Interview: Mike Skupin talks 'Survivor: Philippines'
Returning player avoided falling into the fire and made the Top 3
Jonathan Penner had played twice and we knew what to expect from him.
Russell Swan was a mystery, because barely anybody remembered him, but saying he was an enigma implies people had given him thought.
But Mike Skupin? He killed a pig. He fell into the fire. But for the full decade after his departure from "Survivor: The Australian Outback," he was always the show's great "What if?"
After seeing Skupin make it to the end of a "Survivor" season, some of the uncertainty has been cleared up. Even 11 years older, Skupin remains a formidable challenge force and a strong, uncompromising personality. And he made a strong alliance with Lisa Whelchel and knew when to break up his old alliance, which took him all the way to the finale.
Something was still missing from Skupin's game. He and Lisa only got one Jury vote apiece, losing to Denise, who Skupin was determined to take to the end because he was sure she was more beatable than Malcolm. He misjudged the Final 3 strategy and based on some of the less-than-complimentary reactions from his fellow castaways, he misjudged several of parts of the social game.
In our exit interview, Skupin mostly filibustered. He didn't answer several of my questions and dodged a couple others. He was, however, very happy to discuss whether or not he's accident-prone in his everyday life [a question I rushed to when it became clear I wasn't getting anything on my original approaches]. So there's that.
Click through for the full interview...
HitFix: When you were making your Final 3 decision, did you underestimate Denise or did you overestimate Malcolm, do you think?
Mike Skupin: I knew what Denise's game was, totally. So I neither under or over-estimated Denise. I knew that her story was that she'd been to every single Tribal Council. We talked about it openly. We talked about it behind her back. But from a strategic standpoint, I never felt like she was in trouble. Her name wasn't coming up in the votes and she never had to fight or claw her way back into the game. From a strategic standpoint, she didn't make a big move, so bringing her into the Final 3, I thought, was excellent strategy. Malcolm's game was different because he had won three different Individual Challenges and I'd won three different Individual Challenges and from a social perspective, he somehow had the ability to blindside somebody and they would smile and wave at him as they were leaving the Tribal Council area. So I knew that he was a big threat, so bringing Malcolm into the Final 3 would have been a harder fight than it would be with Denise. So since I had to choose between the two of them, I definitely chose the one that I thought that I could beat.
HitFix: So for days and days out there, Abi was telling you guys that it wouldn't matter who you went to the Finals with between Denise and Malcolm, that you'd be giving either of them the million. Was Abi just right?
Skupin: No, that was just strategy. Penner said the same thing. Carter said the same thing. Abi said the same thing. Malcolm said the same thing. And if you look at the common thread between them, it's a neck-saving, it's a game-saving thing to say, that the way that they could battle their way back into the game when they knew their neck was on the line was to put the onus on somebody else. So it's definitely strategy. We talked about it a lot. It wasn't "The Malcolm & Denise Show," for sure. Even Abi calling me a "moron" and an "idiot" at Tribal Council, she wasn't really calling me a moron and an idiot. It was just a clumsy way of her saying "Keep me and take me to the Final 3. What are you thinking about?" So everybody has their own personal agenda. Penner said, "I know you can beat me in a Final 3" and then off-camera he said, "He can't beat me." So you've gotta understand that the things people say, even post-game, are still a part of their overall strategy. So I saw that as just strategy, not that they could have won more than anybody else, because I didn't see the "Outwit, Outlast, Outplay" part of Denise's game, that she encompassed that more than I did. I didn't see that.
HitFix: But if you look back at the Top 8 or the Top 6, can you see the permutations of a Top 3 that now you think you actually could have won?
Skupin: You know, I look back... I had a very specific strategy at eight. We needed to break up the Tandang alliance and at eight, that was the time we broke it up and we did that because a three-person alliance can't make it to a Final 7. At eight, they need two people. At seven, they only need to bring in one other person. So we did what we needed to do there. Penner was the most entertaining, demonstrative player out there, so he definitely had to go in order for me to play the game I needed to play. Now at six was when we decided to blindside Malcolm, but he won Immunity, so our opportunity to blindside Malcolm because he won Immunity that day, so our overall game strategy was to take Carter to the Final 3, not Malcolm or Denise, but that game because unavailable to us when Malcolm won Immunity at Six.
HitFix: At that point at six then, why wasn't the move to turn on Denise?
Skupin: Well, there was an undercurrent... We knew from the day that Malcolm came to the Tandang tribe that he had an alliance with Denise and it became more and more obvious every day we spent after the Merge together. There was this undercurrent, and Malcolm actually suggested it first, that he would give his Hidden Immunity Idol to Denise if he needed to. So any time that you'd count numbers and you'd place votes on Denise, Malcolm could have completely turned the game around. I saw myself as a huge threat. There wasn't a person out there that wasn't considering voting me off at every singer Tribal Council starting from Day 2 out there. So I had to always surround myself with enough votes that even if there were votes cast against me, that I wouldn't be the one going home. So it was always a risky move to get rid of Denise. Like I started to say earlier, when I looked at the final seven people, I thought every single one of them, had they made it all the way to the Final 3, would have an amazing story to tell about how they got there. But of those seven, I counted votes and I counted Denise as having the least amount of votes out of the final seven people and I was actually *floored* that she had gotten as many votes as she got last night.
HitFix: OK. So what do you attribute the vote of the Jury to, primarily?
Skupin: When I got out there on Day One, I looked at my tribe and I said, "Would have you have given a million dollars to Russell Hantz?" I wanted to find out if it was a group of people that respected "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast," no matter how much it stung to get voted off, if someone plants their foot in your chest and puts you on the Jury, would you respect that as gameplay or would you vote bitter? Would the sting of that hurt too much and you would give your vote somebody else because they offended you less? My whole tribe said "I would have voted for Russell Hantz." So I thought that you can play an offensive, strategic game. The whole Jury was almost all Tandang members, so I thought they would respect hard play. It turns out that they four people in a row that got voted off attributed them sitting on the Jury to me. It started with Jeff Kent, then Artis, then Pete, then Penner. They all attributed their sitting there to my gameplay. Because of that, I sorta felt like, "Wow. That was brilliant of me" and then other side of me said, "Wow. I hope that they can still play 'Outwit, Outplay, Outlast' and respect it as gameplay." It turned out that they didn't. Denise definitely burned less bridges. The only bridge that I can think of that she burned out there was Malcolm at the Final 4 and Malcolm at his final Jury speech said, "Denise, I'm so mad at myself for doing this, but I'm gonna keep the promise I made to you." He made a promise to her that he was gonna vote for her if she made it to the Final 3 and he didn't and vice versa. And he maintained that promise even in the midst of the sting that happened in the blindside 24 hours before that final vote. Denise definitely won that game. She got more votes. She's a deserving winner, because the game speaks for itself. It absolutely does. But I was shocked at the outcome of the game last night.
HitFix: It sounds like the answer is "No" here, but was there a moment when you heard the tone of the Jury and you began to get concerned about the level of bitterness?
Skupin: No, because first of all, the Jury never gets to speak, so you don't really understand the tone of the Jury and you appeal to the Jury sometimes on your answers. Jeff might ask you, "Tell me about the Immunity Challenge and how you won" and you might say, "From a strategic standpoint, when I found the coconut..." You can answer something completely different. Jeff just lobs questions out there, but I'm not appealing to Jeff. I'm appealing to the Jury out there. But at no time did I ever think... I thought if any Jury was being worked, it was Abi as she smiled, waved and winked at Pete and Artis walking in. She smiled, waved and winked at Pete and Artis and they reciprocated back. We all thought Abi would get Pete and Artis' votes, which would be 50 percent of the vote needed to win. So taking Abi as the goat to the Final 3, turns out that it wasn't great strategy, because both Penner and Carter said in their post-game interviews that they would have happily considered giving Abi their votes if her game could make it to the Final 3. So I never saw an undertone because, from a strategic standpoint, I kept thinking in my mind, "What did she do to impact this game?" And, unfortunately for me, the under-the-radar game, which has many "Survivor" shows so I'm not knocking the strategy... It's just not my game. I'm a very offensive, strategic, go 100-mph type of game and it worked brilliantly. I never got a single vote. I played this game 56 days and two seasons and I never, ever received a single vote, let alone had my torch snuffed, so my strategy, you can't argue the authenticity of my strategy from a gameplay standpoint, but it always depends on the Jury at the moment in time.
I often always wonder if they took a vote at the Reunion Show and they say, "Now that you've seen every part of this game and what people did and didn't do, how would you vote today?"
HitFix: Changing gears... How representative did you feel like your accident-prone edit on the show was?
Skupin: Well, you know, Jeff Probst said it brilliantly yesterday. He said, "When people get a positive edit, they say 'That was a perfect, spot-on edit.' If they get a negative edit, they say, 'I was misedited.'" He said, "I've been doing this for for 25 seasons. 400 contenders. It's never ever varied from that." So the accident-prone part of my game? I got hurt every single time time they said I got hurt, but there are people who have had surgeries. There are scheduled surgeries yet to happen from two others players in this game. Lisa twisted her knee and she couldn't walk for three days. Denise got bit. Malcolm had an infection in his leg that almost took him out of the game. So my injuries just happen to gush red out of my wounds and my wounds were more camera-friendly, so they were easier to show and more entertaining to show. It all happened, sure. And if a whale was gonna head-butt somebody, it was gonna head-butt me. If a coconut was gonna fall off a tree, I guess it was gonna land on me. But I'm a full-bore... I compete in sports to this day -- hockey, basketball and baseball, every week. I'm always getting beat up here and there. You know, you just band-aide it up and you go on. Fortunately my wounds were all surface wounds and I didn't have any of the deep, lasting, surgical-procedure-type injuries that many people end up having on the show.
HitFix: You mentioned the sports, but in your day-to-day life do accidents just sorta come your way?
Skupin: We got to Venice Beach when we first got to California on Thursday and I tweeted, "Hey, the Skupin family hit Venice Beach. I wonder who's gonna bleed first." We were climbing rocks and these big waves were crashing over our heads and both my 24-year-old son, who was on the show, and my 15-year-old daughter Emily, they both ended up bleeding from those rocks. I think it's just our life. You can't bleed sitting on the couch clicking channels. But if you go to Venice Beach and you climb on the slippery, moss-covered rocks with waves crashing over your head? We were the only family on Venice Beach in the ocean that day, because that's just what we do. My going away present from my family, to leave for "Survivor" on March 10 of this year, was The Polar Bears. We cracked through the ice and dove into the water and that was how my family sent me into the game of "Survivor." I think it's just that we're an active group. I have three kids in basketball right now, one in volleyball and it's just our lifestyle. We don't spend a lot of time sitting on the couch, so injuries do end up occurring and we just press on.