Ben Wade: “If people want to hate me, at least they’re talking about me”

This is the last in a series of interviews with Survivor Heroes vs. Villains cast members.

Ben 'Coach' Wade I titled this, the final all-star cast member interview, not with the nickname Ben Wade will be known by on the show (“Coach”), but with his actual name, because he was actually himself during our conversation. Despite the fact that his pre-season arrogance turned into full-scale delusion during Survivor Tocantins and drove me thoroughly insane, it was eventually replaced by humble contrition. And while I genuinely like Ben as a person, and it’s obvious that Ben is a smart guy, I didn’t understand his compulsion to purposefully be, or pretend to be, something else.

Alas, I regret to inform you that’s what’s coming again: “I definitely want to create another memorable character, and I think, fortunately, I’ve come to grips with that as far as the negative reaction to the last one. I’ve really done a lot of thinking: are you going to be yourself, or are you going to be another character?” Ben added that “my favorite thing about last season was that I was a character, not the public reaction, but that I was a character, and people really had to talk about me because I was so there.”

However, his season 20 character will be different. “I will try to be a lot more contrite, a lot more humble. I think the creativity that comes with making up a Dragon Slayer, to take the Dragon Slayer from here and to come here with it, but have even more, make it bigger and better,” he said. “It’s going to be the Dragon Slayer, but it’s going to evolve into something different, and that different is hopefully going to be more, but at the same time be less. It’s going to be more of a character, the pieces have already been thought out in terms of alliance, nicknames, but this philosophy of this new character, who is historical, will be woven throughout. And it will be, at times, more chivalrous.”

Holy shit, really? I asked him why he insists on doing this, and I said, “This [non-character] version of you doesn’t make me want to throw something at my TV, so why provoke that reaction, why not just play as you?” Ben replied, “If I were just myself, like this, it would be like Joe [Dowdle]. You wouldn’t know who I was. He was a great guy.”

This was a surprisingly honest and even pragmatic answer, especially when Ben said, “If people want to hate me, at least they’re talking about me. … I don’t know if I can win, so if I’m not going to win, what else am I going to have?” Later, he said, “I would love to be myself out there,” but he wants to be remembered even more.

His response almost made me feel sympathy. “Two months later, I was like, they really did me an honor to edit me that way,” Ben said, because “they really thought I was a special enough person or character that they’re going to focus a lot on me.” Ben explained that creating the character “was like composing a piece, and sitting back and watching how to see how it was edited was sometimes frustrating, sometimes elation would surround that.”

Although Ben got an agent in L.A. and said “I just like being a showman,” he’s not doing this for fame or an entertainment industry career. “I don’t like it; it’s shallow, it’s a tough industry” and “it’s just not me,” he said. Instead, Ben’s continuing with the symphony, and planned to “start negotiating” for a coaching job once he returned from Samoa.

As to his game play, Ben said, “last time, I came in to change the game; this time, I want to win.” But he’ll still stick to his basic principles. “I know that I’m not going to compromise. I still want to be honorable, I still want to play with honesty and integrity. But that, coupled with the fact that I want to be more game savvy and more chivalrous, I hope is going to get me a long way. I really hope to win this,” Ben said. “I still want to take people that are quote ‘worthy’ of being there, even though everybody here is worthy of being here, so I still want to do that, but not as absolute as it was,” and then he quoted from Heat and said he needs to be able to change his game plan if the situation demands it.

Although his Tocantins ally Tyson is on this season, Ben said, “We’re not supposed to make pre-game alliances with everybody; we’re instructed not to do that. Tyson and I are pretty good soldiers–we’ve been very good when it comes to just not talking about it. I think like Sun Tzu says, when you’re far away make your enemies think that you’re close, but when you’re close make your enemies think that you’re far away.”

Basically, what that means, I think, is that he has the reverse of pre-season alliances: He’s been screwing with the other contestants to tell them he doesn’t have an alliance. “I already started planting seeds,” he said, telling other contestants that he and Tyson “had a falling out.” How the other 19 people receive him will be significant, Ben thinks. “They’re going to view me one of two ways,” which will either be “airtime equals dollars” and “he’s going to steal the show from us so we have to get rid of him immediately, or they’re going to say, he was true to his alliance, so we can trust him.”

Ben recognizes that the other contestants have tighter bonds. Appearing at a charity event in Kentucky was “really advantageous just for my foothold in that little fraternity that is past Survivors,” he said, but he’s also only been to one. By the way, he also figured out that there’d be one additional contestant. “There’s an odd number of people here. 19 people. Doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I think they might be have somebody in Samoa. They’re at the biggest disadvantage, I think.”

Ben thinks that the ideal final two would be to have “two big characters”: Rupert and, of course, himself. Just when I thought he’d start to sound like Coach, Ben would talk about how he’s going to be different this season. He said he’ll “forget about making excuses, rationalizing,” and added, “I need to be careful about speaking in absolutes, because I like speaking in black and white, and I need to be more gray.” In addition, he said that “the arrogance that I thought was confidence, that’s been a huge lesson that I’ve carried over. I think that’s going to come into play.”

He also admitted, “I sucked at challenges the last time. I think it was a little bit the edit, but still, it was embarrassing,” he said. So this time, despite physical discomfort, he prepared by running, and also swimming and working out.

At the end of our conversation, Coach revealed that luxury items are “definitely going to be in” (and told me off the record what his was, though I’m not clear why that needed to be off the record). But he said that initially, he wanted to take his trumpet as his luxury item, and he’d “write and play songs” and “people are going to fall in love with me, in the audience and in the tribe. They approved by legal, and then when it got to Production, Production said, ‘hell no.’ They didn’t want me to have anything musical. My back-up was an Indian flute. … If I don’t give them what they want, to a certain degree, I’m not going to be shown.”

Listen to Ben/Coach explain how he prepared physically, and why he’s looking forward to the challenges the game presents:

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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.