John Cochran went from, as he tells it, an "annoying freak" on his first season of Survivor (South Pacific) to the Sole Survivor in his second outing, Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites, with not a single vote cast against him throughout the entire run of the latter. How'd he do it?
TVGuide.com spoke to the newly-minted winner Monday, and got his thoughts on Phillip Sheppard's "Stealth R Us" alliance, the two "big moves" that played a role in his eventual victory, and Brenda forcing Dawn to take her false teeth out at the final Tribal Council.
What was the biggest difference between the way you played this time and the way you played last time?
John Cochran: The biggest difference was probably something internal. I just was a lot calmer and bordering on confident, I guess. I was so nervous the first time. Part of it was that the tribe I was on the first time was not the sort of tribe that was going to ever be that receptive to somebody like me. This time, the tribe was really the perfect blend of people for me, and that put me at ease immediately. And since I wasn't worried about being perceived as some sort of liability or nerd or annoying freak or whatever, I was able to play the game that I've known for half my life. It's not as though I suddenly became an expert in the year off. I knew the game all along. I just wasn't able to, for internal reasons and circumstantial reasons, really act on it the first time.
What do you see as the big turning point in the game for you?
Cochran: The two big moves that come to mind immediately are the Corinne vote at the merge, because that really solidified power in my majority alliance and it created this group of outcasts that were the Three Amigos [Reynold, Eddie and Malcolm] or whatever, and Michael. It's always good to have clear outsiders because then you can target them and get rid of them. So that was the first one.
The second one — and this is more an individual benefit — was Brenda's vote. Because, before that point, Dawn really had a million paths to the end. She had an alliance with Brenda and Erik that would go to the end with her. She had an alliance with me and Sherri that would go to the end with her. And then she had Eddie in the middle. And it's easy to vote off Eddie and just preserve both your paths to the end. But I wanted to cut off one of her options, so that's why I was really pushing for Brenda to go, so that she was stuck with me. And then, it also had the unintentional consequence of I guess upsetting a lot of people on the jury that thought Dawn betrayed Brenda. And as unfortunate as the fallout from that was, I think it probably did benefit me in some way.
What did you think of Brenda's request that Dawn take out her teeth at Tribal?
Cochran: Yeah, I didn't like that. I didn't think that that was good. What Dawn did to Brenda, I can understand why that would really, really hurt somebody. But the mechanism through which Dawn acted to exact this sort of betrayal was something that's built into the game. It was voting somebody out. And that happens to everybody except three people. What Brenda requested of Dawn didn't seem to have anything to do with the game. It seemed just more like a personal request that involved kind of humiliating somebody. I didn't care for it. I can understand that Brenda was in a lot of pain, and I don't know how she was feeling. And maybe if I were in her position I would have this similar sort of desire. But I wasn't a big fan of that. Obviously at the time I'm thinking, OK, I'm probably going to get Brenda's vote now because I don't think she's going to vote for Dawn now, but I probably could have done without that.
Talk about your alliance with Dawn.
Cochran: First off, it's bizarre that nobody ever tried to split up me and Dawn. That was something that always baffled us as we were out there. I think we had the perfect symbiotic relationship. We didn't spend that much time together, to be honest. I'd spend a lot of time with Phillip and Andrea. She would spend time with Erik and Brenda. We had our own little spheres of influence. And then, she would get information from them. I would get information from my people. We'd compare notes and we'd figure out what we wanted to do. In addition to that, Dawn was just great at getting information from people in general. I mean, it's almost comical when you watch the show that week after week, people are confiding in her and immediately getting voted off. A lot of times it was like Dawn needed to really be encouraged to make a certain decision, and I would be the person that would help do it. So it was a perfect reciprocal thing that worked out great.
I think the position that Dawn was in makes it harder for her to win, because it hurts a lot more when you confide in somebody and they screw you over, instead of the guy who's just kind of standing off to the side and is like, "Oh, that's the information? Yeah, vote him off." It was great for me, but I think as a partnership we were fantastic.
Everyone, yourself included, complained about Dawn's frequent outbursts. How does what at-home viewers saw compare to what was really going on?
Cochran: She was emotional the first time we played too, but the difference is that she was not in a power position the first time she played. So, waiting to be voted off, while it's unpleasant, is not particularly stressful. This time she was in a real position to make decisions, and I think that was a source of great stress for her and that's what really amplified all her emotional reactions.
After a certain point, Dawn's emotional outbursts became such common knowledge that it would be used as an excuse even when she wasn't having an outburst. Like, what would happen is, if you go up to have a strategic conversation with somebody, somebody's gonna say, "Oh, what were you talking about?" and you're gonna have to lie. So if Dawn and I went off and talked about who we should vote off next, and I came back to camp and Erik said, "What were you talking about?" it would be our agreed-upon alibi to say, "Oh, Dawn's just having another emotional moment." And no one would question it. But the thing is, it probably hurt Dawn a little bit because all it did was kind of reinforce that image of her as this emotional person that's grating a little bit when she's crying so much. I mean, it didn't really bother me. I think I was kind of exaggerating how much it bothered me. I found it more exhausting after a little. Most of the time, she's not crying. Most of the time, she's perfectly pleasant and we're having little small talk conversations or doing whatever.
You're a longtime Survivor fan. Was Brandon Hantz's dismissal one of the craziest things you've ever seen on the show?
Cochran: Yeah. Between pouring out the beans, threatening to urinate in the rice, and Jeff [Probst] giving him a shoulder massage, it was a real trifecta of bizarre, surreal stuff going on. I have to say, I wasn't as afraid or emotionally affected by it as some people were. Some people were crying during that thing. I kind of was like a surrogate TV viewer or something. I kind of stepped back like I was just watching at home. I'm like, "This is weird. Get rid of this guy. I'm not sad. He's just freaking out and threatening to urinate in our beans. Let's get rid of him." So, I just found it more bizarre. Part of me thinks that he thought he was in a bad position strategically and just kind of wanted to go out with a bang, before he was gotten rid of by traditional vote. And that might be the case, but I don't want to speak for him.
Congratulations on your individual challenge victories! Would you ever have thought that you would win one, let alone four?
Cochran: No. And it's not even something that I even necessarily desired. Because I've always viewed individual immunities in particular, and rewards really, as something you don't want to win, because it makes you a threat and it's a reason to vote you off at some point. The thing is, the challenges I won ... gross food-eating challenge, that doesn't suddenly transform me into any sort of threat. That's just a fun, goofy thing to do. The second challenge I won, I had an unbeatable advantage. Anybody who bought that advantage would win that challenge. So that doesn't make me a threat, because there's the understanding that, oh yeah, he only won that because he bought the advantage. And then I won the stuff at the very, very end, which you should want to end, because that will guarantee you a spot in the end.
Is there anything about your game that you regret/feel uneasy about?
Cochran: I feel uneasy about making fun of people in my interviews, I guess. That was more me trying to entertain myself. I'm exaggerating stuff. It was like a cathartic thing. Nobody was bad at all. It was actually a very pleasant group of people to be around. I really enjoyed it this time, and I can't necessarily say that for the first time I played. I was very stressed out the first time. But I genuinely enjoyed hanging out with everybody this time around.
Cochran: I like Phillip! Phillip's a storyteller first and foremost. And you know, I consider myself a little bit of a storyteller too. But you know, we're bored out there. It's fun to be told what your spy nickname's gonna be and what your agent duties are. Sure, people roll their eyes, but the alternative is, like, complain about how hungry you are and grab your stomach. It's fun to have a little bit of a diversion.
It was a huge surprise at the start of the finale when Erik was pulled from the game due to starvation.
Cochran: I didn't realize that he was so malnourished. I thought we were all pretty malnourished. But that's how it happened. I don't know if it was compounded by the fact that Brenda was voted out, that it was just kind of like a sucker-punch to him that he was already feeling sick and then the shock of his closest ally ... because Brenda was his closest ally. They didn't really fully develop that relationship, but there was a sense that, just as Dawn and I were a pair, Erik and Brenda were probably a pair. I think maybe that shocked him a little bit and whatever he was already kind of feeling ill about, that triggered it. But then you saw him climbing the coconut tree the other day before that, so I guess this was something that was a long time coming.
What are your biggest tips/strategies for future Survivor players?
Cochran: If you can somehow be calm in the game, but without getting complacent with your position in it, that's huge. Calm is infectious. People flock to people who are calm, because it's a soothing influence. But you don't want to be complacent, because once you think you're too comfortable, that's when you're going to be voted out. And on the other end of the spectrum, you should be vigilant, but without ever veering into paranoia. You should be alert. If something's going on, you should act on it, but you shouldn't always be thinking stuff's going on when it's not going on, and I think Dawn got paranoid sometimes. So that's when vigilance crossed over into paranoia. And then, just always think about what your enemy's best moves are, and assume that's what they're going to do, because then you can kind of predict how they're going to react to certain things you do. That's an imperfect plan though, because not everybody acts in their own best interest. Some people make decisions that actually don't really benefit them, so you have to adjust accordingly. That's the perfect thing, if you can balance all those things together.
Who from this season would/wouldn't you want to play with again?
Cochran: I don't want to play again, period. Who I wouldn't want to play with ... Andrea's a sneaky one. Andrea's smart. She intimidates me a little bit, because she's also very good at challenges and she's charming and everything, but she's an independent thinker. Certain players are happy to find a group and just stick with the plan for what that group is. Andrea's the sort of person that wants to create her own plan and forge her own destiny. That's intimidating.
Malcolm's kind of the same. Malcolm, with his idol stuff. Idols are hell. It's entertaining TV, but it's miserable when you're out there freaking out about who has an idol and whether we split the votes, and if a split vote makes the margin too narrow so that if one person flips it could ruin everything. It was a nightmare. It was horrible. So I guess his ability to find three idols across two seasons makes me wary of playing with him. And I always love to play with Dawn. We're a great team.
Besides yourself, who do you think played the best game this season and why?
Cochran: I would vote for Dawn. I would vote for Dawn every time. Even if she had voted me off. Even if, instead of Brenda, she voted me off, I would vote for her and I'd probably campaign for her at Ponderosa to get her to win. Whether that would have any impact on everybody, who knows. I just think she did the most. Certainly if some people had made it further maybe I could have said that they deserved to win. I think Andrea was playing a very good game. I think Phillip, as funny as it sounds, I think he was playing a good game. Malcolm's made a lot of cool, big moves. I don't know if they were always the smartest moves, but if he made it to the end, he could have at least legitimately said he made a lot of cool moves, game-changing moves. But I'm always going to say Dawn.
Final thoughts on Survivor: Caramoan?
Cochran: I hope people enjoyed it. As pathetic as it sounds, I'm obviously very, very happy that I won, but I like the idea of winning a season that people enjoyed. I think people were kind of put off by the first few episodes maybe, when it was a lot of infighting and screaming and spilling of beans, but I hope people warmed up to it by the second half, which I think was, objectively speaking, a pretty stellar stretch of episodes.
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