'Survivor' Host Jeff Probst Digs Deep Into 'Game Changers' Premiere

Following the gut-wrenching two-hour episode, Probst warns THR that the heads will only continue to roll: "Nobody is safe."
Timothy Kuratek/CBS
Jeff Probst

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for the March 8 season premiere of Survivor: Game Changers.]

The king is dead, and the queen stays queen. Adios.

Three former winners walked into Survivor: Game Changers, and after the two-hour premiere, only two remain: J.T. Thomas keeping a low profile over at Nuku beach, and Sandra Diaz-Twine calling shots and sending opponents off into the great unknown over at Mana. Officially out of the game: Tony Vlachos, winner of the celebrated Survivor: Cagayan, caught on the wrong side of Sandra's ledger. 

Tony became the second person voted out of the season following several attempts to build an alliance with Sandra, not to mention several attempts to build a spy bunker near the watering well. All of Tony's mad scientist machinations failed, including his very first move in the game: announcing to his tribe mates that he was going to search for the immunity idol, and subsequently screaming like a llama as he raced into the jungle. An incredible moment to be sure, but perhaps an inadvisable one for future reference.

"I think Tony was half entertainer this season," executive producer and host Jeff Probst tells The Hollywood Reporter about the Survivor fan-favorite's early exit. "He gave us all our money's worth. I think that's why people love him so much."

Tony wasn't even the first person voted out of the season, either. At the end of the first hour of the premiere, the Mana tribe eliminated Ciera "She Voted Out Her Mom" Eastin in a 9-1 decision — more landslide than blindside, the likes of which we haven't seen at a first vote since the 8-1 elimination of Blood vs. Water alum Marissa Peterson in Ciera's very first Tribal Council. (Who had "Marissa Peterson" on their THR Survivor Bingo Card, by the way? You get a buff!) What's more, Tony and Sandra's head-to-head collision wasn't the episode's only clash of two titans. Over at the Nuku camp, former friends turned foes (not to mention four-time players) Cirie Fields and Ozzy Lusth attempted to heal any bad blood from the past, only for Cirie to realize that some bridges can't be unburned — a realization helped along by Survivor: Kaoh Rong and Sia fan-favorite Tai Trang.

For more on the premiere, which marked the 500th episode in Survivor's impressive 17-year history, Probst spoke with THR about Tony and Ciera's exits, the brewing feud at Nuku, the riveting second immunity challenge, the return of the legacy advantage, and an early warning of the bloodbaths still ahead.

What was it like on the night you snuffed Tony Vlachos' torch?

Snuffing Tony's torch … it was symbolic. I think I knew intuitively that this was going to be the first of many painful vote-outs. It's Tony. You don't want Tony to be one of your first people out. You don't! This big, beautiful personality, and he's such a great guy to watch, because he gives you such great interviews. But I have to say, when you look down at everyone else? Actually, I don't want any of you to go home. I almost wish we had Redemption Island this season, so they all could get a second shot.

There isn't a surprise Redemption Island coming up this season, right? We can take that off the table.

Yes. The reason we didn't do Redemption Island was in listening to the fans who think that isn't the purest form of Survivor, it did seem right. "All right, they're Game Changers. No Redemption Island. If you're in, you're all in. If you get voted out, you're out." But what I appreciated the most about Tony is that he lived up to the billing of Game Changers. He came out of the gate and said, "I'm playing. I'm not going to sit here and pretend or hide behind anyone else. I'm playing." It's risky, but that's how he played last time, and it worked. This time? It didn't. That's the definition of a Game Changer to me, that he was willing to do it again. If we called Tony and asked him to come back again, I'm sure he would say of course.

Do you think he would play the exact same way?

I don't know that Tony can play any differently. Even if he comes in saying, "Listen, you can trust me!" People will say, "Yeah right." If you're a fan of Survivor, then you know I'm a fan of the phrase "Perception is reality." If I think you're a liar, it's best that you play as a liar. 

Before the season, Tony said he would not play for a third time unless he won this season. If he loses, he's done, and he's never coming back. Do you think he still feels that way?

I think in the moment you feel one thing. You're ready to get back home. Time goes by …

And then the siren's song calls again.

It calls again. You're on the boat. You hear her whistling. "I have to get back in the water. I shouldn't do it. She's going to eat me if I go back in. But I have to do it."

Was the battle between Tony and Sandra an inevitable one, or did it not have to come to this? Is there something that someone could have done differently to avoid this clash?

I think Tony tried to make that happen. I think the Tony and Sandra relationship is a great example of why this season's complicated. Tony wants to work with Sandra. She's not sure if she trusts Tony. So does Tony go an extra beat and say, "I'm going to earn your trust, Sandra." Or does he say, "I can't wait to earn your trust — because some day, I'm going to take you out." That's the game. Tony could have said, "Sandra, I'll back off. You tell me what to do." And it might have worked.

Instead, he comes to her with the pitch of keeping the strong together. Tony's definition of strong might not be Sandra's definition of strong.

Right. So it's really hard. Everyone has a holster and ammunition, and it's a question of when you use it. I fully subscribe to the idea that sometimes, no move is the move. Tony decided that he's going now, right now. One of us is going to survive, and the other is not. 

What happened after he walked out of Tribal Council? Because he really took a beating in that moment. Sandra was shouting after him, which you don't see on this show very often. You rarely see the Survivor player shouting at the dead. You might see the eliminated player shouting at the people still in the game, but usually not the other way around.

Well, that's because Sandra takes no prisoners. She has no mercy on anyone. She doesn't care. She does not care. This is a game. You mess with me? You die. The queen remains the queen, and adios. To Tony's credit, he walked off, and he was bummed, but he was laughing. She got him! And that's another feather in his cap. He didn't have one ill word to say, other than, "Damn it. That sucks."

How much incredible unused footage is there of Tony wriggling around in the dirt, trying to make his spy bunker?

Another one to his credit. Not only did Tony come in ready to play, he also reinvented the spy shack. He thinks he can make a hole and lie in it. That one seemed a little far-fetched! (Laughs.) But if you look back at Tony's history, he also claimed that one of his idols was good to use until the end of all time. And people believed it! So if you're Tony, and you think that everything you did the first time worked, then surely it will work again. But I have to admit, I looked at the footage and said, "Damn, you really thought that was going to work?" Troyzan goes, "He's sitting in the sand, trying to pretend like he's not doing anything. But you're clearly making a new spy shack, dude!"

If we look across at the other tribe, we have another brewing clash of the titans in Cirie and Ozzy. Were you surprised to see that matchup materializing so early on?

It did surprise me, actually, until I examined it. I think Cirie is so in tune with the vibes of the game that I think she was just so far ahead in thinking, "I need to quickly figure this out. We can work together, but I can't trust that he's ready to work with me." Cirie is probably one of my top five players of all time. When her radar is in on something, it's on. I think she's really smart to know that she has to get with Ozzy quickly, and let's make sure we work together, because otherwise, it's not very good for either one of us. You'll try to take me out, and I'll try to take you out. That's the logic that I think is happening here. It's this: Either we're enemies, which is bad, or we're a force together, which is good.

It's a great moment when Cirie discovers she and Ozzy haven't patched up their history. Tai, sweetheart that he is, spills the beans. Is that a testament to Cirie's ability to dig up information, or is it more of a reflection of Tai's strengths as a human being, but perhaps his weaknesses as a Survivor player — that loose lips can sink ships?

No, I think it's an example of Cirie being incredibly charming. Tai is actually really good. He uses his broken English to get himself out of jams. He says he doesn't understand. He speaks in broken sentences. But if you really look at Tai's game? He's lied a lot. He worries about it in interviews, but then he lies straight to your face. Cirie has this incredible ability to get you to tell her something. She should be a therapist. All of the sudden, people are confessing sins that she didn't even know they had done.

Another story developing on Nuku beach is superfan Zeke, fresh from playing his first season, now struggling to reconcile that he's on the same beach as some of his favorite players. As a fan, it's a fun dynamic to see on an all-star season.

It's really fun to watch Zeke, because he's such a massive fan. It's like being a rookie and then finding yourself in the all-star game. He went from a first-time player figuring out what it's really like to play, to us asking him to come back tomorrow and start again. And he didn't hesitate. He was like, "I've been waiting for this! This is what happened to Malcolm!" It's funny. When we put the season together, we saved two spots, with no idea of what was going to happen with Millennials vs Gen X. But just in case. We had two people ready to go on standby, unfortunately for them. When Michaela was voted out, I couldn't ask her to come back soon enough, and she couldn't say yes fast enough. She was jumping up and down. Same thing with Zeke. It was amazing. We had a man and a woman who were both perfect, are super fun to watch, and are going to be great for this season. They have a bit of an albatross and an anchor in that they're a little bit unknown. But what is known is that you're so good, you were invited to play on a season called Game Changers. So they have to work around that. But Malcolm had to go through the same thing [on season 26]. It's how you use it. The question with Michaela is can she mature fast enough?

And that's a big question in this episode, because she goes Full Michaela right before that first Tribal Council. She was very upset about her name being thrown around.

With Michaela, you're really watching a young woman mature under the most difficult of circumstances, in extreme conflict. To her credit, she'll sit down for interviews and she says, "OK. All right. I have to gather my senses. I have to stop talking." (Laughs.) On the other hand, I think with Zeke, he's thinking, "I'm going to show some respect, but I belong here. I know I'm good. I knew I was good before I came out here, and you calling me and asking me back just verified what I already knew." And he's right. Zeke can win. He's really good.

The second immunity challenge was a true nail-biter. Nuku was miles ahead of Mana for most of it, and then it was very close at the end. What do you remember about shooting the challenge on the day?

It's everything you could ever hope for from a challenge. It's a real credit to our challenge department that they continue to create challenges in which you can always catch up. It tests very different skills at each point. Even if you have very good people in the water, if you don't have people who can untie knots or solve a puzzle or lasso in a ring — whatever it is — you're not out until you're out. There's no such thing as a safe lead. You saw that, with this almost huge comeback, masterminded by one person [in Malcolm and the ring toss]. It's rare that we see complete blowouts on Survivor, and when we do see them, I often call it. "There's no saving you guys. It's done. It's a blowout. You're bloody." How many times has that happened? A few? Usually the challenges are designed very well, and you never quit. One of the 20 or so things you should take away from Survivor is, never quit. You're always still in it. When the momentum shifts, it's palpable. You can feel adrenaline fueling the people who are behind. You feel the people in the lead now falling behind and thinking that they're blowing it. You can feel one tribe start to seize, while the other tribe starts to expand. You have an incredible shift.

You have a very active role to play during challenges. You're commentating on the challenge as it's going on. You're calling the challenge, so you have to keep your eye on both teams. Do you allow yourself any room to privately think about how incredible a challenge is as you're watching it? 

Sometimes, yeah. But it's rare when I'm able to step back within a challenge, because you don't get a second chance.

But if you're hit by a massive wave, you have to react to that.

Right, exactly. (Laughs.) Thank God I stuck that.

The other version would have been funny as well, just not as badass.

It's a good question, though. Occasionally, I do react during challenges. More often than not, it's subconscious. I think you can tell it from my voice. I'll start screaming so loud. I'm aware of it: "Dude, you sound like an idiot." But I can't help it! I don't step out of it too often.

Last season, you introduced the legacy advantage, an immunity idol that could only be played at the final six, and is guaranteed to make it that far because it can be willed to other players. This season, you have a version of the legacy advantage, albeit with a few updates — the wielder, currently Sierra, knows it's an idol, and there are two specific points at which it can be played. What went into the change?

There were two significant changes. The first time we did the legacy advantage, we wanted it to be an unknown to the player all the way through. But we knew that with our second season, [Zeke and Michaela] already knew what the legacy advantage is, so we can't leave it as an unknown. Let's let them read it. We also realized after it was played once, it didn't get used as much. What if we give them two shots to eventually use it? But the idea is still the same. It comes from this vision of a weathered envelope with a lot of names on it, and they're all crossed out except for the last one. I think the legacy advantage will be around for a while. I like it. I think it's a subtle introduction to the game.

The preview for next week's episode shows that you're hiding immunity idols at challenges again this season, for the first time since the idea was introduced in Second Chance. Why was now the right time to bring it back?

It's not so much bringing it back, as it is putting it in. We look at it like it's on the shelf. What do we want to play with this time? This season, it's everything. We want to play with everything.

Except the Medallion of Power.

Except the Medallion of Power. (Laughs.) But the more they play, the more toys we get to put into play. If they sit on idols, then no new idols get thrown in. But the minute somebody plays one? Yes, you should think there's a new one out there. It's called Game Changers, come on! Of course there's an idol. It's probably under your foot! 

Let's start wrapping up with a look back at the first Tribal Council of the episode. It ends with you asking Sandra to give the title of the first three days of the season. She pauses for a minute and responds: "The Unknown." 

How great is that? "The Unknown." You can't write it. Here's the thing. If you believe in people — whether it's how you run a company or how we run our contestants — and you give them room to amaze you? They will. We've told these 20 people that we're labeling you the highest compliment we can give you. You're a Game Changer. And here's Sandra. Instead of giving you the line you expect — "As long as it ain't me" — she instead thinks on it. "Fair question. You want me to end this episode? The Unknown." And she's spot on. It's all one big unknown. What's happening? Who is the alliance? Are they going to get moved in on? Who's going to team up with somebody they didn't use to get along with? There are sharks in the water, and they are feasting. 

If "The Unknown" is the name of the first three days, and if we've already seen the subsequent three days, how would you title the remaining 33 days of the game?

Oh, that's good. Dang. (Pauses.) I don't have anything nearly as good as Sandra. 

None of us do.

The first thing that comes to mind, and it's so cliche, but truly: "Nobody Is Safe." Never before have people come to Tribal thinking, "Oh my God. I really don't know if it's me. I'm certain it isn't." And then they find out, "Oh my God, I was right to be worried. It was me all along. I'm out!" You have people going up to grab their torches saying, "How did this happen?" Week after week. 

You see that idea in Ciera's exit, this slow horror reveal of the votes coming in — and other than her vote for Michaela, every vote has Ciera's name. And since there are so many people in the tribe, you have to sit and endure vote after vote after vote after vote, even as you know what's happening.

From what I hear from talking to contestants, there's a lot going through their heads when it's a blowout and they have to listen to vote after vote after another. It's like, "Where did I go wrong? Who lied to me? Oh, wait — everybody lied to me. This isn't a dream. I can't get out of this. It's already done. There's nothing to change. I'm out." Yeah, it's brutal. And those are the hardest for me, because there's nowhere to hide. It's not like a 5-4 and someone was close. No, you've been living the last three days as a total lie. No matter how much you say it, it doesn't help Ciera any to hear that you're too scary. I don't want to play with you. It's like the greatest back-handed compliment of all time. You don't get to play the game you love so much because you can beat me.

What did you think of the Survivor: Game Changers premiere and the show reaching its 500th episode? Stay tuned to THR.com/Survivor all season long for more interviews, news and recaps, and keep the conversation going with THR's Survivor guru Josh Wigler on Twitter @roundhoward.

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