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With Survivor: Game Changers officially in the rearview mirror, the long-running reality competition is moving past the veteran players and refocusing on a new group of 18 contestants. Season 35’s all-new cast will be divided into three tribes of six based on “the positive traits most often associated with them by others,” according to host Jeff Probst.
The result: Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers, a mouthful of a title that’s destined to be shortened to Survivor: Triple H before long. At least, that’s what this writer has been calling it since visiting the season’s Fiji location earlier this spring.
The Hollywood Reporter was the only media outlet on location for Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers, speaking with all of the contestants before the game’s launch, and observing the first three days that will form the basis of the season premiere. We’ll have much more to share about the visit closer to the season premiere in the fall, but first, we’re taking a page out of Probst’s playbook, and offering a tiny taste of what’s ahead.
Here’s a closer look at the six heroes, healers and hustlers featured in the Season 35 trailer — some of the fixings, if not quite all of them.
Up first: Ashley Nolan, an ocean rescue captain from Florida, and a member of the Heroes tribe. (This is the second Heroes tribe in Survivor history, for what it’s worth, Caramoan slip-ups notwithstanding.) She lists original Survivor winner Richard Hatch as the previous contestant she’s most like (“[He] seemed to have the right idea,” she writes in her bio), and has something else in common with the Borneo bread-winner: both of them have been bitten by sharks.
“It’s a pretty mild story,” she laughs. “People hear ‘bitten by a shark,’ and it’s like… it’s not always as vicious as it seems. It just barely broke the skin.”
Just barely broke the skin. No big deal. Ashley says that she’s seen several people cycle quickly through her profession, unfit to stare an emergency right in the face. Not so with Ashley. “I’ve met lifeguards that come out and only do one season, and then they quit because they realize, ‘I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want to have to do this.’ They sit there the whole time, intimidated: ‘I hope this doesn’t happen. I wouldn’t know what to do if this happened,'” she says. “And I’m just like, bring it on. I want to be the person that’s in the action.”
Ashley’s fellow Heroes tribemember, Ben Driebergen, has been the person in the action in the past, having served as a marine. Those days are behind him. These days, Ben works as a warehouse worker in Idaho, is happily married with two children, including one who was born to the tune of “We are the Champions.” No, really: the Queen anthem was blaring when Ben’s son was brought into the world.
“He is a champion,” he says with a big, booming laugh. “He’s a Driebergen.”
“You know, five years ago, six years ago, if you would’ve [told] anyone that knew me that I’d have a family, a house, two kids, a good job and I’d be on Survivor? They’d kick you in your shin,” Ben says. “Like, you’re out of your mind. No, not the Ben I know. But my wife helped me out a lot, and I love her for that, and she’s given me two kids. So, that’s why I’m out here. I’m out here for them and us and to better our lives. So, that’s why I’m here.”
Hustlers tribe member Ali Elliott is also on Survivor because of her family. A personal assistant to a YouTube star, Ali has been watching Survivor religiously since she was a kid, even having a Survivor-themed birthday party when she was 12 years old. What’s more, Ali was not the first person in her family who aimed to get on Survivor.
“My uncle was an alternate one year,” she says. “He was one of the best people in the entire world. This was his dream, to be on Survivor, and he actually passed before his opportunity. He was very healthy. It was just… he took a random trip to Jerusalem because he wanted to see all the things that Jesus saw, and he actually passed in Jerusalem.”
“I know he’s here with me,” she continues. “Just talking to you about it, I get chills. I can’t believe I’m here. I’m so blessed. This island, just being here… I know I’m going to be miserable in a few hours, but, I don’t know. It’s hard to take in.”
It’s a surreal experience for Ali’s fellow Hustler, bellhop Ryan Ulrich, a self-proclaimed Survivor superfan who is very proud of being the first player to wear a turtleneck. He thinks he’s going to win with a simple philosophy: by being “average enough.”
“I’m not great physically, but I’m not a schmuck physically,” he says. “I’m going to be OK strategically and I’m going to be pretty good socially. The people who win this game I always feel are just the most average that season — with exceptions, like if you have [Season 10 winner] Tom Westman or a Kim [Spradlin, who won Season 24] just run the gamut from the start.”
Ryan talks a bunch about strategy, but he makes his feelings known that Survivor is about much more than executing blindsides and making big moves.
“It’s a social game, obviously, and everything emanates from that social game,” he says. “A lot of people, if you just watched the show, and even if you listen to the podcasts, I think you fall into this lull that everything is about strategy. And obviously it’s a huge part of the game, but I always thought the most important moments take place off-camera — and in those moments, you’re talking about Game of Thrones, you’re taking about sports, entertainment, movies. That’s where you build connections with people. Then once you have a little bit of a relationship here, then I think you can parlay that into something of strategy.”
If there is a Many-Faced God, then Ryan will eventually have an opportunity to talk about Game of Thrones with Mike Zahalsky, the Healers tribe doctor who is absolutely obsessed with all things Westeros. He owns replicas of the Valyrian swords Longclaw and Oathkeeper, as well as Arya Stark’s legendary weapon Needle. He owns a copy of A Clash of Kings that he purchased for the low price of $5.99 back when it was first published in 1998, worth “thousands” of dollars now. Indeed, Mike even takes some credit (emphasis on some) for saving George R.R. Martin’s life after reading one of the A Song of Ice and Fire author’s blog updates.
“All of a sudden in his blog he says, ‘I’m sorry I haven’t written in a week, but I was in the hospital with urosepsis,'” says Mike, a urologist. “And I was like, ‘Oh no, this guy is gonna pull a Robert Jordan!”
The longtime Ice and Fire fan tracked down Martin’s phone number online, and offered to fly the author out to his urology practice in Florida. The offer was denied; Mike says Martin’s health issue was resolved without his assistance. Years later, the doctor won a limited edition of the fifth book in Martin’s series through a charity auction, and had the chance to relay his story to Team GRRM. When the special copy of A Dance with Dragons arrived, it came with a personalized inscription from the author: “Thanks for caring about me, Mike.”
Finally, there’s physical therapist Desi Williams, Mike’s fellow Healer who has an interesting Internet story of her own — namely, that it’s what got her on Survivor: “Somebody slid into my DMs.”
It wasn’t a completely unique experience; Desi, who has competed in beauty pageants over the past several years, is used to seeing strange messages appear in her filtered Facebook inbox, which she often peruses with gleeful curiosity. Late last year, Desi received a message from someone claiming to work in the Survivor casting department, asking if she would want to apply for the show. The rest is history — or, at least, history in the making. She likes her odds out here, due to a variety of factors, including her ability to maintain her cool.
“I cannot complain,” she says. “I think what gets to a lot of people is people are complaining about the conditions. Like, yeah, we’re living outside — but we’re also in Fiji. So, suck it up, baby.”
Check back with THR.com/Survivor closer to the season premiere for much more from our exclusive visit to the set of Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers.
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