It's been 20 years sinceSurvivorfirst premiered on CBS, and in celebration of that milestone, the series has upped the ante. Season 40, Winners at War, premieres on Wednesday night, featuring a group of castaways that Survivor fans are all familiar with; every single member of this season's cast is already a Survivor winner.
Returning this season are "Boston" Rob Mariano and his wife, Amber, as well as the only two-time Survivor winner, Sandra Diaz-Twine. Rounding out the cast are Adam Klein (Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X), Ben Driebergen (Survivor: Heroes v Healers v Hustlers), Danni Boatwright (Survivor: Guatemala), Denise Stapley (Survivor: Philippines), Ethan Zohn (Survivor: Africa), Jeremy Collins (Survivor: Cambodia -- Second Chance), Kim Spradlin (Survivor: One World), Michele Fitzgerald (Survivor: Kaoh Rong), Natalie Anderson (Survivor: San Juan del Sur), Nick Wilson (Survivor: David vs. Goliath), Parvati Shallow (Survivor -- Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites), Sarah Lacina (Survivor: Game Changers), Sophie Clarke (Survivor: South Pacific), Tony Vlachos (Survivor: Cagayan), Tyson Apostol (Survivor: Blood vs. Water), Wendell Holland (Survivor: Ghost Island) and Yul Kwon (Survivor: Cook Islands).
The competition will still take place over 39 days in Fiji, but with this cast, the gameplay started long before hitting the beach. Rob and Amber had an alliance built on 15 years of marriage, while other castmembers had also grown close offscreen.
"Before I went to the game, I had some crazy, Beautiful Mind kind of chalkboard situation going on. I was, like, mapping everybody's relationships: who has dated each other, who was married to each other, who has played with each other, who has betrayed each other, who has played poker together. I was definitely trying to sort that all out," Sophie tells ET. "Usually on Survivor, you don't know if someone tells you, 'Hey, that's my friend. They're with me.' But when Rob tells you Amber is with him, it's pretty easy to believe him. There's a little extra layer of intel."
With $1 million to their names each, Rob and Amber didn't sign on for Winners at War for the money -- even if the prize had been upped to $2 million. This season, it's all about the glory, and being named the best of the best.
"You'll see it in the premiere of this 40th season... the paranoia is so funny because these are experienced players, they've all won, all of them are saying, 'I've never felt this level of paranoia. I've never been this tired and it's only been five hours,'" host Jeff Probst tells ET. "It's already happening, and it goes that way through the end of the season."
From strategy to beef to a Survivor "bloodbath," here is what to expect from Winners at War:
Relationships on Relationships
Wendell: I think that being a recent winner, obviously I was fresh off people's minds and I played a pretty strong game. Then I thought about all the winners and how long they stayed in the game and how long they've been within the Survivor community. Man, we have a married couple out here, people that have dated, people that have played together numerous seasons, people that have been in other people's weddings. So, these people have these real relationships that they have honed over the last decade or 15 years, and I'm this new kid on the block. I could be an easy target. I could be a quick, easy boot. And that was something that I went into the game wanting to overcome.
As a new winner, you know you have an uphill battle going in against these players that are so bonded. You don’t even know half the bond. So before I even came out here, I'm trying to work up flow charts of who's closest to who and how people are aligned in all these things because if there was ever a season of pre-alliances and pre-existing relationships, this is the Super Bowl of those seasons. People are so connected and it could be just like, "Oh, these two people have to be from the same hometown." Or it could be, "These two people are married," or it could be, "These four people were all villains on Heroes vs. Villains." Or it could be, "These people played poker together."
Sophie: [To prepare], I just watched old seasons over again. I have one of the worst memories of all time, so a lot of these people I couldn't even remember. What was it about them that helped them win? I've watched everybody's old seasons and tried to figure out why they won, why they were good, why they might want to work with me, and why they might not want to work with me. I had this whole dossier created. I felt like I was a spy or something by the end.
Strategy -- and an Old School vs. New School Divide
Ethan: I had done my research and I knew that Adam was a superfan and he's Jewish, his mom had cancer. I felt like we could have a good bond together. He was new school, so when I saw him on the beach, I was excited because I felt like I could kind of leverage his fanboy over the other players and maybe even myself because I had read I was one of his favorite players. Here I am, I'll use that to my advantage, right? I was excited to see him.
I was nervous to see Boston Rob. Our relationship on All-Stars was fine but we kind of went back and forth at each other, some smack talk and I hadn't talked to him in 10 years. There's no animosity there, but I didn't know how we would respond to each other and he had just played six times up until this point, so he's an expert at this game. It took four times to win, it only took me once. I just want to say that. I'm just saying! Not that I keep track or anything. [There are] big names, Sandra, Parvati, where you just read about them over the years and they're built up to such a high standard that everyone is scared of them.
Parvati: For me, it was, "I feel comfortable with these old schoolers, and they have big targets on them too, so I want to be with people who have big targets." And in addition to that, I'm thinking there's a lot of people here who flew under the radar and won the game, and that to me is more dangerous than being an outward -- a visible threat. So, I was thinking, "I need to link up with a couple of under-the-radars, so that they aren't just ganging up against all of the big names and getting rid of the big names." So, I wanted to do both, really.
Sophie: The divide between old school and new school was super evident right from the beginning, but it was really hard to navigate. You'd think you'd be like, "OK, old school people are going to play like old school. They're going to stick together. New school people are going to play like new school, they're going to stick together." But I think everybody almost had a different take on how to navigate that divide. Some of the new school players were like, "OK, well, I want to align with the old school players as shields." And some of the old school players were like, "I'm going to align with the new school players to help me get up to speed." And then other people were like, "I'm going to stick with my friend." So, it was a really complicated divide, because it meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Big Targets, Right Off the Bat
Parvati: I've always been a target from the get-go, from Day 1. People have tried to vote me out on season 16, and then also again that happened on season 20, so I assumed that this would not be different. But the difference to me was I have changed a lot from 10 years ago.
Amber: Obviously, I knew going in that we had the biggest target -- probably my target is even bigger than [Rob's], just because I think people think my game is kind of unpredictable and they don't really know how to read me. So, I knew going in that we were huge threats, but I was really hoping that people could see the other side and realize that by working with us... we are two people that completely trust each other, so you've got two votes and two people that can totally trust each other. If you're with us, you're with us. That’s a huge, powerful thing, but people can see it either way and think, "They are two votes. We don't want them here." So, it just depends how you see it.
Rob: We [had to see] if we can figure out a way to work with some of the other winners, because no one has gotten more out of Survivor than myself and my wife. We are going to be huge targets from [the beginning], so how do we soften that and figure out a way to make it appetizing for someone else to want to work with us?
Amber: We tried to talk some strategy before going out, but every season is different. You never know what Jeff's going to throw at you and really the best players are able to adapt to all these different changes. So, I mean, we're husband and wife. We obviously have each other’s back... if it's going to better his game and he has to vote me out or vice versa, if it means one of us is going to win, we would probably [vote each other out]. So, we were just gonna go out there and play the game the best we know how and try to get it done.
Sandra: I feel that although I have played with Rob and I have spent 36 days with him [on Island of the Idols], I don't know what it was that he told Amber about me, but she was very standoffish, and in her interview that I saw about a week ago, she was talking about all the things Rob had told her about me. So, I think he messed her up. So I feel like certain people came in with certain ideas. Like, you can tell when someone wants to play with you and someone doesn't want to play with you.
I don't know what gave him the impression that him and Amber could not work with me. So, that's really hurtful, because I don't know... I'm at a loss for words, because it just would have been nice if he just would have trusted me, just a little bit. Like, Amber... for about five, six minutes, she was talking about all the things Rob told her to be wary of with me. And I'm like, "When did I ever give Rob this impression that I was dangerous towards them?" I don't know what happened. I honestly don't know what happened.
Jeff: It's a really interesting situation, because we had Sandra and Rob come back and play in our 39th season, and they were these mentors, so they spent a lot of time together on this beach -- not competing, just really getting to know each other. Sandra told Rob, "I'm gonna play in season 40." And Rob decided to tell Sandra he wasn't. When they both showed up and she saw him, she wasn't happy.
[It's more personal], because if you think about this, 20 years of life, some of these people have known each other. They've seen people get married, they've been godfather or godmother, they may have gone on vacations together. They may have dated, all sorts of entanglements. So, when you get out there and you see who all is there, you're going "OK, this is a problem, we dated, they don't like me." ... But it's all still the same fabric of the game, which is, it is a microcosm of our own lives. How do you navigate in this situation?
Sandra: Oh yeah, [it's] a bloodbath. [It's] epic, awesome, a lot of strategy, a lot of backstabbing. A lot of deceit, a lot of lies, absolutely zero truth is being spoken out there. And either you're playing somebody or you're getting played -- it all depends on how you look at it. And a lot of sleepless nights. Like, you couldn't even blink out there. It was tough. It wasn't easy.
There's definitely people that I was friends with and then once the game started, that was it -- we haven't even talked to this day. And there are several Survivors that are like that. So, we know it's a game of betrayal, but for a lot of us, like me, it's really not a game. It's my life, so it's not always just a game, get over it. It's not that easy. People make it out to be so easy. Like, "Go out there, and whatever happens, happens, and then you come home." But it's not that cut and dry. It's more than just a game. That's what a lot of people don't understand. And you have a lot of fans and criticizers who think they know every damn thing and they've never stepped a foot out there and played the game. So it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy because there were a lot of winners, and a lot of us know each other. I didn't know every single winner out there, but for the ones that I did know, I had special bonds with them, and that sh*t's done. Like, done.
A Memorable Season
Sophie: Oh my god, you should have seen the people freaking out over the $2 million prize. Not just people -- me. I think I freaked out the hardest. I don't think everyone was really out there for the money. Everyone's won the money, we all wanted the title. We all wanted to be the greatest of all time. But, when Jeff upped the stakes and went from one million to two million, it was like, something clicked on in everybody. It was like, oh man, it's on. Now it's a real competition.
Parvati: I think it really was the FOMO. It was like, I had always thought in the back of my mind that the only way they could get me back was if it was an all winners, because the competition would be so fun and upleveled, or if it was Blood vs. Water, and I could do it with my husband. So, I knew -- they weren't calling John [Fincher], they weren't calling my family to get him out there, I knew that it would be a winners season. They didn't tell me, but I had that sense, like, "Oh, this is it. This is going to be the ultimate competition. I can't miss this. I have to make it happen."
Sandra: I know it's going to be awesome. It's probably going to be the No. 1 [season] because we were so dysfunctional and I'm just dying to see what people said behind my back. That's all, because one thing is when they're in front of you, but the minute they're off with somebody else, they're talking sh*t. So, I'm dying to see what was being said.
Amber: Sandra has won twice, but she played against people who hadn't won before, so [this season is] like getting the ultimate trophy. It's the biggest Survivor trophy there is. It's winning the Super Bowl, it's winning the World Series. Not only are you winning a whole boatload of money, but you're getting that title -- you are the best of the best."
Survivor: Winners at War premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.