JT Thomas: “I’ll play the dumb role if I feel like it’ll push me farther in the game”

“Most time, I’m underestimated. I think some people that judge my intelligence are wrong right off the bat,” James “JT” Thomas Jr. told me. However, the cattle rancher from Alabama won’t mind if it happens during Survivor Tocantins–“I hope they do that on the show. Shoot, yeah. I’d like for that to happen, and I’ll just lay back and soak it up”–and will even encourage it. “I’ll play the dumb role if I feel like it’ll push me farther in the game,” he said.

While he was the first person in his family to graduate from college, he illustrated his intelligence by pointing out how little work he did in school. “Even college, I was underestimated a little bit, somewhat. But I’ve never studied for anything. I’ve never even had to write my own papers; I always had girls write them for me,” he said.

JT’s a fan of Survivor, and while he’s “always watched it,” since he was 15 or 16, his application for this season was the first, and was prompted by his mother, who filled out the biographical information for him. But he was ready for the game to begin. “I’m a really outdoors kind of person; this is really like the ultimate challenge, adventure for me. It’ll be really fun,” he said.

His strategy is to find “four other people that I can trust and are competitive,” presumably to align with them. Beyond noting that “you have to find people you can trust,” he didn’t elaborate. (Unlike Carolina and Sandy, JT had relatively concise answers.)

JT did have some astute observations about the game. “The first couple people voted out in every show are personality failures, people that just get on everyone’s nerves. If I find anyone doing that, I’m going to point that out, so it’s not me. If I can make it past the first two or three votes, I feel like everybody, they’ll need me, they’ll want me around,” he said.

But JT said he’ll initially have to back off. “I’d much rather be digging a hole than sittin’ in that hut up there,” he said, referring to the holding space at Ponderosa. “I’m going to have to tone it down a lot and try to fit in with the crowd. I don’t want to work myself right out of the game.”

“As far as people, everybody likes me,” JT said, but he also said that people represent his biggest challenge. “The thing that worries me the most is fittin’ in with the people, tryin’ to stay on their playing level,” he said, noting that they others already might have a negative impression of him. “They’re probably thinking, ‘Why in the world was he wearing cowboy boots at the airport and why is he always smiling at me? He must trying to play a hard game, keep open the door’–I don’t want them to think that but I can’t help it.”

JT told me that his personality and nature made Ponderosa’s rules difficult, but were also giving him insight into others. “They don’t want you interacting at all, but I can’t help but open the door for people, women and things,” he said. “I smile at everybody because if I look at someone and they don’t smile back, I think they’re being rude.”

As to those other people, JT said that Ben/Coach (“the older middle-aged guy that looks like Steven Seagal”) is “going to be someone I get along with,” and Joe (dark hair, silver cross) “seems [like a] genuine kind of guy.” And Candace “seems really prissy” but “it may just be first impression, I don’t know.”

JT told me that he plans on “manipulating when I have to and need to,” and noted that “honesty will get you to the merge, and after that, you have to be ready for whatever.” Lying will also be part of his game: “No one’s every been honest and made it to the final two. Eventually, you have to lie,” he said.

The 24-year-old currently runs a cattle ranch which he says is “something I grew attached to” and that “I’ll always do it on the side,” but said he wouldn’t reject opportunities that came from his newfound fame, like acting. “Of course I would, shoot yeah, I’d love to. But I doubt that’ll ever happen, but if it does, shoot yeah. They get paid a lot more in California,” he said. “I can still live on a ranch and pay someone to run it for me, and I can go act in my movies, that’d be great.”

Hear JT discuss his outdoor and people skills, watching others around camp, and his intelligence:

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.