'Survivor' Season 35: JP Hilsabeck Tells His Side of the Heroes' Tale
The strong and silent firefighter speaks out on his 'Survivor' experience.
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.
Two days before the start of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, firefighter JP Hilsabeck readily owned the fact that he wasn't exactly a Survivor know-it-all. He had other reasons for why he was in Fiji, about to start his quest to win the million dollar prize.
"I wouldn't say I'm a huge Survivor fan," he told me during our preseason conversation, two days before the game began. "There are some people who are over the top with it. I just say I've been kind of watching the show as I've been growing up, and as the shows have progressed through it all. I always thought it would be very cool. I'm a super outdoorsy type of guy, and things like that. So I was like, hey! This would be a great opportunity to do that. And I finally got that opportunity to come onto the show. Here I am. Here I am talking to you. And it's exciting! Super exciting."
Does he still find the Survivor experience exciting, months and months after that conversation? The third Hero eliminated from the season, not to mention the first of two casualties in this past week's double-header, JP was doubtlessly an asset during the game's various group challenges, and an even sturdier source of nourishment for the castaways as the season's most prolific fisherman (with apologies to Lauren Rimmer). But when it came time to face off against host Jeff Probst at Tribal Council, or sell Chrissy Hofbeck on his worthiness as her ride-or-die ally, JP was considerably less confident — at least as far as how it appeared in his limited time on screen.
Is there more than meets the eye with JP Hilsabeck, the strong-and-silent third member of the Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers jury? Read our exit interview below for his thoughts on the season and the castaways he met during his time in Fiji, and judge for yourself accordingly.
How's everything going, JP? What's new in your world?
What's new in the world of JP… well, right now, I'm training to be a paramedic. I'm going through that program. I'm about halfway done. That's kind of my number one priority right now, getting through paramedic school, seeing it through, making sure I do well, and come out on the end.
Have you been building toward paramedic school for a while?
I've been a fireman, and after you've been a firefighter for so long, the department actually sends you through paramedic school, because that's what they need: paramedics to go out there and help better serve the community.
Awesome. Let's talk Survivor. Last night was the fateful night. What was it like to revisit your last Tribal Council in the game?
Ah, I have to say, it was a little bit nerve-racking! I knew it was coming and everything, but when I sat down to watch the show, I kept wondering: "How's the episode going to go? How's it going to be portrayed," and whatnot. I knew the blindside was coming. It was really kind of cool to see the other side of it all, how the other people were going off and stabbing you in the back and how it all went down and how the plan got formulated — how it all worked out in the end. It was nerve-racking and I was nervous, but in the end, it was nice to see how everything played out.
How did it measure up to what you were expecting?
At first, I didn't have any idea [I was being targeted] at Tribal until we were sitting there and my first name came up. It just clicked. I knew it was me. And I knew it: "Damn, those four went away and started talking and everything started changing." Ben had been with them, and Ben and I both knew that we couldn't go to the end together and one of us was going to have to get voted out. It was just a matter of using each other to get as far as we could, but sooner or later one of us was going to flip on the other. Even though he didn't write my name down, he was still part of the plan. And they got Joe and Doctor Mike to go ahead and throw down some more votes, and that's how it all worked out. But hey, I have to take my hat off to them, right?
Of course. Why do you think they targeted you instead of Ryan or Chrissy?
You know, I'm not 100% too sure why they came after me. The only thing I can come up with is the physical threat part of it, only because as the game gets further on and you win immunity once or twice, all of the sudden you make it through two more Tribals and you're on the side of an alliance that people need, and if you make it through one or two more, suddenly you're in the final three. I think they figured they would cut me while they can. Good job to them.
You talked at Tribal about how it's important to have plan B, but you have to act on plan A first. In your mind, did you have an idea for where you wanted things to go once there was no one left except for the alliance of seven? What did you see as your path towards the end?
My whole path towards the end was probably sitting there with Ryan and Chrissy. I thought that was a great final three to go there with, because we're all different. Different backgrounds, and we all played a lot differently. I thought it would be a good middle of the road [combination], where everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, where it's not just one-sided.
A minute ago, you said that you and Ben wouldn't take each other to the end. Why did you feel that way?
Just because we both have the Hero role. He was a marine and I'm a fireman. We both probably consider ourselves likable people and whatnot. We both couldn't go to the end. There was going to come a point in the game where either he needs to be voted out or I need to be voted out. He took the first step, and he got me voted out. He did a great job. Great gameplay by him.
Let's look back at the start of the game, the marooning, when you first find out that you were part of the Heroes tribe. Survivor is already such a crazy adventure, but did you feel an extra level of pressure with the Hero label?
You know, I think it did. Especially with me being a firefighter, and being portrayed as a firefighter on the show. A lot of people think of firefighters as professionals who always do the right thing, who are always morally straight, who come off as a good person. That's something I tried to carry with myself throughout the show. That's the type of person I am. I wanted to carry that throughout the show.
You see a player like Tony Vlachos, who won Survivor a few seasons ago and was part of the season that aired right before yours, and he's a police officer who is willing to swear on his badge in order to succeed in the game. For you, in terms of being a firefighter as well as also being labeled as a Hero, did that keep you from wanting to play a cutthroat game — that you were representing something bigger than yourself?
Yeah, exactly. I did kind of feel that way. I wasn't just representing myself. I was wearing the T-shirt of my department, so I'm not only representing myself, I'm representing the department that I work for, you know? At the end of the day, some things in life are bigger than you. That's how I felt going into it.
One of the most amazing things I have ever seen on Survivor occurred on the second night of the game: when Alan approached you, accusing you of having an immunity idol, and you dropped your pants to prove your innocence. How in the world did we get there, JP?
You know, like that, on the TV show, it was only a quick couple of minutes. But him and I went down there and we talked for like twenty or thirty minutes. Then we came back up. And then we wound up going back down to the beach, and Ashley came down. We were down there for another thirty minutes. What do I have to do to get this guy off my back? (Laughs.) He was relentless! I didn't know what to do. So, you know what? Screw it. If you don't believe me, buddy, let's find out if [the idol is in my pants] or not. Sure enough, it wasn't there.
He must have been pretty shocked that you went so far to prove your innocence.
I think he was. (Laughs.) I think he was a little shocked that I was willing to go to those measures. But hey, in the end, I stepped up to the plate, proved my point, and we got on with it.
Was there anything to Alan's accusations about you and Ashley being a strategic partnership?
Initially, on that first tribe, we were two younger people who were pretty much the same age. We both grew up on the beach and had a lot of similar interests. She's a lifeguard, I'm a fireman. It's very easy for all of the people who were a lot older than us to think we would just buddy up. Obviously, when we're sitting there and talking, we didn't know each other well but we have similar interests and we get along and do a lot of the same things, so it was easy to look like we were talking more than anybody else. Obviously, when you go out with a group of people and you relate to somebody more, you're going to gravitate toward them and talk with them more than somebody else. That's just how it started to go. In the beginning, we would work together and whatnot. It worked out for a while.
Did you feel betrayed by Ashley, since she was one of the people who voted you out in the end?
In the end? A little bit. At the same time, we both spent a lot of time apart when we went to our second tribes. Anytime there's movement and whatnot, you just hope that relationship and alliance is still there, but ultimately we know how fast this game changes. It changes so fast that she moved on and met people she felt she could better align with and have closer relationships with. I didn't rekindle it as much as I thought I should have when we got to the merge. It just dwindled on from there. She didn't know where I was at and I didn't know where she was at, so it just kind of got left like that, I guess.
You played the entire game with Chrissy, from the start through the swap and through the merge. She's had a lot of positive things to say about you online. What was your relationship like, and what was it about Chrissy that you valued as an ally?
In the very first Heroes tribe, at first, I didn't know what to think. I'm younger, she's a little bit older, I didn't really know how to relate. Toward the end of that, we were starting to get along — and then, boom, we went over to our second tribe, and here we are: we're Heroes, and we have to stick together. It worked out great. Between her and Ryan, I would say she was probably my strongest alliance member up until the point that I got voted out.
Speaking of Ryan, it was a great moment on the show when he talked about how you two didn't have a lot in common on the surface. But you mentioned before that you wanted to play until the end with him. How did you two finally find some common ground?
You know, he and I actually had a couple of really good moments together on the beach together on our second tribe. I started getting to know Ryan very well. We complimented each other both very well in the game, as far as I could really do the physical part of it, but he was a lot smarter with parts of the challenges and also just gameplay. He understood the game very well, a lot better than I did. The more I got to know him, the more I found out that he would be a good guy to latch onto. He knows the game and he understands the game, and I might be able to learn something from him and carry myself through.
In addition to you, Joe was also voted out last night. I don't think we ever really saw any major interactions between you two, which is a shame, because he's so all over the place, and you're very calm and cool under pressure. I can imagine it being an oil-and-water dynamic. What was it like, living with Joe?
Actually, Joe and I got along! He's a probation officer and so we both have some similar elements of working attributes, so… yeah, at the end of the day, he's a great guy, a great family guy. We got along just fine. He played his game as far as being a little bit louder and starting fights, and things like that. But when I look back on the game, that's almost how you have to play the game. We were all still so brand new to the game that a lot of us played a lot more conservatively. Looking back on it, I wish I was more aggressive and made bigger moves sooner. You can wait, wait, wait, and if you wait for too long, someone makes the move before you, and the game is going to change. You think you're going to change the dynamic of the game too soon, but looking back on it? Screw it. Just go for it, and see what happens. Survivor is one of the craziest games out there. It changes so fast. As soon as you make an alliance, it may flip and change, and it's just like, shit! I should have been the one to do that, you know what I mean?
Is there a moment you look back on where you feel you should have zigged where you zagged?
You know, as far as the seven thing? The seven thing was a fictitious thing. Everyone knew it. It was just a comforting thing where everybody knows we're going to the final seven, but it was always a matter of someone making the move first. I wish I was part of the group that made the move first. I wish I had gone after that a lot sooner. I think I even asked Ryan one time, "Hey, shouldn't we go after Ben or someone like that before the seven?" And he was like, "Well, let's just play it out a little bit longer and get rid of many one or two more people and then go for it." But looking back on it, it's like, screw it! We should have went for it and seen what happens. The game changes, like I keep saying, so fast. You have to make moves and just go for it. There's no right or wrong exact way to play the game. Every group is different, and every group is different on a different day depending on how the challenges go and how the alliances are going. Someone's mad one day or irritable, and then they're not the next, you know what I mean? So…
What do you remember about going to Tribal Councils and facing off with Jeff Probst? He really laid into you a couple of times. What was your strategy entering Tribal, where you don't want to get Jeff too much information, but you have to give him something at the same time?
Yeah, Tribal was definitely a learning experience, going into it. I had the fortune to go to it quite a bit! (Laughs.) With Jeff, it's hard. You want to give him an answer, but then, you kind of don't. I would play the vague card a lot, and he did not like that at all.
No, he did not.
He hates that. He hates it! (Laughs.) He wants the drama! He wants you to point people out and call people out and get into it, but it's hard. You ruin your alliance or you ruin your strategy. I just never even thought about that before I played the game, that that's a whole other factor of playing the game — the pressure he's putting on all of us sitting at Tribal. It's a whole other way it goes. It's something I didn't even factor in until I was sitting in the hot seat, and there he is: it's on, and he's coming full force.
There was a web confessional with Chrissy where she talked about how you were a calming influence for her at a reward challenge a couple of weeks ago, and that definitely felt like a strength of yours: keeping calm under the pressure of challenges. What do you attribute that to?
You know, I do actually remember that moment. We were out there, standing on the dock, getting ready to jump off. It's when you had to swim out and then jump off of a ladder. She was like, "Oh, JP, I don't know if I'm going to do too well." And I said, "Chrissy, all you need to do is forget about everything, swim your little heart out, you'll make it there and you'll do just fine." She looked at me and was like, "Okay." She went out there, she did it, and afterwards she gave me a big hug. She did great at it. As far as the challenges, you don't want to be the person who always steps up and takes charge of everything. You just gotta go with the group's consensus, and if they look at you and ask for advice, that's the time to step up. If they buy into it, then cool, here we go, let's do it. Fortunately for me, for a lot of the challenges, I did pretty well in them. The slingshot one, a couple of the other ones, I was lucky to do really well. Me doing well in some of them allowed me to carry on in the other ones, and people started looking at me for advice on what we should do in the challenges.
You were a real provider for your tribe in terms of fishing out there in Fiji. I know you're a very outdoorsy guy. Is that where you felt the most alive during Survivor, swimming in the reefs and hunting down fish?
Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in the ocean. I love the ocean. Having that experience of getting out there into that Fijian warm water every single day and spear fish and bring fish in… granted, I would have liked to eat every single fish by myself. (Laughs.) That's just not the type of person I am. At the end of the day, it is a game, but I know that if I'm hurting very bad, those other people are hurting just as bad. A little bit of food goes a long ways. It sucks that at the end of the day, they're still gonna vote you off! The last day, I think I caught five or six fish. I came in with a full belly and everyone was able to have some fish, too — then, sure enough, I was gone. Like you're saying, though, some of my best moments were when I was out there in the water with the reefs, swimming out and spear-fishing. Another thing is that there's no lights or anything out there, so I really remember looking out at the stars at night. I couldn't even tell you how many stars there were. To describe that, or to take a picture, it would not do it justice.
Which leads me into the last thing I wanted to ask you: what did this experience mean to you? Waking up to a Fijian sunrise, falling asleep in the starlit Fijian night, wading in the ocean with spear in hand… what do you take away from Survivor and that aspect of the experience?
Having gone through that experience, you really don't need a whole lot in life. You get stripped down of everything. You have a minimal amount of rice, and some basic other things. Taking that home back to this life where everyone has their cell phones and their fancy clothes and their cars and all of that type of stuff… myself, I've always been a pretty minimalist person, and this really reiterated that to me. You don't need all of those fancy things in life. As long as you surround yourself with good people and good friends and you love your family, and you're there for your family? It's the little things like that in life that gets you through it.
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.