Tom Westman: “you’ve actually seen me be trustworthy, so I’m hoping that counts”

This is the 14th in a series of interviews with Survivor Heroes vs. Villains cast members.

Tom Westman Tom Westman rejected an appearance on Micronesia, and almost didn’t return for this full all-star season. But Tom’s wife, who’s “a big fan,” said that “nothing but good things have come to the family because of this: why not give it another shot?” Tom said, “She was worried I’d regret it,” never mind that it’d be different for their kids, and “much more exciting for them this time.”

One of the reasons Tom said no was that his new employer “invested a lot in training me and bringing me up to speed,” and Tom said, “I wasn’t interested and didn’t think I was interested this time, told them no when they called for this, too–all the same reasons. I think it’s different if you’re not trying to get into Hollywood and you’d rather spend the month of whatever with your family.”

But he also told me that being a winner on an all-star season isn’t exactly ideal. “The other reason that kind of took away the desire was you can see this as a stacked deck,” he said, because the others “don’t dare let these people get anywhere near the cash again.” Like basically every other winner, Tom’s plan is to use that to his advantage, and “maybe it’s not a foregone conclusion” that he’ll be voted off immediately. “Knowing the game and knowing that people are not going to be holding my win against me … if I fit into their game plan,” he said, so “maybe toward the end of the game, you can convince somebody that having a former winner in a final vote, I’m a perfect person to have” because “no one’s going to give them the money twice.”

Tom also told me that fame-seeking contestants will compete with each other. “This crowd is more intimated by the people who are going to steal face time away from them. I think half of the contestants here are more interested in being on TV than winning a million dollars,” he said. “There’s people who are larger than life, larger than me, and more of a threat to eat up camera time that I am.” To not compete with them, Tom said, “maybe I do get to tone it down, not be the challenge hog I was last time, and just be a solid person they believe they can trust.”

Clearly, Tom isn’t connected with the Survivor crowd, so he doesn’t have any pre-season alliances, but he is worried about them. “One of my biggest fears is not my winner status, but that fact that a lot of people are all buddies already,” he said, noting that while he knows Stephenie and is “kind of happy to see her here,” “both of us were too frightened to call each other.” While last time, he did a lot of “backtracking trying to understand the game as much as I could,” Tom didn’t have time to do any research this season, so “I don’t know what season most of them were on, kind of remember their names. I’m at a disadvantage,” Tom said, but then reconsidered. “I didn’t know anybody last time I played it; maybe that’s a good thing” because “it’s more organic, you haven’t been sitting down studying their bio,” he said.

Tom may be best known for playing a strong, positive, straightforward game, but he said that’s an image that’s not quite accurate and may have a negative impact. “Last time, things went well for me, and they didn’t show too much rough stuff. But you had to manipulate that game and take people out. It’s an ugly process. How do you do that, still trying to stay with the cloak of goodness? It’s really hard,” he said.

He said that’s even more difficult because being on Survivor involves “a friendship on steroids” and “the people you connect with, you connect with them really deep, really fast. It makes the betrayals so much more bitter. … The casual viewer at home can’t understand why these people care at all about someone they met three weeks ago. But your reality out there, you’re separated from your family, and you cling on to people stronger than you should from a strategic playing point,” he said.

But without even knowing who Russell Hantz is, Tom told me that he doesn’t plan to play like that. “We’ve seen too many great players who have totally manipulated the game. They were great camera fodder, and they get themselves to the end, but because of the way they way they played, they’re never going to win that money,” he said. And Tom plans to use his reputation: “I can tell you that I’m trustworthy, but you’ve actually seen me be trustworthy, so I’m hoping that counts for something.”

He added that “treachery is part of the rulebook” and “I played it as clean as I could, didn’t break the promise that I swore I wouldn’t break with one of the other contestants.” So this season, “I don’t want this to be the downfall of Tom and give them anything to edit me into being the guy who’s not the guy people thought he was.” That kind of reversed edit is “one of your fears going in,” Tom said. For the television value of showing me differently this time, there’s some bang for the buck there for the drama. Oh wow, it must be the money that changed him. Everybody who knows me knows that Survivor didn’t change me at all.”

How he watches the show now, and how Survivor affected his life and why he didn’t get a soap opera gig or a “fire department cooking show”:

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.