You can’t have an all-winners Survivor season without Boston Rob Mariano.
For its 40th season, Survivor is presenting Winners at War, a ruthless battle between 20 of the show’s most cutthroat victors. Mariano, winner of Survivor: Redemption Island, will face off against Parvati Shallow, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Natalie Anderson, Tyson Apostol and others, as the castaways fight, scratch and claw their way to a whopping $2 million prize.
Ahead of the season’s Wednesday, Feb. 12 premiere (CBS, 8/7c), Mariano spoke to TVLine about the “enormous” target on his back, convincing with his wife, Amber, to play again, and the importance of adapting in an evolving social game.
TVLINE | When Jeff Probst asks you to be on another season, what factors determine whether you’re Fiji-bound?
I knew Season 40 was going to be pretty monumental and that they were doing something big. I felt like my Survivor journey was complete, but then I thought to myself, when I’m at home sitting down and 40 comes on and it’s all winners, am I really going to not want to be a part of it? That was the determining factor for me.
TVLINE | What was Amber’s initial reaction? Was it an easy sell?
Her initial reaction was “No.” She’s not going, she’s not doing it, “have fun.” Then, I told her she had to go and she wasn’t too happy. [Laughs] Not many shows go 40 seasons with 20 years on the air, so just out of respect for everything the show has given us over the years, we both felt like we needed to be a part of it.
TVLINE | Walk me through the moment when Probst dropped that $2 million bomb.
Everybody was shocked and excited. At that moment, the game got very real. Like, “Wow, this isn’t just another walk in the park.” It doubled the stakes for the season. If you didn’t think you were going to be playing against a bunch of cutthroat people, you realized, at that moment, it’s gonna be serious.
TVLINE | What size of a target did you have on your back?
No target on my back, are you kidding me? [Laughs] It’s probably the biggest and the brightest! I basically told people if they’re on a season with me they need to get rid of me because I’m gonna outplay you, I’m gonna outlast you, and I’m gonna outwit you. But sometimes they don’t take my advice and if they let me stick around long enough, I’m the type of guy that can get it done. So yeah, my target is enormous. It didn’t help that we left the day after they announced Season 39. The cast got to see that they literally built a statue of me on the island and we did press right across from those statues. People are well aware of my history in the game and my reputation precedes me. Even with those odds stacked against me, I’m a competitor. I want to play.
TVLINE | Wait, so the statues were still up when the 40 cast got there? Talk about not doing you any favors!
Yeah, they were! [Laughs] But the fact that I was there with my wife probably didn’t help either.
TVLINE | How about pre-game alliances and friendships? Are close friends on the chopping block?
Absolutely everyone is on the chopping block! I’ve never made a deal before I got to the island. Ever. Obviously, my wife and I have an alliance, but other than that, I don’t play the pre-season game or pre-existing alliances. I was on Season 39 and had 10 days before I left for 40. I was on 39 with Sandra and we never once discussed it. I didn’t discuss it with Tyson, Jeremy, Kim… I just have too much respect for the game. I also know that the best laid plans are often laid to waste when you get there and find out the tribes are divided a certain way. I just didn’t want that extra baggage, so I always approach the game as a blank slate.
TVLINE | Going into the season, who were your biggest threats?
If you look back to the first All-Stars [season], the biggest names were the obvious threats to go. People didn’t want [Richard] Hatch or Tina Wesson or Ethan [Zohn] to win again; that’s just human nature. This season, everyone’s won, but there are big-name contestants that have been in the Survivor limelight for years, people like myself and Amber, Sandra, Parvati…. Those types of people have huge targets on them. In a season like this, people like that need to get together and put their egos aside if we’re going to go deep in this game. Whether that can happen or not remains to be seen.
TVLINE | Are “old school” players like Ethan or Danni [Boatwright] at a disadvantage against those who have played and won recently?
I think they are, because the game has changed and evolved a lot over the years. You gotta get with the new ways or they’re just going to absorb you. But if those old school players can join up and say, “Look, we’re at a disadvantage, but we have numbers…” Ultimately, Survivor is a numbers game.
TVLINE | What’s your take on the abundance of advantages lately? Are you a Survivor purist or do you think they’re necessary to keep things fresh?
Watching it on TV, it seems like there are so many, but again, that’s the evolution of the game today. Survivor has always been about the person who’s best able to adapt. That goes for Survivor and it goes for life. Complaining about where things are now isn’t going to change it. You have to accept that’s where it is and figure out a way to use it to your advantage. Tell me what the rules are and let me see how I can navigate within those rules. If the rules have changed, that’s fine, as long as we’re all aware of what they are.
TVLINE | Lastly, give us a little Season 40 tease!
Season 40 was supposed to be a celebratory season, but the second Jeff said, “Game on” it was all business. The competitiveness inside of me came out like never before. I love being on that island, but as soon as it’s game time, everything else takes a backseat to me trying to win.
Which Survivor champ are you rooting for in “Winners at War”?