Russell Swan: “I don’t want them to think about uses of grey matter at all”

This is the 14th in a series of interviews with Survivor Samoa cast members.

Russell SwanRussell Swan is charismatic, intelligent, and a long-time Survivor fan. He has a presence that suggests he’s going to excel at the game, but his strategy is to make people think he’s a completely different person.

While watching the first season, Russell told me that he thought the game looked easy. “My wife called my bluff,” he said, so he applied, and made the semi-finals for Survivor Australia, but found “just a weird vibe. … The first question out of their mouths was, ‘So, do you think men are dominant over women.’ What the hell kind of question [was that]? So my whole demeanor was, ‘That’s a stupid question.'” Obviously, he didn’t make it past semi-finals, applied again, and dropped the idea after his daughter was born. He decided to re-apply this past January after his wife reminded him about it.

Besides the challenge from his wife, who has also bet him that he’ll have to cut off his dreadlocks if he wins (for which Russell said he has “a strategy for saving my ‘locks because a brother doesn’t want to give up his ‘locks”), Russell said he’s interested in being on the show for two reasons. He wants to know “how does TV work … what is the process?” He called the production part “bizarre and very interesting,” and he was only at Ponderosa. And he also wants “the experience of expanding my horizons.” Citing the fact that he’s 42 and has “never traveled out of the country,” Russell said, “I didn’t want to get to the point where I wasn’t still learning new things and trying new things.”

Russell works as an attorney for an EPA regional office in Philadelphia and focuses primarily on enforcing the Clean Air Act and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. “I basically prosecute people who are behaving badly and polluting our environment,” Russell said. “I love my job, I think it’s one of the best jobs on the planet. I take it very seriously. I love when it’s big corporations and they’re paying thousands of dollars in legal fees and it’s just me.”

That career has given him the “ability to read people. What’s interesting is a lot of that came from practicing law. A lot of times you have to read people’s body language instead of what they’re saying,” he said. “People will say one thing but their body language, a lot of times, will give them away. The social aspect, I think I have that covered.”

Russell’s strategy is to emphasize his physicality so people don’t think of him as anything bu the “big, burly black guy that’s going to carry” stuff. At Ponderosa, Russell said, “as they’re watching, I’m working out and throwing rocks around, I’m grunting, I’m sweating. I don’t want them to think about uses of grey matter at all. What I want to do is just be physicality, totally, at the beginning of the game, and that carry me.” Then he wants to do “too much other groundwork for them to unload me easily” once they realize that’s not who he is.

He even plans to let that affect his speech, using “short phrases,” and adopted a dumb voice as he described that. I can’t imagine him pretending to be a dumb, one-note kind of guy, particularly because he’s so smart and likable. Even his laugh gives him away. But Russell is smart enough to make adjustments. “It could backfire on me. Physicality is not necessarily a threat at the beginning of the game. It doesn’t become a problem until there’s a merge. … At the end of the day, if I’m on a tribe that’s not going to work, one of my other qualities is adaptability. I’m not going to be an idiot and think I’m going to go in there with a strategy and use it even if I know right from the word go it’s not going to work. That’s called getting voted out early, and that’s not something I’m planning on doing.”

Whatever happens, Russell will be watching the others carefully. “I know it’s always going to be that one person that nobody’s going to suspect that’s pushing some buttons and stuff,” and so Russell will “keep them in my sight. … I might not be able to be able to run with the front-runner, but I want to at least keep them in contact so at the end, if I have to sprint, I can catch them.”

When I asked about what he’d observed in his fellow competitors, he said “mullet lady” Shannon is someone he wants to align with, because “the mere fact that in 2009 this chick has a mullet is brave,” and because “she’s got a lot of body language” that seemed good to him. He also said there’s “a younger white guy that I know we’re going to click,” and said that “the one that absolutely repulses me” is “the Barbie doll.” The woman with the dreadlocks, Kelly, has “a whole lot of attitude going on–I don’t know how to read that.” And Russell thinks Liz is a strong competitor “who I can’t really read.”

Russell says his biggest challenge is “the ocean,” although he can swim and practiced, he said, “I have a healthy dose of respect for the ocean–it’s a big, powerful thing, and two days ago I saw a shark … and this brother doesn’t do sharks.”

Beyond that, he said he can get irritated by people who generalize about groups of people, and in real life, will call them out. But he knows that, in the game, “anything that raises you above, you get pounded down, and in this case, you get voted out.” So if there’s a bigot of some kind of his tribe, Russell said, “You will see me do a lot of walking away. Time to get some bananas!”

Hear Russell talk about the people who are important to him and will be affected by his Survivor experience:

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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.