QUICK NOTE: The good folks at XFINITY sent me deep into the Fijian wilderness to bring you an exclusive look at “Survivor: Game Changers.” While I was there I conducted interviews with “Survivor” host Jeff Probst and the entire 20-person cast. I also captured exclusive photos and other behind-the-scenes tidbits. So, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@gordonholmes) for up-to-the-minute updates.
Name: Jeff Varner
Hometown: High Point, NC
Previously Played On:
“Survivor: The Australian Outback” – Finished 10th
“Survivor: Second Chance” – Finished 17th
Best Known For: Trying to make Tina Wesson vomit.
Gordon Holmes: You played 15 years ago, they bring you back…and here you are again almost immediately. Holy crap.
Jeff Varner: Out of everybody here, I am part of this family the longest. And that didn’t hit me until yesterday. It never crossed my mind. I’m the O.G., literally.
Holmes: With the exception of the newbies from season 33, you’ve played the latest and the most recent.
Varner: Yeah, you talk about Game Changer…this game was changed by the time I got back into it.
Holmes: When you first heard that Game Changer subhead, what did that mean to you?
Varner: It meant a lot, I was flattered by it. Then I started thinking, what did I do to change the game? Well, I did a lot more than you did.
Varner: (Laughs) No, I was looking around the room going. What’d you do? Who’d you sleep with to get here because you didn’t change (expletive deleted). Since when did a goat become a game changer? The way I look at is; I as a human am a game changer. I am ballsy, I have a lot of courage, I’m afraid of very little. I’m like Donald Trump in a way in that even though the rules say this is how you do it? This is how we’re going to do it. If everybody goes this way, I go that way. I’m looking more for how I’m going to change going forward. I feel like this is a good time for me.
Holmes: Let’s talk about “Second Chance.” It’s better to burn out than fade away.
Varner: (Laughs) Like a shooting star.
Holmes: To quote Def Leppard. How do you take the lessons from “Second Chance” and apply them to your future victory?
Varner: I learned a lot in “Second Chance.” Don’t go too hard, too fast. Don’t show all your cards right out of the gate. Don’t pre-game. Keep your mouth shut. When you get information, sit on it. Figure out the best way to use it. I would immediately go where my instincts told me to.
Holmes: You said, “No pre-gaming.” I asked everyone before “Second Chance” if they pre-gamed and everyone said, “No, but everyone else is.”
Holmes: Everyone except for you.
Varner: They’re all lying. I have nothing to hide. Why not tell you the truth? And I was the only one who did. When it all came out and I was the only one talking, it pissed me off. If I’m talking to fifteen people, fifteen people are talking to me.
Holmes: Before every interview I say, “Whatever you say here, stays here. Nothing gets shared with the rest of the cast. This won’t see the light of day until a month before the season airs.” You tell me you’re working with Kelly Wiglesworth. Then I ask her if she’s working with anyone and she says, “No.”
Holmes: Yeah, in my brain, I’m saying, “Really?” But, to her I have to keep my mouth shut.
Varner: Fishbach asked me about it when we got back. And I had to show them the text messages. I have text messages from all of these people. I want you to see that I’m not lying. But the problem is; now I’m the poster child for pre-gaming. And, it’s the reason why this time I didn’t do any. I’ve talked to some people. I have relationships already started with a few people, but I have no alliances, I have no deals. I can hit that beach as a free agent and hopefully being honest with you won’t come back to bite me.
Holmes: I hope not. But, who would’ve dreamed you’d be back so quickly?
Varner: I certainly didn’t.
Holmes: Are there any rumors of anybody else trying to set something up before the game?
Varner: I know that Sandra’s talking to a lot of people because she’s talking to me. I know that Andrea is talking to a lot of people. I started talking to Malcolm who I know is talking to Andrea and a lot of other people. It’s going on. It’s out there. I met Tai at a party. So, he’s reaching out to me and he’s talked to Caleb about protecting me. And so, I have some relationships started. If I lined up twenty people, there are maybe twelve that I’m not in an alliance with, but they like me. And everybody’s doing it. I don’t care what anybody says.
Holmes: What’re your thoughts on this cast.
Varner: It’s random. It’s a random group of people. I couldn’t figure out what the theme was. There are some people that I don’t know why they’re here. I never would have expected them to play a second time, much less in a Game Changers season. And there are some good people too. There are a lot of targets, a lot of threats, and I’m not one of them. I feel like I’m in a good spot. You have three winners, challenge beasts, you’ve got Cirie who everyone is terrified of. Sandra who’s has two million dollars. Who’s going to let her get close to a third? I feel like if I keep my mouth shut I might make a jury for a change.
Holmes: It’s admirable to have goals.
Varner: I intend to make it much further than that.
Holmes: Anyone you’re hoping to work with?
Varner: Everybody. That’s my strategy this time around. In Cambodia I came in with hit lists and these are my partners and this is who we’re going after. It was a mistake. Here, everybody is my partner. I’m nervous about a handful of people, but I’m still looking at it like, “I’m going to do what you need me to do.” Wentworth played a brilliant pre-swap game and I’m going to tailor a lot of what I do after her. She never made a decision. She never made an enemy. She never made a wave. She got into a little alliance, but she was very careful.
Holmes: She did use some harsh language.
Varner: What do you mean?
Holmes: I’ve heard her say (expletive deleted) before.
Varner: (Laughs) She does say that.
Holmes: Any early targets?
Varner: No. For that same reason. However, I am nervous about Tony. I’m nervous about Debbie. I’m nervous about Sandra, although I’d partner with Sandra. I feel like people can get rid of Sandra at any time because she’s not a challenge threat. Maybe that’s a big mistake. But you can’t leave Tony around. He’s too dangerous. Debbie seems like she’ll vote people out for random reasons. I want to make sure I’m aligned with people who’ve proven loyalty in the past. But, I want people who I can sit next to at the end and win. I want my Abi, I wanted to get to the end with them. This time I am confident enough with myself to know no matter who I’m sitting with, I can beat them.
Holmes: Anyone tipping their hand at Ponderosa?
Varner: Tony’s walking around Ponderosa with a stick. Like a big old stick. Like he’s going to spin it over his head. I don’t know what he’s doing. And JT is a wreck. Just pacing constantly. And I’m writing letters. The psychologist the other day told me I am projecting calm and peace. I’m hoping that will draw people to me.
Holmes: You’re going to be dealing with two unknown quantities in Zeke and Michaela. We don’t know anything about their games.
Varner: I’ve really been studying them. But, they’re going to be my buddies too. I think I’ve got them down. I’ve never said two words to them, but Michaela comes across as athletic, strong, she’s a winner, she doesn’t like to lose, and she doesn’t like people who make her lose. I feel that from her. She seems like she could be confrontational. We were having lunch and she’s standing there and she just wheels around and sits her plate in front of me and looks at me. I’m like, “OK, that’s a ballsy bitch right there.” I like that. And she makes eye-contact with me. I feel tied to her. It’s like Tasha 2.0…who I hated. If I had a chance to start over with Tasha, how would I go? Zeke, when I first saw him I thought, that’s a lesbian with a mustache. He watches all of us, but he seems to look at Tony with an adoration. I feel like he loves Tony in a way that he doesn’t love JT. He sits next to Tony, he may be the new Woo.
Holmes: You had four Cagayaners in “Second Chance.” Now you’ve got four Kaoh Rongers.
Varner: Two of those Cagayaners went to the end and I tried my best to get rid of them. That didn’t go over very well. I’m not going to go out on a limb to get rid of them. Maybe I’ll partner with them. Who knows? But, that’s a card to play.
Holmes: You had some health issues last time. How are you feeling now?
Varner: Great. I’ve been preparing to get a call a year down the road. I’ve been going to yoga and spin class three days a week. Then I got the call in January and I thought, “Oh (expletive deleted), this is happening faster than I thought.” So, I joined crossfit. And in the last two months, my crossfit has been private lessons. He’ll set up obstacles courses ending with a puzzle.
Varner: Oh, it’s intricate (expletive deleted). I had to do the whole obstacle course, then he’d give me three minutes to do the puzzle. And if I didn’t, he’d make me do it again. And as we got closer, he’d bring people in and I’d start competing against people.
Holmes: Your own private John Kirhoffer.
Varner: (Laughs) I’m ready for this. I wish I had another year, and the damage to my lungs is done, but I feel great. Yoga has made my feet strong, and I’ve got abs. I feel great.
Holmes: This is totally unprofessional, but I just noticed you have really pretty eyes.
Varner: (Laughs) Well, thank you.
Holmes: Totally unprofessional.
Holmes: Alright, I’m not just here to reacquaint the world with Jeff Varner. I’m here to help you get ready.
Varner: Which means you’re helping everyone else too.
Holmes: Some of these people can’t be helped.
Holmes: I’m going to give an argument someone might use to get rid of you. You need to counter it.
Varner: Excellent, I could use this.
Holmes: Jeff was very erratic in “Second Chance.” He was back and forth, they targeted Vytas, then targeted Shirin. I can’t tell which way he’s going and I don’t want to have to worry about him. Let’s send him home tonight.
Varner: Well, in Cambodia you had to flip-flop. It was the game of voting blocs instead of alliances because everybody was so smart and everybody was so good. You just didn’t know where to go and what to do. Wherever the vote was at that moment, that’s where you went. And then you had a chance to regroup and get back together with who you needed to be with. That’s how that game went, so if you say that about me you have to say that about Ciera, cause she was the voting bloc queen. She went further than I did. I’ve never made a jury. Why are you worried about me?
Holmes: They said Jeff wasn’t helping out around camp enough and we need to stay strong for challenges…
Varner: Listen, I wasn’t helping out around camp because I was working with Wiglesworth who was dominating. That’s her thing. Wiglesworth, Terry, that’s their thing. They’re old-school. The second I’d try to help they’d take my head off. Watch me now.
Holmes: He almost passed out during that challenge with the puzzle pieces. I’m worried he’s going to be a challenge liability.
Varner: None of us had anything to eat and the heat was crazy. You saw Caleb have a heat stroke, right? Same kind of (expletive deleted). I was trying to solve the puzzle while everyone else was sitting on their ass. Hopefully you as a partner will help me and not sit and watch me.
Holmes: I’m pretty sure Varner went into Cambodia with pre-game alliances. I don’t want to have to deal with that.
Varner: I did. And if you think they’re not here on this island, you’re crazy. I chose not to do it this time. It didn’t help me. It was a problem for me. It was a weight that I had to carry around. And so, I’m not aligned right now. I didn’t have a conversation with you before the game started, did I? You can ask anybody. My loyalty is to you right now. How’d I do?
Holmes: Killed it.
Varner: Thank you for that, I hadn’t been thinking about that stuff.
Holmes: Ciera and you were never on the same tribe. Is there any kind of relationship there?
Varner: No, I love her gameplay. One of the things that irritating me about Cambodia was nobody played. Those alpha guys got together and they just stuck with Tasha up their ass. That’s what irritated me about Angkor. Tasha and Andrew just didn’t play. Once they had Abi they wouldn’t talk to anyone. Ciera and I are kindred souls that way. All she wanted to do was play and that’s all I wanted to do. At the same time I don’t trust her because of that. She’s sharp. Wentworth, Kass, all the people say she’s a little liar and she’s very subtle about it. I hope to work with her, we’ve texted, but I’ll vote her out in a second.
Holmes: Any thoughts on potential twists?
Varner: You can’t have a show called “Survivor: Game Changers” without changing the game. I’m anticipating Probst to show up with all new rules and all new everything.
Holmes: Alright, I’ll give you a twist. You tell me if it’s awesome or awful. Hidden immunity idols?
Holmes: Redemption Island?
Holmes: Exile Island?
Varner: Awful, but it’s good too.
Holmes: You’re very bad at this.
Varner: Maybe that’s how I see the world; the good and the bad.
Holmes: Medallion of Power?
Varner: I don’t even know what that means.
Holmes: That’s probably for the best. Extra vote?
Holmes: Steal a vote?
Holmes: Damnit. Eliminate a juror.
Varner: Awful. That’s horrible.
Varner: Alright, are we playing Align or Malign?
Holmes: No, but it’s similar. All of your opponents are in this deck of cards except for Michaela and Zeke, because we don’t know them. I’m going to give you three at a time at random. You tell me who you’re going to vote out first. Who you’re going to work with, but eventually eliminate, and who you’re going to take to the end.
Round One: Sarah, Ciera, and Caleb
Varner: I’m going to vote Ciera out first just because she’s sharp. I’m going to align with Caleb because he’s strong and when we get to the merge he’s a meat shield. And I’ll take Sarah because she’s loyal, she’s smart, she’s cool as hell, and she’s the one here in pre-game who I feel like I click with. She’s joking, cutting up, I like her.
Round Two: Tai, Sierra, and Hali
Varner: Hmm…I love Tai so much, but he can’t keep his mouth shut. He keeps making eye contact with me here and he doesn’t care who sees him do it. That makes me so nervous. Tai’s one I have phone conversations with. He came to my birthday party. He’s such a great guy. Hali is a wild card. But, I find her to be… I love the social justice in her. She’s reading the book “Roots” at Ponderosa. She takes time out of her day to have conversations with the help. And I love that. I think she could beat me, so I’m not going to take her to the end. Let’s vote out Sierra because I don’t even know why she’s here. Let’s take Tai to the end, cause he’s proven he’ll go to the end and lose. Hali, we’ll align with.
Round Three: Brad, Cirie, and Aubry
Varner: Ooo…bitches. Brad is a bitch and I love him for that. Cirie, I fan-girled when I saw her. But I don’t trust her so we’re going to vote her out now. We’ll align with Aubry because we’re kindred souls. But we’ll take Brad to the end because he’s stupid. I can beat him in the end, I don’t think he can carry an argument.
Round Four: Debbie, Tony, and Troyzan
Varner: I’m going to the end with Troyzan. I like him, he’s loyal. Of these three, I feel like I could argue against him and win. I feel like I could argue against Tony and Debbie and win too. They both seem like they’re very unpredictable. They’re all over the place. Let’s vote out Tony because he’s already got a million bucks. And let’s align with Debbie, but keep her on a short leash.
Round Five: Malcolm, Andrea, and Sandra
Varner: I love all three of these people. Let’s go to the end with…Sandra. Nobody will give her a third million, but you know how that goes. So…let’s vote out Sandra. Let’s go to the end with Andrea because she’s loyal. She and Malcolm are the same person to me. They’re good at challenges and strategic. I just feel like Malcolm is a better arguer.
Holmes: We’ve got two left, so give me a classic Align or Malign.
Round Six: JT and Ozzy
Varner: Align with JT and let’s get rid of Ozzy. Ozzy is too strong and there’s an air of cockiness to him that’s uncomfortable. Ozzy feels like he is “Survivor.” He thinks he’s the best there is ever. And he’s also set the precedence that people who aren’t challenge threats need to go. And that would be me. (Laughs)
Don’t miss the two-hour season premiere of “Survivor: Game Changers,” Wednesday March 8, 2017 at 8 p.m. ET.
Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @gordonholmes