'Survivor David vs Goliath': Alec Merlino Strikes into the Merge

Goliath beach's very own "surfer bro" speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about the latest Tribal Council, the formation of "Strike Force" and more.
Robert Voets/CBS

[This story contains spoilers through the merge episode of CBS' Survivor: David vs. Goliath.]

Believe it or not, during his day of exit press, Jeremy Crawford broached topics beyond the infamous "showmance." Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, the first Goliath voted out of Survivor painted a picture of a player who, at the time, was flying low under the radar: Alec Merlino, the California surfer by passion and bartender by profession.

"Alec was the person most liked by everyone on the tribe, to the point where we didn't even believe he was a waiter," said Jeremy. "People thought he was like the youngest Michelin star-rated chef. They thought he owned a restaurant! He would tell us, 'Nah, I'm just a waiter.' But he was so charismatic, so funny, so hard-working and so aware of himself and his surroundings, that we just couldn't believe that somebody that young was so well put together."

The glowing review, casting Alec as a man of great depth, flies in the face of how he was perceived in the preseason. With very few exceptions, every player who spoke with THR about Alec in the hours leading up to the game, without ever exchanging a single word with him, came forward with some version of the same two-word description: "Surfer dude." Speaking with Alec himself, however, the big-haired Goliath's magnetism comes as less of a surprise; after all, as he says in the interview ahead, charm is "the main reason I was cast."

Brimming with beach vibes, Alec is the latest in a recent string of similar Survivor surfer types who aren't always remembered for their strategic prowess — which may be both a historical mistake (the Devon Pinto fan club remains in open enrollment), and even more pressingly, an urgent error on the part of his competitors. After a confounding post-swap vote a couple of episodes earlier, Alec was presented in this past week's merge outing as the key player responsible for assembling a cross-tribe alliance between Goliaths and Davids alike: "Strike Force," starring Alec, Mike White and Alison Raybould from Goliath, united with Christian Hubicki, Gabby Pascuzzi and Nick Wilson from David. 

Even though numbers appear firmly on the old Goliath's side at the moment, the true dynamics of the game are considerably murkier, thanks in no small part to Alec's own desire to shake up the playing field, and his organizational efforts on that front. Will the votes ahead reflect the coalition-building seen in this past week's episode? The answers, much like the truth, is out there. For now, in order to take on some questions that can be answered now, here comes Alec to join The Hollywood Reporter for our latest active player interview. In the conversation ahead, Alec gives his perspective on the early days of Goliath, the post-swap vote against Natalia Azoqa, why he chose this specific crew for "Strike Force," how everything went down with Angelina and Elizabeth at Tribal Council and more. 

Before we get to this week's vote, let's go all the way back to the beginning: Goliath beach. Early on, we saw you, Angelina, Dan, John, Kara and Natalia presented as the six power players at the core of the tribe. Was that how you viewed the shape of the game as well, or did you see a different story?

I'm not sure if I would have referred to the six of us as the "power players." Maybe you could have called us the "dysfunctionally united group," if that's even a word. It was all very funny to me. A lot of us were running around in a panic trying to figure out who would be voted out, yet we didn't go to Tribal until night nine. I want to say Mike's name was even thrown under the bus at one point because he was looking for idols. That being said, we were never a core six in my eyes. 

After the tribe swap, you became the first Goliath to draw blood against one of your own. Since we have you on the hook this week, fill us in: why did you vote for Natalia, and how did that whole vote come together as you recall?

"First to draw blood." (Laughs.) Alright, so here's how it all went down. On Vuku, I knew for a fact that Kara and Natalia were close. When I saw Davie and Elizabeth, it didn't seem like they were the best of friends. Also, Davie shared some interesting news with us, saying, "Carl and Elizabeth do not get along." So, hearing all of this, I immediately thought about voting out Davie. Here's why. I assumed he had an idol, and we could flush it and we could potentially split up him and Carl if they were at all allies before — which I did tell Kara and Natalia. I said to them, "Carl probably found an advantage on exile, and you know he's going to tell Davie, not Elizabeth." Natalia and Kara didn't want Davie out. I decided right before Tribal that Natalia needed to go. I whispered to Elizabeth to vote for Natalia, and I looked at Davie and mouthed it to him. Natalia never trusted me and I felt like come the merge, she would have run back to what some would call "the core six," and throw my name under the bus. Some say it was a bad move. I say you weren't the one playing. Things can go a million different ways on Survivor. You never know what the next minute of the game will bring.    

In the aftermath of Natalia's boot, what were the tribe dynamics like on Vuku? Did you feel secure? 

Going back to camp, I knew there would be damage control with Kara. She didn't trust me after [I voted out Natalia] because that was one of her biggest allies and it was another Goliath. The "having the numbers" thing bugged me, because in the game of Survivor, it's all about social politicking. The numbers thing just makes people feel comfortable for the first couple votes. That being said, Kara and I did connect during our next six days on Vuku. I felt really close to her and she was someone I could really trust. I told Kara, "We will not lose another immunity challenge," which I'm sure she will confirm if you ask her. Tribal didn't scare me because I just knew in my head that we wouldn't lose. That sounds reckless, but sometimes, you need to have that confidence in Survivor. I thought to myself, "We're not going to Tribal if I have anything to do with it." (Laughs.)

The tribes merge, and it's game on. You're one of the most visible players of the episode, one of very few Goliaths willingly entertaining flipping against your own kind — and the only one who had shown your willingness to "walk the walk," as Christian pointed out. Why did you feel so confident in the need to start planning against the other Goliaths?

When the merge happened, I wanted to do my best at turning on the charm. I mean, hell, it's the main reason I was cast! I wanted to make sure that come the merge, I was mingling with everyone — mostly Davids — and really showing them that I am indeed ready to play this game and "blur these tribal lines." I felt a need to talk to everyone and set up as many plan Bs as I could, because like I said, things change minute to minute on Survivor. It can be a single conversation that keeps your ass in the game, and I wanted to make sure that no one wanted me out for any reason and that I was on the right side of the vote, especially being that I am already a physical threat and a "flipper" in some of the eyes of the Goliaths. I don't like the term "flipping." Flipping implies that I was supposed to play with Goliaths the entire time. I went on Survivor to play with the people that I could trust and that I believed would get me furthest in the game.

At the merge feast, Angelina finds out you were the one who voted for Natalia. How did you end up explaining yourself to the other Goliaths?

Explaining it was easy, whether or not they truly believed me was up to them. Luckily, I had Alison, who was an ally of mine from day one, so she acted as a liaison between me and the other Goliaths in helping them understand why I did it. I told most of them that Natalia was a liability and was chaotic. I also told Dan and John that Natalia wanted Dan out, and was telling people about his idol. Dan bought it. 

You start building your David-Goliath cross-tribe group, and it consists of the following players: you, Mike, Alison, Gabby, Nick and Christian. Why was this the six you were most confident in? Can you take me through your relationships with them, person by person?

I tried to align myself with the people that I felt had the best positions in the game. They were also all huge targets that could potentially take some of the "threat" attention off me and could act as meat shields. Alison was someone I connected with day one, and we had full trust. Mike is also a Goliath that I really got along with, and we talked about final three before the swap. I knew he was going to get in with Nick, so getting Nick on my side seemed logical being that him and Mike now have a direct line of communication. When the merge came, Alison and I had a quick conversation. With her being on Tiva, I knew she was going to make inroads with Gabby and Christian, which she explained to me and I wanted to form those relationships with Christian and Gabby right away. Christian was someone that I looked at as extremely smart and a person that made up for everything I didn't have — one being the fact that he can think about scenarios that I couldn't. Christian and I were also an extremely unlikely relationship in the game. Gabby was Christian's ride-or-die, so I knew if I could at least trust Christian and know where his head's at, then Gabby would be on the same boat. So, all that said, it was the perfect six because it was a group that I knew I could trust in that moment. 

Beyond the "Strike Force," as Christian coined it, we know you were at least close with Elizabeth and Davie from Vuku, and that you were friends with John and Dan as well. Why didn't you feel like you could include them in the Strike Force team?

In the game of Survivor, you crave meaningful connections and I never felt that with either of them. I felt like I could predict what they would do because they were so transparent, especially Dan, but I never felt like I could really open up and be totally vulnerable with what my real plans were. Dan and John both gave me a gut feeling that I probably shouldn't jump on board with them. John was too close with Angelina, and if I told John my plans, I was afraid he was going to divulge all that to Angelina who would then tell everyone, or want to target me directly. 

After the immunity challenge, Angelina tries to shore up enthusiasm for voting out Christian, rather than voting out Elizabeth, the plan everyone else preferred. How did those conversations go, as you remember them? 

I remember Angelina being very adamant about the Christian vote. For me, it was out of the question. Everyone from the Goliaths seemed on board with it, aside from Alison and myself. Alison and I needed to get through to Dan and John. I remember explaining to Dan and John that Christian wasn't the right vote at that time. I told them he was their "brochacho," and also he was someone they could get information from — whether or not that was true, I have no idea. After convincing Dan and John, they then talked to Angelina and we switched back to Elizabeth.  

In the episode, Dan was very fired up about Elizabeth… 

No one really knew why Dan was so upset. Elizabeth knew she was on the chopping block and was trying everything she could, so Dan was a perfect target. I'm not sure why his reaction was to get so bent out of shape and run off. However, he should have known that playing the game of Survivor, your name is going to get brought up at some point. We needed Dan to get fired up in order for him to be totally on board with the Elizabeth vote, so it all worked out. 

When you and the others present the news about switching the vote to Angelina, she clearly does not take it very well. Talk me through how all of that played out from what you observed.

It appeared that Angelina was upset about it. She really wanted Christian out and I believe she was most upset that us switching wasn't a group decision. However, in my opinion, Christian wasn't a group decision — it was her decision. It seemed like she wanted us all in a circle talking about things instead of hearing it through the grapevine. In Survivor, plans change, and sometimes the information you receive isn't received during a Goliath group discussion on the shoreline where everyone can see you.  

Angelina tells Elizabeth that she's the target of the vote, which looked like it was probably only a few minutes before leaving for Tribal… is that right, or could you sense some tension at camp coming from Elizabeth after that chat?

You can sense tension from everyone during the first merge vote. No matter how safe you feel, there's still the Survivor gods whispering in your ear: "What if it's you that gets blindsided tonight?" Elizabeth was for sure scrambling before Tribal and told me how she was going to blow up Tribal Council. Elizabeth is a stud and I respect her for that. She played a hell of game, and went out swinging. 

Walk us through the first Tribal Council of the merge, which was an all-out war between Elizabeth and Angelina — and at times, felt like it was a full-on onslaught against Angelina. What do you remember of how that all went down?

The first thing I remember thinking is, "Thank god they're arguing," because I immediately felt safe. Any time the attention is off you, the better. I was laughing at a lot of it, and a lot of it was very eye-opening. The main point of contention was the "jury management" part that Alison brought to everyone's attention. Whether it was true or not that Angelina was trying to pocket the first jury vote, you have to take all things into consideration when playing Survivor. The Tribal lasted about two minutes before Jeff could sense that Elizabeth had something to say and she laid into Angelina. Elizabeth was trying to make her best case as to why Angelina was the one who needed to go. 

At a certain point, you stood up and started whispering to Dan. What did you two need to talk through?

Elizabeth told everyone how Angelina warned her she was going home before Tribal, and everyone's jaw dropped. After some arguing back and forth, and after I could try and make out what was going on, I talked to Dan about our vote toward Elizabeth to make sure we were all still voting the way we planned. 

In the end, you voted for Elizabeth alongside everyone else in the tribe. What was your reason for voting against her? Were you disappointed to see her go, considering the two of you shared a bond from the Natalia vote — or am I getting that wrong, and you didn't share as close of a bond as it looked like?

I voted against Elizabeth for a couple of reasons. First of all, it wasn't Christian. Secondly, Elizabeth didn't necessarily have any solid connections come the merge. She wasn't super close to any Goliaths and I didn't get the feeling she had serious allies anywhere within the Davids, so Elizabeth for me wasn't someone I saw as being a huge benefit moving forward. During the Natalia vote, Elizabeth was someone I knew I could count on to vote for her. We weren't any closer after. 

Leaving Tribal Council with Elizabeth gone and Goliath up in numbers 7 to 5, how were you feeling about your place in the game, and the odds of moving forward with Strike Force?

After leaving Tribal, I felt as good as anyone would after a crazy night with Jeff. It's funny, I remember Jeff saying, "Well, despite a unanimous vote, this group is anything but united." Or something of that nature. I took it as, it only gets more difficult from here. Even with numbers, I still have this new strike force alliance and I'm still trying to figure out who is going to be my best bet moving forward. I didn't want numbers with the Goliaths necessarily, because then come time [to turn on each other], what if I was at the bottom of the Goliaths numbers and then I just get picked off? I was trying to think, "Okay… who are the best people that I can move forward with?"

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