'Survivor': Jeff Probst Explains Everything to Know About Season 35

Survivor 35 Still Jeff Probst 3 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of CBS

Welcome to the Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers preseason! THR's Josh Wigler reports from his exclusive visit to the show's shooting location in Fiji, where he interviewed host Jeff Probst, as well as the 18 new castaways battling it out for the million-dollar prize.

Click here to make sure you're all caught up on our stories from the island, including our weekly podcast series "First One Out," an in-depth look at all of the new players, culminating in an interview with the first person voted out of the season.

Stop me if you've heard this one: a football player, a doctor, a nurse practitioner, a bellhop and a fisher walk onto a beach ...

OK, I'll stop, because you haven't heard this one, at least not yet, and it requires some added context. Those five avatars were the inspiration behind the newest iteration of Survivor, the CBS reality series set to launch its 35th season Sept. 27. The upcoming Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers — which I've been calling Survivor: Triple H for short (tee up your best WWE gags accordingly) — centers on 18 strangers, divided into three tribes of six based on positive qualities about how the world views them. It's once again set in Fiji, the fourth time Survivor has shot in the faraway network of tropical islands, the third time in a row. Like every season of the landmark reality competition, the latest round of Survivor comes out of the gate with a few twists: a one-round-only super idol tossed into the game during the opening marooning, a new system for hidden immunity idol clues using tree carvings and paintings, a return to the classic revote system after a brief detour in last season's Survivor: Game Changers, and more.

Of course, if you haven't been watching Survivor in recent seasons, or if you have somehow missed the show entirely, all of that information is absolute nonsense. Don't worry! We have you covered in that regard. As part of my exclusive visit to the season's shooting location, I sat down with Jeff Probst, who has hosted every season of Survivor since the very beginning, for an overview of what you're getting into when you dig deep into this visceral voyage. Our conversation took place hours after the 18 castaways were marooned in the middle of the Fijian sea, tasked with securing supplies from a ship in a limited amount of time, then challenged with racing out to a nearby beach, where the first tribe to arrive wins a massive bonfire and fire kit to start the game. The gist of the first portion of my interview with Probst: This show is as new user friendly as it gets, with virtually every season hitting the reset button thanks to a familiar system of rules (albeit with twists thrown in for good measure) and a brand new set of castaways almost every single time. For anyone tempted to dip their toes into the Survivor waters, consider the following interview with Probst your gateway into that world.

What's more, here's another Survivor treat for longtime fans and potential newcomers alike: First One Out, our new podcast that explores the highs and lows of what it's like to embark on the Survivor adventure. Every season of the series, which is approaching its 20th anniversary, tells the story of the Sole Survivor, the million-dollar champion who beats out the rest of the castaways for that top prize. Everyone else who plays eventually falls by the wayside; it's part of the deal, they know the bargain. But one of the season's 18 competitors will have gone through years of dreaming about this moment, months of enduring a rigorous casting process, weeks and weeks of training for the adventure, days and days on lockdown as part of the pre-game Ponderosa period, all for only three days of actual play time. Somebody is going to win, yes — but somebody is going to be the first one out. Our podcast tells the story of that person, through a detailed exploration of the 18 new players over the course of six episodes, recorded on location in Fiji.

Listen to the first episode of First One Out below, and read on for my interview with Probst.

What is Survivor? 

Survivor is this amazing experiment where you take a group of people and for all intents and purposes you abandon them in the middle of nowhere. Obviously it's a TV show, so we're watching them. But the idea is that they're going to create their own society where they have to build fire, make shelter, catch fish — all of those things. On top of that, there's this complicated social game where every week, you have to get rid of someone, based on any reason you want. You don't like them, or you like them too much. At the end, whoever's left makes their plea to the jury — the people they voted out — saying, "Here's why I deserve the million-dollar prize: because I played the best game." Why I call it an experiment is that it's different every single time, and yet you're using the same data and criteria and getting a different result. You have to work together and vote each other out. It's really complicated and incredibly fascinating, and if you're just watching for the first time, you will think it's just as interesting as if you were watching it for 17 years.

Which is one of the great things about [the show]: The concept is evergreen, and since it's usually a new cast every season, you can hop in with season 35 without having seen the first 34, and you should be able to catch up immediately.

You don't need to know the history of the game. It's fun, but you don't actually need it. The players do a pretty good job with telling you what's going on. It's things like, "OK, I'm a little nervous. I don't trust Josh. But he's my only alliance partner. I'm not sure what to do. I have this advantage, and this advantage gives me the power to blank." You're caught up pretty quickly. If you've watched for a long time like most of our fans have, then you have this rolodex of history where you're saying: "Don't do this! Do that! Remember when he did this? It didn't work so well! And that has a curse on it, so don't do that!" It just gets bigger and bigger, which is why a lot of new fans watch a season and go, "OK, I have to go back in the library and need to start watching everything." 

Can you speak to the fandom of this show? You talk about the people on the streets who come up to you and talk about Survivor. Who are these people?

Well, it's changed over the years. Lately, it's been families first. I see them coming from two blocks away. Mom and Dad with two kids somewhere between 7 and 12 or 13 years old, sometimes a little bit older. They say they watch the show together, every Wednesday night, there's usually some sort of performance required from the kid where they have to get their homework done, or they have to have done their chores. The one thing they say is it's the one show they can watch together where they all get something different out of it, and they share it equally. On top of that, we have people who have been watching since we started. I know this, because when we did our 500th episode, which was the premiere of our 34th season, I got so many emails from people and friends saying, "Wait, I've watched 500 hours of this show? How is that possible?" Well, because you just watch them one at a time over 17 years, and you're there. We have a pretty broad spectrum of people who watch. Academics ... I have a lot of smart friends [who watch]. Writers. Older people, now in their 60s, 70s and even 80s who have been watching for a long time, and every so often they see somebody on the show who represents them. It's a pretty broad spectrum. 

But to your point — I think, anyway — I can tell you who I'm thinking of when we're making the show is families. That's who I'm thinking of out here. As a dad now, I know how hard it is to find shows you can watch and feel safe. I also know that inside of every kid lurks a future Survivor. There's something about our animal instinct that wants to know: "Do I still have it?" Meaning, even if you've never done it, you're part of the DNA that used to have to do it. You used to have to forage in the forest. When kids talk to me, it's always with a little shine in their eye that says, "I know I can do that." 

We're in Fiji. This is the third season in three seasons that you have shot here, and the fourth season overall, technically. What do you love about being out here, aside from the fact that we're sitting outside as the birds are chirping, the sun's going down, and it's pretty beautiful out here?

It's pretty spectacular. What I like about it, and I think I speak for our entire crew, is that we've traveled so many places over so many years. The landscape has changed a lot. There are more people. It's harder to find deserted islands. The economy has changed in a lot of places, including the U.S., and we can't afford some of the places we used to. Politics have come into play. Safety has come into play. But Fiji is this little beautiful and still undiscovered place, which is crazy. Everybody knows Fiji, but they don't, really. It's stunning. I'm torn, because I want people to know it's beautiful, but I don't want to lose it! You've seen the water here. It's spectacular! The islands! They're utopia!

The starry nights ...

The starry nights! Really! And every so often, you get a killer storm that comes through and says, "By the way? I'm still here!"

Speaking of which, we're [speaking] on the day of the opening. Day one about a year ago [on Survivor: Millennials vs Gen X] could not be more different than what we experienced today. Today was a crystal-blue sky beautiful day. A year ago, you were preparing to have the first evacuation of the cast in Survivor history. Night and day. How did that change the energy for the opening today?

Yeah, if you think back to a year ago, we were very concerned. Rightly so. A cyclone came through and did a lot of damage. We were prepared, and it went off without a hitch. But today, we all woke up and were talking about it, moments before we kicked [the players] off of the boat. We looked around and went, "This is really, conditions-wise, as good as it gets." There were clouds in the air. It was super calm. Just a little bit of a breeze. The water was great. The boat was sitting there. We knew what our big opening shot was going to be, which is our chopper shooting the boat with all of the people on it. We could kind of see what was going to happen. And here are these 18 people, wide-eyed, so energetic and so nervous, and it's hard to describe what it feels like, because even though this is the 18th year of us doing this, and you know from being here, it doesn't feel like it. It's not a bunch of curmudgeons going, "Ugh, I guess we have to do a few more." Everybody goes, "Dude! We get to do this again! If we do it well, we may get to do it again next year!" That's still how we feel. Even as I sit here with you now, I have this sort of exhaustion, which isn't an exhaustion from working hard. It's an exhaustion from so much excitement and energy finally coming out on day one. Now, like all of our crew, we're going, "OK, we're up and running again. Here we go."

Every other crew member I pass by here on location says, "I think we have a good season. What did you think of today?" People here are invested in it. They love getting dirty out here.

They do. It's a testament to our crew that when a weather pattern comes through or it's very hot, people rarely complain. They actually find the story in it. "OK, the Survivors are going to be impacted in this way. Let me change the audio gear. This is what we need if it's going to start raining." There's a feeling that you're in this battle together, but it's a positive battle. "We can do this." Since we've been doing this for so long, we have the foolish belief that we can get out of any jam. Anything could happen, including a cyclone that forces us to evacuate both tribes. "How are you going to do that? I don't know, does anybody have an idea?" And before you know it, we have an idea, and we're doing it. I still can't believe, and I've been saying this for thousands of days, that I can't believe this is my job. It's pretty good.

Where are we in Survivor right now? Clearly we're in Fiji, physically. Where are we at this point in the series? We're in the belly of the beast of filming Season 35 right now. As this [article] is coming out, Season 34 is in the past: Game Changers has aired. I know you have said in the past that you've stopped predicting what people are going to think about a season, but I'm curious about where your head is at, coming into a new season of Survivor, given where you were a few months ago when you last wrapped production.

I'm really excited. I have a lot of positive feelings about the series and this season. Really, it's a maturation on some level with me that I've accepted that with Survivor, we have a good show. It's not a fluke. We've been on for a long time. We deliver really fun stories to watch. Equal to that is, and it sounds corny, but I feel invested with the people who watch. I feel like we're all part of this big play, and we're all playing different parts. Somebody who is a fan right now may decide to play the part of a player in a year. And it happens! You hear them say to me, "I can't believe I'm here. I've been watching since I was 8, and I've decided, hey, I'm 18, let's give it a shot!" It's this really crazy world that at any given time, anything can happen, but the glue that holds us all together is we're all in the same thing. We know it's a really fun format. We're the ones lucky enough to make it. You've been kind enough to continue watching. So what we do is dedicate our professional lives to coming up with the moments that will twist the show a little bit, and then we spend months trying to find 18 or 20 people who will come out here and play.

Click the gallery below to meet the Heroes, Healers and Hustlers of Season 35.

This year, it's 18. Eighteen players have been divided into three tribes: the Heroes, the Healers and the Hustlers. How did you get here? What's the origin story of this season's theme?

Whenever possible, we go into casting with an open slate. I can't emphasize [enough] how risky that is and how scary that is. The calendar is clicking every day. Every day, you're getting closer to shooting. You need to know your theme, because you want to know, "What stories are we going to tell?" But we don't like to go looking for people. We just like to find the best group. About halfway through, we had a football hero, a doctor, a nurse practitioner, a bellhop and a fisher. I just kept looking at the cards and trying to figure out what it was, and "healer" was the word that really broke it. You could see "heroes," and you could see "hustlers." Finding the "h" word, that came later. "Healers" was the one that broke it. We pitched it to CBS, but they wanted the name to ring. You go, "Oh, god. OK. I get it." Once we finally went, "Heroes and Healers and Hustlers," then we had it. 

The only hiccup that I think anyone had is there's another connotation to "Hustlers," which is that you're a con man. My pitch to CBS was, "People might think that until we explain that that's not the case. This guy is an entrepreneur, this guy is a bellhop, she's a third-generation fisher person, she's a personal assistant. These are people who hustle. They get it done." In a sense, as I said today, they're actually the closest to the personification of what a Survivor player has to do. You have to hustle. If you don't get it done, you don't eat. I'm really curious to see heroes, who are used to being put on a pedestal because you served our country or because you're an athlete or because you broke the glass ceiling as a woman in business, and healers who put everybody first, and hustlers who say they don't know how to get it done but they show up at 8 and they get it done ... I'm really curious to watch those three groups play.

You said something on the boat during the marooning today that I really liked. One, you talked about positive attributes. Survivor is a cutthroat game that requires you're willing to blindside, manipulate, lie and keep secrets from people you may really like but have to best in order to advance in the game. But that doesn't mean it has to be a mean-spirited game. You can kill them with kindness. I love that you're focusing on positive attributes, and I also love the idea that the theme represents how the world views you. It might not be how you view yourself. Can you talk about those two components of the theme?

I love what you just said, because that's how I feel. I believe in people, always. Even people who have made terrible decisions. If you trace their story back far enough, there's a point where you understand it. Here's how they got here. Maybe it was a bad break. Maybe it's mental illness. Any number of things. But for the most part, I do think most people are good on some level. So I was really attracted to the idea that these are positive qualities. You can't not want this quality. If someone told me, "Jeff, you hustle a lot, and I appreciate that." I would say, "Thank you!" If someone said, "Jeff, you really put people first, you help them heal their wounds." I would say, "Wow! Thank you! I don't know what you're talking about, but thank you!" And if somebody said, "Man, you are my hero," I would say, "You, too, are crazy, but thank you!" The other half of it is, you don't have to agree with it. But if you're going to serve our country and fight in our armed forces, you're going to be a hero to me. That's how I see you. You are literally risking your life. I expect you to say, "It's not heroic. It's just my job." That's why you're a hero. 

I think positive qualities in Survivor, 15 years ago? I don't know how that would have played. But you really saw it in the Millennials vs Gen X season, this idea that we can play a cutthroat game — high-stakes human poker — but we're still bros. In fact, if you beat me? I'll vote for you in the end. But you better not beat me, because I'm trying to beat you. That was a major turning point for me. I was so impressed with that young group of people. It changed my whole outlook on life, in a way. I found myself re-evaluating, "Who am I hanging out with? Are they like those guys? Because I want that energy." Yes, you can come up with a million things millennials do that you don't like, but one thing they do that I really like is that they say, "Yes, I'll give that a shot." I think you picked up on something that not a lot of people have, which is, the game is evolving, and people are realizing it's not personal. It's personal in the game, but it's not personal. I still think you're awesome, but I got you, and you have to give me credit, dude. I beat you this time. You might beat me next time. That, to me, is the perfect game. Why do we have to crush each other — really crush each other's spirit? It's just poker.

Let's talk a little bit about twists. There was something hidden in the marooning today. What can you say about that?

We've started doing this ship thing on a regular basis, and the reason is, we like it. It forces chaos. It's very hard to concentrate when you have 18 people scrambling and you don't even know anyone's names, let alone what their instincts are and where they're going to go. Then we started adding in, sometimes, an advantage. We might not always do it, but we've done it for the last few seasons. What's fascinating is that every season, including this one, many people walked past the advantage and did not see it. There's one school of thought: "What are these people, dumb?" Then there's the different school of thought, which I have: There's so much adrenaline pumping in the body, and for some people, this is the manifestation of something they've dreamed about. It sounds crazy, but people tell us that. I dream about playing this. I dream about how I would untie knots and if I could make fire. On top of it, they get on the boat, and here are all of these cameras, and here's me saying the following: "There are supplies on this boat. Sugarcane. Timber. This. That. Gather as much as you can." No matter how hard you're trying to remember that there's probably an advantage, energy gets overwhelmed, and now all you see are the supplies. You walk right past it. We saw it today: People walked right by it! It was within inches! They didn't see it! When people see the shot at home, they're going to go, "Oh my god. It couldn't be more clear unless we had a light shining on it!"

Which there may well be on the show, but it's hard to see green when you're seeing red.

I don't think anybody made a mistake. Sooner or later, enough supplies are gone that somebody who is hanging out up there will go, "Oh my god. Does that say Secret Advantage?" And then they take it. The beauty of this game evolving and me talking to you right now is even as I just said that to you, I realize that we probably won't do it again next time. I've already changed the thought process, because a future player now will go, "Oh, I have to remember that. When Probst starts talking, I need to remember that there are 17 other people here and they'll go get the supplies." I'll say to future players, then: Look all you want. It's unlikely it will be there.

Unless it's a bluff!

Unless it's a bluff, but I am being very candid. That power of suggestion is so powerful that now we've just told everyone to look for the advantage rather than look for the best supplies.

Get an early look at the secret advantage in the photo below.

Looking past who found the advantage, can you tell me a bit about what it is and the intention of how it will play out in episode one?

The advantage is very fun. It's an immunity idol. It's a super idol, which means it can be played after the vote. But here's the twist: It's only good at the first Tribal Council. If the person who finds it ends up winning immunity and doesn't end up going to Tribal, they have to send it secretly to somebody on the losing tribe, so they can use it. What would happen in that case is somebody on the losing tribe would go back to camp, look in their bag, and they'll find this anonymous note with an idol that says, "This is only good tonight, and guess what? It's a super idol, which means, you're in charge. You're in charge of tonight's Tribal and you're the only person who knows it. You can play it for somebody, or you can watch somebody go home. You can play it for yourself. Or you can not play it, keep it, and only you and the sender will know that it has no power, and it looks so cool, that maybe you can get some power by bluffing people. I'm really excited by who found it and I love that it's in their hands. I think we're going to have a great story. We'll see what happens at the immunity challenge.

How will idols play after this first round? What's the plan for idols this season starting with episode two through the merge?

The theme on idols is pretty much the same. We have an idol at each camp. We like that the players expect that. It's an element of the game. We may change it next year. For right now, we like that. The way you're going to find it is a little bit different. In essence, it will be etched into the side of a tree. You could miss it. Again, you're not looking at a tree to have something etched into it. You're looking in a hole to find it, because that's what we've always done. Somebody will stop and go, "What does that say?" They'll read it. It will give them instructions. "Now what do I do? It's etched in the tree!" The smart player will find a rock or something and try to scratch it off the bark or cover it in some way so nobody else sees it. Finding the idols is another part of it. [The tree] is the clue that tell you where it might be, then you have to go find it.

The no revote rule from Survivor: Game Changers ... is that changing? Is it reverting back to the original rule?

Yes. This season we're going back to ties are good. I loved trying it in Game Changers. I feel like in Game Changers, we went as far as we could go. 

It's called Game Changers, feels like fair game to change the game.

That was our mantra from the beginning: Give them opportunities all of the time to play. As that season played out more and more, you saw that it worked. They played a huge, risky, crazy game. Now we're going back to a regular season. We're going to bring ties back. We may do it again. What I like is, when we sat down to meet with everybody, Roark [Luskin of the Healers tribe] said: "By the way, with the no revote? I have it all figured out." I loved sitting there going, "I love that you do — but it's not in play."

She told me the same thing, and I loved it, even if I couldn't fully follow it.

But it's the idea that there's a game between us and the players. You should all be well-versed in the many, many twists that are available, knowing that we may use some or we may use all, or we may use none. We may have something new. We may go old school. The more well-versed you are, the better your chances, but it doesn't mean it's going to play out.

Do you have a winner prediction for this season? I know it does not always go well for you.

I know. I picked Ciera last season, and she was the first out. (Pauses.) Man, it's not like I'm trying to avoid it, and I think you feel my energy here: There are so many people here who could win, and so many people I would be happy to see winning. Our casting team, led by Lynne Spillman, has really gone to another level in the last few years. I remember seasons where I would say, with a cocky attitude to the players, "There are five or six of you here who have no chance, and you don't even know who you are. You're that out of it." And then we started shifting: "Why would we do that? Why would we bring somebody on that can't win? Let's bring somebody on who can win." And man, our casting has just gotten better. I look at this [cast] and I think Patrick [Bolton of the Hustlers tribe] is going to have a hard time winning, I think Simone [Nguyen of the Hustlers tribe] could win if she goes deep enough ... yeah, I would say Patrick is the one guy whose attitude might rub people the wrong way. Otherwise, you have 17 people who have a shot at winning this game, and I think that's legit. I would be happy with any of them. When I do my little casting sheets, I write "LW" if it's likable winner. That to me says if they get on the show, then I'm good with it, because they're a likable winner. No matter who wins, we have 75 percent of them as likable winners, so we're good to go. The audience is investing this time. Our job is to give you somebody to invest in.

Check out the new immunity idol clue mechanism in the photo below.

Keep following THR.com/Survivor for our continuing coverage of Season 35, the preseason and beyond.