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Multi-hyphenate filmmaker Mike White (School of Rock, Chuck & Buck) and seasoned professional wrestler John Hennigan (known variously as “John Morrison,” “Johnny Nitro,” “Johnny Mundo,” and “The Mayor of Slamtown”) are among the 20 castaways set to compete on the 37th season of the CBS reality franchise, called Survivor: David vs Goliath. In the season, players will be divided into two tribes based on the biblical match-up: the “Davids,” who are viewed in the eyes of the Survivor gods as perpetual underdogs, and the “Goliaths,” viewed as titans of their industries and masters over their ways of life.
“David vs Goliath is another risky idea,” says Jeff Probst, executive producer and host. “Two tribes that at first glance appear very uneven. One tribe has always had advantage, and the other has only had obstacles. But Survivor is the great equalizer. And what we hope for in David vs Goliath is to further the social experiment by exploring the question: how do you define advantage?”
For his part, Survivor isn’t Mike White’s first reality rodeo. Indeed, it’s not even his first time competing within the CBS reality realm. White is a two-time veteran of The Amazing Race, in which he competed alongside his father, landing in sixth place and getting cut second in his two respective seasons. He’s also a longtime Survivor fan.
“I’ve been watching since the first episode, and after a while, you’re tired of watching it; you want to go and do it,” said White, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter on the beach in Fiji, one day before the game began. “This is everything to me. It’s a huge adventure. It’s a little absurd. At least I’m not stuck on the 405!”
“Even making movies and TV — and I love what I do — it gets kind of familiar,” he added. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I feel like I need a new thrill. This is a different game for me to play. I feel like anytime I risk something, like with Amazing Race, I wonder: ‘Am I going to embarrass myself?’ Well, whatever. Whatever the negatives are, it’s never been more negative than all of the positives that come out of pushing yourself out of your house.”
Entering the season, White plans on being forthright about his background as a Hollywood power player — a true “Goliath,” in recent Survivor parlance — fearing that he will be recognized by other players, and not wanting to get caught in a lie. It’s a wise preseason decision; Hennigan, a well known quantity in the entertainment arena, told THR he recognized White instantly.
“I’m a film major, and I’m really excited he’s here,” the wrestler told THR when we spoke before the game began. “When I saw him walk in, I flipped out. I didn’t say anything. I don’t know if he knows that I recognized him. I’ve seen a bunch of his movies, and he’s a really talented dude. He’s an artist for sure. … I saw a movie of his called Chuck & Buck, and I was impressed with how honest the film felt. For some reason, I always felt he must be a really good dude since then.”
“So hopefully,” Hennigan added, “he doesn’t turn out to be a douchebag.”
Looking at the man, it should come as no surprise that Hennigan is a Goliath, the veritable poster boy for the tribe. But Hennigan, whose self-appointed nickname as “The Wednesday Night Delight” could gain new meaning in the coming Survivor season, isn’t all bravado all the time. While he often refers to his future competitors as “turd-cutters” and “chump-stains,” Hennigan offers some insightful commentary on the other players on the battlefield, not to mention the way he views the road to the Survivor win.
“One question I get asked frequently is ‘What was your favorite wrestling match,’ or ‘What’s your dream match?’ And honestly, this island is really about me versus me,” he says. “That’s what defines Survivor. It’s the ultimate test of who you are. At times, to bond with people? Sure, I’m a pro wrestler, but there’s probably a teacher out here, and a cop and an animal wrangler. Who knows who’s out here? But on a very base human level, we’re all people. We’re all vulnerable. We all have similar hopes and dreams. I’ve been on this express train of professional wrestling for so long, that this feels like a really awesome opportunity for me to get off of that and bond with people without social media and all that bullshit, and really take myself on.”
“Can I do this? Can I survive out here? Yeah,” he adds. “Can I bond with people and live for 39 days without my Instagram account? Probably! But the real question for me is this: can I be happy doing that? Ultimately, I feel in order to win this game, you have to be happy. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable and not exude crap energy. You have to hold that uncomfortable card close to the vest and deal with that personally, while putting positive energy out there. You don’t want to bring people down around you. I’m excited about that. It’s easy to be the Mayor of Slamtown in the wrestling ring. But to be John Hennigan out here on an island and be uncomfortable, cold, hungry and vulnerable with a group of [new] people? It’s something I’ve never done.”
White and Hennigan aren’t the only recognizable faces in the new Survivor cast, even if they are the two most noteworthy names on the call-sheet. In fact, six additional players have been revealed by CBS, identified in the promo for David vs Goliath that aired during the Survivor Ghost Island live finale. Read on for more insight into the six players, including quotes from each castaway’s on-location preseason interview with THR.
Angelina Keeley (Management Consultant, Goliath tribe)
Like everyone else on the cast, Angelina aims to win the David vs Goliath crown. Unlike everyone else, she plans to hand the crown right over to two-time champion Sandra Diaz-Twine, the reigning queen of Survivor.
“Sandra is the queen, period,” says Angelina. “I want to be the prime minister, so we can rule together. She can be the dynasty, and I’ll be in charge of policy. Together, we can rule. Personality-wise, we have nothing in common, but identity-wise, we’re both Latina and we’re both marine corps wives. It’s kind of crazy, right? It writes itself!”
Impeccable fanbase pandering aside, Angelina likes her odds to win the veritable prime minister election due to the bag of tricks she’s bringing into the game.
“I bring a lot to the table,” she says. “I’m a smart girl. I went to Stanford for undergrad. I went to Yale for my MBA. I’m a management consultant. I used to work at Google. That’s my resumé; it’s not who I am. I’ve gotten to do a lot of cool shit, I’m clearly a hard-worker, I’m a go-getter, I’m super ambitious… blah-blah-blah. More important than all of that, I’m an extremely social person. I build relationships quickly. I connect with people quickly. I have all of the right things to be a threat in this game, and really slaughter. I think with my brain, with my social IQ, and my attitude and wherewithal, I think I have the trifecta [of what it takes] to be strong in this game.”
Christian Hubicki (Robotics Research Scientist, David tribe)
The longtime Survivor fan already knows what you’re thinking: “Look out now, here comes the latest Cochran clone.” It’s not news to Christian. After all, the man does own a mirror.
“I know people are going to compare me to Cochran, if it hasn’t already happened. People are going to say, ‘That guy looks like Cochran,'” he says. “It’s weird, because when you look at yourself in the mirror every day, you don’t think, ‘I look like that guy from Survivor!’ But then I sent in my casting photo, which was just a selfie of myself against a blackboard … and I looked at it and went, ‘You know? That does kind of look like Cochran!'”
A physical resemblance to someone who previously won Survivor in a shut-out vote isn’t the least flattering notion in the world, nor are the similarities a surprise to Christian; the robot research scientist applied for Survivor on a few previous occasions, including for both of Cochran’s two seasons. “I was always a big fan, so I was happy when he won,” Christian says sincerely about his Survivor doppelgänger, before pointing out a key difference: “He was more cutting than I am. I don’t think I’ll do a Vanilla Julia joke. I’ll do a Vanilla Christian joke.”
In terms of how Christian views the game, the word “gamebot” comes to mind, not the least of which is due to his role as someone who works with robots for a living. Christian has spent hours of his life analyzing the show and engaging in ancillary material, including podcasts designed to dissect the show’s strategy. We’ll close our preview of Christian with one of his takeaways from observing the two players at the heart of the Survivor Know-It-Alls show on Rob Has a Podcast.
“My beloved Stephen Fishbach has gotten some guff for the term ‘voting blocs,'” says Christian. “A lot of people said, ‘Isn’t that just the Rob Cesternino game?’ I believe that’s what Jonny Fairplay said: ‘Isn’t that just the Rob Cesternino game, the Jonny Fairplay game, just repackaged?’ And to an extent, he’s very much right. A lot of players are looking around, scrapping for alliances. But what happens if half the cast is filled with Rob Cesterninos? What if you took Survivor Amazon and replaced half of them with Rob Cesterninos?”
“I see Survivor as a state of matter,” he says of his strategic outlook. “You have solids, you have liquids and you have gases. In an old-school Survivor game, like Thailand, you have rigid structures. Imagine you have this block that’s cracked when an alliance cracks; a rogue element like Rob Cesternino comes in, and cracks it again. When everyone is a free radical, one of these rogue agents, it all starts to flow, like a gas in the air. It’s almost like a phase change; you have boiled the game, and suddenly there are completely different dynamics. When Stephen is talking about voting blocs, to me, what I’m hearing is that the state of the game has fundamentally changed, not that the strategy of any individual player is necessarily different. He described it as a coherence between different players. The trait of an alliance was, ‘Yeah, we’ll vote together, but you better not vote with anyone else.’ But if that second element of the equation is gone? Suddenly you have all these molecules that are unbonded and can do whatever they want — i.e., voting blocs. That’s my take.”
Dan Rengering (Police Officer, Goliath tribe)
Some know him as Dan. Others know him by another name: “Hot Cop.” Hopping straight out of the Instagram feed and onto the beaches of Fiji, Dan enters Survivor with a pretty good idea of what it’s like to go from a life of anonymity to viral recognition in the blink of an eye; good training for adjusting to the post-Survivor life, to be sure.
“We were working during Hurricane Irma,” he says of the Hot Cop origin story. “Our public information officer sent out an e-mail: ‘Send pictures of you doing stuff through the hurricane and we’ll post them on Facebook.’ And so we decided to spam him, e-mail him pictures all night long. We just wanted to have a good time. That’s me; I just want to have fun wherever I go. If we’re going to be miserable working all night in the rain? Let’s have some fun with it. We took a selfie together, and a couple hours later, there were a lot of comments — a few hundred. A couple hours after that? A few thousand. ‘Guys, do you see this? They’re calling us hot! Hot Cop!’ I used to be a fat kid! I’m not used to this! This is fantastic!”
Since initially going viral, Dan says he’s still recognized on the streets every now and then, even once being stopped at a Walmart to take a selfie with a customer. Officer Rengering, prepare yourself to be stopped at a lot of Walmarts moving forward; Survivor fans are a rabid bunch. For his part, Dan is only recently coming to terms with the Survivor universe, having only watched the show in the context of preparing for the game. With that said, he has a few ideas about how he wants to play, including the fact that he’s going to be upfront about his line of work.
“I work in a college town, so my social game is going to be [great],” he adds. “I can’t just go and yell at some college kid and tell them, ‘Hey, stop doing this.’ They’re going to question me. If I let them question me and get me all worked up? It’ll end badly. Now, I do this thing called ‘verbal judo,’ where you talk around them, and talk to them, and talk some sense into them. There are books on that stuff! That’s where I feel like I can defer to them. [I work in] a very diverse community. There’s college kids, people from very low incomes, homeless people all over the city… I’m dealing with a huge array of people, and everyone out here is from a different walk of life. I’ve dealt with people from every walk of life. I’m prepared.”
Gabby Pascuzzi (Technical Writer, David tribe)
In order to experience the outdoor adventure of a lifetime known as Survivor, sometimes one must carve out a separate outdoor adventure of their own. Such was the case with Gabby, member of the David tribe, who applied for Survivor once not terribly long ago, and then again a short while later. After sending in her application video, Gabby embarked on a three-day solo hiking trip — and during that excursion, the fateful call arrived.
“It was very stressful,” she remembers with a big laugh. “It’s crazy that I’m here. It all happened with lightning speed. I’m a big fan, and I’m still pinching myself.”
Gabby, a lapsed Survivor fan who returned to the show during the Cambodia-set Second Chance season (her current knowledge base includes a passing familiarity with wombats and hallucinatory Ghost Island experiences), describes what makes her a threat to win the game: “I’m not only book smart; I’m emotionally intelligent. I’m good at relating to people. I’m non-threatening in a way. I have a vulnerability and an openness. People think I’m an open book; I can’t possibly be hiding anything, because we’re communicating freely. Hopefully by doing that, they’ll tell me their secrets and tell me their plans.”
Natalie Cole (CEO, Goliath tribe)
A veteran of several different Southern California publications, including her current stint as publisher and CEO of Los Angeles-based newspaper OurWeekly, Natalie enters Survivor having already wrestled with versions of the game in her real life.
“It’s very similar to what I did when I climbed the corporate ladder in my younger years,” she says. “It’s layers and layers and layers of absolute chaos, and it tries to be somewhat organized. It’s about dealing with people. Not only manipulating them, but managing and directing people from all walks of life. While you have your end goal in mind, you’re managing all of this stuff in the periphery.”
Natalie has had her eye on playing Survivor since the show’s earliest days, all the way back in the time when Richard Hatch and the Tagi Four forged the first alliance: “I knew since the beginning I would be on the show. I spoke it out: I’m going to do that show one day. And then life happened. I was already married with kids, but things were moving so quickly for me in my home life and business life that I never took the time to apply until recently. I applied, I got the call back, and here we are.”
And now that she’s here? The players in her way are advised to watch their backs; Natalie describes her philosophy toward Survivor as an anything-goes mentality: “Everything’s a green light. That’s the attitude I have to have in order to move and advance in this game.”
Nick Wilson (Lawyer, David tribe)
“Move and advance” is very close to the philosophy of longtime Survivor super fan Nick, member of the David tribe — though in his version, it’s “survive and advance.” Nick says he’s had two big dreams in his life: becoming a lawyer, and making it onto the show. Check and check. Now what?
“Well,” he responds, “now I’m on Survivor trying to figure out how to lie about being a lawyer!”
Unlike the aforementioned “Hot Cop,” Nick — a public defender based in southeastern Kentucky — plans to lie to the other players about his profession, noting that no lawyer has ever won the game. (“Becky and Culpepper got close,” he says, pointing out the third-place finalist and runner-up of Cook Islands and Game Changers respectively.) Instead, he plans to tell his competitors that he works in an adjacent field, so any stories that crop up about judges and courtrooms won’t stand out as unusual.
“I don’t know what the stigma is,” he says. “I think people just want to explain away any reason to write your name down. Even if they know you’re a lawyer — and I don’t make much money now, but just the fact that I’m a professional — it gives you a good excuse: ‘He’ll be fine.’ People will take any reason at all [to vote you out]. Especially in the beginning, I don’t want to give up any reason at all to stick out.”
Eight new castaways are officially sticking out on the board. Expect more from each player and the remaining 12 competitors when THR publishes details from our exclusive location visit later this summer, alongside the launch of the third season of our preseason podcast series, First One Out.
What do you think of the new Survivor players and the David vs Goliath theme? Sound off in the comments section below, and bookmark THR.com/Survivor for all of our coverage of the season.
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