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Editor’s Note: The players were separated by gender and didn’t officially know the theme of the season when this interview took place.
Another Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted across from the giant “Boston” Rob and Sandra heads at the Island of the Idols.
Winner of “Redemption Island” (2011)
Name: “Boston” Rob Mariano
Hometown: Boston, Massachusetts (Duh.)
Current Residence: Pensacola, Florida
Gordon Holmes: This is your fifth time out here…well, (motions to the giant Island of the Idols heads) do you count that as a sixth?
“Boston” Rob Mariano: Do you?
Holmes: You were out there roughing it, but you didn’t have to worry about paranoia or backstabbing.
Mariano: All I know is I’ve played this game more than anyone else on the planet.
Holmes: Is a second win in your future?
Mariano: It’s the best of the best and it’s what I’m here to do…win.
Holmes: What’ve you been up to since the viewers saw you last?
Mariano: We have four daughters now, they’re amazing. They love “Survivor.” We watch it on Wednesday nights together as a family. So, now I have the opportunity to come out here and show them how mommy and daddy play.
Holmes: Do they understand that mommy and daddy, didn’t meet out here, but it’s such a big part of your relationship?
Mariano: They’ve never seen the old seasons. They’ve never seen the seasons that we’re on. But, they’ve seen the current seasons. They know that we’ve been on it. But this is awesome because now they’ll get to see me showing people how to play and then they’ll get to see me and Amber actually playing. They’re excited. It’s exciting for us to give this gift to them. When we told them, they were like, “Do we get to go to the finale?!” I was like, “Yeah, you get to go to the finale.” Then they were like, “Do we get to meet Jeff?!” “Yeah, probably, we can make that happen.” They were like, “Oh my God, we get to meet Jeff!” That had them more excited than anything.
Holmes: You know, one of us could win a million dollars. We don’t care, we want to meet Jeff.
Mariano: (Laughs) Yeah. Life is normal though, I still work in construction. I was doing environmental construction up in New York. I recently started renovating houses in Florida. We live in Florida now. Amber was doing marketing at a doctor’s office for a while. She’s trying real estate, she didn’t like it. She’s a really great mom. But, this is awesome. This feels like home to me.
Holmes: What was the reaction when the girls saw the season 39 trailer?
Mariano: We got it early so I could show them. They didn’t really understand at first, and then they were excited.
Holmes: You got a bit of sneak peek at what it’s like to live in Fiji.
Mariano: Yeah, well half the cast has played here before. It’s beautiful here. Probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever played “Survivor.” It’s challenging, it has its challenges.
Holmes: You haven’t been told a theme yet, but you’ve seen all the guys here. What do you think is going on?
Mariano: It’s all the winners. I don’t know what the name of it is.
Holmes: And you think it’s just you and nine other guys playing?
Mariano: I know my wife’s here, bro. (Laughs)
Mariano: (Laughs) I know there’s another ten somewhere.
Holmes: That may be, but you know I can’t confirm anything. Maybe your family visit is just already here.
Mariano: Yeah. Here’s the thing, everybody knows how to play this game. They’re all winners. They understand basic strategy, they understand advanced strategy. They know there are ten of us on a boat and there’s another boat with ten girls. And I know for a fact one of them is my wife. They don’t know that yet, but they’re going to find out soon.
Holmes: This is so unique with Amber here. You’re playing a whole different game than everybody else.
Holmes: It doesn’t matter which of you wins, the check is going into the same bank account. I would absolutely sacrifice my game if I thought it would set my wife up to win.
Mariano: It’s so complicated, bro. The fact that we didn’t leave to come to location a day early and everyone on this cast saw the trailer for 39? They saw that they built a huge statue of Sandra and I? Don’t think that that’s not in everybody’s mind. And now when they see that me and my wife are here? It’s like my target’s not big enough? They want to make it enormous. But, I like a challenge.
Holmes: If I take Rob out, I might get my own statue.
Mariano: Don’t suggest that. (Laughs)
Holmes: Amber hasn’t played since “All-Stars.”
Mariano: It’s been fifteen years.
Holmes: I’d imagine she held that win over your head until you won “Redemption Island.”
Mariano: Oh yeah, that was the best part of winning “Redemption” was I didn’t have to hear it in my own house anymore.
Holmes: What happens if that swings the other way and she picks up that second win?
Mariano: It’s all good. We’re free rolling.
Holmes: What kind of strategic conversations do you have heading into what is basically a Blood vs. Water situation?
Mariano: We’ve talked about things, I can’t get into the details of it.
Holmes: Sure you can.
Mariano: Let’s put it this way; Amber can stand on her own two feet, I’ve got no doubt about it. If there’s a situation where we’re on separate tribes, I’m not going to be able to do much to help her. But, she’s completely qualified to handle herself. If we’re on the same tribe, that’s a different dynamic. And it may work for me or against me. The biggest thing about this game, it’s been going on for twenty years…jeez…twenty years. I was twenty five the first time I played, I’m forty three now. My hair is gray. (Laughs) But the basic premise of this game is the person who’s the best able to adapt to any situation that they’re thrown into, is the one who will do the best. That’s remained constant. Yes, there’s new twists, there’s a new style of playing, it’s faster, they switch alliances, they’re not old-school. But still, you have to be able to adapt. You can’t come into this and say I’m going to do this, this, and this. You’ve got to go on the fly. And I’ve always been really good at being able to read people and adjust and think one step ahead of them. These people have all won, they can think two or three steps ahead. I’m going to try to think further ahead.
Holmes: You’re a poker guy.
Holmes: Is that part of it? Reading people, learning tells?
Mariano: There’s some of that. There’s some physical tells that people give off. But the first lesson someone is going to teach you in poker is whether someone is telling a story that makes sense. “Survivor” is the same. You have to think if what they’re trying to sell you makes sense. Not only what you’re hearing, but what they’re selling from their point of view. That’s what’s hard about the game to a lot of people that comes instinctually for me. I can see if someone is telling me something that is truly in their best interest or they’re making up a story that’s in my best interest. Now, the best players are able to tell you a story that’s in your best interest and in their own best interest and you won’t be able to tell the difference, but there aren’t too many of those players.
Holmes: The other ten, if they exist, who do you want to see?
Mariano: I’d like to see Parvati, Kim…those are two old-school players who are smart that I think I can work with. They’ve got to be able to check their egos at the door and I think they’re both smart enough to do that for a while. Sandra has a lot to lose, she’d be great to play with, but I don’t think she could check her ego. She’s too concerned with who’s wearing the crown, her or Parvati. That’s stuck in her head. I just spent 36 days with her out there…whoops…I meant 39 days. I don’t know if I can say that.
Holmes: “Island of the Idols” will have aired when this comes out.
Mariano: OK, well…we just spent an entire season together and I can tell that she still has a chip on her shoulder about that. And you can’t do that, not in this season with these players. You’ve got to be able to check that at the door. Maybe you can get me out first or second, but you’re going to be third or fourth. We need each other.
Holmes: There’s always talk of pre-game chatter, pre-game alliances, have you taken part in any of that?
Mariano: None. And here’s the thing, I get it, it exists, it happens. Sandra even told me on 39 when she was in “Game Changers” that everybody had their alliance before they got there and if you weren’t in on it, that was it and you were dead. I didn’t tell Sandra I was coming out here when I was on 39. Did not tell her a thing.
Holmes: So, hearing how things went down in “Game Changers,” does that worry you about this season?
Mariano: No. I was home for two weeks, I could’ve called people. There’s people I know. But, I’ve always felt that you don’t know what tribe you’re on. You’re going to pigeonhole yourself. I feel like it’s bad business to do that. All the best laid plans go to (expletive deleted) when things don’t work out the way you want them to. I just feel like it’s best to be able to adapt.
Holmes: You and Tyson were on the Villains tribe. Your eating competitions were legendary.
Mariano: (Laughs) Tyson’s alright. I like Tyson. I hope he doesn’t go and vote himself off this time. I’d work with Tyson. We’re friends. He’s probably one of the only people out here that I’d consider a friend. I’ve met a few of the other ones, but I really don’t know them well. I’ve met Jeremy once and Kim once at a poker thing we did nine months ago. They seem really friendly and cool. And, they’re smart. I can tell. But all the other people here, Tony, Wendell, Nick, all the new-school people? I don’t know them. In “All-Stars” all the targets were the big players. They felt like they were a threat to their airtime. So, let’s get rid of (Richard) Hatch and (Tina) Wesson and Zahn. Who were the least known people on that cast? It was Amber and I. That’s why it’s important for the big names to stick together.
Holmes: That’s quite a feat to go from least known to arguably the most known.
Mariano: Dude, I know I’m target number one. Nobody’s gotten more from this game more than me. I’ve been out here more than anyone else. They built a friggin’ statue of me.
Mariano: (Laughs) I know! I know. I have a wife and four kids from this show. But, if there’s anyone who can figure out how to do this, it’s me.
Holmes: How do you stay alive if the tribe division doesn’t go the way you want it to?
Mariano: Because I’m that good, Gordon.
Holmes: Fair enough.
Mariano: I’ll figure a way. I’m not going to lie to you, there’s a chance they won’t give me a chance to play with them. There’s a possibility that out of the starting gate they could say, “He’s had his day in the sun. Let’s get him out.” But, there are other people out here that have targets. They have a lot to lose, and they have a lot to gain by getting together with me. The question is if they can put their ego aside. I can do it.
Holmes: Alright, here are the nine fellas you’re going to be playing with…
Mariano: How long have you been married?
Holmes: A little under four years.
Mariano: I’ve been married fourteen years. Isn’t that crazy? Our oldest daughter is almost ten.
Holmes: Time flies, man. We have this mentoring program and whenever I talk to them it’s always, “I’m can still run, I can lift things, I can do everything I did when I was your age, but time goes by so fast.”
Mariano: It’s crazy.
Holmes: And being married, I was so dumb. (Laughs)
Mariano: (Laughs) What?
Holmes: So, I thought, I’m marrying this girlfriend that I’m in love with. It’ll be like she’s my permanent girlfriend. The person I date forever. It’s so different.
Holmes: Every decision you make is not about you, it’s about the team. It’s awesome.
Mariano: Yeah, if you have the right person it is.
Holmes: I think it’s finding someone that you like to see smile, then keep making them smile.
Mariano: Caring about her more than you care about yourself and you’ll be good.
Holmes: That’s the plan. OK, give me four guys you want to work with and five guys you don’t.
Mariano: I don’t know, dude. You know what’s interesting is when I played in “Heroes vs. Villains” before the game started the one person I thought would give me the most trouble in the game was Tyson. And he ended up being the one that…I was voted out because of his stupidity….but he was the one I connected with the most. He’s who I felt the most comfortable with. So, I don’t know that this is something that applies.
Holmes: This game is really about first impressions, based on what you know now. Then we can compare and contrast based on how the game shakes out.
Mariano: Here’s the thing, I only know Tyson. I’ve never met Ben, I’ve never met Yul, I’ve never met Nick, I met Adam once, I met Jeremy once, I’ve never met Tony, and I know Ethan.
Holmes: You’ve watched their seasons though.
Mariano: Yeah, but I didn’t really study them.
Holmes: Fair enough, then let’s hear your first impressions of them.
Mariano: Every one of them is smart and they’re all playing the game really hard. I’m watching them. A lot of this game has to do with when you walk by who gives a smile. Who doesn’t give a smile. I’ve been in enough pre-game situation where I can see that the social dynamics have already started. People are already like, “Hey hey!” If we weren’t in a “Survivor” pre-game, Adam and Yul wouldn’t be smiling at each other. So, I see how hard everyone is doing what they’re doing. The real test of this is once you hit the beach, once the game is on, once you know who’s on what tribe. A lot of people don’t realize how big of an impact how the tribes are divided initially affects the entire outcome of the game. Those first tribes…that will determine relationships and those relationships will make or break this game. Because even though “Survivor” is a numbers game, all of those numbers come from people who have emotions. And it’s an emotional game. People say they want to vote for the best player, and to a degree I do believe that. But, if the best player hurt your feelings so bad that you can’t fathom to give them your vote? You’re not gonna. At the end of the day, people are emotional. It doesn’t matter how rational you are, you’re going to be driven by your emotions more. I can go through all of these guys and say, “I’d like to work with him but he went to this school with this girl.” Whatever the dynamic is, it’s all out the window when they divide the tribes. And the thing is, that could all be out the window if they divide the tribe in the third or fourth episode.
Holmes: But Sandra established that there are links coming into a returnee season and those can have an effect on who works together.
Mariano: I feel confident in my ability to make relationships and foster them in the moment. But getting back to what I was saying, unfortunately, the tribe swaps favors someone like Sandra who brings nothing to the table physically, so she’s not a threat. She doesn’t do much around camp because she doesn’t have to. She’s going to eat at all of the Eat and Plays, because she doesn’t have to worry about an immunity challenge. And then, she can sabotage her camp. That mentality is really bad for someone like me who’s a physical threat, understands the strategy, and likes to compete in the challenges. The one thing I’ve got going for me is in this group, I’m the old, out of shape guy. But try telling me I’m too old or too slow. There’s another Boston guy who did that, he won six championships.
Holmes: Oh jeez.
Holmes: “Redemption Island” was a while ago. Since then we’ve seen idol nullifiers, boot a juror, stuff like that. How do you feel about this new era of a zillion twists?
Mariano: I’m not the old guy in the club saying, “Back in the day when I played.” That’s not going to get you anywhere. You’ve got to figure out how to use it to your advantage and play whatever the current game is. Or, create a new reality for yourself. Trying to take a step back isn’t going to work. I think the game has more room to evolve. I think there’s still room for new things. You have to navigate within the parameters of the game. That’s what I’ve always been good at. The first time we played “The Amazing Race,” nobody ever brought strategy to the race. It was a fun little family show. They almost lost their minds when I paid a bus driver with the other people’s money and pocketed the difference. Or, when I quit the challenge and took the four-hour penalty and then convinced a team behind us to do the same. If you can navigate within the confines of what’s legal, the sky’s the limit. It’s open to your imagination. There was a guy who started this show and he said, “We have to make an alliance.” And that’s been the way ever since. Then that changed to, “We can change whenever we want. We don’t have to stick to it.”
Holmes: Have you identified any loopholes in the game that haven’t been exploited?
Mariano: Well, the different dynamic that exists in a season like this is the different relationships that people have. I experienced a little bit of buyer’s remorse from Big Tom (Buchanan) and Lex (van den Berghe) and Alicia (Calaway) back in season eight. I realized that when you are dealing with people that have a pre-existing relationship, that can be exploited. Not to say it was the right thing to do at the time, I did what I needed to do to get to the end. And ultimately, it cost me. I don’t have those kinds of relationships here, but other people do. So, you can find a way to pit them against each other. I’m pretty good at that. I’m pretty good at figuring out a way to he said/she said. Sandra’s pretty good at it too.
Holmes: If Jeff decided to do you a favor and let you pick a twist, what would you request?
Mariano: I just want to play the game, I don’t care about any of that. Whatever it is, it is. I get it, this game is hard. I don’t think about what I can’t control, I think about what I can control. I’m sorry, I kinda feel like I’m not asking all of your questions. I’m not trying to be a (expletive deleted).
Holmes: Not at all, I want you to be you.
Holmes: Time for Best Defense. I’ll give you a reason someone will use to get rid of you, you argue against it.
Holmes: “Boston” Rob is a challenge beast. I don’t want to face him with individual immunity up for grabs.
Mariano: I’m a challenge beast? That was ten years ago. I’m a challenge beast against Jeremy and Wendell and Tyson? Are you kidding me? Look around, bro. Open your (expletive deleted) eyes.
Holmes: You’ve got that dad strength now.
Mariano: C’mon, look at Ben. Every single one of them. I think I could beat Adam. Maybe Nick.
Holmes: Rob’s married to one of the contestants, he’s friends with Tyson. He’s got too many connections.
Mariano: That’s two different things.
Holmes: Let’s separate them. Rob’s wife is here.
Mariano: That’s powerful that I have an ally that’s not going to go against me. But, if you get with me, that’s two votes for you instead of one. Then vote me out later.
Holmes: OK, Rob and Tyson are buddies.
Mariano: Everybody’s got friends in this game. Everyone’s got relationships. You show me one person that doesn’t have a relationship and we’ll vote them off.
Holmes: An alien lands and you have to show it one scene that proves why “Survivor” is awesome. Which scene do you show them?
Mariano: When I won the final immunity challenge in “Redemption Island.” That’s what it’s all about. I’m sitting at the end with three people I can beat, the least deserving; Philip (Sheppard), Natalie (Tenerelli), and Ashley (Underwood). And I realize if I lose this challenge I’m going to have to vote for one of these people that I’ve dragged all the way here to win a million dollars. And then when the pressure was on, when I needed it the most, I win it. At that point I knew I had done everything I could do. I put myself in a position to win, that’s what it’s about. It’s a constant battle everyday, you’ve got to friggin’ fight.
Don’t miss the premiere of “Survivor: Winners at War” – Wednesday, February 12, 2020 at 8 pm ET.
Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @GordonHolmes