The iconic players also address rumors they're on board for an all-winners season of 'Survivor.'
They have a combined three wins and over 200 days of Survivor under their belts, but this time, "Boston Rob" Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine aren't playing for the $1 million. Instead, the legends return to the game this season to offer their wisdom and coaching to a new crop of castaways on Island of the Idols.
Season 39 of the CBS reality competition series will see 20 new players hit the beach in hopes of becoming the next Sole Survivor, and if they're lucky enough, they'll get some help from the Survivor greats. Only those who discover the Island of the Idols will come face-to-face with Rob and Sandra, who are out there surviving -- just not playing.
How does it all work? ET spoke with Rob and Sandra separately over the phone last week. Here's what they said about the season (and rumors they'll be back in action for an all-winners season 40).
ET: What brought you back for Survivor this time around?
Boston Rob Mariano: You know, I was pretty much done with Survivor. I told Jeff [Probst] I was content with my place and all the times I've done it and everything, and that it would take something unique to get me to come back. He presented the idea of coming back as a mentor to give back and show the kids how to do it and what we have to offer. He pitched this idea of Island of the Idols to me. At the time, I didn't know anything about the statues either, and I still said yes. (Laughs)
Sandra Diaz-Twine: Jeff asked me, and it was that simple. I said yes, and he said, "You'll be out there with Boston Rob, and I was like, 'Definitely yes.'" And that was it. I tell anyone, anytime Jeff calls me, I never say no. ...It was perfect because he says, "There's not going to be a crazy twist where you guys are going to go into the game and go in for the million dollars. You're just there as mentors, what Cochran did on Game Changers," which I was on that season. And it felt easy. I was like, "Oh, I can do that. Boston Rob? Icing on the cake!"
I actually was glad it was Boston Rob. I don't know that I would have said no had it been anybody other than him. I would have maybe had to think twice if it was someone I knew I didn't get along with.... the fact that it was Boston Rob, I was like, "Oh definitely."
Describe this season for the fans. How exactly do you influence the game?
Rob: Well, Sandra and I are out there together. Between the two of us, we've played over 200 days... we both won the game, we've lost the game, we know all aspects of the game. So, we're living alone on our own island out there. We're actually surviving and catching our own fish and building our own shelter and doing it. The premise behind that is if we're going to talk the talk, we've gotta be able to walk the walk.
Every few days by certain means, different people will come to our island. When they come to the Island of the Idols, and they get a lesson on certain aspects of gameplay. Early on the season, it might be something simple like how to make a fire or how to work on your shelter. Later on, it gets a little more complex, given the social dynamics of the tribes and whether somebody's telling the truth or not, and how to maintain your alliances. And at some point during their visit, they have an opportunity to test what they learned, where essentially they'll have to risk something in order to gain something.
Sandra: I wouldn't say that we influence the game, because a lot of times, they just come and we don't know who's coming. But we already know what we're going to lay out for them, what lesson they're going to learn. ...But when they come, we want to get to know them, so we sit down, we ask them about their Survivor journey, if they were fans, how did they end up on Survivor, what do they think of their tribe, how have the first couple of days gone, and then it's a natural conversation. So when you say "influence the game," we listen to what they're going through, and the further along they are in the game, the more drama they're going through. And that's easier. And we've all dealt with our own drama every time we've played, both Rob and I, maybe not the same identical situation, but something close to it that we can give them a little bit of advice on. But at the end of the day, it's up to them to do whatever they decide is best for their game. We can't play their game for them.
We don't give them specific strategy to use against a specific person, because we don't know who else is out there. We just know whoever comes to our island and what they tell us is going on.
What was the most challenging aspect of returning?
Rob: Honestly, I think the thing that was hardest for me was not competing and not being able to go to and do the challenges and play the social game and the strategic game. But at the same time, it was pretty fulfilling to be able to kind of impart a little bit of wisdom on the new up-and-coming contestants.
Sandra: It's not challenging for me, because I don't need to do anything with the information that they're giving me, just that I need to help them move forward and try to figure out what they're lacking or how they're doing. So, I don't have to remember the names or what's going on.
A lot of times [a person said], "Oh, such and such came over here." We can't discuss what happened when such and such came, and we're not going to verify whether that person came or not. We don't discuss anything about them being there, because we want the secret of Island of the Idols to stay intact as long as we can. That was something me and Rob wanted to see how long our secret could stay without everyone knowing we were out there, and it lasted a pretty long time. But at the end of the day, when they come and they talk to us about everybody else, we pretty much want to know what situation they're in, not specifics about individual players.
Were you at all worried about giving out the wrong advice? Especially to potential favorites in the game?
Rob: Everybody that came there, our intention was to make them a better Survivor player. So, we wanted to help everybody. We weren't trying to trick anybody. There was no scenario where we were coming back and entering the game. We're truly there at their disposal to use as they wish. And that was our intention. We felt that so long as we gave them everything that we knew, that it would be helpful. You gotta understand Sandra and I both play different styles of game, so we're not always going to agree on some things. She may have one approach, I may have a different approach. They have to decide what's best for them and their game.
Sandra: That's the crazy thing. Every single person that came, we loved them. Like, "Oh my god, we love them, they're so good!" Then the next person shows up in the next three days and boom. "Oh my god, we love them! Oh my god, they're better. They're going to really kick a** in the game." So, it was like, every single person that came, we loved them more than the previous visitor, and it's because I guess they have more to contribute to the conversation because they're in the game, they've been in the game longer and longer and longer. They're going through more trials and tribulations. So, I think we just genuinely like every single person more and more, because it was more intense.
You're both Survivor legends. Did you recognize any of your own qualities in any castaways?
Rob: I think now the contestants are a lot more savvy than they've been in the past and they've had almost 20 years of experience and knowledge to watch and learn off of, and that made them better players from the jump, whereas in the beginning, they were kind of figuring the game out. So, I could see that from the outset, they were all a lot more advanced than we were when we were first figuring the game out.
Sandra: The crazy thing is a lot of them would say, "Oh my god, Sandra! You're my idol!" or "When I applied for Survivor, I talked about you." So many people gravitated towards me in that sense. And I get not everyone is a fan, but whenever I'm out there... I gave them as much information as I could give them from the three seasons that I have played, and that's what Rob did. You know, for me, I just talked about the aspects of my game. And a lot of times, they don't show everything on TV. So I'm explaining to them other situations that we're shown on TV that's similar to something they're going through. So, we always have plenty of content to give them.
Who should fans keep an eye on this season?
Rob: I don't want to start playing favorites off the jump, but I think in general, everybody that came there got something out of it. Some of them, it will help, some of them, it will definitely hurt, but regardless, a lesson will be learned from all of them.
Was there one piece of advice you offered to everybody?
Rob: I think the most important thing you can do in Survivor is be flexible. You know, you have to be willing to adapt to certain situations, whatever those situations might be. The person that's best able to adapt and switch up their game plan -- because you never know what Survivor's going to throw at you -- but the person who is best able to adapt to those situations, think on the fly, those are the ones that will be able to go the furthest.
There are rumors that season 40 of Survivor will be an all-winners season, and that you two are on it. What can you tell us?
Rob: Nothing! (laughs).
Would you be open to it? Is it a good idea?
Rob: I don't know. You never know. Never say never, right? I think season 40 is a pretty monumental milestone in the history of any show. There aren't many shows that have done that. To bring back all the winners to play again would definitely be epic.
Sandra: I think the fans have been begging for an all-winners season. People have been talking about it for years, and Jeff always said that there wasn't enough people or there weren't enough quality winners that he would want to see play again, or that the fans would want to see play again. But now, as we're going to season 39, there's definitely 38 winners out there. They could definitely put something together.
Survivor: Island of the Idols premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.