Russell Swan: 'Survivor' Is Exercise in Mediocrity

by LISA HIRSCH 2:17 PM PDT, October 11, 2012
Photo: CBS

Survivor fans bid a fond farewell to friendly warrior Russell Swan on Wednesday night, as the second-time player was voted off after his tribe suffered four consecutive losses. Swan, who first appeared on 2009's Survivor: Samoa and was taken out early after suffering life-threatening dehydration, made a name for himself on the series with his diehard commitment to excellence and his honest and direct communication style. ETonline catches up with the 45-year-old Pennsylvania lawyer to hear his take on his Survivor: Philippines ouster.

ETonline: It was so hard to watch that challenge. You guys came so close last night to winning [and] not having to go to tribal council. How did that feel at that moment?

Russell [Swan]: Oh man, both there and here, I can only say my heart…I mean if I had a heart condition…it probably would have taken me out. You're just fingernails away from getting closer to this goal and to see how it unfolds. Even sitting on the couch and already knowing what happened -- my heart was still just pounding and the end result was crushing.

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ETonline: I saw the looks on your faces when the other tribes said they were only using men. Do you think that was fair?

Russell: [Laughing] You know, you're the first person to ask that question. That's the only reason I'm laughing. There's this rule about not saying what you don't see on TV. Let's just put it this way, I had a whole lot to say about that and part of it was some strategy; I was trying to stir them up. I hear all this stuff about how 'women can do this and I'm a woman, hear me roar,' and I was like, 'Oh you guys are full of crap.' So it was all kinds of stuff surrounding that issue but it's interesting. Well, fair? Absolutely not. But that's Survivor - there's nothing fair about it. Nothing. It makes you take advantage of things that normally you wouldn't. You wouldn't just let some guy tell you, 'Come on dear, sit down, let the man handle it.' You wouldn't do that, not in a million years. So on Survivor you become this 'other.' [It was the] same people [on the other tribes], [the] same not playing. I just thought, 'Wow, you've got to be kidding me.' Does it make sense? Absolutely! It made perfect sense; you played your [strongest players] because you want to maximize your chances of winning. So that's why I laugh, it's a great question. And it's really funny because it was the one place I was spared, because I did have a whole lot to say about that.

ETonline: Do you regret your outburst at the end of the challenge or would you have done it the same way again?

Russell: Wow, another good question and another first person asking me that. Here's how I would answer that, and if it seems like I'm waffling, then I'm sorry. It's only because I'm still presently trying to figure this thing out. 'It's just a game; it's a TV show,' [is the] intellectually correct response. The human element…the real human being of me – I'm still affected by the whole totality of the experience; which has felt negative. The response to me and my outbursts, and a number of different things, [has been] extremely negative. I'm still figuring [out], would I have done that different? I don't know. Is that a part of me? Was that part of the frustration? Was that being tired? Being hungry? Once I get past the emotional response to all of this…I just want to throw this in a compartment and throw away the key at this point. I just want to take a breather from this stuff right now.

But at some point it is going to be interesting to kind of think about that. I competed in other things in the past. I've been in organized sports before, and there have been times before when the coach had to grab me by the collar and tell me, 'You were not sportsman-like.' So there's a lot there and that's the best way I can answer that question. To tell you now the way I feel, I don't feel like I'm going to jump off a bridge or anything but my mentality at this point is 'Lose the game, win the fight.' …really wanting to do which would be satisfying but really stupid.

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ETonline: Looking at the challenge last night, it seemed just almost like bad luck ultimately. You guys were right there with the other teams; do you think that it became just luck at a certain point [in terms of] losing the challenges?

Russell: It could be luck in all of those. It could be just that each challenge that we did, each person's weakness was highlighted. You can kind of say, 'Well we had this huge lead [Malcolm started for] us, [but then with] Denise being short and having to step through…you can 'what if' it up one side and down the other – you just don't know and at the end of the day it doesn't matter. I'm gone and it sucks. I'm a Christian so I really abhor hatred in any form. But I hate it. I do, I hate the whole experience, I do.

ETonline: The whole experience of Survivor this season?

Russell: This season…one of the emotions I feel is hate.

ETonline: It seems it would be demoralizing, not only because you guys had continued to lose the challenges but the weather was so bad. It seems like there was many elements coming together that made this season difficult.

Russell: That's correct. That's correct.

ETonline: Changing gears a little bit, I know that when you had first started, you had mentioned in the beginning you didn't want to be a leader. But all of your actions came through as leadership actions; giving advice and organizing, do you think that is just a natural part of your personality in any situation?

Russell: I don't know. It's interesting because the first time it happened [in Samoa] it was foisted upon me. You hate to sound all 'Hollywood' and talk about edit and all that kind of stuff but I would be remiss [if I didn't say] you have to factor all that in. But I don't know - it's another thing to think about; in the fullness of the time I analyzed this thing. What's ironic is I sit here; my position at work is I am a supervisor. What's ironic is I applied for and was blessed with this position pretty much after Samoa [Survivor] finished airing. One of the things that came up in the interview [was] leadership and that kind of thing, so I find it interesting; something to definitely give some thought to. I feel like I'm weaseling out but it is…it's a good's interesting to think about how all these things play. Like we said before, the rain and the bad luck or the skills test; there's so many factors that go in so that's about the best I can do with that question.

ETonline: It's interesting to think what might work in the outside world and make a person highly successful, might not work in Survivor. Can you speak about that a little bit?

Russell: That is correct. This is just Russell talking. Survivor is an exercise of mediocrity. And it definitely is advantageous if you're not one of these things that is not like the other. So being a person of color can be an issue because it's mostly white people. Being from the East Coast because people are mostly from L.A. can be an issue. If it's mostly recruits who can care less because really this is a stepping stone to other things versus some people who have been dying to get on there for 20 years and they apply and they get on there and they're just freaking the hell out -- I think I fit in that [category].

It calls for something that I think we should abhor as a society: mediocrity. Last time I checked, I'm sorry, I abhor mediocrity. So why is it that when we look at this, the black women get voted out pretty early in a lot of these different seasons? What's up with that? It could be nothing, it could be luck. But when you start to drill down, it's so many different things. But the one thing that we definitely should abhor is winning at any cost. That's not what we want to learn, that's not what we teach, but that's exactly what this game is: win at any cost. I hope as a society we don't embrace that. At least that's what I would like to believe. Maybe I'm delusional, maybe Survivor really is what we are.

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ETonline: I wanted to ask you what you think about the format this season because you started out with such small tribes.

Russell: I hated it. There's no place to hide. It's a three-legged stool. When Zane [Knight] got voted off that stool only had two legs; it was no longer functional. So it's still a stool but you're not sitting in it. I completely did not like the format at all. The other thing is I think it allows for way too much unnecessary mischief at the beginning. For crying out loud, can we just get to some basic stuff first before people are already digging for idols and hating. I don't know, I love Survivor, I really do as a show. I think it's brilliant TV. But I do tend to be in the camp that likes those games of old, where you really got to see all those dynamics and all that kind of stuff and that real survival thing where people are really starving and having a hard time. This format - it's all about, it fits this new mode of 'Who wants to come in and be the biggest villain. Who wants to come in and make the boldest move? I don't know, to me, I don't like it.

ETonline: Speaking of the immunity idol, did you take any humor out of last night's episode [when] they illustrated what you were talking about?

Russell: I did that purposely because it got to the point where I knew I was probably not going to find this thing, they are not going to give me the space to find it; [Denise and Malcolm] were watching me -- you saw they were going through my clothes and stuff. It was clear as they were watching me. I just said, 'You know what, I'm almost positive this is what's going on,' so I just put it out there so they can have that to play with. Yeah I did because I said, 'They are probably going to flash it,' and they did. I played; I gave them that and enjoyed it as much as I could given the circumstances.

ETonline: Do you prefer one of the seasons looking back in your memories?

Russell: Absolutely. I have to say that I prefer Samoa for so many different reasons. One of the things that I will say about Samoa is that it felt like a tribe for me. I knew that they would try to cut my throat, but that just felt like a tribe. I'm in contact with those people 'til this day and I can't wait to get to L.A. to the finale and I pray that they have the time to come and hang out and I get to surround myself with them. We were all new and there is something to be said about everybody going through the discovery of this thing at the same time. The other thing is, Samoa, the way I went out has meaning to me. This one means nothing to me than just anger, pain, humiliation, [being] pissed off and hate. I am praying that at some point, like in Samoa, I will see what it was or what this is, and I know I will. In Samoa it became pretty evident pretty quickly what the lessons were and they were phenomenal, they were amazing. There's nothing amazing about this. I just see Jeff killing me. I just see a tribe that's dying. I see fans who are questioning everything about me. So at the end of the day, it's just a sum total negative, 'Okay leave me the hell alone, let me stay in obscurity.' One thing that I'm clear on is that it happens pretty quickly; come February [when] that new tribe [debuts], people won’t even think about Tandang, Kalabow or Matsing. I'm actually looking forward to obscurity at this point and that's unusual because that's not what I felt the first time.

Survivor airs Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. on CBS.