‘Survivor’ Zeke: “Three of My Top Five Players Are Here in Cirie, Sandra, and Tony”

Zeke Smith (CBS)

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: Zeke Smith
Age: 28
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Previously Played On
“Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X” – Finished 9th and Jury Member
Best Known For: Having the greatest cast introduction video ever.

Note: This interview took place before “Survivor Millennials vs. Gen-X” aired.

Gordon Holmes: You’re here for a reason…and I don’t want to know this reason.
Zeke Smith: (Laughs) Right.
Holmes: I’m going to take a walk, and you tell this recorder why you’re here. Then, I’ll hear it next January.
Smith: You’re not going to get me in trouble, are you?
Holmes: Wouldn’t dream of it.
Smith: OK.

Holmes walks away, puts his fingers in his ears, and says “Lalalalalala.”

Smith: OK, Gordon. I’m here because I orchestrated a lot of blindsides. I started on a tribe that wanted nothing to do with me. I found people who wanted to work with me. I slit a lot of throats and I was the first person to ever force rocks at ten. I got people that I had blindsided just votes before to stick their hands into a bag of rocks for me. Isn’t that pretty (expletive deleted) cool?

Holmes: You were just out here. How long did you have to go home?
Smith: I got two weeks back in New York. And to be honest, they could have just left me on a beach with protein bars and clean water and I would’ve perfectly happy to stay here in Fiji. I love “Survivor.” I’m a huge fan. To get to play it once is a dream. To get to be a part of that epic back-to-back experience…that only a handful of people have gotten to do is a pretty big honor. I appreciate the significance of that.

Holmes: I’ve been doing this since Gabon. I interviewed Russell when he went back-to-back. I interviewed Malcolm when he went back-to-back. They both said that physically and mentally it might have been too much.
Smith: Physically I feel like I’m in good shape. I may not be in quite as good shape as I was when I left the first time. I don’t think that’s going to have too much of an effect on my game. I think it’s the mental fatigue, “Survivor” is a constant state of stress. It’s 39 days of mental stress. I had two weeks where I said, “I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to have to cater to the needs of other people.” I’m feeling pretty excited. A lot of “Survivor” is riding the adrenaline wave. I’d say if there’s an element that worries me, it’s the mental fatigue.
Holmes: Russell and Malcolm came back alone. They could say anything they wanted about their previous performances. You don’t have that luxury with Michaela here. Without getting too spoilery, what your relationship with her like?
Smith: We weren’t super close in the game. We didn’t play with each other a whole lot. So, I think our relationship brings more of a target than it’s worth. I think anyone is an option. I want to work with anyone who wants to work with me. But I don’t think there’s any special relationship between Michaela and I that I’m we’re going to try to work in a swap or merge situation. For me, if Michaela goes home early? That’s better for me. It’s interesting in that everyone has shared a season with one other person. It’s sort of like a “Blood vs. Water” season where people whose loved ones go early tend to get farther in the game. I sort of see that as my relationship with Michaela.

Holmes: Alright, I’m going to tell you why I’m going to vote you out of this game. I’d like you to defend against it.
Smith: Certainly.
Holmes: I don’t know how Zeke plays this game. He’s an unknown quantity. Let’s just get rid of him now.
Smith: Look, I’m a goofy guy who tells a lot of R-rated jokes. That might be the reason why I was brought back. It’s not like everyone here is an actual game changer. And look, are you really telling me that I’m more dangerous than someone like Tony? Someone like Sandra? Someone like Cirie? And look, I’m in such a desperate situation. Everyone else knows each other. Everyone else has probably talked to each other. I don’t have anything. I’m looking for buddies. I’ll be more loyal because I have more of a need to be loyal than anyone else out here.

Holmes: For them to bring Zeke back so quickly…he had to do something big. I don’t want to worry about this guy making a big play.
Smith: Who here hasn’t made a big play? Well, maybe with the exception of Caleb who hasn’t been to Tribal Council. You’ve got Ciera, who I’m assuming is being upgraded to Eastin since there are two Sierras/Cieras this season. She voted out her mom. She was in the thick of the chaos of the merge of “Second Chance.” You’ve got Varner. Who knows what the (expletive deleted) he’s going to do. There are a lot of people who are known to be dangerous. And I think it’s better to take care of them.

Holmes: You’re good at this. But what are some of these R-rated jokes?
Smith: They’ll happen. I’ve been told to keep it down. They just arise.
Holmes: This is print, I can (expletive deleted) all of them out.
Smith: OK, I’ll turn it up for you.

Holmes: What’ve you learned from your first go around that you’ll apply this time?
Smith: I’m a student of the game and I play aggressively. When I was debriefing with some people from my season, they said I should try to play a little more subtly. But, does anything about me look subtle?
Holmes: I do like the shirt.
Smith: Thank you. But that’s not going to change. What I want to do in this game is I need to find advantages. I need idols, I need extra votes. I need to get my hands on some of that.

Holmes: What are your thoughts on this cast?
Smith: I’m so awe-struck to be here with some of these people. My first season was “Cook Islands,” so to be here with Ozzy…even though I don’t think super highly of him as a strategist…to be here with a “Survivor” legend? It’s amazing. Three of my top five players are here in Cirie, Sandra, and Tony. I think that’s pretty incredible. Two people are playing for the fourth time, six people are playing for the third time. Caleb has never been to Tribal Council before. It’s a really mixed bag. And a lot of people…I was trying to watch game tape when I was home, and I thought, “Should I watch ‘Worlds Apart’ and see what Hali and Sierra are up to?” There’s not a lot of game tape on these people. They might present some dangers. You have two smart women in a game of smart women. They’re going to want to prove that they belong out here. A lot of these untested players are going to want to show something early.
Holmes: I’m not a game changer? Screw you, watch me change this game.
Smith: Well, Jeff Probst came to talk to us yesterday and was like, “You all are game changers.” And I think there were a lot of people who were like, “I am a game changer.” And a lot of people who were like, “I’m a game changer? Well, if Jeff says I am, I’ve got to live up to it.” Those are the people who are going to make trouble early.
Holmes: You can’t trust that Probst as far as you can throw him.
Smith: I don’t know, those dimples are pretty charming.
Holmes: They should make some kind of molds of them. And when you’re having a bad day you can just rub them and feel better.
Smith: I tell you, when you get your torch snuffed, he looks you dead in the eyes. It’s a pretty epic moment.

Holmes: Is there anyone you’re hoping to work with?
Smith: Yeah, I’d love to play with Cirie. I’m a crazy ball of energy that wants to make a big move even when it’s not smart. I think Cirie is very calm, cool, and collected. I think she’d balance me out. I also think Cirie would be a great shield. Who’s more dangerous than the guy we know nothing about? Cirie. She can win it. Also, I’d love to play with one of my heroes. Aubry is someone I’m looking to play with. I think we play the game similarly. I like the symbiotic relationship she had with Cydney. That’s sort of how I like to play. JT is someone I’d like to play with, but his last taste of “Survivor” is getting embarrassed by Russell. So, you have to wonder how excited he’d be to play with me. I’d have to convince him I’m more of a Stephen.

Holmes: Do you have any early targets?
Smith: Varner makes me really nervous. There’s this anxiety about him. You saw it in “Second Chance.” He was running around wanting to play over wanting to make good relationships. I don’t think you can trust him. And the rumors are he’s pre-game chatting with everyone. I like the idea of keeping around people like Tony and Sandra and Cirie. They’re dangerous, but you have a read on them. People like Varner and Hali you’ve only ever seen these little snippets of them.

Holmes: Speaking of pre-game, that happens in any returnee season. Have you been talking to anyone?
Smith: I don’t know anybody. Well, I know Michaela obviously. We texted a little, but nothing more than that. It’s interesting, I’m a big fan and I know everyone is chatting. But, Michaela is not a big fan. Michaela, I don’t think knows about the pre-game stuff.
Holmes: Have you heard any rumors?
Smith: You just hear Varner talking to everybody.

Holmes: You guys are in lockdown now. You’re not allowed to talk, but people smile and wink. Are you doing any of that?
Smith: Before 33 everybody was smiling and winking because you’re all strangers. But here, nobody is doing anything. There are people who will sit together, and you notice that Malcolm and Ozzy always sit together. But a lot of people here have the poker face on. I try to smile at people just to seem non-threatening. But, for the most part it’s locked down. Brad Culpepper talks a lot. He will talk to everybody. I think he’s been segregated to the back of the sitting area because if you sit next to him, he’ll talk to you. Right now I’m reading his favorite book.
Holmes: Which is?
Smith: “Lonesome Dove.” So, I know that much. And Tai is very chatty also.

Holmes: When everybody is zigging, you stand out by zagging. I think that helped Michele last season. I’m talking to you and you seem likable, non-threatening in this season of big threats. Do you think they’ll work to your advantage?
Smith: Yeah. It’s an all-star season. Everyone is here to play. I’m trying to present to everyone that I’m a fun guy to play with. I’m not Russell, I’m just trying to fit in with everyone else. You look at Sandra and Cirie, they’re trying to fit in at Ponderosa.
Holmes: Sure you’re capable of making big moves, but as far as anyone knows, you’re good-time Zeke.
Smith: Yeah, I’m the fun guy with the mustache and the crazy shirts.

Holmes: We’ve got four Kaoh Rongers here. What’s your take on that?
Smith: I think I can see myself playing with the four of them. I think they’ll want to play with me because there’s a target on them. I think they might want to scoop me right up.

Holmes: If there is a twist other than Game Changin’, what do you think it will be?
Smith: I don’t think there’s going to be one twist. I think there are going to be a million twists. There’s going to be something with the idols. There’s going to be some kind of other advantages. It wouldn’t surprise me if we had four tribes of five. Which I think is great. I thrive when the game is chaotic. There’s also this pastime of speculating what’s going to happen next. And the thing is, you’re always wrong. You learn to trust your overlords and what they throw at you.

Holmes: I’m going to give you a twist, you tell me if it’s awesome or awful. Hidden immunity idols?
Smith: Awesome!
Holmes: Redemption Island?
Smith: Awful.
Holmes: Exile Island?
Smith: Awesome.
Holmes: Medallion of Power?
Smith: Awful.
Holmes: Extra votes?
Smith: Awesome.
Holmes: Steal a vote?
Smith: Awesome.
Holmes: Eliminate a juror?
Smith: Awful for the same reason as Redemption Island in that it takes away one of the basic tenants of the game, right?
Holmes: Right, you have to pay for your sins in the end.
Smith: Yeah. I think screwing with the votes? Sure. But you have to deal with everyone you voted out.

Holmes: Alright, I have another game.
Smith: Are these “Survivor” playing cards?
Holmes: Yes.
Smith: Do you have one for me?
Holmes: No, I didn’t think we were even allowed to discuss you, but I’m told Probst introduced you to everyone yesterday.
Smith: Yes, he did.
Holmes: OK, your opponents (except for Michaela) are on these cards. I’ll hand you three at random. You tell me who you’ll vote out first, who you’ll work with and eventually eliminate, and who you’ll take to the end.

Round One: Cirie, Tony, and Caleb
Smith: Tony is first out. He’s too dangerous and he doesn’t want to play with me. Tony likes to be the top dog in charge. He wants to play with people who are loyal. I’ll align with Cirie for reasons previously stated. And, I’ll take Caleb to the end.
Holmes: How do you beat him?
Smith: He’s not going to do anything. Whoever wins this season is going to have to have a resume. Caleb might vote with people, but he’s not going to have gallons of blood on his hands.
Holmes: Michele just won without a ton of blood on her hands.
Smith: Yeah, but you can’t account for the wrong person winning.
Holmes: The wrong person never wins. She was the right person to that jury.
Smith: No, no. Not in my view.
Holmes: They don’t say vote for the most strategic, they say vote.
Smith: I’d never want to win the way Michele won. To me the Michele win is similar to the Sandra win where there’s a heavy amount of gender bias. Guys don’t want to vote for the woman who outplayed them, they want to vote for the woman who was nicer to them. I think there’s a gender element there.

Round Two: Tai, Debbie, and Troyzan
Smith: Tai is first out. He’s a little unpredictable. He’s the most likely to flip. I’d align with Debbie. They’re the two craziest people on this season, so I have to align with one of them. Debbie’s very smart. I think the only thing with her is we’re going to get to a point where she wants to be top dog. And I’ll take Troyzan to the end because nobody is going to want to give this (expletive deleted) the money. Troyzan doesn’t wear a shirt at Ponderosa. Ozzy wears a shirt and Troyzan doesn’t.

Round Three: Sandra, Sierra, and Aubry
Smith: OK…interesting. I’m going to do something you wouldn’t predict. Sierra is out first because I don’t know enough about her. She’s also someone who won’t be driving strategy, but she’ll be a good pick-up. She’s not going to make moves independently. Align with Aubry, because I like the way she thinks. And I’ll take Sandra to the end and say, “I dare you to give her the money again. That’s how confident I am in the way I played.”

Round Four: Brad, Ozzy, and Sarah
Smith: I think Sarah’s out first because she’s on the top of the list of people who need to prove why they belong here. I think she’s going to want to stir things up early. I align with Ozzy. He’s going to feed me. I like to eat. Ozzy’s not good at the strategic element, but I can help guide him. And I’ll take Brad to the end for the same reason you take Troyzan. He’s also a non-shirt wearer.
Holmes: You’re like me. There are shirt situations and non-shirt situations.
Smith: Yeah, if I’m eating dinner? Put a shirt on.

Round Five: Jeff, Andrea, and JT
Smith: Varner goes first. He’s unpredictable. He’s playing to prove something and not playing smart. I’d love to align with JT. I think we’d have a fun duo. I’ll take Andrea to the win. She’s smart, she plays hard, there might be a chance that she beats me, but she’s the only card left.
Holmes: That’s part of the game. You play the cards you’re dealt.

Round Six: Malcolm, Hali, and Ciera
Smith: I take Ciera out first. She makes big moves. And, she almost exclusively plays with women. And not being a woman, I’m not going to be on the top of her list. I play with Malcolm. He’s a good shield. I can play in his shadow. And I take Hali to the end. I think she’s someone who’s going to try to make moves and none of them are going to be effective. My resume will be superior.

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

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