'Survivor': Jeff Probst Breaks Down Season 35's New Status Quo
The executive producer and host tells THR all about the new secrets and alliances, and bids farewell to the two newest members of the jury.
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, episodes ten and eleven.
The Survivor double-header has become a seasonal event, often filled with massive shifts in the status quo. It was no different in the case of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, as the so-called alliance of seven (or the Knights of the Roundtable, if you prefer) caved in on itself two votes earlier than three of the members expected.
In the first hour of the aptly named two-part "Buy One, Get One Free," professional fisherman Lauren Rimmer lived up to her Hustler moniker and hustled a new alliance together: former tribe mate Devon Pinto plus Ben Driebergen and Ashley Nolan of the Heroes tribe, all three of whom were aligned with Lauren as part of the majority seven. Together, they teamed with the two remaining Healers on the board, the "Coconuts" duo of Mike Zahalsky and Joe Mena, to blindside three of the original members of the seven: idol-possessing Ryan Ulrich, actual actuary Chrissy Hofbeck, and stoic fireman JP Hilsabeck, the latter of whom was sent packing in the first Tribal Council of the episode.
"Seven is often talked about as being an important time in the game and historically it does seem to play out that a lot of big moves happen at this magical number. I think this [episode] is a really good example of not only how fast the game can shift but how little it takes to shift it," host and executive producer Jeff Probst tells The Hollywood Reporter about the radical power shift within the alliance of seven. "It can be a feeling, it can be a partially overheard conversation, it can be someone choosing the wrong person for a reward, it can be a seemingly innocent comment made at Tribal Council. When you get this far into the game, every player can see the finish line and they become very sensitive to the nuances of every other player. It's almost as if you have to prepare for the game the same way you would prepare to beat a lie detector. You have to imagine the most difficult situation you could find yourself in and imagine the worst response you could give to that moment, and then build from there — because if you make it deep in the game, there is a very good chance you will do something 'out of character' that will threaten to destroy what you've built." "
"I guess what I'm saying is, it would be helpful if you're a sociopath," Probst adds, which I would add must be music to Survivor: Thailand fans' ears.
As for whether or not strategically savvy players like Ryan and Chrissy should have seen the flip coming, Probst says, "Sometimes you're on the right side of the game and sometimes you're on the bottom. It's easy to say someone 'missed it,' but the more accurate truth is that the game is so complicated you aren't going to see everything. So the question isn't so much about if you missed a moment, but rather what you do to recover from it. The game is not over. Ryan and Chrissy are still in the game, and if Survivor teaches only one thing, it should be this — you never give up."
Indeed, even the people within the new power foursome would be wise to keep an eye on each other for another imminent blindside. In forming their new core group, Lauren, Ashley, Devon and Ben all laid their secrets out on the table — the knowledge of Ryan's hidden immunity idol (which is now out of the game, after playing it in the episode's second Tribal Council) and Lauren's secret vote that she earned two episodes ago. But not every secret is out in the open: Ben managed to find an immunity idol of his own, and rather than tell the others, he's opted to keep his advantage a secret for now — an appropriate development, considering Ben is also operating as a secret agent within the Ryan and Chrissy alliance, the two of them firmly believing Ben to be on the outside of Lauren, Ashley and Devon's new faction.
"What's really funny about this season is the big creative idea we had was to have this be a season of 'secrets,'" says Probst. "That's literally the word I wrote down: secrets. So we built the entire creative around this idea that several players would have these very valuable secrets. We never even considered that nearly every secret would be shared, and often with multiple players! So now the idea of a secret is actually way more valuable than we anticipated, because secrets are so freaking rare!"
"I think Ben's idea to keep the idol to himself was brilliant," he continues. "He already knows he's a threat in the game and that won't change until he is voted out. So he gains nothing by sharing that information. If the situation was different and he truly believed he had a partner, then maybe he shares it, but at this point, that is his only hope."
Whether he knows it or not, Ben was wise to keep the news of his idol to himself, considering Devon and Ashley were at least debating turning on the former marine in the episode's second Tribal Council. Ultimately, they decided to vote proven wildcard and tribe troublemaker Joe Mena out of the game, a choice that's certain to be endlessly picked apart by Survivor prognosticators in the coming days. Guilty as charged.
For his part, here's how Probst views the decision: "The question of who to vote out and when is such a tricky thing. I fully understand the idea of Joe appearing as a bigger threat — in the moment — than Ben. With Ben, you have a lone soldier. Everybody seems to want Ben gone, and if you all agree to get Ben next time then it feels like you have a free pass to take out Joe and get rid of the crazy energy that could flip the game upside down. It's a calculated risk, but on paper it sounds good because Joe has connections and Ben doesn't. So in that sense, Joe has more potential power whereas Ben has only himself. I would consider a move like that even though it appears risky, because if you aren't playing to win, then you are wasting your time."
With that said, let's waste no more time pouring one out for the two most recently eliminated players, beginning with JP Hilsabeck, the Jai Courtney of Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, voted out at the final nine without any apparent idea it was coming his way.
Here's how Probst viewed JP in the preseason: "JP… my opinion about him is changing a little bit. When he first came in [for casting], he was very confident. He's a very likable guy. He's a fireman. He's clearly chosen a profession that's dangerous and heroic. But when I saw him on the boat this morning, I did have a feeling… is this a guy who is still young enough that he's used to being the alpha? He's good-looking. He probably gets lots of attention from women. He's charming; guys want to be around him. He's a fireman. That will open a lot of doors. And on Survivor? No one cares. In fact, those are three reasons to get rid of you. I felt I saw a little bit of JP going, 'OK! This is… this is going to be full-on. I'm pretty cool in my world, and I have 17 other people who couldn't care less.'"
And here's how Probst views JP now: "My truth on JP is that I think he had a decent time but not a great time. I don't think he cared that much that he was voted out and wouldn't want to play again. JP seems to be at a point in his life where he says yes to adventure and takes what comes his way. He was pleasant to be around, very respectful of the process, but I don't think he lost a lot of sleep over not winning."
Then there's Joe Mena, who repeatedly stated his only reason for playing Survivor was to win the million dollars (before taxes) and "secure the bag," as he often put it. The penultimate Healer in the game, Joe drew comparisons to former Survivor champion Tony Vlachos for his similar tactics, his fixation on idols, his law enforcement background, and similar hairlines. In the end, however, the bag remains unsecured, at least where Joe is concerned.
Here's how Probst viewed Joe in the preseason: "Joe is interesting, because Joe could have also been a Hustler, and we talked about that. But one thing that struck me about him is when Joe came in, I knew he was a probation officer, and I had an image of a probation officer as sort of a mean guy who holds you accountable, and I've watched too many movies. What Joe said is, 'No, I'm a guy helping people transition. They're on probation. This is a period of being tested. You have to show me you're doing the right thing. If you don't, there's a consequence.' But I feel that as a healer, I would want that in my probation officer, if I were ever in a probation situation! Someone who says, 'I'm an aid, but I have to hold you accountable.' That's what you want. It's like good therapy. 'I'm here, but I'm not going to tell you what you want to hear. I'm going to tell you what I see.' To me, Joe is a healer. What I like about Joe is he's a healer who has been around the block. As a probation officer, he's not just sitting in a pretty office. It's being out there and dealing with some people who have been through some stuff. I think Joe is going to have a great read on people. I have high hopes for Joe. He's very likable, and he's the kind of guy who does well on Survivor. He's that East Coast blue collar. 'I'll dig up that idol in the middle of the night, don't you worry, Jeffrey.'"
And here's how Probst views Joe now: "I feel the same way, only more. Joe has a great read on people especially when it comes to reading what will get under their skin. I think Joe was underestimated as being a bit one dimensional, but that's not how I saw him. I think with the right alliance, Joe could go even deeper. The tough thing for Joe might be convincing a jury to give him the money because he doesn't always come off as likable. He's blunt. He's abrasive. He'll lie. Those qualities can get you far in the game, but the question is could Joe then turn on the charm and persuade the jury that he's actually a likable person playing a devilish game. I hope he plays again."
For his part, in the preseason, Joe made it very clear to me that he was only interested in playing Survivor the one time. Does he still feel that way now? We'll find out soon. My exit interview with Joe (and JP), coming your way sooner than you can say "deuces."
Check back with THR.com/Survivor all season long for more from Probst, weekly exit interviews with the eliminated castaways, and weekly recaps from THR's very own Dan Fienberg.