'Survivor' Finale: Jeff Probst Dishes on 'Dramatic' Finish & Risks of a Fan-Voted Cast

by Philiana Ng 9:00 AM PDT, May 20, 2015
Photo: CBS

Survivor is about to put another season in the books.

CBS’ veteran reality staple wraps up its 30th cycle (can you believe it?!) tonight with a two-hour finale, followed by the always-illuminating live reunion show when the latest Survivor champion is crowned. For longtime host Jeff Probst, the surprise this season was how the Worlds Apart twist – which separated 18 castaways by social class into White Collar, No Collar and Blue Collar tribes – played out.

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“We weren’t really sure how it was going to go, if it was going to all mesh together or if there was going to be separation,” Probst admits to ETonline, “and there was so much separation.” “For us that was really powerful – to remind us to keep trusting our instincts and to keep trying things,” he adds.

The final five castaways vying for the $1 million prize include three Blue Collars (Mike Holloway, Rodney Lavoie Jr. & Sierra Thomas), one White Collar (Carolyn Rivera) and one No Collar (Will Sims II). “You have a final five that has at least one person from every group in the running for the win and I like that,” Probst says.

What will be different is what happens after the cameras stop rolling following the reunion show, which will be the first time fans will find out who the 20 castaways they picked to compete in season 31 – a long-in-the-works format tweak, Probst says.

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Ahead of tonight’s finale, the Survivor host and executive producer jumped on the phone with ETonline to dish on the final five, the season’s big controversy and what we can expect for the season of Second Chance Survivors.

What surprised you the most this season that you weren’t expecting?

The White Collar tribe was really a different group of people than the Blue Collars. They didn’t quite know how to make a shelter, they weren’t getting as dirty. The Blue Collars had their hands in the mud and the dirt in their nails. And then the No Collars were like, “Eh, shelter?”

There’s always that fear that as we near the end of any given season, it may favor one tribe over the other or is one-sided.

You just hit on something that, at least for me, is the fun of Survivor and that is that you really don’t know. If you’re watching Mad Men, you know Don Draper’s not going to die because he’s the star but if you’re watching Survivor, you don’t know if your favorite Survivor Joe, the young, long-haired, No Collar hunk is going to last another episode. It’s very Game of Thrones in that way in that anybody could die at any time, and it won’t surprise you.

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Who surpassed your expectations this season?

A lot of them surprised me. Rodney surprised me a lot. I liked Rodney and I wanted him on the show but I didn’t anticipate Rodney would still be in it with a shot to win it. I think his game has been overlooked a little bit because he spends so much time complaining that you forget that he’s done a really good job of holding an alliance together. Hali I was sad to see go. I think Hali has a bigger game in her and she had a bit of a No Collar, which was “Yeah I’ll get to it” and on Survivor sometimes you can’t wait that long. Carolyn surprised me – I never honestly thought that Carolyn would last this long and am really happy to see her in it. I hated to see Vince go early; I thought he was super colorful and wanted him to have a shot.

Who didn’t live up to your expectations?

I don’t know if anybody did disappoint this season – even So who was first off and we had such high hopes for her. The only reason she was first off was she made a move. It’s easy to criticize – and it’s totally fair, that’s a big part of the fun of watching – but in So’s defense, she might’ve made a move too early but she made a move. That’s all you want from a producing standpoint, you want people to do what they said they were going to do, and she definitely did. She could’ve easily ended up on the Second Chance ballot, simply because of “What if she lasted just a little bit longer? Could she have gotten a foothold in the game?”

Photo: CBS

How does this season’s final five rank?

You have Rodney, who is going to go down in as one of the most colorful characters we’ve ever had. He’s funny, he’s honest, and he’s so exhausted right now that his vulnerabilities are coming out in ways that even he doesn’t want them to. When he complains about his birthday, I think he has been deprived for a long time. Rodney has a real shot to win. Carolyn definitely has a case to win this game. She’s made moves, she’s hung in there and she’s the oldest person out there which is in and of itself a major obstacle on Survivor. She’s played a game where she’s had to do it herself. Mike’s challenge is really simple: Everybody wants him out. They feel he betrayed the alliance and the group; Mike either has to find someone to team up with or he has to win his way to the end. And then Sierra and Will are the longshots – Will is the biggest longshot to win, mainly because of what happened with Shirin. He turned a lot of people off and he’d have to recover from that quickly for people to give him a chance. If Sierra makes a move in the final five it’d have to be a big move. But if she teams up with Mike to make something happen, she might be able to make a case.

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What has been the impressive move when it comes to gameplay or strategy?

That’s a hard question. One of the big central points of the game has been the auction when Mike tried to pull a fast one on everybody. That really set the tone for how people in his tribe saw him and it made him an outcast, a maverick. But to me it captured the game. I’m very curious when it comes to the live show if Mike regrets that or thought he crossed the line or if he thinks that was a good move. That’s what Survivor comes down to for me: Where is your line in the sand? Everyone has a different spot. For some people lying on their children is unconscionable, for others they’d lie on children they didn’t have.

There have been fireworks this season, especially in regards to some of the male castaways’ remarks toward some of the women. Did that surprise you at all and how do you plan on addressing it on the live reunion?

It doesn’t surprise me when anybody makes a comment because the truth is, no matter how much time we spend on casting, they’re not under duress, they’re not under extreme conflict. You never really know what their truth is going to be until they’re out there. I was surprised by Will. I never saw that dark side of him ever when we were going through casting. What I think is going to happen on the live show – yes we’re going to bring it up – is that Rodney is going to help us understand that where he comes from, what he said sounded worse than what he meant. I don’t have any idea how Will feels toward Shirin. I can’t imagine any kind of recovery other than that was just a terrible thing to say.

Dan is the one I’m most curious about. Dan is a likable guy, but you can’t make that many comments and blame it all on “Well they only showed one side of me.” I don’t go into the live shows looking to tear somebody apart, that’s not what Survivor is about, but I’m curious as a human to find out what’s behind all that. Was it coincidence that we ended up with three guys in the same season or did it become a group thing? This has never happened before. We’ve never had this many comments about women in one season. I’m curious to get to the bottom of it and to try and get to the truth of it without it being a Jerry Springer situation.

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Season 31 gives Survivor fans ultimate say in choosing the 20 castaways that will make the cast. Why do this now and what is your goal with giving them some control with casting?

This is the first time we’ll have a live show that ended right as we were about to head into shooting the new season so we could literally take the people, go with them, then bring them right back and put [the season] on the air. We’ve wanted to do this for a while but it’s just never worked. From a creative standpoint we’ve had a list of people that we’ve wondered what – they weren’t big enough names of the audience to go “They’re all-stars!” But they were people we liked enough that we’d like to put them on the show but who just couldn’t get quite enough of a shot or something weird happened.

I’m a huge proponent of rewarding our audience for their loyalty by giving them a bigger, bigger stake in the show just like a CEO in a company who offers profit-sharing for their employees. That’s where my heart is. For me, it really is a bit of a “We thank you and we trust you, and we’re in this together.” I want them to feel like this is your show as much as it is ours. Big picture, we put together a list and said, “Here are people we’re happy with and you tell us who you want any combination you want.” There is zero, and I mean zero involvement from me, CBS, [executive producer] Mark [Burnett], anybody. The only way I can impact the vote is if I go onto and vote once a day.

This brings up an interesting point. Because the audience is determining the cast, how much of a blueprint to the season do you have before the castaways are officially revealed on the live reunion? How will you go about determining the tribes, any more twists?

We announce the cast. The [live] show ends. They get on a bus. They start heading toward their journey. We both go to LAX and start our journey to Cambodia, which is in and of itself an adventure. (Laughs.) I’ll be corresponding with the rest of the team and starting to figure out how to divide the tribes based on who gets on. The only thing we’ll be looking for is to try to divide them as evenly as possible. No matter how much these guys email each other and say “Let’s be in an alliance together!” it’s all pointless because they have no idea the creative that we have, so they can’t anticipate anything – it’s a waste of energy. And yet I know some of them will do it. The big thing we have going for us is motivation: These people want to play, and all of these people have something to prove.

How many more people were originally on the potential castaways list before you settled on the 32?

The only regret I have about this is that we had twice as many, maybe three times as many, people that we thought about putting on this list but we could only handle so many. Every time we pulled somebody off the list, I felt a pain for them because I know what they don’t know which is now they’re not going to get a shot this time.

How satisfying is the final tribal council?

People are going to be very satisfied. It fulfills. It delivers. It is exciting. It’s dramatic. It’s surprising. It’s got a huge momentum where we actually had to ask the network for more time – we were about four or five minutes, which is quite a long time for a TV show to be long. We had so much happening that we didn’t want to cut any of it out. It’s good. It’s definitely night to sit down, camp out and say “I’m Survivor-ing it from 8 to 11, and then I’m going to watch [David] Letterman retire.”

Survivor wraps season 30 on Wednesday starting at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. 

What did most recent Survivor winner Natalie Anderson plan to do with her $1 million grand prize? Press play to find out what she told ET!