of sports, video games and music. We would sit and talk all the time about that stuff. He would always tell me, and this is good jury management too, if he gets to that point, "You're so awesome, Cole! I think you would be one of my best buds back home." Stuff like that. We did have a good friendship going on, but not enough to save me.
Speaking of stuff like that, I would love to get some insight into JP Hilsabeck. What is it like to interact with JP on Survivor, and do you have any question suggestions for my inevitable interview with JP — anything that's going to get him talking?
Uh, you could ask him about girls. He'll respond to that. (Laughs.) Maybe outdoorsy stuff. We definitely bonded over rock climbing and mountaineering while we were on the show, and we ended up following through on those plans. We climbed a mountain over the summer together. But he is definitely a Huntington Beach bro, in all definitions.
What's the status between Cole and Jessica? Inquiring minds would like to know.
Me and Jess… I'll always think she is the nicest, sweetest, most sincere and genuine person that you could ever meet. We've gotten to hang out in Chicago at Lollapalooza, we were both in L.A. together for the premiere, and we have L.A. in December coming up for the finale, and we even have a ski trip planned with some of the other castmembers coming in January, too. But right now, we're just really good friends. We're both at pretty different places. I'm doing a lot of traveling and I'm off the grid for my job, and she's very passionate about her career. There's always room for something down the road, maybe.
Would you play Survivor again, and if so, what needs to change between now and round two?
I would do this again in a heartbeat. It's crazy. I never watched the show religiously. It would have helped if I had studied more. When I went back and watched the episodes, I wouldn't have time to watch them all the way through, so I would fast forward through the small, social day-to-day stuff, which is what I should have studied. That's where the game is played, the minutiae in between Tribal Council and challenges. That's what I was fast-forwarding through. I would bring a lot more self-awareness. I would know what to expect from my body, and not let that control me. Maybe I would go to Tribal Council before the merge. That's something that really hurt me. That's where you see the consequences for your actions, at Tribal Council. I had not seen up until that point that my actions were resulting in anything that would make people come after me. I think going to Tribal before the merge is a really valuable lesson for a first-time player.
How differently does this season if you had thrown a challenge at Yawa and Roark stays in the game at least another few days?
That was definitely my biggest mistake. Mike, Jessica and I have talked after the show and we feel like we should have thrown the challenges in the middle. It would have made an easier trail for all of us. Mike still has life in the game, obviously, but it really could have worked out for me and Jessica. (Laughs.)
Follow THR.com/Survivor all season long for weekly conversations with Jeff Probst, exit interviews with the castaways as they come off the show, and weekly recaps from THR's very own Dan Fienberg.