Survivor often has boiled down to power struggles between perceived good and evil. So it made sense to host/executive producer Jeff Probst to celebrate the show's 10-year anniversary and 20th season with the Heroes vs. Villains edition.
"Heroes vs. Villains was a great idea from the get-go and I think we all knew it," Probst says. "It captures what Survivor really has become about, the good versus the bad."
Signing on also proved to be a no-brainer for many former castaways, even past winners such as Tom Westman from the Cook Islands. "As a fan of the game, you want to go out and compete against these people and see if you've got what it takes."
Other contestants say they just wanted to give back to the show (premiering Thursday at 8/7c on CBS) that gave them so much.
"The thing that was difficult for me this time was that I just had my first daughter with my wife Amber [of Australian Outback and All-Stars]," says "Boston Rob" Mariano (Marquesas, All-Stars). "Surprisingly, Amber was a driving force behind me going. She said, 'Look around. Everything we have is because of this show. Get up there and bring home another million dollars.'"
For a select group of castaways, such as "Boston Rob" and The Australian Outback's Jerri Manthey, Heroes vs. Villains marks their third Survivor adventure. Manthey promises this season will be different from the first All-Stars edition, back in 2004. "Everything's changed a lot. I was very excited to play the game with people I didn't know. That made it more interesting," Manthey says. "With All-Stars, we were all way too close ... and it damaged everyone."
Manthey says her difficult time on All-Stars (when she walked off live television) made her think twice about joining Heroes vs. Villains. "I knew if I didn't do it, I would spend the rest of my life thinking what could have been," she says. "I feel like I'm finally at that place where I can really embrace my inner villain."
In comparison, a surprising number of Manthey's cast mates were more conflicted about their titles, even the heroes. "Personally, I don't feel really great about being judged as a hero or a villain. As much as I said it in Gabon that I wanted a good guy to win, who's to say who the good guy is," says Jessica "Sugar" Kiper (Gabon). "We're all human so we're all good and evil
On top of putting together some of the show's most explosive personalities on one island, Survivor's biggest gamble was the casting of it's newest star, Samoa's Russell Hantz.. "Because of our casting timelines, we had to decide halfway through the show, did we think Russell would last long enough and be strong enough to be invited back," Probst says. "We were right, we got lucky."
Hantz says his back-to-back stints on Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains worked strongly in his favor. "I'm real exited. Now I get to prove my point that I'm the best player that played the game," says Hantz, who was Samoa's runner-up and that season's fan favorite.
The castaways may not be familiar with Hantz' playing style but they certainly know each others. So will anyone change this time around? "Strategy-wise, I did want to be more humble, more chivalrous. I wanted to be a warrior in the challenges," says Tocantins' Ben "Coach" Wade.
For others, it's too late to teach some of these old dogs new tricks. "I only know one way to play this game and that's full-speed, straight ahead," Marciano said. "For me to try and switch that up and be someone I'm not would be suicide. They'd read right through it."
The host for all 19 seasons, Probst says he's eager to see another battle among the castaways. "I'm excited to see the old school take on the new school ... because the game is very different. If you're a Survivor fan, you've noticed that the game is much faster."
Still, veteran players such as Manthey believe they have the upper hand. "I really do feel I am at an advantage because I'm a veteran," she says. "I have seen the game change so drastically. We didn't have immunity idols and Exile Island back when we started. It was just straight Survivor."
Whether its heroes vs. villains or veteran players against the new kids, all 20 castaways agree this season will be one to remember. "When you put 20 of us out there, there wouldn't have to be any script. There wouldn't have to be any challenges," Wade laughs. "It's going to be crazy from the very beginning."