Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My TV Awards, we’re proud to present the My TV Nominee Interview Series.
One of the most famous Survivor contestants in 24 seasons is Benjamin “Coach” Wade. Nominated for Best Male Reality Star in the 2011 My TV Award for his well-played turn on Survivor: South Pacific, Coach is a Survivor icon, three-time player and redeemed villain. On Survivor: Tocantins, the self-professed “dragon slayer” wasn’t the most popular guy in the world, and an early exit from the great 20th season Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains gave us only a glimpse into the humbler Coach. When season 23 brought back two returning players to once again take on the controversial Redemption Island twist, Coach played an unexpectedly smooth game. Cementing a firm alliance on day one despite the massive returning-player target on his back, Coach led his Upolu tribe to become one of the most devoted alliances in series history, landing himself a spot in the final 3. The brains of his alliance, a bitter jury took out their “I was voted out” resentment on Coach and he lost after playing one of the most strategically impressive games in years. In his real life, the candid and friendly Renaissance man coaches college soccer, composes for and is maestro of the Susanville Symphony and serves as Pastor at his local church, but he still found some time to talk about his three seasons of Survivor, the lessons he’s learned and the one thing he could have done to make the difference in that final vote.
Let’s start at the beginning, why Survivor and how were you cast [for season 18, Survivor: Tocantins]?
Survivor was one of those experiences in my life that came up as an opportunity. I feel that god has really blessed me in life by opening up certain doors that were just destined for me to go through and I’ve been faithful not to just open the door and look in with trepidation, but to really kick the door down with both feet and jump in and put my whole heart and soul into it. I’m not perfect, I’m far from perfect, but I try to do everything with all of my heart.
So, the first time that I got cast I wasn’t looking to get cast, I wasn’t thinking about it. But my assistant coaches and my soccer team, they were like “Coach, you need to go on a reality show”, so I started looking for casting calls in the off-season for soccer when all the coaches are bored out of their minds with nothing to do. We were watching a bunch of reality shows. So, anyway, I found the application, downloaded it, filled it out, sent it in and they called me. The first time that they called me I was like “man, I think this is gonna happen”. So I wasn’t really looking for it, I hadn’t even really watched Survivor, then I was just like “well, let’s see what happens”.
Have you watched every season since you were cast?
Oh man, the problem was that I had never really gotten into Survivor from the very beginning. I had not watched from the first episode, I would maybe flip the channel and see it, watch it and think “nah, that’s not for me”. But when you watch the show from the very beginning to the end, it’s the best show on television. So yes I’ve watched every season. I went back during casting and started watching all these seasons. I just got addicted, I would stay up in hotel rooms during casting- 2, 3, 4 in the morning watching every single episode back-to-back-to-back and just really enjoying it. So, yeah, I love the show now, I don’t miss an episode.
Was that pure curiosity or was it strategy?
It was actually just the psychological experiment that the game held. Now, having participated in it, it’s the greatest psychological, physical, emotional experiment known to man. I really think that’s what I like about it. I don’t really like the backstabbing and the blindsides, all that kind of stuff. I tend to have a little too much compassion for people where I don’t really like that kind of stuff. But just to see the character development and see people competing, knowing that they have very little to nothing, knowing that they’re living in the elements, it’s really fascinating to watch, seeing the drama unfold.
Who are some of your all-time favourite players?
Tyson Apostol‘s one of my favourites. Tom Westman because of the way he played the game honourably, I really liked him. Let me think about recent characters, I really liked Marty Piambo. I try to like the people who are either very quick with their tongue, very intelligent- I really liked Cochran, he’s one of my all time favourites- or I really like people who try to play truthfully.
You’ve always played the game with a very specific persona and value system. Is that something you live every day or is it heightened for the show?
I try to be an honourable man, even if that’s not always the case. For me, I know that life is a journey. I remember on that first season of Survivor I went out there very black and white “I’m never gonna tell a lie, I’m gonna be honourable, I’m gonna try and change this game” but there was a certain amount of arrogance that was there. And looking at myself appear on Survivor, I realized “I’m not the man I want to be. I’ve gotten away from the man I want to be”. They say that the mark of true wisdom is somebody who realizes that they don’t have what it takes and that they always need to learn. I always want to be a better person and I’m not sure if that comes across to the audience but I’m not perfect and I always want to learn about myself. If somebody brings something to me where I’m in error, I try to really listen to that and make amends or try to change who I am. So, yeah, I have a very concrete value system. I thought, in the very beginning, when I went on Survivor, that “you know what, I think that this is a platform where I’m going to be able to tell people how I live and how society’s gotten away from their value system”, so I’ve always tried to talk about that.
Would you say that seeing how you were portrayed on your first season brought about a revelation?
Absolutely. That first season, it was brutal. I came home, and if you were to go back and watch it again- knowing kind of my development through the seasons- if you were to go back and watch it again, you would not be that offended. People got so offended that first time, and I think that part of it was that JT [James Thomas Jr, the winner] was such a well-liked character, they had to have a villain. Stephen [Fishbach, the runner up] was kind of too nerdy to be a true villain, he was too harmless.
It was definitely a revelation. That first time, I went out there saying I was gonna play honourably and when I came back everybody said “how’d you play, did you cheat and lie?” and I was just like “you guys are gonna be so proud of the way I played” *laughs*. But they needed a villain. And I was the villain. I don’t think that what I did was THAT crazy, well it might have been crazy, but I don’t think it was that BAD though, to be that hated. And even Jeff Probst went on record saying “I don’t know why everybody hates this guy”, but it was definitely an “aha” moment where I said “wow, if that is who I am in my darkest moments in terms of conceit, I do not want to be that person and I’d better take myself less seriously, develop a true spirit of humility and that way I’m not gonna turn people off.
Knowing that Jeff famous said that he didn’t think you earned your “villain” title, how did you feel being placed on the Villains tribe when you came back [in Season 20: Heroes vs. Villains]?
Yeah, I knew that there was no way that they were gonna put me on the Heroes tribe. So when I saw the flag, I knew it was coming. I just thought “well, let me do what I can do to rectify this situation”.
You made it relatively far in your first season [5th place]. How did you adjust that strategy going into Heroes vs. Villains?
When you go on an all-star season, people need to be able to trust you, that’s one of the best things you can bring into an all-star season. So I do actually think I had that going for me. I knew people were gonna think I was a bit of a character, but the most important thing for me going into that second one was that I wanted to come in in top physical shape, and I think I did. I mean I did well in every challenge. If there was only one point won by our tribe, I was usually the one getting that one point.
But it was really a travesty because, if you think about it, there wasn’t really any way for me to get voted off before the final 5 because Rupert had told me before the game that he wanted to work with me, Colby had said so, Tom had said so, Danielle had said so, JT had said so. Everybody on the Heroes tribe was desperate to play with me, I got into my own alliance, I was fairly comfortable. Then Tyson upset everything and voted himself out needlessly [he was manipulated by Russell Hantz into going against Rob Mariano‘s plan to sidestep Hantz’s immunity idol, throwing off the numbers and causing his own elimination, which led to Hantz and his ally Parvati Shallow coming to power and voting out Mariano and Coach right after Apostol]. You look at that and the chances of me going out when I did are like 1,000 to 1, so I really should have made it farther than I did. And yet it was simply a series of unfortunate events that led me to be eliminated when I was. Because I thought I had a good game plan going in, I wanted to be honest, I wanted to surround myself with strong players- I did that- but, you know, as in life, things happen that are out of our control that lead to our own demise. So I really couldn’t be too upset about that because if I had led to my own demise, it would have been a little bit more difficult to swallow.
Was it the redemption angle that lured you back for a third go? [As one of two returning players in season 23, Survivor: South Pacific, the second to include the Redemption Island twist]
What led me back for a third go is that I prayed about it: “should I go out there and do it again?” The redemption thing, to be honest with you, wasn’t even on my mind. Redemption Island is something that is not built for me, because I’m not like an Ozzy in challenges [Ozzy Lusth, a fan favourite physical competitor and the other returning player to season 23]. So, for me, I just thought “I’m gonna go out there and try to just thrive in this adventure. I’ll probably get voted out first, but since I know that, I’m gonna try and combat that and come out there with the strategy of just being a regular guy, no pretences”. I called myself a “zen player” before I went out there because I wanted to find that perfect balance of leadership. I think that I was very fortunate to be on the tribe that I was on. And I really think that when you look at what I did out there from start to finish, nobody else went out there and did what I did. Nobody else could have gone out there- and I say this with all humility, but truly I’ve thought about it- nobody could have gone out there after Boston Rob [Mariano] did what he did [win season 22, Survivor:Redemption Island, as a returning player] and get to the end without ever having their name written down. To be an obvious threat and yet nobody talked about voting me out, and that’s because of the type of leadership strategy that I had going in. I wanted people to feel loved, valued and respected. If you do that in your everyday job, people will follow you to the ends of the earth. I proved that on this last [season]. If you talk to people who really, truly study the game of Survivor, my chances in this game were a million to one that I’d make it to the end, and a million to one that I’d never get my name written down, and I feel that I came back and really proved that I can play the game as a player and not just a character.
It seemed early on that Ozzy had gotten the more receptive tribe but it didn’t take long for Upolu to warm up to you. Do you think you could have done as well [second place], if you’d been assigned to Savaii instead? Would you have changed your strategy?
I don’t think I would have changed my strategy. I needed to be above board, I needed to be honourable. I needed to be a leader.
Going into the season, having seen how Rob won the previous season. You seemed to have a very similar approach in terms of the way you each kept control of your tribe. Was that in your mind at all?
It was always in my mind that I was gonna be asked to lead in the very beginning. Because, let’s face it, the first day that you’re out there there is some game play but the most important thing- people are freaked out. You might build a shelter or start a fire in your backyard, but when you get out there that’s the paramount thing, building a shelter. So I knew that and I prepared for that going in. I talked to a guy that I know who was in the army, a decorated war veteran; I talked to him beforehand, I spent a day with him out in the woods, and I said “let’s build the best shelter ever” and when I went out there, sure enough, they asked how to build a shelter and we built a great shelter. I knew that they were gonna ask me. So I think through my coaching in challenges and through my survival skills, they were able to trust me.
One of my favourite moments of the season was when you saw right through Cochran’s story [that his pre-merge tribe all hated him for being a traitor] and moved him over to your side. Was it really that transparent?
It was pretty cool, you know. I was really seeing things so clearly, up until about the last week of the show. I needed proof. I could sense, in talking to Ozzy- I talked to Ozzy before that conversation [with Cochran]- that he was full of it. But I needed proof. So when that merge feast came, I tore that merge feast apart because I thought “if what they’re telling me is the truth and Cochran did play the idol, then there would be another clue in the merge feast, because that idol would be in play”. But if both of us had idols, there would not be a clue. So, at that merge feast, I was eating and going “oh, let me grab this piece of salami”, and I would lift up the bowl to see if there was anything underneath it. I got up and looked at the paint supplies that we were gonna paint our new flag with. When I didn’t find the hidden idol clue I knew that they were lying and it gave me more ammunition to say “Cochran, this is what I think happened. Here’s the line in the sand. Come over to this side because that’s the only opportunity you’re gonna get”.
Last season more than others you seemed to have a really great sense of how people think and how to move them to your way of thinking. Is that a skill you’ve always had?
It’s a skill that I’ve always had but I’ve never used it on Survivor because I was too busy being a character or feeling sorry for myself like on Heroes vs. Villains. And it is something that I have in real life. It’s just that this time I focused less on myself. In leadership, that’s the key thing to really impacting people’s lives and really being able to read people, is to get out from your own stuff. Get out of your own world and actually walk a mile in their shoes. And when you take the focus off of yourself, it really changes things. And that’s what I did this time. I focused less on being a character and just more on being able to read people.
Brandon [Hantz, nephew of notorious Survivor villain Russell Hantz] was a pretty out-of-control asset in your alliance but you kept him around long enough to ruin quite a few plans. Why didn’t you take him to the end after all that?
I actually told him to not give away immunity, because if he gave away the immunity necklace, he would get voted out. I actually told him that. And when he did that, there was no other choice but to vote him out. I did think that if he got to the end, he would win. As crazy as that sounds.
Because I was reading the jury. Here’s what I thought: it got down to the final 6, including Ozzy [who came back into the game from Redemption Island]. When Ozzy would speak, the jury would just fall all over themselves. When Rick would speak, even though they would roll their eyes, they would sit there and say “he hasn’t harmed anybody, we’re gonna vote for him”. When Albert spoke, they had open venom, and when Sophie spoke they hated her guts. So the vote of Sophie [Clarke, the winner] was not for Sophie, it was against Coach. And I think that part of the reason was that they didn’t want to look like they had been duped again by Boston Rob; plus they wanted me to say “yeah, I did it for a million dollars”, which I didn’t do it for. I would be watching them and when Brandon would talk the jury would just be like “what a fool, but what a harmless boy”. And they saw his heart, because Brandon does have a good heart.
So it was strategy, in the end, not just going with the people who you picked on day one?
Well, the final five were the people that I picked on day one, and that’s why I kept them. It would have been obviously easier for me to keep Cochran and Edna, and I think that if I would have gone to the end with them, I would have won. But you have to think about Redemption Island, Ozzy’s coming back and that changes everything. I did want to stay loyal to the five. I did stay loyal to the five. But I was strategizing within the five every single day.
You think that Ozzy would have been in the finale if you took Cochran and Edna over Albert and Sophie?
Yeah, it’s easy to think “coulda, shoulda, woulda” at this point but I played the scenario through a million times in my mind. If I’d kept Cochran and Edna, Sophie would have not been at that last challenge, then it would have boiled down to me, Ozzy, Cochran and Edna- those people would not have beaten Ozzy in that last challenge. He would have gone to the finals and he would have won.
If you could play it again with 20/20 hindsight, is there any big move that you would change?
I think that what I would’ve done is stop talking about honour and integrity those last two weeks. I just shouldn’t have kept doing that. It was pointless at that point. I’d already set the groundwork and throwing it in people’s faces gave them every reason to say “ah, no”.
Going into the finale, did you think you had it? Because I definitely did.
Yeah, absolutely. But you had a couple of buffoons on the jury, like Ozzy and Brandon, who were there, really, to expel poison and not for any type of rational thinking. I’ve been on those juries before and it’s unfortunate that the last two people voted off have a pretty big say on who wins, and everybody just kind of follows them. To add insult to injury, I did talk to a few people that weekend who didn’t vote for me, who kind of led me to believe that they did vote for me. So even at the finale I thought I had a chance to win. Or even at that last tribal, after all of the craziness, I still thought that I had won. And I deserved to win. Nothing against Sophie, nothing against anybody else- everybody deserves to win and nobody deserves to win- but if you look at my journey and what I’ve been through from the first day that I stepped onto the beach in Tocantins, to this day here and the first day that I stepped on [South Pacific], it was crazy that I was able to overcome so much. Nobody thought I was a challenger, nobody thought I was good at challenges, nobody thought I could make camp life better, nobody thought I was anything but a character. And I was a returning player so my throat should have been cut first.
Do you have any regrets about the way you played the game this time around?
I have no regrets.
The Survivor editors are known to cut their way to entertaining TV. Do you feel that viewers got a sense of the real you on the show?
This last time, yes I think so.
This time you came as close to winning, without winning, as you could [losing in a 6-3-0 vote against Sophie and Albert]. Does that close the book for you or would you consider coming back and going after the top prize again?
I don’t think that I’ll ever come back, and here’s why, I’ll give you an analogy from my own coaching life: I came back to Lassen College in Northern California. I coached the women 6 or 7 years ago at Lassen College and we made it all the way to the championship game, and we lost. We came in second place and I think our final ranking was like 3rd in the nation. When I came back to Susanville, the athletic director asked me “would you be interested in taking over the women’s division” and I said no. He asked me why and I said “because we made it all the way to the top, and we lost. I would kill myself trying to crawl back to that position, and if I didn’t get back to that position I would always feel as if I were a failure”. The men’s team, on the other hand, had won half a dozen games in half a dozen years, and it was easy for me to take over that program because the margin of success was a lot better.
So that’s one thing. But the other thing is that if you have a beautiful relationship and it ends amicably, you tend to remember the beautiful parts of that relationship. When you have a beautiful relationship that ends badly, as the Bachelor Ben said, “good things don’t end unless they end badly”, it was a great quote. I memorized that quote, I rewound it to memorize it, because it’s true. But if you can end something good, you’ll remember fond thoughts. If you have a bad exit of a good relationship, you’re gonna remember the worst things. And my relationship with Survivor, after Heroes vs. Villains I really had a tainted image of even the first time that I went out, all the bad experiences that I had on Heroes vs. Villains tainted all those 36 days that I spent in Brazil on Tocantins. This time, I’m able to look back on this and just think “wow, what a beautiful experience was this trilogy I’ve had”. Of all three times, except for winning this last one, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s beautiful. There were highs and lows, times of philosophy and brilliance, times of divinity, times of abject sadness and sobbing, there were times of absolute undulating euphoria and personal joy, there was team coaching, there was everything you could want in a trilogy. So I’m glad that everything happened but because I had such an amazing experience on a day-to-day basis with people who wanted to be coached, this last time, got all the way to the end, never had my name written down. It would be suicide, for me emotionally, to go back out there and try it again.
Do you watch The Bachelor regularly?
I do, I admit it, I do.
Speaking of which, would you ever consider going on a different show? There’s a lot of CBS reality show crossover with, mostly, The Amazing Race.
You know, I’d just have to see when the opportunity came.
What was one of the biggest aspects of any of your seasons that didn’t make it onto TV?
They pretty much showed everything I did. They really caught about everything. There was one thing this season that they didn’t show, I did tell Brandon that if he gave [immunity] away, he would be voted out. But they pretty much captured everything that I do. I guess one thing that they didn’t show- probably because I didn’t make it far enough [into the game]- was that in Heroes vs. Villains I had this whole King Arthur theme and I named everybody according to Arthurian legend. That was really good.
There’s never been another reality character like me because they’re so one-sided. You look at me and in one episode I’m quoting Shakespeare, Voltaire and Nietzsche, in another episode I’m sitting there talking about slaying dragons, in another episode I’m making up Tai Chi as I go along, in another episode I’m very humble and down in the dumps, in another episode I’m coaching… So it’s pretty crazy, I really come at it from all angles. And I think that’s what the producers love about me is that in one confessional they can get 10 different things- they can get the sensitive classical musician, they can get the composer, they can get the maestro, they can get the jock, they can get the soccer coach, they can get just about anything that they want.
Do you keep in touch with many of your fellow cast members?
I do. I’m trying to kind of distance myself from Survivor, though. Not necessarily from the people, but I’m trying to distance myself just a bit. But I definitely do think I have a friendly rapport with just about everybody.
You’re a soccer coach, an orchestra conductor, a preacher… Have you always striven to be a Renaissance man or are you just interested in lots of different things?
I have always just been different. I’ve been made fun of a lot in my life. People have always attacked me because they feel threatened by me. I feel very blessed to have the areas of my personality met and fulfilled in the jobs that I do. I think that’s probably the biggest blessing in my life. The spiritual side- being a pastor; the creative side- being a maestro; being type A, the coaching side- being a soccer coach. So I feel really blessed.
What effect has your Survivor career had on your life outside the game?
It’s had a big impact. I have this movie, 180, that came out in February, so you should check that out. Obviously I wouldn’t have had that opportunity without Survivor. I’ve guest conducted- I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. But I’ll say that the biggest thing is that it’s just made me more grounded and take myself less seriously, and for that I’m forever grateful.
That ties into my next question of what are you doing now? Tell me more about your movie.
180 is the story of a rock and roll star that kind of pissed away his life and his band dies in an airplane accident but he wasn’t on the plane so he’s living with that regret. He wants to get a new band together but he’s pissed off everybody from his former professional life cause he was such an arrogant jerk and everybody thinks he’s delusional and full of himself and a bit of a joke- kind of like my first Survivor *laughs*. I’m that main character, so that’s pretty cool. I’ve got a new book that I wrote called No Turning Back, that’s for sale out there. I’ve got some projects that I’m working on this spring and will probably have my own show this fall that I can’t really talk about, but I think it’ll be really cool.
I think the best thing about everything is that somebody once told me that when you get done with a reality show, you just need to run back to your normal life as fast as you can. So many people move down to LA and they think they’re gonna be actors, you know, but I haven’t done that. I’ve just moved back to Susanville, kept grounded, do the things that I love to do. You can’t put your hope in things that are shakeable. I try to build my foundation on Jesus Christ, I try to live the right way, I try to ground my character and my foundation so that if things come, then that’s great. I think that too many times, in this day and age, we get caught up in thinking that a man or woman’s worth is based on their accomplishments when really the worth of a man or woman is based on their character. Too often that gets lost in the next accomplishment. I’m very goal-driven so I’ve gotten caught up in that way. So doing a show this fall is not going to make me a better or worse person and I’ve just gotta keep that balance my own way.