This week of Australian Survivor brought with it another game-changing twist, one which proved to be a game-ending twist for Steve Willis. The Commando was cursed with the label of Dead Man Walking, meaning he lost the power to vote at the next two tribal councils. Not only did he lose his voting power, but he was sent to Exile Beach, meaning he lost out on valuable time to work his social game and persaude Monika to jump back over to the crumbling Champions alliance. With an Immunity win his only saving grace, Steve was pipped to the post by Brian, all but sealing his fate and sending him to the jury.
Inside Survivor’s Austin Smith caught up with Steve to talk about his time on the island, how the Dead Man Walking twist affected his game, what his plans were for the end-game, and why he and Brian didn’t get along.
1. Steve, thank you so much for taking some time to talk to us about your game and your whole Survivor experience! Speaking of, what was it that drew you to playing Survivor? How did the real experience compare to your initial expectations?
What drew me to playing Survivor was probably the survival component. But it was also all of it. It was the challenges, the survival component, and the social game. And just kind of testing where it is in life that I’m at in this point in time. I think having a profile, potentially doing things differently to how people might expect I would do them and the way in which I play the game. The real experience, compared to my initial expectations: the survival component was exactly what I thought it would be, the challenges though, they were definitely tough. There were some tough challenges in there that tested me, that tested the team. When your nutrition is down and you’re not feeling the best and you’re up against it, you’ve got to dig deep.
2. Between being marked as Dead Man Walking and the severe numbers disadvantage against your alliance, the odds were stacked against you at your last Tribal Council, but did you have any confidence that Monika would swing back to work with the Champions? Or did you know your time was up?
I knew my time was up. If I didn’t win the Immunity Challenge and the Idol, I was as good as gone. I knew that Monika wasn’t going to play with myself, Shane or Sharn. You could just feel that she had jumped ship and that she was working with Fenella, Shonee and Brian.
3. The Dead Man Walking twist was unprecedented in Survivor history – how did it affect you and your game? Did you find any silver linings in your situation, or was it just a stay of execution? In hindsight, was there anything you could have done differently to survive in the game?
There was definitely no silver linings to Dead Man Walking. The only way in which you could stay in the game was to win the challenge. I didn’t win that challenge; Brian took it out. Other than some miracle happening and convincing the hearts and minds of others to align with myself, Shane and Sharn, there was no hope.
4. In the hypothetical world where Monika joined the Champions to vote out Fenella, how would you have envisioned the last eight days playing out?
If Monika had of sided with us, and Fenella had of been voted out, it really would have come down to the challenges. And if I was able to win any of those, win the immunity idols, and progress to the next stage. But ultimately, I wasn’t in the game just for myself. There was a commitment made at the start to the Champions tribe, and the objective was to have Champions as the final 2 and then go about selecting one of those Champions to ultimately be the Sole Survivor. And if it wasn’t you, it was about positioning others who were part of the Champions tribe to be there at the end. We all get so focused on self and our personal game and our personal gain and the things we get from our efforts and the time and energy we afford to those things and I don’t see life like that. For me, it’s all about connection and going through the experiences not on your own but also with others, because that’s where the true learnings are. That’s the essence of being. We’re constantly seeking this destination, but the destination is right here and now. I don’t need to win anything to feel fulfilled, to have a sense of accomplishment. The sense of accomplishment is embodying the values and the things that you uphold in the present moment, time and time again. It’s challenging, it’s tough. It’s easier to just let things be and focus on this and ignore everything else, and to me, that’s just a superficial existence.
5. Throughout your game, Mat seemed to be your closest ally. How did the two of you come to work together, and how big of an impact did his blindside have on your game? If all played out to plan, would you have gone to the end together?
Mat and I gave each other our word from Day 1. Mat instigated that. He came up to me and had a conversation. But time and time again it was through the actions that really forced that commitment to one and another and our alliance. Mat was blindsided yes, that definitely shook me up. It was like, what’s the point moving forward! My best buddy is gone! I don’t want to be here anymore! But I realised I had to pick the pieces up and keep moving forward not just for myself but for Mat and those in my alliance that had been voted out. I wanted to dig a little deeper and push a little harder for those that had stood by me until that point in the game to see if we could further our game, because it wasn’t just about my game but also about how we had gotten ourselves to this point and furthering it for them as well. If Mat and I and the alliance and the plan we had in place, which was very fluid and was always changing, was executed to a tee, and we made it to the Final 2, or the Final 3, and I won that last challenge, I would have definitely taken Mat. And fingers crossed, I’d like to think if he won the challenge he would have taken me. That’s the arrangement we had from Day 1. But who knows, because it will never play out that way! It’s all hypothetical.
6. You appeared to thrive among the Champions tribe, and spoke of the personal connections you built with many of them. Can you tell us a little more about your relationships and alliances with your tribemates throughout the game?
I guess the most obvious one was with Mat and the connection we had there. Similar ages, children, coming from a team background and there was just an energy, a connection, and we got along really well, similar interests. Others, Damien, we both served in the same unit in the military. Unfortunately he didn’t last too long in the game, but it would have been good to have him around longer. Sharn, there was a connection with Sharn. She’s just a kind soul. A mother of 4, she knows how to dig deep and give it her all and not just in the game but in all facets. Shane, I just admired Shane, you know, 61 years of age. I hope I still have the exuberance that she has at that age and that willingness to continue to develop and learn and understand but also realise that it’s not just about the education and the knowledge it’s the wisdom that’s gained from living life and living 61 years of life. Lydia, you know, amazing. She was a force to be reckoned with. She really knew how to dig deep and not just in the challenges but in life around camp and helping to provide an environment that enabled others to flourish. She would constantly get in there and do her bit. And Sam, you know I love Sam. He’s a young guy, very intelligent, willing to share in conversation and give people some space and allow people to be themselves. And that can be a rare trait for young people because they tend to think they know it all. Which I did for a long time!
7. On the other hand, the tension between you and Brian was palpable! What brought the two of you into such conflict?
I don’t think it was any one thing, it just naturally transpired like that. I recognised early on that he was going to be potentially a threat in the future and I thought it was best to neutralise that threat early on. He probably picked that up about me and about Mat and felt that we would threaten his game long term and so be it. You know, being male, the kind of backgrounds we come from, with team sport and knowing the game of Survivor, as much as I might say it would be great to go to the end and pit it out against the best, it’s not always the smartest course of action to take. I actually do not have any hard feelings towards Brian. I think he’s a decent human being like anyone else. We all face our struggles, and he had different focuses in the game of Survivor to what I did, and that might have created some friction at times, but it also created some great television.
8. From what we saw, your approach to the gameplay was rooted in alliance and tribe strength and loyalty. Did you feel like you were able to play the kind of game you wanted to play? Did you ever consider attempting to play a more cutthroat game?
I definitely played with contribution to others in mind and for the team and not just about myself. I wanted a Champion or Champions to be the Final 2 and decide from there, whether that was myself or someone else, so be it. And that’s just how I live my life. As much as I like to achieve certain things, I haven’t done it at the cost of everyone else. And did I contemplate playing a more cutthroat game? Yeah, I probably did at times. There was a period of time just before Mat was eliminated that I had Benji and Sam talking to me about different options and different tacts and undermine my thoughts. You could see they were trying to sew those seeds to get me to take a different course of action. But I knew where my loyalties lay and I didn’t want to backtrack from those. I stuck to my guns, and I would have rather gone down then or the point I went down knowing that I could hold my head high and you know, go out in the fashion that I did. That means more to me than winning the game and having done that at the cost of others.
9. Were there any particular parts of your experience – personal moments, funny anecdotes, strategy or gameplay – that you wish had made it onto the show?
Yeah there was the Godfather moment where Mat and I sat around the fire at night time and we discussed the inner workings of the alliance and moving forward. I remember having a conversation with a producer about getting it on camera. And I remember saying to Matty, ‘this is just like the Godfather, and the only thing missing is a glass of scotch and a cigar!’ There were plenty of other funny moments, like out on the reef, trying to free dive with a spear and catch some type of decent size fish. There were lots of other funny, candid moments but I think they were just moments in time, they didn’t tie into any relevance of a storyline, hence why they didn’t make it to air. But hey, it was a wonderful experience. I am so humbled to have been a part of it, and I would do it again, I’d just take some warmer gear!
10. Finally, as a former The Biggest Loser trainer, you’ve got a pretty unique perspective on the reality TV machine. What was it like to become a contestant, and what do you think about how you were portrayed as a Survivor character?
I guess having done television for a period of time you do understand the ropes, but it’s one thing to be on one side of the line and then a contestant on the other side of the line. It’s quite confronting to have those cameras in your face and Survivor is very different to The Biggest Loser. I think Survivor is stripped back and you show so much of who you really are. I really think Survivor showed a side of me that not too many people have seen, other than those who have been close to me, or that I have trained or have trained with me, and I’m happy with the way in which I was portrayed. It shows the Steve Willis that is a guy like anyone else out there, a Dad, a father of four, and I guess the way in which I handle myself in some fairly precarious situations and at the same time some really enjoyable situations. I am stoked with Survivor through and through. It has been an amazing experience.