Survivor giant Jonathan Penner was voted out of the game Wednesday night, being halted in his third attempt at winning the CBS hit reality show's million dollar grand prize. We're catching up with the 50-year-old Los Angeles-based writer, who discloses why he didn't take Lisa up on her final four offer, the biggest lesson he learned in Survivor, and his take on Abi's "honest" approach.
ETonline: I was sorry to see you go, because every week it just seemed like when you were on the chopping block, you found a way to get out of it --
Penner: Yeah and then I didn't realize I was on the chopping block, so I stopped working so hard -- dummy!
ETonline: So were you surprised when your name was called [at Tribal Council]?
Penner: No. I was surprised earlier in the day when i was told that it was going to be me. I was not surprised at the tribal because I knew then -- I mean, I certainly hoped that I could sway them at Tribal, but I had hoped all day that I could sway them and they gave me indication that I was succeeding.
ETonline: When Abi got the advantage in the immunity challenge, and she told Malcolm that she found an immunity idol, did you guys believe her or did you know that she was full of it?
Penner: Well, we didn't know for sure. You know, she was acting bizarre and squirrelly, so we knew some of it was an act, to [some] degree. We knew it would all play eventually, so it would all be revealed. And then she sort of said it's a two part thing, she tried to keep it going that she would have immunity afterwards. Yeah, I thought she was lying. I didn't think they would actually sell an immunity at the auction. It was just too big a thing. ... And then when she ripped it up, we were like, that's bullshit, you know. Why would she need to rip it up. But it gave her a tremendous advantage, obviously, and her back was against the wall. And that was a very, very hard challenge. I was sore for days and days afterwards. My legs were very sore, I was very, very tired. I was only mad they didn't show me getting all those trivia questions right! I was the only one who got them all right.
ETonline: It seemed like you developed some genuine friendships out there, particularly with Lisa. How hard was it for you to balance personal relationship with strategy in the game?
Penner: Well, not really hard because that was my strategy. You know, my strategy was to build trust with folks and give them every reason to work with me and every reason to vote for me at the end. Give them no reason to doubt me and not want to work with me. And so I was honest, obviously to a fault -- and I knew at the end I would have to lie to somebody, and slit somebody's throat. I just didn't realize I needed to make that move at that moment. You know, that was my mistake.
ETonline: Was the affection you had with Lisa and with some of your other teammates -- was that genuine or was that for strategy?
Penner: Oh no, of course, it was totally genuine. I really got along well with all those folks. You know, Survivor can be extremely stressful, but can also be extremely fun. I mean, you're camping out! You're having a ball, and you're on TV. You're jack-assing around and having a good time. I did certainly, because even though we were all playing for a million bucks, only one of us is going to win it. You're not obligated, [but] you have an opportunity to have an incredible, incredible experience, whether you win or not. And I always urged everyone I was playing with to take full advantage of that, because yes, we were all hoping to win, but most of us were not going to do it, you know. And it's a very, very finite amount of time, very intense amount of time, and I tried to show everybody as good a time as possible, and have as good a time as I could.
ETonline: Looking back, when Lisa offered you a final four alliance, did you realize what a significant moment that was, and do you wish you would have taken her up on that?
Penner: No. Now I do. Of course I do. In hindsight, you know, in the cold light of day, when you see it portrayed on TV as, "Well, there's his mistake!" You know, at the moment, it certainly didn't seem that way and though they were under no obligation to say, "Jonathan -- they're in the woods waiting to shake our hand. And we really want to work with you, so please, shake our hand and tell us that you'll go to the end." Now, they were under no obligation to say that and obviously, they didn't want to say that. To a large degree, they just felt they needed to check in with me, "You want to go to the final four?" [And I'm thinking], "I don't know, I can't really make that commitment to you now, because you effers have voted against me twice, Lisa, and honestly I think you're the low man on the six right now and I'm not going to lie to you and say yes, I want to do that." My mistake, of course.
And then they said, "Oh, oh, oh, okay, um, okay." And then they walked away and they walked in the woods and they shook their hands and that was that. And I went back to sleep and didn't think about it, until Abi won immunity and it's like, "I think you're going home tonight," and I'm like, "What the hell are you talking about?" And why not make it Carter, for God's sake, you know, who's a bigger immunity threat than me, and the simple truth is that they saw me as a threat, Malcolm and Denise wanted me out of there once and for all, thought they had me on the ropes a number of times, and wisely...
You know, part of it was, and again I'm not going to make any excuses or rationale for the mistake that I made, but part of it was, that I was on the ropes, or on the run, so much, that I really did not have a chance to get the lay of the land clearly, I never had a strong ally who had my back and whose back I could have, except for RC for a day or two, and so, spent so much time running around, that when finally, stupidly, when the opportunity presented itself to me, I didn't even say it. Whereas, Malcolm and Denise, brilliantly, laid their game plan out, could not believe that I was still standing, said, "We've got to get rid of this guy, the only way to do it is with these two people, who, if they shake our hands, well, they're going to be true to their word." You know, for some fricken reason. And, they were right. You know, they forced their hand and said, "I promise on my father and mother." And they got them to shake. And I always said, yeah I'll give you my word, I'll shake your hand, what the hell does that mean? What does it mean? You know, this is Survivor! What are you guys talking about, let my actions speak for themselves. Let the fact that we want to work together, that we have been working together, let's just go forward. Do you really need that? But of course, they did, that was my mistake was not saying, and seeing, yeah, they really did need that, that's what they needed to have happen.
ETonline: Do you think because you never had a strong alliance throughout the game, but yet you managed to stick around so long, do you think that put an even bigger target on your back?
Penner: I think it did to the eyes of Malcolm and Denise, although I haven't asked them about that, ever. I think that they recognized what a threat I was, not only to go to the end if they didn't get rid of me right then and there, but to win potentially. Did it put a bigger target on my back -- yeah, I was supposed to gone a long time ago. And that I stuck around, they finally just said, "What are we doing? Get rid of this guy." It also, once more, deflected away from Malcolm, who was a massive threat, with an idol.
ETonline: After playing Survivor three times, what would you say is the biggest lesson you learned in the game?
Penner: Kindness, be kind. Be kind and have fun. Not that I ever needed to be told that. You mean my life lesson, or my lesson for the game of Survivor?
ETonline: I would say, either one or both.
Penner: Yeah, I guess my life lesson is to be as kind an empathetic as possible. To know that people are going through something hard, and to try to not judge them on what you're seeing right then and there, that they might be going through something else. And that people see the world, and life, and this experience that you're sharing, very very differently. And even though you might be seeing it clearly as one thing, they may be seeing something very, very different.
ETonline: Kind of springboarding off that, in terms of Abi, did anyone take her aside and say, in a kind way, "You know, hey, I know you don't mean it this way, but you're coming off differently than what you think"?
Penner: Well, that was iterated at that tough Tribal, and that was part of, I think the conversation that I had [with Abi] that they had a little piece of, that ended with me kind of hugging her, or her hugging me, and us saying ... hey, this is a life, this is a possible experience that you can learn from. You know, none of us are bad people, either, right? No one wants to think that you're a bad person. You're just not hearing us. You're not seeing that you are being, and the way that I put it was, "You could be friendlier." And she's like, "Well, you just can't deal with my honesty," or something. And it's like, I don't want to deal with your honesty. I don't deserve your honesty, I don't need your honesty. ... And none of us do. And so you think that you're just being honest and open, and the truth is, we don't want that. We don't need it. And you don't need to share that with us, and I'm just putting that out there. ... Treat us like you're coming to work and not like, you're in your own bathroom. You know? And maybe she heard that, maybe she didn't. But that's kind of the conversation that I tried to ultimately have with her. And she may say, we'll he's just an old idiot himself, I don't care what he says, or she might say, huh, having seven people say that I was annoying, which I'd never heard before, hey maybe that's an opportunity.
And in the same way that I had an opportunity of watching the first time that I played Survivor, kind of learning that lesson. I wasn't out there to teach those kids a lesson or something. I wasn't their dad, I wasn't their husband or their lover, or something. You know, I was a guy trying to play a game, they didn't need to hear from me. And so I really learned to kind of keep my mouth shut and treat people with a little bit more decorum. And that was a good lesson that I tried to teach her. Who knows if she learned it or cares, I don't know.
Survivor airs Wednesday nights at 8/7c on CBS.