Russell Hantz: “I control every aspect of my life: … my family, … my job, even my friends”

This is the 17th in a series of interviews with Survivor Samoa cast members.

Russell Hantz If you haven’t heard of Russell Hantz right now, you haven’t turned on CBS in the past week. The network has been blanketed with promos calling him “evil.” With all of this atypical pre-season attention and focus on one person, we can only hope Russell Hantz leaves Survivor Samoa quickly–not because he’s evil, but because he has a stupid plan. Oh, also because he’ll shoot any crazed fans who come to his door.

Russell applied for Pirate Master–”good thing I didn’t make that one, because that one sucked,” he said–and was called by casting two years later. He agreed to be on Survivor because “I like the strategies, all the blindsides, the wittiness, the backstabbing. It wouldn’t be a show unless that was going on. Me, I control every aspect of my life: I control my family, I control my job, even my friends, and I feel I can bring that to this the game. I’m going to control every and each individual out here. Matter of fact, you can call me the puppetmaster.”

He went to that immediately, and if you’ve seen the promos, he says nearly the same thing. Besides sounding rehearsed, that’s really all there is to Russell: this single idea. It may be a brilliant strategy, because there is some small part of it that makes enough sense, but I doubt it, and Russell didn’t think about or talk about much beyond that.

He said it’s necessary to control people “without even knowing that you’re pulling the strings,” and one can accomplish that, he said, if “you make it as miserable as possible for everybody out there, you can beat ‘em.” He compared this to starving WWII prisoners, and said they’re “weak-minded people.”

Among other things, he’ll pour out water and hide the flint in someone’s bag so that person gets caught with it. “The flint is gone, it just disappeared. So what do you do? You suffer. I’m not going to be eatin’ neither, but you see, I know what’s goin’ on. I got it in my mind that I’m ready to suffer … and take as much pain as possible. They’re not going to be bickerin’ and fightin’ amongst them all, thinkin’ each other is stabbin’ each other in the back while I’m sittin’ back watchin’ it happen,” he said.”You make ‘em suffer, you can beat ‘em.”

Russell did acknowledge that this is “a rough strategy, it’s a rough deal, and it’s too bad for them, but they’re the ones that signed up for this fun game,” he laughed. And he also said, “It can backfire, but it’s kind of hard to get caught,” because, as an example, he said he’d pour water into the rice while dipping his cup in to get rice: “You gotta be smooth about it. If I do get caught, I’m goin’ home. I know that. There’s no way I can get caught doing anything.” As to his own suffering, Russell said, “I will be drinking the water whether it’s boiled or not because “I have to take that chance” even though there may be consequences. “You get a stomach virus and you shit for days, I’m okay with that, too.”

Russell’s home is Houston, where he runs a “tankering service,” which he said is “a very lucrative business and I do well” so “I don’t have to worry about winning the million dollars.” That will give him security in the game, he said: “I can do all my strategy thinkin’ this is how I’m going to win the game, and if they catch me, then they catch me. You just can’t let ‘em catch you.”

As to Russell’s alliances, he lost me entirely when he described the second of his three kinds of alliances. The first is “my secret alliance,” and he thinks Shambo might be good for that, going all the way to the end. “You have to have somebody you can trust. You have to have one person,” he said. “I’m going to get my alliance set up, and then I’m going to start working on the heads.”

The third alliance (I’m saving the best for last), Russell said, is “my guy alliance where I get with a strong guy” and tell him “we have to stick together. Let’s bring the strong to the end. Let’s finally do something right on this game and bring three guys that are the strongest” to the end. That’s original.

Russell plans to not tell anyone he’s married as part of his second alliance, “the dumb-ass girl alliance.” He said he’ll go off to the side “with some pretty girl and say I wanted to talk to you off camera because I can’t let my family see this. This is true what I have for you and I don’t want it to be filmed, but I really care for you. From the first time I laid my eyes on you, I think I’m falling in love. And all this stress, it might just be messing with my mind, but I really like you. Well, I call that the dumb-ass girl alliance.”

Well, I call that the dumb-ass Russell alliance. First, there’s no way any of the talented producers and camera operators on Survivor are letting Russell talk off-camera with anyone, ever. Second, just looking at Russell, I can’t imagine any straight women salivating all over him or doing anything except running in the opposite direction. He thinks if that woman is smart she’ll play into his crush, and “she’s going to think she has me on a string” (He identified Natalie, I think, as the possible “dumb-ass blonde.”)

Russell may not have thought through his brilliant ideas, and I think that’s the key part: He doesn’t have much beyond these sensational ideas. In that way, his game play seems very one-note. But he is a smart guy on some level. For example, he knows Ben’s name because “I looked at his itinerary at the airport,” Russell said. I’m not sure he read Ben well, though, because he thinks he’s “such a back-stabber in the way he’s looking at everybody” and it’s “like he knows something. I might just be paranoid, but you know what? I’m not going to feel like that long. If he’s on my side, I have to come up with a plan to get rid of him,” Russell said.

In perhaps his most insightful comment, Russell told me that he didn’t like the idea of Ponderosa. “We started the game a long time ago,” he said. “People make decisions right here even before the game even starts, which sucks. I wish it wasn’t like that. They should separate us all and not even see each other until the game starts.”

As to the way viewers will respond, he’s unconcerned–especially since he’s “loaded and ready.” “The people that know me personally are going to love me,” he said, “but the people that don’t know me, all the millions of Americans, they’re going to think I’m the worst thing to ever make TV. Which is fine with me, I’m okay with that. It doesn’t bother me at all unless these people show up at my doorstep, and I’m loaded and ready for that, too.”

“I didn’t ask to be the villain. This is is me. This is exactly how I am as a person. Except, you know, I’m a loving husband and father, I’m a business man. I wouldn’t steal nothing from nobody, but you gotta realize, this is a game,” he said. And in that game, “somebody’s quttin’ on my season. If I can make one person quit, obviously I’ve done my job. If somebody gets hurt and quits, I’m happy. If somebody gets sick and quits, I’m happy,” Russell said, because his odds will improve.

Hear Russell threaten viewers who threaten him, how he wants to die, and how he explained his strategy to his kids:

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Beyond the headline-grabbing premise, the series has turned out to be a stripped-down, authentic exploration of something very interesting. Read the full review.

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.