'Survivor' Season 35: Joe Mena Reveals Three Fatal Mistakes

SURVIVOR 35 - Buy One, Get One Free - Joe Mena - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of CBS

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.

In the game of Survivor, sometimes you secure the bag — and sometimes, the bag secures you.

Such is the case for Joe Mena, probation officer, Healer, and self-confessed "douchey guy," whose time on Survivor was marked by either finding idols or desperately searching for them, even knocking one player out of the mix early on with a successful idol-enhanced blindside. On more than one occasion, Joe made it clear to the players around him that he wasn't out on Survivor to make new friends and enjoy an unforgettable adventure. For Joe, Survivor was not like going on a cruise, which sounds fun. It was a business trip, plain and simple.

"I'm here to secure the bag," he told me in the preseason, less than 24 hours before hopping off of a boat in the middle of the Fijian sea alongside the 17 other Heroes, Healers and Hustlers. "I'm not here for the fame. I'm not here for the lights, the camera, the action, the adventure, or anything like that. I'm just here strictly for the money."

A month after that interview, Joe's business trip reached the end of its line, as he was voted out on day 30 by the currently dominating alliance of four: Ben Driebergen, Lauren Rimmer, Devon Pinto and Ashley Nolan — the former of whom Joe butted heads with on multiple occasions, with the latter two serving as adversaries since the tribe swap a few weeks earlier. With Joe out of the game, only one Healer (and one Coconut) remains in the hunt for the million: Mike Zahalsky, who delivered a fairly epic speech two Tribal Councils ago about why Survivor should be played with "justifiable ethics." How does Joe feel about the intersection between "justifiable ethics" and Survivor? When I spoke with him this morning, I didn't ask — but I have a guess:

Read on for more from Joe about his departure from the game, the players he respects, the players he doesn't, his love for trolling fans online, and why he's very interested in a second chance.

They finally did it. They finally voted out "the douchey guy."

They did! (Laughs.) They finally got me. We're going to need a remix on that song now.

What's your perspective on what happened last night? Was it an outright blindside?

No! There was an 80 percent chance I was going home, and I was well aware of that. In my Ponderosa video, I spoke about what my game plan was. I really wanted to blindside Devon at that point. Once I found out about Ryan's idol, I wanted the five to tell me where to place the vote. I was going to tell Ryan to play his idol and let's take out Devon. My goal was to flip flop back and forth. But I underestimated the relationship Ben had with Devon and Lauren. I overestimated their gameplay. Ben was a huge threat out there. I was extremely vocal about it. The way they pitched it to me was this: "There's an advantage of two votes. We're going to use it. The idol is going to be flushed, and Ben is going home." To me, I had to take that chance. I would be stupid not to. So, they got me. I knew it was coming. My gut told me, but my mind was like, "Joe, you cannot blow this opportunity."

Who do you give credit to then? Who's the most responsible for getting one over on you?

I don't want to give credit to anyone! (Laughs.) Let's be honest, it was a stupid move! The Three Stooges [of Devon, Lauren and Ashley] allowed Ben to be a spy, going and working between both alliances. I would never allow that! Go with them, then work with us? It made no sense at all! Why would you keep Ben around, someone who has a Heroes' alliance in his connections with Chrissy and with Ashley, and he has the Yawa connection with Mike and Lauren. Why would you allow someone to stay in the game when he still has so many outs? Compared to someone like myself, who really only had one connection with Mike. To me, it made no sense.

Do you think in their minds, they're flushing out Ryan's idol, which could go back into circulation, and they're cutting you out because you're someone who has found two idols already and they don't want you around to find a third?

You can make that argument. But I haven't found an idol since the merge, right? I'm not good at challenges. I don't have any outs. The only thing I have is maybe finding an idol. To me, where I failed is that I would put myself in other people's shoes, and what I would do when I'd do that is still bring over my strengths and abilities into that thought process. What I should have done is really try to look at things from their perspectives, with their weaknesses and strengths. I really didn't do that. I felt like this was a prime opportunity for Ashley to eliminate Ben, and she's really the swing vote. She can go with Chrissy and Ryan, or she can stay with Lauren and Devon. With Lauren, I felt she needs to take Ben out because he's going after physical threats, and at this point, she's a physical threat; she's won a couple of challenges now. With Devon, I felt he was smart enough to know you don't keep someone like Ben around. I gave them too much credit.

Did you have any clue about the plan to have Ben act as a spy, or was that a surprise?

It was a complete surprise. Kudos to Ben for playing this role. Once again, stupid for the Three Stooges for allowing him to do that! You're giving him more [points in his favor]. I'm constantly saying this on Twitter, that this season is full of errors and it's so imperfect — and to me, that's what makes it perfect. I'm screaming at the television when people are doing things, when I'm doing things! I'm always like, "Come on, guys!" I guess it goes right along with the season. The fact that Devon thinks this is a master plan … come on. You have the five. Keep it as it is. It's like a cheese pizza, which is already great; there's no need to throw f—g strawberries on this shit, because that's nasty! 

Look, the way you're eating steaks, I don't know that I can trust you with pizza toppings.

Hey, I'm from Connecticut. I've been to Sally's and Pepe's. I know pizza. I don't know steak, but I know pizza.

You're talking about Devon, Lauren and Ashley as Three Stooges. You're talking about this as a season of errors. Did you feel frustrated out there? Especially once you hit the merge, and nobody wants to work with you — someone who is fast and furious and wants to keep a lot of options open.

Let's clear a couple of things up. There was no merge. There was a Healer purge. That's exactly what it was. Going into the Healer purge, I was well aware that was going to occur. But I felt really secure and safe with the idol. I knew everyone else knew I had the idol. There was no way they were going to be able to split the votes. I felt very comfortable and good, until Cole informs me that there's a Yawa Five. At that point, I'm like, "Wait a minute. There's a Yawa Five?" And at that point, I'm thinking, "Crap. They can split the votes." I know for a fact at that point that Cole and Mike will flip and it would be a five-four vote. I figured they will go for Cole and somebody else, and I'll figure it out. But it was frustrating to be on the bottom and on the outs and having no control. But I was still positive out there. I kept working. I gave 120 percent regardless. I wasn't going to give up at all.

There was at least one stay of execution in the "Healer purge," with the elimination of JP. I know you were brought into that vote, but why vote for JP when Ryan and Chrissy are both available and not expecting it?

Oh, well, you said it! I was brought into that shit! I said it should be Chrissy or Ben. But once again, when you have the Three Stooges wanting to vote for JP, who am I to redirect it? I tried initially and I got a lot of resistance, so I just had to play my position at that point, or the tables could turn on my end. 

Did they give you any reason for why they were voting JP?

Well … I didn't really talk to Ashley. I said she was a goat, and there's a reason I said she was a goat. I felt like she was a goat. Everyone else felt she was a goat. Devon and I would talk a lot of strategy. It was very clear that I was not a part of his final three plans. He made that clear to me. But we spoke strategy. Lauren and I spoke a lot of strategy. Lauren's thing is that she wanted to go after physical threats — but technically, Lauren, you're a physical threat! If you're continuing this precedent of going after physical threats, you're next! You've done extremely well in the last two challenges and you've won an immunity. This is not good. They just wanted JP. I thought JP would be a perfect goat. He hadn't really done anything. Let's just keep him around. But they wanted JP. The more I advocated for Chrissy or Ben, or even Ryan, they were like, "No, no, no." I was suspicious. 

When they're talking about going after JP, and it's clear that the alliance of seven is about to crumble, was there any temptation to reach out to Chrissy and Ryan to stir up a different plan?

No. With JP, I figured that if that goes down, afterwards is when I'm going to start flipping. That's where I wanted the Coconuts to be the swing, going back and forth. That was my original game plan. But like I said, once they pitched me on Ben, the advantage [of two votes] and flushing out Ryan's idol, I just fell for that like a fool. Shame on me. That was good on their end. Without those three perks, I would have flipped. But I wanted those three things to happen, and I definitely fell for it. Kudos to them. 

This past week, Cole said Mike gave you a fake immunity idol during his Statue of Liberty speech. What's your side of how that played out? And how would it have played if you had known what Mike was planning?

I was laughing that entire Tribal. At Tribal, I was either causing a ruckus or just laughing the entire time. With Mike, I knew he had the idol. I think we all knew he had the idol. To me, it was between Ben and Mike. Mike pulls out this idol and gives it to me, and I open up the package it came in, and I saw that it's not an idol — it's all of these beads he's collected from Healers beach. It's fake! So, I started laughing. I had no poker face. It was so bad, Josh. (Big laugh.) You really don't understand. It was horrible! I think everyone understood that it was a bullshit idol. Where's Mike going with this? He's once again throwing me under the bus! That was his thing. Every Tribal, he would throw me under the bus. Where's he going with this? The next thing you know, he pulls out the real idol and plays it. So, no, I never pulled out that fake idol, it never went around my neck. Mike never pulled out the real idol until it was time to play it. I think Cole was confused because he was sitting back and he knew he was going home, so a lot of stuff was going on. But if Mike had told me his plan? I would have said, "Dude, they're obviously going after Cole. Let's blast this thing and go after somebody else." 

What was your relationship like with Chrissy and Ryan?

With Chrissy … look, game recognizes game. Maybe that's why I rubbed her the wrong way, along with my other antics. I think she's playing a really good game. I think where she's lacking is she's not really self-aware in regards to her social game. She's like a true Chaos Kass. The edit portrayed me as having a horrible social game and everybody hates me, but I think it's pretty clear on the island at least that she's not liked much at all. Her game was good, but she had no idea how others necessarily feel about her. The conversations were not genuine at all. I picked up on that quite quickly, as did everyone else as well. I think she's unaware of how people view her at least. 

And Ryan? There were three people who were playing from the very beginning, as far as the marooning. It was me, Mike and Ryan that were looking for the advantage on the boat. That was it. Nobody else was. Ryan's social game is really good. I'm really impressed with how he's playing. I knew he was a threat and I figured he would be the Cochran or the Spencer of our season, but I had no idea he was playing that game. I wanted to work with Ryan. They didn't show how I was planning to flip over to Ryan. But good on the Three Stooges to get me to bite on the three perks they pitched to me. Ryan and I had a great relationship. He was willing to work with me, and I was willing to work with him. Unfortunately, we didn't pull the trigger early enough.

Going back to before the game, you told me you were strictly in this for the money, strictly to secure the bag — not for the lights, cameras and action. But you have been one of the most interactive members of this cast on social media, for good and definitely for worse. 

Absolutely. (Laughs.)

Have you enjoyed this part of Survivor, becoming a TV character, more than expected?

Yes and no. The yes because on my personal social media accounts, I'm known as a troller. I would throw things out there and my friends will be like, "Joe's just trolling. He wants people to be upset. He wants to engage in an argument." That's how I am with my friends and at work and on my own personal social media accounts. With Twitter, I never used Twitter before, and I love Twitter now. People take things so seriously. I love trolling. I love this stuff because I'm not a serious guy. I don't take things seriously at all. Did I play for the cameras on the island? No. I really do have this energy. I really am kind of annoying. Did I amplify it? Absolutely. Am I in it for the money? Absolutely. But I was well aware that if I didn't do shit out there, I would never play this game again, and I went out there to play and win. But I was aware of this potentially leading to winning another million dollars. A lot of the players this season while we were playing would talk about who's going to return. To me, I was amazed at that. They're talking about playing again potentially while we're still playing the game in the moment. Why? I was amazed by that! I wasn't out there thinking about a potential return — I want the million dollars — but I'm a character in my day-to-day life. I enjoyed it more than I thought I was going to. But it really comes down to Twitter. I love Twitter. People take things so seriously. I also love trolling Reddit. The Reddit people are so amazing. I love them. 

This is a real about face for you, Joe. You made it clear to me that you were not going to be a repeat Survivor player. You didn't want to become a career castaway. But in my weekly column with Probst, he mentioned that he would love to have you back on the show, and clearly you would do it again. So, what changed? Was it just too much fun?

Oh, my god. Was it fun? I had a blast! And I didn't win. If I had won, I would have been gone. You would never see me again, anywhere. But I lost. And now I know why people like Malcolm just keep coming back. If you're a competitor, you just want to get right back out there. I know where I went wrong. Man, I wish I was out there right now. If I had won, maybe I wouldn't feel the same way, but I lost. I'm a loser! I don't like being a loser. I definitely want to take that W, you know?

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.