Interview: Jonathan Penner talks 'Survivor: Philippines'

The third time wasn't the charm for this returning favorite

<p>Jeff Probst snuffs Jonathan Penner's torch on &quot;Survivor: Philippines&quot;</p>

Jeff Probst snuffs Jonathan Penner's torch on "Survivor: Philippines"

Credit: CBS
As "Survivor" contestants go, Jonathan Penner is one of a kind. 
 
Yes, there have been other three-time "Survivor" players and of the three-time players, Penner presumably goes down as one of the least accomplished within the game itself, right? He finished seventh in "Survivor: Cook Islands," was medically evacuated from "Survivor: Micronesia" and just earned a repeat seventh place finish for "Survivor: Philippines."
 
But how many of those three-time players can also say that they were nominated for an Oscar (for the short "Down on the Waterfront") and part of the inciting event that launched the sitcom classic "The Nanny"? 
 
Only Penner.
 
In addition, Penner has gained a reputation as a "Survivor" strategist and quotable talking head that goes well beyond whether or not he ever won the million bucks.
 
That Penner made it to seventh place on "Survivor: Philippines" is a minor miracle, since he was on a tribe with former MLB star Jeff Kent, who immediately announced it was his mission in the game to send all of the returning players home. But thanks to an Immunity Idol and some savvy dealing, Penner outlasted Kent, at least by a few days. 
 
And he could have lasted even longer except for two things: First, much maligned Abi chose Wednesday's episode to put forth her first effort of the season, winning Immunity when her elimination was a foregone conclusion otherwise. And second, Penner refused to make any Final 4 deals within his Top 6 alliance and by failing to lock down the vote of former "Facts of Life" character Blair Warner, he allowed her to become part of a different foursome, leaving him on the outside and heading home.
 
In a lively exit interview, Penner discusses his colorful Tribal Council exit, his simultaneous understanding and misreading of Blair Warner and handicaps Abi's chances as a "Survivor" villain. He also talks about the possibility of a fourth run on "Survivor" in the future.
 
It's a good interview. Click through...
 
HitFix: OK, so how closely prepared was your full exit on Wednesday's episode?
 
Jonathan Penner: How prepared was it?
 
 
HitFix: Sure. Some of the stuff you did at Tribal Council seemed spontaneous, but some of it you'd obviously planned out ahead of time...
 
Penner: Well, you know, knowing I was going home, I knew some of what was gonna happen. Hmmm... Actually, my plan was to sing an unclearable song, but then I realized they just wouldn't clear it and I would look like I was saying something and you just couldn't hear it and that was gonna be stupid. So I think I whistled. I don't even honestly remember. And then, when I got to the end, I did not want to leave. So I came back. And I heard the crew laugh, so I did it again.
 
 
HitFix: So the answer is "at least somewhat prepared."
 
Penner: Well, you know, I wasn't blindsided, if that's what you mean. I knew i was going home and I knew I'd get to have a long walk. I didn't know if I would tell 'em to "F*** off," or what. I think I told them to "suck eggs" or something, which was a television-savvy thing to say. We had originally called our tribe "F***ingRayne" and the producers were like, "Well, you can call it 'F***ingRayne," but it'll never make it on and we'll never see the flag and you'll never get to say it and that's a stupid thing to do." That kinda thing. So we were like, "Alright. Ha ha ha. 'F***ingrayne,' ha." So we called it "Dangrayne" instead, which was even more Filipino-sounding, I think. Is this a blog? Am I swearing? Are people going to be shocked that Penner can swear?
 
 
HitFix: You'd be amazed what I can do with asterisks. 
 
Penner: Yeah! Go, man, go!
 
 
HitFix: Coming into this season, Russell was a total mystery and Skupin had always been this very abstract concept for "Survivor" fans. [Penner laughs.] But you were very concrete. People knew you. How much do you think that was a disadvantage for you coming into the season?
 
Penner: You know what? I honestly can't say, because -- and I only found this out in watching the show as, I guess, did you all -- Jeff Kent had made some decision that if he was on the show with returning players, he was going to come after them and I was the most obvious guy to go after. Little did he suspect that he would actually come to like me, respect me and realize that I had some value to him, individually, in the game. What other people's perceptions were, I can't really say, except the first day, when I was trying to get Carter to say he would work with me, he was just like, "Dude. I can't believe it. I'm on 'Survivor' talking to Jonathan Penner about strategy. This is too much." You know? What do you say to that? Like, "Yeah. So let's talk about strategy." You know? What am I going to do? "You can touch me, Carter. I'm real." I didn't know. He was in awe of the fact that the whole experience was happening to him. How people perceived me? Dude, you've gotta ask them. I honestly don't know. No one else said, like, "Oh, I thought you were gonna be such a bastard and you're so nice" or "I thought you were gonna be nice and you're such a prick." They never said any of that to me. When they deigned me worthy of talking to. Usually they'd throw me some food and tell me to go off in the woods by myself. [Pause.] No, they didn't. They were very nice.
 
 
HitFix: How much of your strategy, then, was maybe based on either your own perception of the way that you've looked in previous seasons or your perception of coming into the game with a potential target on you?
 
Penner: Excellent question. My game was certainly based not on the fact that I was untrustworthy... I continued to play what I call a "winner's game," and that was to essentially try to curry favor with everybody and not in a manipulative or phony way, but to genuinely try to get to know people, to try to work with them, to try to show them as good a time out there as I was capable of helping them have, because it's an extraordinary experience and I really encouraged everybody to take it in as much as possible, because it was going to be over so, so soon. And it is. For one person, who I never really got to meet, it was over in three days. It's a very, very finite thing and I really sorta said, "Dudes, go out and watch the sunrise and watch the sunset and really take this in, because you will never get to do this again." Knowing I had a target on my back meant that I had to try to find the Idol as quickly as possible. I know that on the show it really seemed like I isolated myself by doing that. I don't actually believe that that's true. I was certainly with the tribe a lot of the time. I didn't want to sit in that cave with a big rock up my ass, which was the only way to sit in that cave. As an older, fatter guy, I had no problems sitting in the rain or in the water or whatever. I didn't need to hang with them 24-7 to feel secure. 
 
And I always said, "Of course I'm looking for the Idol. And if you're not looking for the Idol, you are stupid. Go and look for the Idol. It's here. One of us is gonna find it. It should be you." And I would say, "Look guys, go look for the Idol. And if the camera doesn't follow you where you're looking, you're looking in the wrong place, because the camera wants to film you finding the Idol. So go start looking around and seeing what the hell happens." I was always trying to help them, to see how to play "Survivor" as effectively as possible. And I think they came to appreciate that. I was always able to say, "You know what, guys? In this challenge, who's the best at this? Who can really do this? Let's be really honest with each other and ourselves. Who's the best swimmer? Who's the best runner? Who's the best at puzzles?" or whatever, really, as a team, come to a strategy of who was going to approach what piece of the challenge, which was a winning formula for Kalabaw for a long time. So it was just really to try to engender as much trust as possible and take that target off of my back. I figured that if I could survive the first two or three votes, by winning or by helping my team to win or finding the Idol, I would no longer be "Jonathan, The Returning Player," I would just be "Jonathan, An Integral Member of the Tribe." And that strategy worked, certainly with Kalabaw, unfortunately, by the time I got to the Merge, they had other ideas and whether Jeff helped those along, I just don't know, but they decided to target me instantaneously, so I was scrambling right from the get-go.
 
 
HitFix: Did being "Jonathan Penner, The Guy Who Will Flip on People," did that impact your decision to not making any promises/deals inside the Top 6...
 
Penner: Well, no, I don't think it was so much my perception or worrying about my perception, it may just be who I am. Though I flipped on people in  Cook Islands -- I certainly didn't in Micronesia -- I stayed loyal to my ally, who was Candice -- she stepped off the mat and I followed her -- and then I found myself in a position later in the game, having stayed alive, to either make one of Adam/Parvati/Candice/Nate a winner, or Yul/Ozzy/Sundra/Becky a winner and saw that I couldn't win, wasn't ever going to get the Jury votes on that season, and made a decision to go with the folks I wanted to see win, basically. My decision not to... Sorry, how did you phrase the question?
 
 
HitFix: The decision to avoid committing to any specific alliance with the Final 6 approaching.
 
Penner: I did not want to lie to Lisa. I hadn't lied at all. I hadn't lied to anybody in the game except, I guess, to Kate the day that she was getting voted off and Dawson saying, "Oh, it's gonna be Denise," which I don't really consider that big a lie. It's a small lie, but... I hadn't really lied to anybody, quite deliberately, and didn't realize that the time had come to make that move.
 
 
HitFix: Do you feel like, to some degree, you simultaneously read Lisa spectacularly well out there, but still didn't read her quite well enough to see what she needed in that moment?
 
Penner: Exactly right. That's very eloquently put and I think that's exactly the case. I did read her very, very well. I worked with her and have nothing but love and respect for her and the game that she's... Well... Her game is a bizarre one, but her experience out there is an extraordinary one, certainly. I was a part of that, for better or for worse. But yes. I did not read... My mistake was -- We can look at it any number of ways -- but one of them was the simple mistake of not realizing that a person whose head could get turned by me could get it turned by somebody else. You know? And although I did not make a commitment to her, certainly we were working well together. She could have taken me out at any point previous to this, so I did not believe that she was then going to do it? Know what I mean? I had worked so hard to get her and Skupin on my side that the idea that they would then, having flipped on Pete and Artis and Abi, flip on me made no sense to me, didn't even enter my mind, stupidly. So I did not want to lie to her by making a commitment to her at that point when, obviously I needed to. That was the move that I needed to make. 
 
Now whether I would have won? Whether I would have made it to the Final 4? Who knows? Woulda, shoulda, coulda. I never play that game, because if everybody out there has a single "Woulda/shoulda/coulda and the game was different," the game would be completely different. There would be 18 major moves or 17 major moves that would be different, so I'd be in a different position anyway. Know what I mean? It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It made sense to me then. In watching it in the cold light of the TV screen? Obviously I needed to zag instead of zig at that moment.
 
 
HitFix: Speaking in terms of watching the game on the cold light of the TV screen, you're a "Survivor" player, but you're also a "Survivor" fan and student...
 
Penner: Not a very good one.
 
 
HitFix: Is Abi a "good" villain or a bad villain?
 
Penner: See, I'm such a bad student that I don't know quite what that means.
 
 
HitFix: Do you view her as the kind of villain who's fun to watch and who audiences enjoy watching play? Or is she just a villain, not an entertaining and fun villain, but just not a particularly good person to hang out with?
 
Penner: Yeah, unfortunately I think, at least up til last night's episode, the latter, that she's probably just annoying. And then after last night, when she really rose to the occasion, saw her back absolutely against the wall, made the big move with the money and then went on to win that challenge, to her great credit, people have to say, "Well, s***, she did that. That was cool." Where she'll go from here? Well that's gonna be fascinating. If she can parlay her position or reputation as a "villain" or as "Look, she can't win, so she's the perfect person to take along," if she can parlay that, then she actually, I believe, has a good shot at winning. She has a good shot at a making an argument that says, "I have no business being here. I played a crap game until the endgame. I basically didn't participate in any challenges and I pissed you all off and yet here I am. I've outplayed, outlasted and outwitted all of you to get here. And you can say that I'm here as a goat, but I say I'm here as a brilliant strategist." Now whether that would win or not? I don't know. We'll see if she's able to put that together. But s***, I think that would be pretty compelling and would make her a pretty good villain at the end of the day.
 
 
HitFix: And you know the last question: Are you always receptive if "Survivor" wants to call you for a fourth time? Or are you done now?
 
Penner: Oh, I would always be receptive to the call. Part of it is, "What's my physical capability?" I blew my leg out on that last challenge. Luckily that was not seen. I'm in physical therapy still, to this day. Would I do it? Sure. You know what? I'd like to play with all returning players, only because as a fourth-time returnee, I just don't see how they would not for me immediately. Even though I would argue my ass off that I have a great deal to show them and tricks to teach them, you'd imagine they'd say, "The guy is just too dangerous and if he makes it to the end, how can you not give him the million bucks?"
 
 

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Daniel Fienberg
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A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.
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