Exclusive: New 'The Mole' host Jon Kelley talks about the fifth season
By Christopher Rocchio, 05/28/2008
Jon Kelley thinks that The Mole's revival has everything fans of the ABC reality series loved about its first two non-celebrity installments, with some new interactive elements that will make it easier for them to play along at home.
On Wednesday, the show's new host talked to Reality TV World about why The Mole fans will immediately be enthralled in its revival; all of the South America locations where it filmed; how he became involved with it; what it's like to follow in the footsteps of original host Anderson Cooper; and how he had no idea who The Mole was while the competition was going on.
Check back with Reality TV World on Thursday to read what Jon had to say about each of the 12 contestants competing on The Mole's fifth season.
Reality TV World: Given The Mole hasn't aired a non-celebrity edition in six years -- or even a celebrity edition in four years -- there are probably a lot of potential viewers out there that have never seen the show before. How would you describe the show and its concept to those folks?
Jon: The simplest way to kind of boil it down, we have 12 players -- and just off that track real quick, a lot of people are curious if it's like the one they saw most recently, Celebrity Mole. This one has gone back to civilians. So we have 12 complete strangers who start out in this game, and these 12 players work together on missions to add money to a pot -- a pot that ultimately one player will win.
One of those players is The Mole, and that Mole is there to sabotage the missions. But they try to do it in a covert way so no one realizes who it is. At the end of every episode, there's a quiz. The players are quizzed on the identity of The Mole, so they try to guess. There's 10 questions, and the player with the lowest score on the quiz is executed. So the numbers start to dwindle. Every week after the quiz, one player is executed.
At the end, the one player that figures out who The Mole is wins all the money -- up to $500,000.
Reality TV World: How would you describe the new edition to viewers who did watch the old non-celebrity editions? Will the show largely follow the same format as those earlier editions? Are there any twists or format changes?
Jon: The great thing about it is that it has all the great things the fans love. I've been online and seen these people call themselves "Mole-aholics." It's great. That's one of the big things that attracted me to the show -- that people are so passionate about it. It's smart, it's clever, it's intriguing. It has a sexy, cool vibe to it, but it's also got all the great adventure. It has all the elements that made the first two seasons such a hit and people so excited about.
But what's nice now is... It started I think in 2001. The Internet and interactive play has come so far since then that now it's so interactive friendly. It brings the great elements that its always had, but now it's easier to play along because you can do it online, you can do it with your cell phone, and you can actually go on every week and take the quiz -- the same ones the players took.
They've done a great job of making it interactive and I think that's really going to upgrade it because in 2001 it used to be people would blog or download something that would take forever. Now with the interactive play, viewers can log onto ABC.com and take that actual quiz that each of these players that I took through the missions every week took.
Reality TV World: What are some of the different locations that the contestants travel to? I saw that the show starts in Los Angeles, Chile?
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Jon: It was cool, and that was kind of a wild thing. I had never been to South America and I live in Los Angeles, so it's ironic that I'm starting this show in [another place called] Los Angeles.
We flew to South America and we started in Chile. We were in Los Angeles at the waterfall. Our first mission is at a place called Salto del Laja Waterfall. It's a spectacular 100-foot waterfall and the mission's mind-blowing. What I love is the first episode, the garb people by the color and they just jump right into it. So it's really cool, visually beautiful.
We start there in Los Angeles, after that we go over to Concepcion and had one of our missions there. From there we ended up one smaller city and then we went over to Santiago -- the nation's capital. It's huge, it's beautiful. So then we're still in Chile there, went to a couple small places around there -- really eclectic places.
What's nice about it this season is the producers made it one of their goals and focuses was weaving into the fabric of the show the culture of where we were. Different types of nuggets, historic things, but also making that part of the missions as well. I thought that was a really cool, smart way to do it.
From Santiago, we literally drove over the border into Argentina. Our first mission over there was in the Andes mountains, which is just breathtaking -- the longest mountain chain in the world. We had a chance to have a mission that incorporated the mountains and, again, breathtaking views. But the altitude played into it. Really, really cool mission there.
Then we went into Mendoza, which is South America's version of Napa Valley. There was great wineries, and we had a couple missions tied into the wineries. The players had a chance to experience that and they had these malbec grapes, which are like the rock star grapes over there. I had some of the best wine I've ever had in my life. There's also known in South America for their beef, so ate a lot of steaks and a ton of grapes.
From there we went on to our final stop, which was in Buenos Aires. So we made a nice trip through Chile all the way through Argentina.
Reality TV World: When the show's return was announced, ABC had said it was going to "launch a nationwide search" for a new host. How did you become involved with The Mole?
Jon: It was interesting. I had seen a little bit of the originals and always just thought that Anderson Cooper was just cool and smart. I liked the vibe of the show because there's so much reality out there right now and different slices for everybody.
The first thing that I got was a call from my agent. They said that ABC was brining back The Mole and the producers of the show wanted to meet with me. My first face-to-face meeting was with Scott Stone -- who runs Stone and Company Entertainment, which is producing it; Clay Newbill, who's one of the executive producers; and Leslie Garvin, who's another one of the executive producers on the show; and then there were two others, I don't recall who they were. I haven't seen them since.
I met face-to-face with the five of them, we had a great meeting -- about an hour-and-a-half -- and talked about life in general, my career, their production background and then started weaving in the show. But it was really cool and laid back.
What I loved about the meeting -- because I've been in the business 15 years -- is it's rare when you find somebody that has great creative vision for a show and also is just non-stop passionate. This show has been off the air for four years, and I can just see the energy oozing out of Scott Stone's veins. It's a passionate project and something that's near and dear to his heart. That guy got me excited about it.
Then on top of that to have all of the other elements that go with it -- it tests your brain and your IQ, it's an adventure, you have to have charm but you have to have observation skills. All those elements, I sat there after the meeting and I thought to myself, "This is a show that I would love to be a part of." So it sounded interesting going in, walking out of the meeting I thought, "This is a job I would love to have."
We had a screen test after that and then shot one more thing. It was probably about a month, five weeks after the first meeting that I got a call and it was Scott actually. I was down in Phoenix and he called me on my cell phone and asked me, "Would you like to pack some bags and head to South America?" So at that point I knew they were offering me the job and I was pumped.
Reality TV World: You mentioned Anderson Cooper, how does it feel to be following in his footsteps? What about Celebrity Mole host Ahmad Rashad?
Jon: I'm big fans of both, of Anderson's work. I've known Ahmad for years because I did sports in Chicago when the Bulls were winning all the championships [in the early and mid 1990s]. Ahmad was with NBC Sports, doing Inside Stuff. So I got to know Ahmad hanging out with Michael Jordan and stuff.
So I was humbled, honored, thrilled and flattered that I'd be handed a torch that those two guys carried. I knew I was following in their footsteps with such a great show.
I got to be the host and the virtual tour guide every week -- the person who walk these people through it, lead them, I'm on their team, cheering them to win. But I'm also the guy that walks in and throws curveballs. So there'd be days when I'd walk in and they'd all get nervous and literally say to me, "Okay Jon. What the hell's going on now? What are you doing to us?" They always felt like there was a twist, which there are, and it was a pleasure to be the guy delivering that news.
But as far as me taking over for Anderson and Ahmad, you know, Anderson because he was the first one... When I went into my first meeting I did a lot of research on the Internet. People are just heart-and-soul passionate and love Anderson Cooper for what he did for the show. So for me that was exciting.
Naturally I don't go in and try to think, "What can I do to be like him?" I just play myself. I do what I do. But it's nice to know that someone who has achieved what he has achieved did so much to engrain this into the fabric of reality television. So knowing I was going to take a role like that, I knew it would be a challenge but also just a really big gig.
Again, I've done this for a long time. There's very few gigs that you would be this excited going into because of all the elements. I can tell you now that we've completed shooting, it's without hesitation one of the coolest -- if not the coolest -- gigs that I've had, because of all the elements. I was honored and excited to follow Ahmad and especially what Anderson did, because I think really associated it as Anderson's show.
Reality TV World: Before you left for South America did you talk to Anderson or Ahmad for any advice on how to host the show?
Jon: No I didn't. I had the pleasure of watching all four seasons on DVD. It's a great way to immerse myself and get a vibe for the show.
It's interesting you bring it up because I thought about doing some of that. But first off, I really kind of backed off from that thinking, "Let me go into this and get my feel and let the show evolve and become what it is." Somewhere down the road I would love to -- now that I've got one under my belt -- I would love to decompress and have a chance if it presents itself to sit down and ask Anderson about his experience, and Ahmad as well.
But I think I really wanted to do one and just jump into it knee deep and hit the ground running on my own before talking to somebody. You know how it works, you suddenly get something in your head before you do it. I wanted to go in with a clean slate.
Reality TV World: When ABC announced the revival, Scott stated he was looking for a new Anderson Cooper-type that was "a little mysterious but full of comedy." How did he and the other producers articulate that to you? Were there any specific things they mentioned?
Jon: What I loved about it was -- and I remember reading that as well prior to going into my meeting -- it was more of they want the individual to be who they are. I think that's how they allowed Anderson Cooper to be who he is and Ahmad to do the same thing.
I think they wanted it to be organic, so they more talked about what the show is, what makes the show great -- the intrigue, the different elements of it. They were smart about doing it, they just let some of the other stuff unfold the way I would approach it or the way I would inhale some of these things and communicate with them.
They were specific about missions and what we were ultimately trying to accomplish, but it wasn't like the producers sat me down and said, "We want you to be mysterious and full of comedy." Their approach was more interviewing people to see if there were elements they felt and then let that become so. The big thing is they wanted me to absorb what we were doing, but if anything they emphasized, "Be you. be who you are and let the other things kind of come to you."
I just went into it like you would when a game starts. At kickoff, you kind of have an idea of what's going on but you adjust and you do things and you take it as it comes to you. What I loved about the show is I didn't feel like I had to go in and be anything. The show is so phenomenal, I'm a small cog in it. It's about the players, it's about the missions, it's about the intrigue and all the mystery that goes with it. Then the comedy and the action. So I really wanted to be someone that naturally became a part of the fabric of The Mole.
Reality TV World: You already touched upon your background in entertainment and sports reporting. Were you worried about the comedic aspects?
Jon: It's interesting because I played sports all my life -- that's a natural thing that you have in a locker room anyway, busting everybody's chops. I think that kind of became a cool element of the relationship that I developed with the different players. It was nothing mean-spirited, but at the same time it was a nice vibe where you could loosen it up. You could drop a comment on somebody and they'd appreciate it or they fire back, so you'd have some of that.
But I wasn't worried about comedy going in. I think I just really concentrated on reacting and watching the show evolve. Try to deliver something that is exciting to watch but also keeping it very true to the show having all the great elements that its always had. I think that's what drew everybody in.
So me being one of the guys that helps lead it, I just really wanted to keep it where it was exciting to be a part of it as opposed to let me try to be somebody that sticks out from the show.
Reality TV World: You just mentioned interacting with the contestants, which was one of the things that made the original The Mole editions a little different from most reality shows -- Anderson seemed to spend quite a bit of time with the contestants, watching all the competitions, eating group dinners with them, etc. Did you do the same for the revival?
Jon: Absolutely, and that's what was cool about it. You see me there and I lead them through things, but it was the same type of vibe that we had a different dinners or lunch when we would decompress and get to know each other. You want to maintain some of the distance where it's not too buddy/buddy or favoring anybody.
The one element everybody asks me is, "Who is The Mole?" The great part about it was I don't know. I never knew, no one told me. So it allowed me to play the game with viewers. I have the same overview. I had my different opinions change as the show went and with some of the executions, I was as shocked as the players were. That was a really cool thing.
We had a chance -- and especially the players that lasted -- I got to know these players on a different level and know their psychology and also observe their game play. Most of these players came in as fans of the show, so they've seen it and knew it. They had different ways to approach it. These were pretty smart players understanding the nuances of this game.
So I got to get up close and personal, know them. They got to know me too. It became a good back and forth when we'd set missions up, the questions they had. Also at dinner, busting chops back and forth. It felt like the perfect mix by the time we got rolling.
Reality TV World: Another difference between The Mole and other early reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor was that neither Anderson or the contestants were exactly "roughing it" during filming -- they visited great places, traveled in pretty comfortable accommodations, tended to stay at nice hotels, and enjoyed some pretty lavish meals. Was it the same way for the revival and did that make the job anymore attractive for you?
Jon: (laughing) Yeah, the unique thing about it was the combination. Some of the cities we lived in didn't offer a five-star hotel. The first place we stayed at just outside of Los Angeles, Chile, we stayed in a resort called Salto del Laja right by the waterfalls. It was pretty rustic, but fancy.
We were roughing it in some places and in the cities that offered it we had nicer accommodations. But I've got to tell you, some of the best food I've eaten! (laughing) When we do some of the missions and we'd be up until 5AM, it'd be services and nibble things. But when we actually sat down to meals with these players, we had some of the finest cuisines Chile and Argentina had to offer.
Reality TV World: How do you think you would do as a contestant on this show?
Jon: That's one of the reasons I thought this would be a great show because I probably wouldn't see myself being a contestant on one of these shows just because I've done this side of it.
But this allows me to play along. So how would I have done? I think I would have been a decent player because watching the show and understanding what it's about, figuring out a way to be a chameleon and form alliances, I think I would have done decent.
But it's interesting -- and I think the players found this out too -- you have an idea of what you're going to do and how you're going to be in the game. But once the game takes over, the game runs it and you're trying to figure out a way to keep up. You never know how the other players are going to react.
It's a hell of a lot harder playing it than it is watching it on TV because you see a small part of. You see the melted down highlights of it -- 44 minutes which could have been 500 to 600 hours of shooting per week because we had 25 different cameras. So I think I would be decent.
But to a person the players all said, "You have no idea what this game is about until you get into it, and there's no way to explain to somebody what it's like playing it because you have no idea unless you played." It's confusing. It's maddening.
These players at times, they were laughing and having a blast -- it was like a love-in. There were times I'd give them grief at dinner like, "You guys are acting like you're at summer camp singing 'Kumbaya.' There's $500,000 on the line and you guys are acting buddy/buddy!" Then other times there'd be the dinners where I had to make sure there weren't any sharp forks or knives around because I thought these guys were going to climb over the table at each other.
It's such a mind-bend and so much goes on that it plays on your intelligence, it plays on your emotions, it plays on you physically, it plays on your sleep. It's a complete test, so every part of your body -- every part of your makeup -- is tested. You have no way to really catch your breath until it's done.
Reality TV World: I think you might have already touched on this a little bit, but when the show's return was announced Scott said the show was being "simplified" to make it easier for viewers to play along, but also insisted it wasn't being "dumbed down." Was that the enhanced interactive element we discussed before?
Jon: Yes. I'd read some things online that people were worried about it having the real smart edge taken away or "dumbing it down." But it's not even close to that. It's quite the opposite.
It maintains all the great things but, what makes it easier is what you just nailed on the head -- people now have an easier way of taking the experience of playing along, joining in, having more interaction that they can actually be involved in -- whether it's finding out about the players or the missions or the quizzes.
So what made it easier, easy isn't about the show, easy about the fans being involved in it. It just became simpler to understand how it broke down and how you could virtually online play the game with everybody.
Reality TV World: Is there anything else you think viewers should know about the new season?
Jon: I think everybody should know this is civilians playing, it's not a celebrity edition. It has everything that you loved about the last The Moles -- especially the first two seasons -- but the interactive angle just really pulls you in even more. If you loved the other ones, you're going to love this. It's bigger, it's more adventurous and its also got the brain part about it.
For me, I'm flattered and honored to be a part of a show that I think is so unique and brilliant. It was a thrill every step of the way.
Check back with Reality TV World on Thursday to read what Jon had to say about each of the 12 contestants competing on The Mole's fifth season.