Interview: John Cochran discusses his ‘Survivor: Caramoan’ win

Say what you will about whether or not returning players have an unfair advantage within the game of “Survivor,” I can say with certainty that returning players make the best “Survivor” exit interviews.
If you think back on past seasons, folks like Coach and Russell Swan and Jonathan Penner have been responsible for my favorite post-elimination conversations, while highlights this season have come from veterans like Corinne Kaplan, Malcolm Freberg (a great interview when he was a newbie as well) and the always excitable Phillip Sheppard. 
The last of this season’s exit interviews is, of course, with the season’s well-deserving winner, John Cochran. Over 39 days, Cochran laid low when he had to, orchestrated big moves when he had to and, in a shocker, won challenges when he had to. And, perhaps of equal importance, Cochran worked his strategy without alienating anybody, which was his downfall in his first season and which was the downfall of fellow Top 3 finishers Dawn and Sherri.
And, not surprisingly, this one is a good interview as well, as Cochran discusses his feelings about the acrimonious Final Tribal Council, his now-famous Harvard Law essay on the “Survivor” Jury System, his “bipolar” approach to the game and, as a student of “Survivor” the ranking of his win within the “Survivor” pantheon.
Click through for the full interview. And I left in the first part because, darnit, it made me happy…
HitFix: Hey Cochran, how you doing?
John Cochran: I’m doing well! I have to say, I’m looking forward to this one. Malcolm and I were talking a couple days ago and we think that the HitFix interviews are probably the best exit interviews of the whole bunch.
HitFix: See, now that puts too much pressure on me!
Cochran: No, no, no. It’s not going to effect how this goes, I don’t think.  But I’m looking forward to it is all.
HitFix: Excellent. So in the finale, when Jeff asked if you expected to win, you were all humble about it, but honestly, would you have been ticked off if a vote had gone to somebody else?
Cochran: If a single vote vote had gone to somebody else?
HitFix: Yup.
Cochran: I probably would have been ticked off from an obsessive-compulsive standpoint. I probably would have been more ticked off had one vote gone some other way than if two votes had gone the other. Like if it had been a 6-1-1 vote or a 6-2-0 vote, I’d have been like, “OK. Well, there’s a big difference between 6-2-0 and 8-0-0.” I would have been ticked off, because I fixate on things. Yeah, a 7-1-0 vote would have pissed me off.
HitFix: Of the people on the Jury, whose vote would you say you had the most doubt about?
Cochran: Going into Final Tribal Council, I thought I didn’t have Andrea’s, but then she ended up being the least bitter juror of the entire bunch, so that wasn’t a problem. After Final Tribal, I had no idea how Michael voted. He was the one person on the Jury who really instigated this little bickering between me and Dawn and I wasn’t sure who emerged the victor in that interaction, because she made the good points of like, “You wouldn’t be around here if it weren’t for me, Cochran” and I kinda said the same back. I think I said something snarky like, “Well you wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been your personal therapist for the last 39 days,” which I suspect was a little bit rude. So Michael was up in the air for me. I felt pretty confident about the Amigos. I felt pretty good about Erik and Brenda. Phillip, I thought there was a chance that Phillip would vote for Sherri, because he had gotten really close to her and I think he kinda viewed her as his big coup in the game in that he was really the person who spent a lot of time with Sherri post-Merge and he could take credit for getting her to really flip and ingratiate herself with all of us and once he left, I tried to pick up that mantle.
HitFix: Conventional wisdom both in your first season with Dawn and then in this season was that because of the sympathy card and the mom card, Dawn would be impossible to beat with a Jury. When did you realize that that wasn’t really true? 
Cochran: When I went to the end with Dawn, I was not going to the end with Dawn as, “This is somebody I’m gonna slaughter in the vote.” Seriously. Watching the show, it seems like that’s obvious, because you see Brenda crying and you see everybody saying that Dawn’s a lunatic or whatever. I didn’t view Dawn that way. I went to the end with people I trusted the most because I thought they wouldn’t screw me over. So there was never a shift to, “Oh. Well. She’s not gonna win.” I went in thinking that that was going to be an issue. I remember talking about it in an interview or something because I said, “Let’s weight the pros and cons: She’s a Mormon professor, the mother of six adopted children, bread-baking… I’m some snot-nosed Harvard Law kid. It’s not the most endearing storyline or endearing personality to want to give a bunch of money to.” So I don’t know when that shift happened. 
Wait. Sorry. Sorry for the meandering replies. I think what happened is that between Eddie and Dawn, Eddie I knew would get at least one vote on the Jury. I knew he would get Reynold’s vote. In retrospect, I don’t know who else he would have gotten, but I knew he would get Reynold, so that was enough to scare me. With Dawn, I thought there was the chance that she could either beat me or the chance that she would get zero votes. I thought I could conceivably argue, you know, “Dawn and I did a lot of work together, but everything Dawn did, I did better, because I didn’t have to get these super-close emotional bonds. I wasn’t crying all the time. I won more challenges than she did, even if they’re dopey challenges.” So I think that was my focus. The six kids thing? I think once we knew the makeup of the Jury, that was never gonna be the sort of thing that swayed a lot of people’s opinions. This was a really game-focused Jury, maybe with a couple exceptions, but these were people who were eager to reward the person the perceived as having played the best game, instead of just basing it on outside circumstances.
HitFix: How well would you say that you anticipated the tone of the Jury? And presumably this was a best-case scenario Jury tone for you?
Cochran: Oh yeah, the tone of the Jury was unbelievably kind to me. I didn’t expect the differences in the treatment between me, Dawn and Sherri to be that severe. I thought there was probably a pretty good chance that Sherri would kind of be neglected or disregarded, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that level vitriol towards Dawn. The Brenda thing, I didn’t like. Even though obviously sitting there I’m realizing, “Oh. This probably means I’m gonna get that vote, because they’re screaming at her and making her do horrible things,” but I didn’t care for that. I think she got yelled at by more people than they even showed. I remember Erik gave her a really nasty speech and Eddie kinda of gave her a nasty speech and Phillip’s impersonating her crying and stuff. I didn’t think it was gonna be like that. I thought they were going to maybe say, “You were emotionally unstable,” but I thought it was gonna be kinda comparing and contrasting me and Dawn. Instead it was just really attacking Dawn, ignoring Sherri and praising me, which was obviously great, but it made me feel a little bit silly when it was all over.
HitFix: Do you think Sherri was overlooked/underestimated by the Jury? Or did she get exactly the amount of attention and respect that she deserved?
Cochran: Well, I think people should have asked her questions. I think it’s kinda unfair to get to the end and have people say, “I’m not even gonna to talk to you.” That being said, she didn’t plead her case very well, even in her opening remarks. I actually… and they didn’t show it… Or I don’t think they showed it… Or maybe they did show it, I didn’t see the whole episode last night, but I know that before the Final Tribal Council, I sat down with her and tried to coach her by telling her, like, “Look, you probably have the most captivating storyline of anybody this season. You’re the only fan remaining, against all odds. You’re demographically the type of player that would be voted off early on a typic season…” This is generalizing and I’m just speaking in very clinical terms and it’s not like an agist or sexist thing to say, but historically, older women don’t do well on the show and they’re kicked off early, especially on a tribe that’s losing every challenge, pre-Merge. So she managed to get past that and she ingratiated herself with a majority alliance that had been working together from Day 1 and got to the end. I think it’s a pretty incredible storyline, because I was kinda hoping to filter some votes away from Dawn, because I thought it was going to be Dawn who was going to get a bunch of votes. I thought there was some value in having two demographically similar opponents, because it makes me stand out more. By having Sherri succeed a little bit more, I thought that it could split the votes between Dawn and Sherri more and I’d win. [Again, I’m going on too long! Cut me off if I’m going on too long!] So I don’t think got the amount of attention she deserved, but I don’t think she did the best job of selling herself either.
HitFix: I want to talk a bit about this famous “Survivor” Jury System essay that you wrote. When did you write it?
Cochran: It’s not even a good essay. I wrote it like two or three years ago. It’s literally five pages long. It’s a five-page cute little paper where I’m like, “Could you imagine if, in the American Jury System, the Jury got to talk directly to the witnesses and talk directly to the defendant and the prosecutor?” It was just a cute thing. It wasn’t showing any great insight into how to manage the “Survivor” Jury. It gave maybe a brief overview of maybe what sort of strategies work and what don’t, but it’s not especially insightful. That’s why I haven’t released it. It’s just gonna shatter everyone’s illusions that I’ve written some sort of brilliant thing. It’s not brilliant at all. It’s embarrassing, so I’m gonna keep it a mystery.
HitFix: Having now faced a “Survivor” Jury yourself, what’s the biggest thing you now realize that you got wrong?
Cochran: I think I probably overestimated the extent to which performance in Final Tribal Council impacts anything, you know? I was pretty proud of my performance at the Final Tribal Council, but I think I probably could have performed far worse than I did and the outcome would have been the same. I think that’s an unfortunate part of “Survivor.” It’s so rare for votes to change at Tribal Council, not just Final, but I’m just talking about any Tribal Council. That’s what made the Phillip vote-out so interesting, that people were actually kinda considering changing their votes. So just overestimating the extent to which Final Tribal Council means anything.
HitFix: Now in that Final Immunity Challenge, even before you got to the advantage you’d won, I was kinda struck by how close you were running with Eddie just on the physical part.
Cochran: [Laughing.] I’m glad you noticed that!

HitFix: So what did you do to prepare prior to the game this time? Because obviously you were in somewhat better shape this season…
Cochran: I really didn’t is the thing. My family, maybe they’re just trying to be kind to me, but my dad or uncle at some point pointed out to me that, as bizarre as it sounds, I’m kinda naturally a somewhat athletic person. I used to play tennis and I was pretty good at tennis. I can do short little movements. I’m not strong or anything and I’m not especially agile, but tennis involves running six feet very quickly and this was a very short sprint. So I didn’t really do anything to prepare. And the challenges I won, I won a gross food-eating challenge. I tried doing one of those Saltine eating challenges a couple months before I went out, unrelated to it, where you eat five Saltine crackers in a minute, or whatever it is, and I did pretty well at that. But I didn’t really prepare that much. It was more like a psychological change or a temperamental shift, in that I was just calmer, because once you’re calmer, the challenges are a lot more enjoyable, because you’re not so worried about embarrassing yourself or, pre-Merge, about ruining it for your tribe.
HitFix: You obviously didn’t fly under-the-radar this season, but how much do you think you benefited from the presence of folks like Brandon and Phillip, these oversized personalities that kept you from being anyone’s focus at any point?
Cochran: I don’t know if Brandon’s presence helped me, because he’s a big personality, but he’s an unpredictable and unwieldy personalty that on any given day can just screw up a bunch of stuff and just spill… I was gonna say “spill the beans.” I didn’t mean it literally, but obviously he did literally spill the beans. But he’s not trustworthy. Phillip’s presence did help me. He was a close strategic partner of mine, but he was also the complete figurehead of Stealth R Us and his presence there was always gonna take attention away from me and his insistence on the buddy system was always going to seem obnoxious to outsiders and that was gonna always be traced back to him. So his presence I think definitely helped me. You watch those pre-season promos they did where they’re playing Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and they say, “The three CRAZIEST ‘Survivor’ characters are coming back…” and they show Brandon, Phillip and me. I guess on any other season, maybe I would have been one of the crazier characters or players or whatever, but yeah. When I’m surrounded by people like that, I’m a relatively low-key, benign figure out there.
HitFix: You’ve always had that awareness of the way you might be perceived outside of the game and I liked that in the finale you had that moment where you worked yourself up into a fit of hubris and then went, “Boy, this is going to look really bad if I lose.” How much more self-reflective were you in the confessionals this time around having seen the way you looked the first time?
Cochran: It was very self-reflective. There was a very bipolar element to my game, in that I’m simultaneously playing the game and watching myself play the game at the same time and seeing, “OK, that’s probably gonna come across… When I’m bragging about being a Challenge Beast, there’s the possibility people are going to misinterpret that as genuine belief that I’m a great challenge competitor, even though all I’ve done is swallow pig brains and have an unbeatable advantage in a strength-endurance challenge.” I caught myself quite a bit kind of getting a little bit too cocky. That was one of the more striking ones. Just like it’s horrible to say that you’re looking forward to a blindside. That’s a guarantee you’re going to get blindsided that same episode. So there’s definitely always this meta element to me out there. Some people find it grating, other people find it kinda fun, but it’s definitely something that weighed on me. I mean, I was listing the time and date that “Survivor” airs in episode three or something. How goofy is that? I’m like, “I can’t wait. It’s Wednesday nights at eight on CBS and I sit there on my couch and ‘Criminals Minds’ comes up after,” or whatever. That was something that, not from a hamming it up perspective, but from an awareness that this something that I’m going to be watching in 10 months, it was always kinda hanging over me. 
HitFix: Last question: In my recap, I called this a Top 10 individual “Survivor” performance, but you’re a student of the game. Which “Survivor” performances were better than yours?
Cochran: You said that my performance was Top 10? 
Hitfix: Yup. 
Cochran: Oh wow. You’re asking how I would rank myself?
HitFix: Yeah. Who was better?
Cochran: Who was better? Well, here’s the thing: I had the luxury of getting to the Merge with an unbelievable numbers advantage. The only only other player to have the same situation as I did, where you had no votes cast against you and got every vote in the end, is JT. But JT got to the Merge with, I don’t know, a minority of four going against seven or something. I think that’s probably more impressive than what I had to do. The luxury of having huge numbers is such a thrill and such a gift. 
I don’t know. It’s gonna be difficult to find any winner who says they’re in the bottom half of the winners. It’s like how if you ask anybody if they’re an above-average driver, 99 percent of people think they’re above average, which is, of course. statistically impossible. I do think I’m above average. I would say upper-of-the-middle-end. I don’t even know what that means. Like 12 or so? Top 12. Maybe that’s me being falsely humble and I really think I’m better? I don’t know. I would say 12, if you ask me though.