If you’re truly going to make your mark on “Survivor,” it helps either to do something memorably awesome or to do something memorably awful.
Alabama native James Thomas has played the game twice and he’s made his mark in both ways.
In “Survivor: Tocantins,” J.T. aligned with Stephen Fishbach, seemingly his polar opposite, on Day One and the two men carried each other for the duration of the season. It was maybe the strongest and most enduring alliance in “Survivor” history and left J.T. a million dollars richer after he won a unanimous jury vote.
On “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains,” though, J.T. orchestrated one of the game’s epic blunders, misreading the power dynamic on the Villains tribe and giving away an Immunity Idol to the nefarious Russell. That gaffe set into motion Thursday (April 22) night’s classic Tribal Council, in which Parvati was able to give Idols to two of her teammates, sparing Jerri and sending J.T. packing, a victim of his own bold move.
HitFix caught up with J.T. on Friday morning to discuss giving away the Idol, misreading Russell, the untrustworthy women and his failure to find a Stephen this time around.
Click through for the full interview…
HitFix: You’ve had a while to go over what happened in your mind, but what has it been like watching the past two weeks?
James Thomas: It’s been really tough. I dealt with it back when it happened, but like everyone else who’s just seeing it for the first time, it’s really tough to watch and see how it all played out.
HitFix: Do you sit there and yell at yourself on the screen?
JT: Yeah, sometimes. But it’s not that bad. I knew that I was taking a big risk making the move and I was willing to face what might happen if it didn’t work out. The show definitely played me out to be more confident than I expected it to, because I wasn’t that calm. We knew Russell wasn’t with us when we went to Tribal Council. We were just hoping to fool them on who we were voting for, switching it up with Jerri. It was Sandra and then Jerri, because we knew Russell would think that we were voting Sandra. That’s what we did and there was a lot that went into it. But it was tough to watch.
HitFix: What have the reactions been from friends and loved ones?
JT: Oh, they think I’m crazy. None of them can really understand the whole situation with Russell, with us not having seen him play at all and then understanding why in the world I did that for such a villain, from last season and so far this season. I’ve had to explain it to them, but they all think I’m crazy.
HitFix: If you had seen Russell’s season, would you have considered doing what you did?
JT: Definitely not! If you know of him being anything like we know he is now, you’re not gonna give him an Idol. Definitely I wouldn’t have given him the Idol, but that doesn’t change the fact that I made a risky move and paid for it.
HitFix: Is that a bit of a cheat? There are 20 of you out there and 19 of you have seen each other play and then there’s Russell. Did that give him an advantage?
JT: I think it could be looked at both ways. I’m not going to be pointing fingers or anything for the reason I didn’t win, because you would think that you’re dealing with a villain upfront and you know that you haven’t seen him before and you still choose to go with him, so really it’s fair game. And, for real, I didn’t know any of those guys when I started, so you have to research your castaways.
HitFix: What was the emotional swing like at the Tribal Council that night? For a brief second it looked like the Heroes had succeeded and everything was working your way and then Parvati starts pulling out Idols? What did that feel like?
JT: Well, I knew I was going to be the one that they were targeting. I knew that either I was going home or a Villain was going home. I just didn’t know how it was going to go down. None of us had any idea. We all ended up sticking together. The Heroes stuck together, but it didn’t matter. They played the Idols correctly and it worked out correctly. I remember thinking as soon as Jerri got an Idol, that I was out of the game. Immediately, when I saw my name the first time, I knew for sure. I knew it was risky. I made it easy for them this time.
HitFix: In your exit speech, why did you want to single out the untrustworthy women?
JT: At the time, I wasn’t sure what or how things had happened. We had switched our votes really quickly right before Tribal Council to Jerri, who had never been mentioned, versus Sandra or Parvati. We didn’t leave much room for error going into Tribal Council. We just watched each other. But seeing Amanda and the way she talked to Parvati last time, I was thinking somebody might have tipped somebody off, that Jerri needed to be saved or what. Amanda definitely didn’t help our situation when she told Parvati to play her Idol. It was really awful. I don’t know. Intentionally or not intentionally, I think somebody may have helped Parvati decide who to give those Idols to.
HitFix: Were you impressed by what Parvati did?
JT: I was. I was really impressed. That was just good game play. It took me giving an Idol to Russell and Russell giving an Idol to Parvati and then Parvati already having her own. There was a lot that went wrong for us and a lot that fell just right for them on that night. But that’s just the way it goes if you’re taking those big risks. But Parvati played it well. It was well-played, because there were a lot of other options and things that could have went down that would have changed the ending, so I think she did a really good job of playing her cards.
HitFix: Watching it last night, were you able to enjoy the episode as fun TV, or does it still hurt too much?
JT: It was tough. That was the first time I’d ever seen my name written down at all, actually. I knew it was coming. I thought they’d be gunning for me as the first one to be voted off and I’ve been fighting and battling since Day One to stay in it. I was definitely not happy, but I knew there was a chance I might be sent home first, so I just did the best with what I could and what I felt was best.
HitFix: Lots of people viewed your season and your win as one of those nearly perfect games, a great mix of strategy and physical play. Did you have any concerns about not wanting to spoil or interrupt that legacy by coming back?
JT: Yeah, I thought about it for just a second, but I love a good challenge and I would do it again in a heartbeat. That’s the way I looked it, like “You know what? I have this to be remembered by, or I could go try and make something better.” You never know and I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.
HitFix: You came out with a different strategy this season. A little more flipping and flopping, a bit more going behind people’s backs. What made you decide to come out and do something different this time around?
JT: Just like in Brazil, the first day was trying to feel everybody out. You can hardly ever make a strategy, because you don’t know how people are going to react or what’s going one. And immediately, James talked to me and then Tom and Colby and then I had two different alliances pulling me and I didn’t know what do do and I didn’t want to tell anybody, “No.” So I just skated along in the middle for as long as I could and voted out whoever I wanted to go home. Once the Stephenie vote was made, the line was drawn. Part of me wanted to go with Tom and Colby and Stephenie, except that we didn’t have the numbers unless Candice voted with us and I didn’t trust Candice at all.
HitFix: Did this season really just make you appreciate having that one person you could trust the whole time like you had with Stephen in Tocantins?
JT: Most definitely. Stephen and I are buddies. That’s just one of those things where somebody equally or better strategic play can definitely help you out if you can trust them. Like I told Stephen in Tocantins early, I’d love to find the best and go to the end with them, because if I’m with ’em, I don’t have to be against ’em. That’s what I tried to do with Stephen and it worked out really well. There was no one there on my tribe for me to really relate to out there.
HitFix: Well did you try to find that one person this season who you could stick with to the end?
JT: I did. Amanda seemed to be strategical and pretty strong, but I like said, I didn’t know exactly where her head was at. And then when James was gone, she kinda faded off. Rupert didn’t have any strategy, really. We were all buddies and we were sticking together, but there was no one that I could really talk to about moving forward and how the end game was going to be.
HitFix: And as my last question, and I think you already answered it… Having done this twice now, would you do it again?
JT: In a heartbeat.
Previous “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains” Exit Interviews: