Interview: Tony Vlachos talks ‘Survivor: Cagayan’

The most memorable player in any give “Survivor” season is more a function of editing than of outwitting, outplaying and outlasting, so it stands to reason that there's absolutely no reason why the Sole Survivor should also be the Most Memorable Survivor.

When it comes to “Survivor: Cagayan,” however, there will be no doubt: It was the season of Tony Vlachos.

The Jersey Cop build alliances, tore alliances apart, schemed, conspired, swore on loved ones, swore on his badge, found Idols, used Idols and bluffed with Idols. He also wasn't quiet about his domination of the game. Tony wore a target on his chest for 39 days and other players either chose to work with him, chose to vote other people out first or actively, in the case of Woo, carried Tony with him.

Woo's decision to bring Tony rather than Kass with him to Final Tribal will be debated as long as people debate “Survivor,” but for a while it looked like a good move. The Jury was angry at Tony and one castaway after another stood up and criticized him and the spat vitriol at him. The Final Tribal concluded with 4th place finisher Spencer making a long, passionate speech in Tony's favor, but right up until the reading of the votes, it looked like it might be close.

It was not close.

Tony beat Woo 8-1, with only Tasha favoring Woo. 

I had a ton of questions for Tony, but a couple really long answers left me unable to ask a few good ones. Oh well. Tony's answers are thoughtful and, for the most part, do a good job of restating his convincing case as the season's dominant player and character.

Check out the full Q&A…

HitFix: So I guess my first question is I wasn”t surprised you won last night but I was surprised by how easily you won last night. Did the 8-to-1 vote surprise you?

Tony: You know, actually it did surprise me. I mean you”ve seen the Tribal Council that I had to go through, seen how everybody was, they didn”t even give me a chance to like have an argument or nothing to explain myself. The first thing I told them. I said, “Listen guys, I”m here to tell you the truth and nothing but the truth. It”s not the jungle. We”re out here and I want to give you guys closure. Any questions you have for the moves I made please ask me.” And they didn”t give me a chance to say anything. They were just banging me on the head with hammers. Especially Trish. 

HitFix: Kass was sort of right that a bitter Jury might have favored her or Woo but a non-bitter Jury was gonna go with you. But how bitter did you feel that Jury was when you were sitting in front of it?

Tony: You know what, I didn”t think they were bitter at all. I think they respected me as a player and me as a person, more importantly. They knew that somebody has to go in order for somebody to move ahead, somebody has to fail. And they knew that they got the short end of the stick on the play. And they respected that, so they vented what they thought they needed to vent and I was right there and I absorbed it all and I accepted it all and I owned it. And I guess that”s it. Once they go that out of their system they did the right thing by awarding the person that played the hardest game.

HitFix: But you said though that in some cases they wouldn”t even let you talk. So do you really think it was just they had things they needed to have you hear and it didn”t matter what you did, they were still gonna vote for you anyway, hhey just had to get it out?

Tony: I think so. I think that they just wanted to vent and I was just there and you seen that was probably the first time in the game that I didn”t run my mouth a thousand miles an hour. I just had to sit there and accept it what they had to tell me.

HitFix: I couldn”t tell though, was the sitting there and accepting because they wouldn”t let you say anything?

Tony: Well that”s true, too, I guess. But I could have still been trying to fight my words in there like I normally do at camp. When I think I”m right I”m gonna speak. I”m gonna voice my opinion and then I was trying to voice it and they weren”t letting me, so I just stopped as opposed to continue on trying to sneak it in there.

HitFix: I just couldn”t tell if sort of the wind had gotten taken out of your sails when you saw or heard what they were saying.

Tony: Well it did in a way but at the same time, I never put my guard down. I still read their body language. I read them to the point where I knew that if I was gonna start rubbing it in saying, “You know what? I outplayed you, I outwitted you, that”s the game.” I didn”t want to do all that. I accept it. I accepted how they felt and I tried to give them an explanation. They didn”t want to hear it. I kept my mouth shut.

HitFix: How much do you think that Spencer”s speech helped you or do you think that they were voting how they were voting regardless?

Tony: He definitely had a big impact, I guess but after speaking to all of them, they congratulated me and they said, “Tony, listen man, you know, we just wanted to vent.” And that”s why I know after the fact now. They wanted to vent, they wanted to tell me how they felt. They were pissed off about me swearingon everybody. And I explained to them after the fact and they”re very understanding. But yeah, Spencer definitely, he definitely made a good point and he was the last person to talk. And I hope that people did realize that it was a game. I took no pleasure in hurting people out there. I did everything strategic. Nothing was emotional. Nothing was personal. Nothing was vindictive. 

HitFix: Okay. If I had asked you yesterday afternoon before the finale what would you have guessed the vote was going to be?

Tony: Oh, man, you know what, it's a toss-up. You know what, I would hope that it would have been in my favor – maybe a 5-4. I thought it would have been close, but I was hoping it would be in my favor. I mean I did play a great game and I was very likable. Contrary to what Kass said, people did like me as a person. Who I am, you know, 71 hours of me being social. You only get to see 40 minutes of me being strategic and deceitful. You don”t get to see the 71 hours that I”m social with everybody and we form good bonds.

HitFix: Who would you say your closest friends were if we”re talking about friends and bonds.

Tony: As far as friends, Trish is a great friend of mine. Woo”s a great friend of mine and Spencer”s a great friend of mine. But I do talk to everybody. I talk to LJ. I talk to Jeremiah. I talk to Jefra. I talk to mostly the whole cast and they know who I am as a person. And that”s what they respect the most. And that goes to show the final outcome last night goes to show that they don”t award somebody a million dollars that ruined your chances of a million dollars by giving them your vote. You award the person that you like the most and Woo is a very likable person. So for them not to give their votes to a person that they like so much, to give it to a person like me that blindsided them, that deceited them, that lied to them the whole game, that was unloyal to them. That speaks volumes.

HitFix: People compared you throughout this season to Russell Hantz either saying that you were exactly like him or they tried to sort of clarify the key ways in which you were different. How would you clarify the reason why Russell has lost three times and you”re now one for one.

Tony: It”s really simple. I mean we both played a very strong aggressive game. Russell”s very strategic. He knows what he”s doing. He never puts his guards down and he played a strong aggressive game just like I did. But the difference is who we are as people. Me I”m a very humble person. I don”t rub salt in people”s wounds and I”m genuine. As to Russell, it”s his personality. I”m not knocking his personality but that”s who he is as a person. He”s an aggressive natured person with everything, not just the game. Me, I went out there and I was only aggressive with my game play. I was not aggressive with people. My personality was just as humble as I can be out there.

HitFix: How much do you think it helped you to be sort of standing out there for as long as you were with Kass, who people did seem to actively dislike?

Tony: You know, the thing is just like with me, I mean, you only see certain parts. You see the parts where we”re fighting because you don”t see the parts where… You know me and Kass had a lot of disputes. She”s had disputes with a lot of people but at the same time, Trish and Kass had a huge fight. Myself and Kass had a huge fight. But you don”t see the parts where we go fishing together, where we go hunting for crabs together, you know. I mean the dislike is for the moment out there. Everything is so – the emotions run so high and you have to vent at the time you need to vent. You just blow up. But it wasn”t the whole entire time we disliked each other. It was just certain moments, certain moves, certain things she said. Like for instance, when I started screaming like the llama. She made it clear that she wanted to go to the end with me so I went to her and I said, “Listen, I”m gonna give you a secret. Woo told me everything you said about me but I don”t care because I want to go with you.” So at that point you should be happy. You should know like, “Wow, this guy really wants to go with us or he would never tell me the secret.” And then she goes and she blabbers her mouth to Woo and I”m like, “How was that strategic. Like how did that make any sense?” And for her to try to justify it as being strategic it”s just too much. It”s just too much to handle.

HitFix: Gotta ask about the llama impression. Is that a part of your repertoire? Is that something that you”ve done in the past, something that you periodically bring up?

Tony: I can assure you that I”ve never spoke like a llama before. Kass went into the game saying that she”s an animal handler and that she”s dealt with alpacas and llamas and reindeer. And, you know, obviously she wasn”t comprehending the English language so I said , “You know what Kass, maybe I need to talk to you in a different way because you don”t really socialize with people, you socialize with animals. So how about I talk to you like a llama? Maybe you”ll understand what you just did here makes no sense.” And I think she understood the llama talk better than the English.

HitFix: Okay. Talk a bit sort of go back in your mind and remember the moment when Probst read the vote that kept you in the Top 2. Woo”s Top 3 vote. What went through your mind in that second?

Tony: Yeah, I mean if you seen my face it looked like Kass”s. It was like a stone face. I couldn”t have no expression. I was just stuck. So I really didn”t, I was beside myself when I saw that. Going into it you”re never 100 percent sure what”s gonna happen at any Tribal. So going into it I was 50-50 with that. I was like, “You know what? He might stick to his plan that he had because they want to be honorable, to be loyal and to play the game with integrity. He might stick to that because that”s his only…” What is his argument at the end? If he ousts me at that moment what is he gonna tell the Jury? “I wanted to play an honorable game?” He can”t do that no more. He throws that out the window. So I was kind of hoping that he did realize like, “Listen, Woo, you”re stuck, you”re stuck in a tight position here. If you blindside me, get rid of me everybody”s gonna say, 'You know what, Woo, what was your game? What did you play? The only thing you said to us were you were playing an honorable game but you just threw that out the window by getting rid of Tony.'” So he was stuck. He was stuck in a position so going into it I thought it was 50-50.

HitFix: Now you kind wasted the first Idol that you found on LJ effectively but talk about the importance of those other two Idols and sort of how you chose to use them or not use them or bluff or not bluff with those two Idols and how important they were to your million dollar win.

Tony: Well I”ll tell you even the first Idol, to me going into the game, going into the Tribal Council, I had a talk with Sarah when I knew she wasn”t gonna side with me I knew she was against me. So I had a talk with Sarah and I made this whole story up how I”m scared that they”re gonna get rid of me so I said, “Sarah, please help me. If you can”t help me just I”m gonna go make a fake Idol.” And she started talking to me. She”s like, “So you don”t have an Idol?” And I said, “No, Sarah, I don”t have an Idol. I”m gonna go make a fake one and I”m gonna try to play it at Tribal.” So that was the whole thing with Sarah and that”s why she was so adamant to everybody that I didn”t have an Idol because she was convinced that I didn”t have it when I was telling her I”ve got to make a fake one. So at that point what I was doing I was luring all the votes to me. So going into Tribal Council I was expecting them all to vote for me and then I was gonna pull that Idol out after, you know, after the votes were already written down. That was my plan going into Tribal Council. So while I was at Tribal Council I”m like, you know what, when they”re talking about threats and LJ and everything I”m like, “Wow, what about if I”m mistaken and they”re not gonna put the votes on me?” That”s why I had to pull out that Idol so I wasn”t 100 percent sure who they were gonna vote for. I was 75 percent, but once I pulled that Idol out I was 100 percent sure it wasn”t gonna be voted on me. So instead of playing the Idol for one person, I just protected two people It was me and LJ by playing one Idol. So that”s why I pulled out the Idol when I did at Tribal Council. That was my whole intention going into it. 

Now let”s fast forward to the other Idols. The Special Idol that I found I didn”t want to say anything about that at first. It was very powerful in the sense that you can use it after the votes. But as you see my game from day one it didn”t change on the day I found the Special Idol. I was still in the game so much so that the very next day we went to an auction and I was starving. As a matter of fact, I threw up after that auction, that”s how bad my stomach was hurting watching Woo eat the ribs right next to me. So my guard were never down. I was always into the game. That was pure luck obviously, picking the black rock was 100 percent luck. I found that Idol and I said to myself, “Wow, this could be my ticket to the Final 3.” I had right then and there I said to myself, “I have to try to keep these Idols for Final 5,, Final 4.” I lied about the Final 4 obviously. So that”s why at the Tribal at Final 5, I made it a point to address everybody around me, “Hey listen guys, I know I don”t need to play this Idol but this Idol I have no use for it.” It”s staying here on the island. Subliminally sending a message that I don”t want no souvenirs. I”m playing this Idol today and the next round I”m playing my Special Idol because I didn”t want them to think I”m bluffing the Special Idol at next round by throwing both my way to see if I was gonna bluff. So I wanted to make it clear to them that I”m there to play my Idols.

HitFix: Now does Survivor need to do a better job of hiding Idols or are you just that good?

Tony: No, no, no. You know what? That was extremely hard to find that Idol. And again, luck has a lot to do with it. In the beginning of the game maybe on day two I caught Lindsey and Sarah digging through tree roots by the water well and Trish was there and I said, “Trish, what”s going on?” And she told me that Sarah and Lindsey saw some disturbed dirt by the roots and they started digging there. So I said in my mind, you know, like I didn”t trust nobody at that point so I”m saying to myself, “You know what? When Trish got to the island she must have read that clue and then chose the rice and started going to look for the Idol. So she must have read it and hinted to the girls that it”s buried.” And that”s why every single tree I checked – I checked over 100 trees — I started digging through the roots and worked my way up top. So that was just pure dumb luck I guess to see the girls digging through roots because other than that there”s no way I”m gonna be digging through tree roots looking for an Idol. So I don”t think I would have ever, I don”t think anybody would have ever found that Idol had I not seen those two girls digging.

HitFix: You seem genuinely sad about voting Trish out and she took a lot of credit for your success at Final Tribal. Was she giving herself the right amount of credit do you think?

Tony: Yes, Trish, she was a genuine person out there. You know like I tell everybody, when I made those promises to these people it wasn”t my strategy going into the game to swear on my loved ones. That was not my strategy. When I did that my heart was definitely in the right place. My brain wasn”t. The heart is blind. So, at night time — I used to put the moon to sleep, wake up to sun — I was up all night thinking about the moves I”d made during the day and there was points where I said, “You know what, I have to break my promise.” And it was devastating to me to break these promises to these people, especially someone like Trish that we were there from day one and she did extinguish a lot of those fires that I started, with the Jeffra incident, just throughout the whole game she was always right there by my side. Anytime she saw I was in trouble she was right there trying to help me. And it hurts and the decision, a lot of people ask, “Why did I choose to get rid of Trish as opposed to Woo or as opposed to Kass.” And it”s real simple. Okay, so when it was Final 5 my decision – Spencer had the Immunity, can”t touch him. Kass, nobody liked her. She was disliked. I knew that she had to go to the end for a clean sweep. I couldn”t touch her. It was between Woo and Trish. Both very likeable. The only difference between the two was I needed somebody strong in the challenges that could help me beat Spencer in that challenge, the next challenge that was coming up. And that”s why I chose to get rid of Trish and keep Woo at that point. Because it was very easy for me to pick anybody I wanted and play my Idol.

HitFix: I talked to Jeff Probst and he said of course that you are the kind of player that “Survivor” likes to have back. First of all given what this has done to your health and the fact that you, you know, actually won would you ever want to go back? And then how do you think you”d play against people expecting Tony to be Tony.

Tony: Here”s the thing: I would love to go back. I would love the opportunity. It”s a beautiful game but at the same time the hardest part of the game is blindsiding the people you”ve formed bonds with. Because those bonds are real out there. You know, they”re not fake. You can”t strategically make bonds with people. It just doesn”t work. Your emotions take over and the chemistry is so deep out there that the bonds are real. So when you have to back stab them to advance yourself in the game, it hurts. So I knew going into the game, there”s nothing vanilla about “Survivor.” You can”t play a vanilla game. You have to get your hands dirty but not necessarily bloody. I didn”t want to get my hands bloody but I was willing to get them dirty. And that”s what I did. So now going back into it, I guess everything I did in the game was situational. So I can”t go there with my bag of tricks. I can”t build spy shacks. I can”t bluff on my family. I can”t bluff on Idols anymore. So people ain”t gonna believe my game. But I just have to adapt to the situation I”m dealt with just like I did this time around. It”s gonna be much harder the second time but I”m willing to give it a shot.

HitFix: And as a last question, if I set up my own spy shack and watched you in your regular life for a few days what would surprise me most?

Tony: You”d be surprised of how honorable I am and that”s the truth. I”m a very honorable person. I have lifelong friends from birth, from grammar school, from five years old. I”m 40 years old now and I have my friends from five years old up to 40, over 20 lifelong friends I have. And you can”t keep that. You can”t have that kind of friendship with people for 40 years from childhood friends if you”re not an honorable person and if you”re not a respectful person. And that”s exactly what I am.

More “Survivor: Cagayan” exit interviews:
Yung “Woo” Hwang
Kass McQuillen
Spencer Bledsoe
Trish Hegarty
Tasha Fox
Jefra Bland
Jeremiah Wood
L.J. McKanas
Morgan McLeod
Sarah Lacina
Alexis Maxwell
Lindsey Ogle
Cliff Robinson
J'Tia Taylor
Brice Johnston
Garrett Adelstein
David Samson