Exclusive: James "JT" Thomas Jr. talks about 'Survivor: Tocantins'
By Reality TV World staff, 05/19/2009
James "JT" Thomas Jr. thought he had a "good shot" at winning Survivor: Tocantins when he left Brazil and flew back home in December -- and he was right.
However he was wrong about just how good a shot he had. Instead of the tight jury vote he was expecting, he ended up winning the game in a 7-0 vote that made him the only the second unanimous winner in Survivor's eighteen seasons.
On Monday, JT talked to Reality TV World about why he expected the vote to be tighter, how he believes Stephen Fishbach hurt himself during the jury questioning, why he really didn't vote Taj out earlier in the game, and what surprised him the most about the game.
Reality TV World: You seemed to be a pretty heavy favorite going into that final Tribal Council session and the jury questions seemed to make it even more clear that you were likely to be the one to win. I know you're trying to be humble, but is it safe to say you left Brazil with a pretty good idea that you were going to be the winner?
JT: You know, I never in a million years thought it was going to be a 7-0 landslide. I honestly believed that it would be 4-3, and I wasn't sure if [Sierra Reed] was going to be with me or not. So I was really surprised, but I did feel like I had a good shot at winning.
Reality TV World: Why did you think it was 4-3? Were there any particular people you thought would be voting the other way?
Reality TV World: I know you said you felt it would be "a guaranteed million dollars" if you took Erinn to the Final 2, but you actually thought it'd be that tight with Stephen?
JT: Yes, I definitely did. When I decided to take Stephen, I really felt like it was going to be tight. But the Tribal Council really worked in my favor. Watching it last night, it made it almost seem clear that I would win. That was incredible. It didn't come off to me that one-sided in Brazil actually.
Reality TV World: So what was it that convinced you to take Stephen?
JT: You know, I didn't even think [about it for] five minutes. I had made up my mind before I actually won that last Immunity Challenge. We had formed a really tight relationship and I made up my mind. I felt like I could beat Stephen and I was willing to risk it. We really formed a good bond.
Reality TV World: During the Final 3 Tribal Council, you made some comments to Jeff that made it sounds like you were actually considering voting Stephen off. Were you just kind of playing with him then?
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JT: I was definitely playing him up. I did that at that Tribal Council and also the last one. I was aware that Stephen would take Erinn to the Final 2. He never bluntly told me, but Taj had mentioned Stephen's little conversation with her about maybe getting rid of me and Stephen actually told me that Erinn wanted to get rid of me.
I pretty much knew that Stephen would take Erinn to the Final 2, so I knew I had to win the final Immunity to get in the Final 2, and I did, fortunately. So I played it up a lot when [Debra "Debbie" Beebe] brought that out into the [final Tribal Council], I really played that up a lot. It worked in my favor.
Reality TV World: What about that other part near the end, when you questioned if Stephen was the "same guy" that you brought into the Final 2 with you?
JT: (laughing) Yeah, I was really playing that up. And immediately when that final Tribal was over, I started laughing and hugged Stephen. He really thought he ruined our relationship, but he really killed himself at that Tribal. That was all part of my plan. It was really dangerous to take Stephen to the Final 2 because he was such a likable guy. Luckily he killed himself on that last Tribal.
Reality TV World: What do you think killed him the most?
JT: He really kind of scrambled. He got really paranoid when there was Final 4. Taj promised Stephen that she would vote for him, Erinn promised Stephen she would vote for him. But he scrambled so hard in the Final 5 and Final 4 -- because he was getting so paranoid -- that I could see where he could kill himself.
I wasn't sure about it until Debbie brought out that question at Tribal and I just played it off like, "Oh I had no idea that he would do that to me!" I could see it in obviously [Benjamin "Coach" Wade's] eyes and [Brendan Synnott's] eyes.
But I was afraid... I wasn't sure what Erinn would do because I didn't take her and I wasn't sure what Taj would do because I turned on her as well. So did Stephen. And I always thought that Tyson was Stephen's man.
Reality TV World: So you really thought that question from Debbie was the turning point that sunk him?
JT: I know that sealed the deal. I feel like I may have still beat him 4-3. But that really sealed the deal for him.
Reality TV World: Do you think the fact that you stayed loyal to Stephen actually won you a couple of votes that you otherwise could have lost?
JT: Exactly. I said, "Look, I know there are two votes that are going to come to me just because I picked Stephen."
And there were a couple of ways to look at it. If I had took a different approach, I had already gotten a vibe from Coach that if I hadn't of took Stephen and I had took Erinn -- who all of them disliked -- it may have actually cost me a few votes.
Reality TV World: So Coach was obviously one of the votes you thought you got by taking Stephen. Who was the other?
JT: Brendan. he wasn't happy with Erinn being there at Final 2 at all. And then it was Debbie. Debbie did not want Erinn to make it to the Final 2. They were trying to get rid of Erinn for a long time.
Reality TV World: The one jury question that really seemed to spark a little bit of a riff between Stephen and yourself -- and maybe this was just you "playing" again -- was the Taj question where Stephen said you'd been wanting to vote Taj off at the Final 4 Tribal Council "for a while."
JT: Yeah, that was a tricky question because Stephen and I both had been contemplating "When do we need to move on Taj." Neither one of us wanted to, but we knew she was a much stronger competitor than Erinn. So we were both bickering back and forth. We were both contemplating getting rid of Taj. We were both wrong. So that was a lose/lose.
Taj would have voted for Erinn for sure if Erinn would have been in the Final 2 just [because] me and Stephen turned on her. So that was another reason I knew I had a better chance of getting Taj's vote with Erinn sitting on the jury.
Reality TV World: Then that question kind of devolved into the whole thing about voting Taj out while she had the hidden Immunity Idol and keeping her Idol. It was kind of like a he-said/he-said thing...
JT: (laughing) Exactly...
Reality TV World: What was your take on it? It really seemed like -- from what was shown on the show at the time -- that Stephen had been the one that first pointed out that he was [technically in possession] of the Idol.
JT: Yeah, that was the first time I was legitimately kind of disheartened because Stephen really did bring that up to me. But I also contemplated the idea. So that was kind of like he said it first, but so what. [I] said it too.
But I did feel like Stephen brought that up and I felt like he was trying to shoot back at me on that, for which I don't blame him. But I felt like when Debbie called Stephen out, that gave me a free shot to say whatever I wanted.
Reality TV World: Back to that Idol for a second, when Taj first told you about it -- which I guess you probably only found out when the show aired was really all [Stephen's doing], right?
Reality TV World: ...but when Taj did tell you about it, she also told you if you ever asked for it, she'd give it to you.
JT: Exactly, and that's why I didn't want to vote Taj out and [let] Stephen keep her Idol because Stephen's a quality player and he would not have given me that Idol. But I knew as long was Taj was in that game I could go to Taj and get the Idol from Stephen and in turn use it.
So that's one reason I didn't want to get rid of Taj [and] I went ahead and got rid of [Sydney Wheeler]. And then later, Taj and I became even stronger and stronger until the end when we had to turn on her.
Reality TV World: Did you ever come close to asking Taj for it?
JT: No, not at all. You know I never felt like I was going home, not once.
Reality TV World: Well you didn't get a vote so that's good intuition.
Several of the castaways we talked to this season mentioned how they didn't realize how big a role Stephen seemed to be playing while the game was going on out there until they watched the season on TV. Did that surprise you and do you think that might have played a role in why it was such a wipeout?
JT: You know, Stephen and I made every strategical move together. I mean it may take away some of my [own] strategical game [to say that], or whatever, but we really did. Every strategical move we talked it out with each other because we wanted to make sure we thought through every angle.
And you know, that really worked in my favor. Stephen should have went into the Tribal Council talking about how he was the mastermind -- even though he wasn't, we really worked together on everything -- [but] that should have been the angle he played, you know, from my point of view.
But Stephen was the biggest competitor for me in the game, but also I couldn't have done what I done without Stephen.
Reality TV World: Did you not vote for Coach really because you felt you had given him your word or was it really just an easy way to guarantee you'd get Coach's vote?
JT: Both. See, it's a two-way sword. You can either be taking the weasel way out, as Stephen called it, but if you're dealing with a character like Coach... (laughs) he doesn't want to see his name written down.
You know, I legitimately made him believe I wanted him to stay in the game although I admitted at Tribal Council that I knew he was going home. But for me to write Erinn's name down really secured me his vote and Stephen thought that would work against me by taking the weasel way out.
So I had them both agree to it and I just went ahead and did what I did.
Reality TV World: Were you surprised that Stephen didn't give you more flack about that? Being the big strategist that he was, it seemed like it was flat-out guaranteeing you Coach's vote.
JT: Yeah, he let me slide with it, but [that was because] he expected -- because there was such a talk around camp about the weasel voters -- that it would go against me rather than for me [and be considered to be] taking the weasel way out.
But it really didn't, it was a two-way sword and it worked out in my favor.
Reality TV World: So it sounds like he thought it was going to get a lot more play [from the jury]?
JT: Yeah, he thought it was going to be like "JT took the weasel way out, he don't deserve it. He was scared to vote for Coach, why should we give him a vote?"
But it didn't, it worked in my favor. (laughs)
Two was a two-way sword and it just happened to work my way.
Reality TV World: We even saw a scene there a episode of episodes ago where you guys were getting water before Tribal Council and expressing how shocked you two were that everyone else was just sitting around and letting you two run the game. I mean it had to be a huge surprise that nobody ever came after you, right?
JT: It was a huge surprise. We were waiting on [it]. We expected people to come after us and we really tried to be ready for that with our numbers and whatever [else] we could do.
That was the thing that Stephen and I really worked together at. You know he could have come after me at any time and I could have gone after him, but that's the reason we made it to the Final 2. I'm just fortunate that I came out on top.
Reality TV World: You guys were only two people. Why do you think everyone else just kind of sat around and, to borrow a situation you're probably familiar with, let you lead them around like cattle to the slaughterhouse. They just kind of let you two take them where ever you wanted.
JT: That's exactly right. And you know, we had three votes because Taj was very strong, very solid with us. And it was very easy to lay these plays out and let Coach and Tyson take responsibility for them.
We would put forth an idea -- like Sierra, we knew Sierra was telling the truth. But by voting her out, Coach felt like it was his idea.
So we kind of used Coach and Tyson to let them feel like they were in control until they were out of numbers.
Reality TV World: What did you whisper to Stephen during the reunion show after you found out you'd also won the $100,000 home viewer prize?
JT: You know, someone else asked me that and I can't remember exactly. I think it was something like "I wished you were in the running for it" or maybe "You should have got it." Because he was such a competitor in the game and he really did deserve to be where he was at in the game.
But you know, I'm sure he's very happy that the fans were happy the way I played the game.
Reality TV World: During the reunion show you also mentioned something there at the end about working with Stephen down the road and feeling obligated to him?
JT: Yeah, not necessarily feeling obligated but we definitely did work together to get where we are and we are a very good team, I really trust Stephen a lot and I know he trusts me, I took him to the Final 2.
We're really working good together and of course we had a lot of time to talk so hopefully we are able to get something going together. And I'm sure it will be just as successful in life as it was in the game.
Reality TV World: What was it that surprised you the most about the game overall, was it the fact that it just seemed to go so smooth for you?
JT: Yeah, I was very surprised that people liked me as much as they did and no one every really every thought I was there playing a game.
They thought I was just -- which I was building real relationships with these people, and you know, I'm going to try and keep those relationships as long as I can but -- I was ready to do whatever it took to win the game and they made it easier for me than I thought they would.
Reality TV World: Did you really think when you went into the merge on the short end that you had any chance of ending up where you ended up?
JT: No. We definitely had a plan when we went into the merge to exploit their struggle, their power struggle, but it wasn't until the Tyson blindside did I see that an opportunity may really come.