Interview: Tom Westman talks 'Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains'
Why are the Heroes so bad at puzzles? And why did the former winner decide to return?
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Within the sometimes arbitrary Heroes/Villains binary imposed by this "Survivor" season, many contestants have seemed like equally viable candidates for both tribes.
With Tom Westman, though, there was never any question.
A former firefighter, Tom's run on "Survivor: Palau" was the stuff of legend. He built an alliance. He captured a shark. After the merge, he won five of seven individual immunity challenges. And, by a vote of 6-1, he won the million dollars. Tom was one of the strongest and most respected castaways in the show's history.
That respect and in-game heroism meant nothing, though, in "Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains." Left out of a numbers' alliance from Day One and stuck on a dismally unsuccessfully tribe, Tom avoided elimination for as long as possible, even staving off defeat for one extra week with the help of a hidden immunity idol. When James injured his knee on Thursday (March 11) night's show, it looked as if Tom might escape once again, but a majority of the other Heroes favored a hobbled James (and the preservation of an alliance) over Tom's strengths and contributions.
On Friday, HitFix caught up with Tom to discuss the dysfunctional Heroes, his regrets at not teaming earlier with Cirie and the reasons why, after rejecting an invite for a previous All-Star season, he wanted to return.
Click through for the full interview...
HitFix: When they did "Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites," Jeff Probst told anybody who would listen how much they wanted for you to come back, but that you wouldn't return. Why wouldn't you do it?
Tom Westman: You know, I had never even thought about ever doing it again, so it was almost like, "Well, why would you? You did it. It went well. You're never gonna get that kind of a moment again where the stars just align and everything was in your favor." So I kinda wanted to leave one in the "Win" column and walk off and not be connected to these multiple-appearance reality people who I kinda have some contempt for. So it was easy to say "No." I'd also just started a new job and Hartford Insurance had invested some time and money in me and for me to take the job and then say, "Oh, by the way... I'm going back out doing that again," I think would have seemed like I was less-than-serious. But three years into the industry, a little more separated from my moment in 2005, I was like "Well maybe I will do it." Then my wife talked me into it for a second time now.
HitFix: How did she do that?
TW: I had said "No" to this one as well and as time was going on, she felt like I might regret it down the road and say, "What if?" She pointed out that nothing but good stuff has come from the whole experience. It's been just enormously positive and just a lot of fun for not just me out there having the adventure, but for our friends when you come home and get to watch the whole thing again. So, I thought I'd take a little time. The kids weren't in school. Why not give it a shot?
HitFix: So doing it this second time and coming up short, what did that make you appreciate about the first time you did it?
TW: I really appreciated the people I spent the first experience with. We just really gelled and we had just a good, social tribe. We enjoyed each other's company and we stayed up late at night in the hut playing word games and it was just much more of a summer camp kinda feel to it. Returning this time and being on a beach with these people who really are almost professional reality TV people and all they want to talk about is, you know, "Well, on my season of Pearl Islands, we did it this way..." Really? Alright. What else you got? Enough with the reality moment and what you got out of it when you came home. It definitely wasn't as enjoyable to meet the people and play the game with them this time.
HitFix: Was there any social aspect to it this time? Any fun that you guys had?
TW: Ummm... Not a lot of fun, really. No. I definitely clicked with Colby Donaldson, just a great guy. Really, what you see is what you get with that guy. He's as genuine as he comes off on the show. I built a friendship there. I'm friends with Cirie now, who I didn't know before. Candice... So yeah, there were some positive. It's a little different when you're out there and you're just fighting for your life the whole time and realizing that they keep throwing the noose around your neck, it's not that same kind of a moment as I had last time, where we didn't have to go to Tribal for quite some time, so we really got to bond without that as the 400-pound gorilla in the room.
HitFix: Like you said, the first time around you were on a tribe that won nearly every challenge and this time it was almost the opposite. How soon can you tell the difference between a tribe that's going to be dominant and a tribe that's going to spend a lot of time at Tribal Council?
TW: Well, people keep saying like, "Oh, you guys couldn't work together as a group" and I'd argue the fact that we always went out and accomplished the task quicker than them. We'd gather the puzzle, we'd build the boat, we'd go get the flame and bring it back... We were always more ahead. We were more cohesive than they were. The problem with all of our challenges was that the last event was a puzzle. We've already established that Boston Rob is much better at puzzles than anybody on the Heroes tribe. So if you end every challenge with, "Alright, now do the puzzle," well I think every one of those, Boston Rob is going to have a pretty good chance of beating us. So I don't know if it's that we were just so lame at the puzzles or they just had somebody who was better than we were.
HitFix: Was Boston Rob *that* good? Or was there something wrong with your approach? James certainly seemed to think there was something wrong...
TW: Well James, he's very good at pointing fingers. He seems to feel that there were too many cooks in the kitchen and the answer to that would be, "OK, James. We'll all just stand there and stare at the puzzle like you are? And it's going to build itself?" You had good, quality, competitive people who were trying to get the thing done. Obviously, none of use were that good at puzzles. If anybody had been able to stand up and take on the role, everybody would have followed that person. But there was nobody. We all agreed that that one time JT would be the person to do the puzzle, not based on his ability with puzzles, but based on he had done this challenge before and then when we got in there, there were just some moments of dead air and it became like, "Alright? What do you want us to do?" He was looking for help and so everybody jumped in and then James went crazy with that "One voice! One voice!" But that's fine if there is one voice. If that one voice goes silent? Well, somebody better start doing something.
HitFix: When you first heard the "Heroes vs. Villains" concept, what did you make of it?
TW: I didn't buy it. I was thrilled to be on an All-Star season, knowing you were going to see some of these big marquee names out there and go up against them. When you label people like that, the Hero thing is going to go to people's heads, at least the weak-minded people's heads, and then Villain thing, that's just poking the dog, giving them something to prove. I would have rather had some ridiculous, made-up native name instead of being called "Heroes," because you just know the tribe is not going to live up to that name. It's almost pre-ordained. If you gave me a pen, I could have scripted the fact that a few of these Heroes are really, really going to come off in a villainous manner.
HitFix: I also assume that in your own life, outside of the game, you have a very, very different definition for what constitutes heroism, right?
TW: Yeah, in the game, a Hero or a Villain? Those people aren't Villains any more than we're Heroes. It's the style of game that you played and they're basing it on that, so if somebody was very duplicitous then they got to be a Villain and if they tried to play with the Dudley Do-Right thing, then they're a Hero. They're two different styles of game-play and being a Villain within "Survivor," where it is about out-witting people, there's no Villain tag that goes to that person. There's a flat-out way to play it and then there's an underhanded way, but they're both legitimate strategies. I don't think that the other strategy works well, because I think it can get you to the end, but it can't get you the win. If you can play it as a Villain and then get the votes at the end, well then more power to you. I'd say that you've got to be liked and you have to have some sense of fair-play to win the votes. It's not that you owe that fair-play to anybody, but if you want to get voted to the end and be able to stand there and face the jury and say, "This is the way I played it and yes, I did X, Y and Z, but I did not to A, B and C." So I think the Villain way is a hard way to win a million bucks.
HitFix: How soon into the game did you realize that the alliances that people arrived with were so entrenched that there was just no way to break into one of the existing packs?
TW: I think it was probably the second day. I went to Colby and I was like, "Listen. JT is not with us." He was insisting that he was, but I'm like "No way." When you're in an alliance with somebody, you're checking their pulse all day long. You're coming by, "Hi! How's everything? You hear anything?" But JT would only engage in strategy talk with us when we went to him and brought something up. So something didn't smell right to me, so I was like, "This is done. We don't have anything here." We waited too long to go after Candice and Cirie. They really were the power couple in the middle and they could have swung either towards Colby and me or towards Amanda and James. By the time we went to them, it was too little, too late. They were voting Stephenie out. We knew it was going to be Steph and then we were scrambling trying to save her and Cirie and Candice, they wouldn't go for it at that point. With me and Cirie, it was mutual destruction, when the two of us should have just linked arms in the beginning and said, "Let's see how far we can go together."
HitFix: Cirie told me last week that she approached you early in the game about an alliance and that you weren't having any of it. Is that not accurate?
TW: You know, she had one comment. I tried a few different times. Yeah, it was after I was in trouble, but it also was a sincere, "Hey, you guys are in as much trouble as we are. Why don't join with us and I promise that none of you go home until all of them go home," you know from Amanda's alliance. So it was a good deal. She didn't take it. Her only comment to me was, "Well, my mom told me to stick with the fireman" and I said, "Well, you should listen to your mom." But you're right, in those early days I assumed the fact that she had played with James and Amanda over in Micronesia, I really did believe that she was part of that group.
HitFix: My last question: You've said you didn't want to come back before, but you came back. So are you done now, or would you do this again?
TW: No, I'm going maintain my previous answer. No, I'm not going to do this again. I don't see myself backsliding again. I really don't, after being back twice now. It was a lot of fun, because I'm in a new industry now and all of the people I deal with in my own workplace and professionally, it was fun to bring that whole crowd along for this ride in the say way that it was fun that all of the firemen were rooting for me the last time. There is that thrill, but there's no way that I would take time off from work to do this again. If you go out there and it costs you money? I'm not willing to do that. I don't know. If they do some geriatric version of "Survivor" after I'm retired, maybe I'll put down the golf bag and come out to wherever Mark Burnett is gathering.
HitFix: Then we can expect to see you for "Survivor 40"?
TW: Right. It might be people who have played against children of people who have played.
Previous "Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains" Exit Interviews:
Due to NCAA hoops, "Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains" is off this Thursday and will return the following Wednesday.