'Survivor' Player Brendan Breaks Down Malolo's Big Move

The physical education teacher from Virginia explains why the latest 'Ghost Island' vote wasn't as much of a blindside as it seemed onscreen.
Courtesy of CBS

[This story contains spoilers for the latest episode of Survivor Ghost Island.]

"My biggest fear in all of this after wanting to be here so long is getting voted out first, second or third — something like that."

Such was Brendan Shapiro's biggest fear heading into Survivor Ghost Island, based on what he said in the preseason. Happily for him, Brendan managed to avoid getting voted out first, second or third. But "something like that" turned out to mean getting voted out fourth, only one spot beyond the nightmare scenario.

Brendan was the unlucky victim of a numbers disadvantage at the latest Survivor Tribal Council, when his ally Michael Yerger made a bold idol play that didn't quite pan out as hoped. In the interview ahead, Brendan speaks out about where the play went wrong, how he knew he was in trouble earlier in the day, his view of the remaining Malolos in the game, how he spent his birthday at Ponderosa, and more.

How are you feeling?

I'm doing fine. Stoked to be talking to you. I wish it was 10 weeks from now, but this is what we got.

Did you sleep at all? Are you rested?

No. (Laughs.) I tried to sleep! I tried to rest! But I just laid awake and my mind was spinning. I haven't slept, but I'm feeling OK.

Let's start there: What's the first thing on your mind having watched this back, now that your exit episode is out in the universe?

The first thing, being 12 hours clear or wherever we are ... I'm really grateful for the response. People have been so kind to me. The people I played with, first and foremost, and all my friends and family, but also just fans of Survivor. The reaction has been really positive. It makes swallowing this bitter pill a whole lot easier.

Last night was a big blindside for the viewer. The way Tribal was going, it felt like there was a lot of momentum on Malolo's side. When the vote came your way, I was shocked. Was it as much of a shock to you?

There's a scene from Austin Powers where a steamroller is heading toward a bad guy at one mile an hour. Have you ever seen this?

Of course. "Stop!!!"

Exactly. (Laughs.) I felt like I was that guy! I couldn't get out of the way! I knew it was coming at me. I really strongly believed it. In the day leading up, the old Naviti folks were really telegraphing that they were going to go with either Stephanie or Jenna, leaning toward Stephanie. It was just too obvious. So I had a feeling it was me. And then I had a conversation with Kellyn, who is one of the loveliest people you'll ever meet, but she wears her heart on her sleeve. I told her the truth: the next day was my birthday and I knew I was on the wrong side of things, but I just wanted to be playing Survivor on my birthday. I watched a tear come to her eye, before she quickly turned away. I don't think she knew I caught it, but I caught it. I ran over to Michael and said, "Dude, they are voting for me. I can feel it. It's coming." He just didn't believe they would vote for a guy that early. He believed they wanted to keep strong, when I think they were content to lose challenges, because they figured they could hold tight and keep picking us all off. It was a tough deal, because I saw it coming. I just didn't do a good enough of a job convincing Michael of that fact. 

As the votes are being tallied and there's time to process how Tribal Council has gone, and Michael turns to you and says he still thinks Naviti is voting for Stephanie ... did you attempt to sway him again at the last minute, or were you resigned at that point?

A couple of things were going through my head. I felt it would be tough to get them after all we discussed. You also don't know what you don't see. My last conversation with Michael was about an hour before we left for Tribal Council. We were sitting on those stumps, and he was trying to get my attention to tell me something, and I thought maybe he had come into some new information. You're only seeing a piece of the puzzle out there. I was holding out hope that something had developed and he knew it. As you know, crazy things happen right up until you leave for Tribal Council. I was hoping he was right and he overheard something ... unfortunately, that wasn't the case.

Talk me through your side of Michael's move. Did you help co-author the double immunity play, or was it a surprise to you?

I want to give full credit to Michael on the double immunity idea. That was 100 percent Michael. Let me take a moment to say Michael is an absolute Survivor prodigy in my opinion. You're seeing it in the edit, and you're still not even getting it. He has all three phases: physically he's great at challenges, his social game is outstanding and he's a really good strategic player as well. I have nothing but respect for that guy.

Did you have any idea he was 18?

No, and if he had told me he was 28, I would have believed it. Seriously, I wouldn't have blinked. In retrospect, it's so cool, because I was the oldest man and the second oldest person out there. I was playing with a kid, a young man, who was born after I graduated college. I had no idea. I knew he was younger than me, but I didn't know he was that much younger than me. It's all the more impressive. I can't say enough about the way he was playing the game, and I wish him continued success.

Was there anything from Tribal Council we missed?

At one point, Jeff asked me if I thought I was in trouble. I didn't give him the canned answer: "Oh, Jeff, I always pack my bags." That kind of thing. No, I said, "Yes, I believe they are making it seem as though it's going to be Johnson, but it's really going to be me. This is a misdirection." I was really hoping they would show that in the edit, because it makes me look like I know what's happening! I was really hoping they would show my conversation with Kellyn and my conversation with Michael, too, but none of that made it. Hey, that's life. You don't always get what you want, and I can't complain. They made me look good in the edit, and you're never going to get it all. But I did throw that out there, in hopes of swaying Michael one more time, and maybe scaring [Naviti] into realizing we had it figured out and maybe pushing the vote off of me and onto somebody else. 

Your final immunity challenge was a real nail-biter. Is there any chance Sebastian was trying to throw the challenge, or was it simply a great comeback from Naviti?

No, we were trying to win, for sure. I feel terrible. We crushed in that challenge, up until the part I had to take over. That's on me. You see it in the edit: we had so many of those balls dancing on the framework. They showed two or three that teased us as they fell off, but there were probably 10 like that before they got their fifth ball. It was a heartbreaking way to go. And then to find out that nobody on our tribe was going to Ghost Island for the vote was a kick in the nuts. Any way it would have panned out would have been better for Malolo. Obviously if a Naviti went to Ghost Island, then it was 4-4. But even if one of us were there? Now we have a one in three chance of guessing right in terms of who they were going to vote for. Any way you cut it, if somebody goes to Ghost, I have a better chance of sticking around. That was a gut punch.

I want to get your takes on some of the people still in the game. You spoke about Michael already. How about Stephanie and Jenna, the two other original Malolos you were with?

Stephanie is all heart. She's as strong and tough as they come. We have a real bond. We were the two that would be up with the sunrise every morning. I talked to her as much as I would talk to anybody out there. We're both parents, so we had a relationship I didn't have with anybody else out there. She's my girl. I think she's playing a great game. She wants it as badly as anybody else out there, I promise you that. Jenna surprised me the most, actually. I was in Survivor 35 casting with her; we were the only two who made it [to season 36]. I had spent a week seeing her from afar in casting and thinking she seemed very aloof. In pregame Ponderosa, she also seemed so aloof. She couldn't have been in a more different phase of life than I am, and yet she treated me with kindness and affection the whole time. She was so much more into the game and into the strategy than I ever would have expected. I have nothing but good things to say about both of those people. 

How about Bradley? Was his complaining really as insufferable as it's been made to look onscreen? 

(Long pause.) Yes. (Laughs.) I say that with trepidation, because I just feel bad for the guy. He's getting so much crap on social media right now. But yes, it was. I think he was in a bad space having moved over to Malolo. Also I think he felt he was the snarky guy who was going to make snide comments all the time. That was his thing going out there, it seemed like, so he was playing the part, I guess. In real life, he's a sweet guy. We're friends. We text each other. We're hoping to see each other soon, maybe over spring break. But it's so funny how this works: in-game Bradley, I wanted to smash him, and if I ever got the chance to play with him again, I really would want to smash him once again. But outside of the game, we're cool. It's funny how that all works.

We're seeing very little from Desiree and especially Chelsea. Can you share any insight into how they were playing the game?

At new Malolo, the way I perceived it, it was Kellyn and Bradley who were trying to circle the wagons and rein the other ones in: Sea Bass, Chelsea and Des. Unfortunately for me, I would have given everything I had to be on the other beach. My Malolo friends went over there and it's like they thought it was Christmas. They're getting recruited to knock out the old Naviti. But on our beach? It was pretty well locked down. Chelsea and Des were happy to stay in the fold and execute the plan, because it meant they would stick around longer. That's what they were doing. As far as I could tell, they weren't very active — but I saw in the edit last night that Des was the one who threw out my name, so good for her. They seemed to be more following the action than leading it, but you never know. 

Do you have a memorable Sea Bass story from your time together in the game? Any Laffy Taffy conversations that haven't made it onto the show yet?

Oh, a hundred Laffy Taffy conversations. (Laughs.) Sea Bass is everything you see on TV. He has incredible stories. I heard that Dom had the best stories on his beach, but on my beach? Sea Bass had the funniest stories I heard in my time on Survivor, but I can't tell any of them here; they're not fit for public consumption. (Laughs.) I'm sure this won't surprise you but there's a lot more depth to Sea Bass than you see on TV. He's a great guy. We bonded over being huge Washington Redskins fans, even though he's from Florida. I love him. I don't have one story for you; it's really more that the stories he told out there were fantastic.

How was your reception at Ponderosa, with two out of the three people there due largely to your efforts: Gonzalez and Jacob?

It was hard at first. It's hard at first for most people. I walked off the boat and the first sound I heard was Jacob cackling in delight. I'm like, "Come on, man! That doesn't seem right!" But he eased back, and now we're good friends, as I am with Gonzo, and even Morgan. It was really great to meet Morgan. She was someone I eyeballed before the game started as someone I'd be in an alliance with. She's fantastic. The thing that's so hard about this, and I want to get this on the record: what's heartbreaking to me, and I think this is an aberration from most seasons, all three of them are superfans of the show who really know how the game works and are so invested in doing it well. I'll put myself in that category, too. It's hard to see people like that go as soon as they did. Gonzo and Jacob and Morgan had so much more to offer that we'll never see. Hopefully we will see it one day. Hopefully they'll play again. But that's the part that stinks. Everyone is reduced to a one-dimensional version of themselves. I feel like America didn't get to see the versions of those people that I know. They were nothing but kind to me. We had really good vibes with that pre-jury Ponderosa crew.

How was your Pondersoa birthday?

It was weird. I woke up the next morning [after being voted out, which was Brendan's birthday] and had a great breakfast by myself. I actually talked to one of my now Fijian friends who was working there. This is the most surreal and bizarre thing: you can get away from Ponderosa for a little bit, so we went to go and see a movie. I'm in a movie theater eating popcorn and drinking Pepsi, and not even 24 hours earlier, I was starving and turning into Gollum on the island. (Laughs.) It was the most surreal and bizarre experience.

I do have to say, I'm not sure I've seen anyone who looked dirtier after 12 days on Survivor than you. 

Dude, I was playing. I was hustling out there, I was working it. I promise you. (Laughs.) That's the thing ... I know I'm not answering a question, but I'll say this unsolicited: I don't regret a thing in terms of my approach. I wish things had turned out differently. But I promise you that every second, I was playing. Whether it's who I was talking to or where I was, the game was running through my head at all times. I gave it a full effort the whole time. It didn't work out the way I wanted, but it wasn't for lack of trying, I promise you that.

Weekly Probst-mortems:

• Week 1: Gonzalez and Jacob's exits, explained
• Week 2: The return of James Clement's idol
• Week 3: Michael's "double idol" gamble

Weekly exit interviews:
• 20th place: Stephanie Gonzalez
• 19th place: Jacob Derwin
• 18th place: Morgan Ricke
17th place: Brendan Shapiro

Preseason player profiles:
• Angela Perkins
• Bradley Kleihege
• Brendan Shapiro
• Chelsea Townsend
• Chris Noble
• Desiree Afuye
• Domenick Abbate
• Donathan Hurley
• Jacob Derwin
• James Lim
• Jenna Bowman
• Kellyn Bechtold
• Laurel Johnson
• Libby Vincek
• Michael Yerger
• Morgan Ricke
• Sebastian Noel
• Stephanie Gonzalez
• Stephanie Johnson
• Wendell Holland