'Survivor' Season 35 Player Profile: Meet Joe Mena

Survivor 35 Joe Mena - 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.

Many things about Survivor have changed over the years. Three words have remained constant: outwit, outplay, outlast. But for Joe Mena, three different words are at the top of his mind as he steps onto the Fijian playing field: "Secure the bag."

Based in Connecticut but originally from the Bronx (not to mention spending time living in the Dominican Republic), Joe enters Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers with one goal and one goal only. He's here to win, plain and simple, his eyes firmly affixed on the million-dollar prize the winner earns at the end of the 39-day adventure — or 39-day business trip, more accurately, at least in terms of how Joe views the experience ahead.

"I'm here to secure the bag," he reiterates. "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."

He's here for the kids, too. Just as Boston Rob Mariano once won an immunity challenge with his family literally on his back, Joe is embarking on Survivor with his family on his sleeves. The man's arms are coated in elaborate tattoos, each arm dedicated to one of his two children: 9-year-old son Jaden, and 10-month-old daughter Jade. Joe will be missing Jade's first birthday while he's out here in Fiji. 

"That's the toughest thing, being out here, missing her birthday. The icing on the cake has to be coming home with the million dollars," he says. "But like I said, pros and cons. I leave for seven weeks, and I come back home with a million dollars. Well, after taxes, we're looking at $700K, but that's $100K a week, and where else are you going to get that? So that's what I'm here for. To secure the money for the children and secure a better future for them. I have a decent life back home. I own a house and a couple of properties. I have a great career, but $700,000 can certainly make a difference and set them up."

Speaking of his career, Joe makes his living as a probation officer, hence his role on the Healers tribe. (Then again, given how he talks about his plans for Survivor, and given that he even describes the game at one point as a "hustle," one could be forgiven for thinking he should be wearing a red buff this season.) Joe says he mostly deals "with the high-risk offenses and victim-sensitive cases, not just the typical DUIs and petty larceny cases," and through that work, he's more than prepared to handle the lies coming his way in the season ahead.

Listen to the podcast below to hear Joe and the rest of the Healers in the third episode of our preseason series, "First One Out."

"We're talking about individuals who are narcissistic, and are about the power of control and manipulation," he says. "They manipulate the criminal justice system, their victims, their victims' families, everything around them. I'm supervising them for five to 10 years, and I'm sure they manipulated me initially and throughout my career, but it's about learning how to manipulate them. As a probation officer, most people don't know what we do. When someone is convicted of a crime and they go off to jail, and then they get out of jail, where do they go? Someone is supervising them to make sure they're not recommitting their crime — and that's me."

In the preseason, Joe has drawn some comparisons to Tony Vlachos, the New Jersey police officer who schemed his way toward victory during season 28. (Yes, it's still too soon to discuss what happened to Tony during season 34.) The comparisons are valid, at least as far as Joe's view of Survivor, and even in terms of his shared connection to Tony as someone who works in law enforcement.

"I know it's so cliché when you hear police officers on Survivor say, 'I deal with criminals every day and I know when someone's lying to me,'" says Joe. "It does sound cliché, but honestly, we do deal with criminals every day, so we just know when someone's bullshitting us! That's what I deal with. So I've learned to manipulate the people who have been manipulating everyone around them for years, if not decades, committing crimes. There isn't a story I haven't heard. There isn't a lie I haven't heard. I'm a great liar. I learned from the best. As far as detecting bullshit, I have the best detector out there. These are people I deal with day in and day out. I get lied to 99.9 percent of the time, and it's my job to find out where's the truth."

Despite his ability to detect lies, and despite his willingness to tell some lies of his own, Joe wants to make one thing clear: He's a lover, not a fighter.

"I'm a lover, believe it or not," he tells me, before quickly couching his self-assessment. "Well, I am an a-hole. I come across as an a-hole, and then once you get to know me, it's like, 'I get him, and I like him.' It's just kind of my personality. It's not like I choose to be an a-hole, but I'm sure the rest of the cast is thinking, 'There's always a villain. There's always an a-hole. This is the guy who is playing that character.' They'll be surprised to learn that I'm not. But that's fine! I'll let them rock out with that." 

"I'm a fighter in ways," he continues. "I love staying engaged in conversations and arguments and debates. But you're not going to get me to the point where I lose my cool. I'm always calm and collected. I'm crazy, and I like to have fun, and things like that. But taking me out of character? It's not going to be that easy."

But taking out the other characters? Joe is very much hoping for an easy time.

"I play Survivor every single day at my job," he says. "I don't make no $700,000 in seven weeks, you know? But that's what I'm here for. I play Survivor literally every day. There's nothing these guys can throw at me that I haven't seen or heard or been through before."

Watch the video below for more from Joe on why he's going to win Survivor.

That's Joe in his own words. But what does everyone else think? Over the course of these interviews, I showed the castaways pictures of each other from casting, to get their pregame impressions of their future competitors. Read on for their takes on Joe.

Note: comments from the castaways have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joe Mena (Probation Officer, Healers Tribe): I love to people watch. That's my thing, obviously. Sign me up for it, I love it. Love talking shit about people. The more shit I talk about you, probably the more I like you. But, I can't predetermine if I like you or not just based on your looks.

Ben Driebergen (Marine, Heroes Tribe): That guy, he kind of reminds me of a Tony. 

Ryan Ulrich (Bellhop, Hustlers Tribe): I think he honestly wants to play like Tony.

Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): When I've heard him talk, he reminds me of Tony in a way. Maybe it's just because he's bald. But I just want to keep my eye on him, because I've sort of mentally assigned that analog. 

Ali Elliott (Celebrity Assistant, Hustlers Tribe): Our tents are next to each other [at Ponderosa], and he's loud. He's shuffling sticks and stuff, and how he opens his zippers. I don't know, he just goes like this, (mimics zipping motion) up and down. He seems funny, though. He's probably a New Yorker, or something like that. I don't know why I get that vibe, but he seems cool.

Alan Ball (NFL Player, Heroes Tribe): Can't peg him. I can't peg him. He's in his own lane. When I watch him, he moves like he's 50, but he doesn't look 50. I don't know how old he is, but he moves like an old man. It's funny, when he gets up, he moans, and groans, and moves slow. It's like, "Damn, dude! How old are you? You look like you've been through more shit than me." He seem like he's cool, I just wonder how old he is! Like, I really want to know.

JP Hilsabeck (Firefighter, Heroes Tribe): Hey, I don't know. Another guy and things like that. I don't really know much about him, like I said. I'll just get to know him and we'll go from there. 

Cole Medders (Wilderness Therapy Guide, Healers Tribe): I have no idea about him. He's always by himself. He wasn't at my casting finals. This is the first time that I've seen him. He's a pretty big guy. But other than that, he's always by himself. Doesn't interact with anyone else.

Patrick Bolton (Small Business Owner, Hustlers Tribe): He keeps to himself a lot. He's one of the few that does. He's got a big tattoo of a baby on his arm. And that's pretty funny.

Watch the video below for an early look at what Joe's victory speech might look like.

Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): I'm assuming he has a child. He has a tattoo with a child's face on it, and it says Jaden. I'm assuming he is a father. 

Chrissy Hofbeck (Actuary, Heroes Tribe): I feel bad saying this, but he doesn't appear to be the warm and loving, cozy, fuzzy type. Except for the fact that he does have an absolutely gorgeous tattoo of potentially his child on his arm. So that I guess is warm-and-fuzzy. But he's not giving the warm-and-fuzzy [vibes]. There's a lot of people that I just wanna like, go over and hug them. He is not one of them. 

Katrina Radke (Olympian, Heroes Tribe): I wonder if he has kids? 'Cause he's got a wedding ring on and he's got a big baby tattoo on. It's got to be his son, right? I'm thinking that he has a son. He's kind of quiet. He seems like he keeps to himself a little bit, I think. 

Desi Williams (Physical Therapist, Healers Tribe): I'm wondering what his motivation is to be out here. He's got this tattoo on his arm of a young boy, and the boy's name is Jaden apparently, because it says "Jaden" on it. So I wonder if that's part of his motivation and if I can make that emotional connection early on. Hopefully, if I need him, that'll help as well.

Simone Nguyen (Diversity Advocate, Hustlers Tribe): He's got a tattoo of his baby on his arm. How do you not like that? I like it for a lot of reasons. First, I like it because he's a dad and I love kids, but also I like it because it shows a certain lack of judgment, being able to put all of your business out there and have people judge you for your business. I have a feeling that he's going to reveal more than he really wants to.

Jessica Johnston (Nurse Practitioner, Healers Tribe): You know, I like this guy. I like him a lot. He kind of has a scary side to him. Again, he has tattoos, he has a shaved head, he has some earrings, but he has a big tattoo on his huge, huge bicep. Probably his son. I like that. I like a family guy. He's probably out here fighting for his son trying to make his life better. He's someone I think that would look for, just from me watching the show, he would want to put his trust into someone he could bring with him and I hope that he sees me as someone who would do that. I hope he confides in me. I plan to talk to him about this awesome tattoo he has on his arm. I like him a lot. I have a lot of good feelings.

Mike Zahalsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): I'm betting he's a New York City firefighter. He's jacked. He's the guy with the baby tattoo on his shoulder. You know, some of these people are rule followers, and there are some that aren't. He's a rule follower. I have not heard him speak a word until yesterday. But I think he's gonna be surprisingly more ferocious than people think.

Devon Pinto (Surf Instructor, Hustlers Tribe): That guy, at first, I thought I would never align with him or wouldn't want him in my tribe, kind of got bad vibes from him, but I've been seeing him slowly open up, so I've been kind of on the fence. He's been giving more smiles, giving more eye contact, just little tiny hints. I mean, it's so hard at this point in the game where [you can't say anything], but you can read body language, and you can tell some things.

Lauren Rimmer (Fisherman, Hustlers Tribe): I think that guy's going to kind of follow the lead of someone else. I don't, you know, he kind of reminds me of a city guy, too. I think he's going to be the kind that maybe you can say, "You need to do this," and he'll do it. And, that could make or break him, you know. But, at the same time, he could be a sneaky one, you know, and could be just putting on this big major look and when we get there, he could probably turn our minds a little bit. But as of looking at him, I think he's waiting on you to tell him what to do.

Ryan Ulrich (Bellhop, Hustlers Tribe): I think he's gonna be super aggressive. Super aggressive. At pre-game Ponderosa, he likes to sit by the fan. He just seems kind of like a guy that doesn't take much crap, and I think that's trouble in Survivor, because you want to be accommodating, because there's going to be a lot of crap out there. You're going to have complainers, you're going to have a lot of different factors, and I don't think he's going to put up with that. 

Click through the gallery below for photos of Joe and the rest of the Season 35 castaways.

Keep checking THR.com/Survivor for more coverage of the Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers preseason.