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Best Survivor contestants “have really strong opinions, they know who they are”

With Survivor Tocantins production complete, the show is now casting for its 19th season, which will film during the summer. Applications [PDF] are due Jan. 14, and local affiliates are beginning their open calls (listed on the front page of CBS’ crap-awful new Survivor web site).

But is it even worth applying any more now that so many of the show’s contestants are recruited? Survivor Gabon winner Bob was recruited, as was Sugar, who actually recruited for a different show. That’s despite the fact that Survivor currently gets between 10,000 and 15,000 applications, including open calls; “it usually hovers around 12,000,” casting director Lynne Spillman told me.

The problem is twofold: A lot of “people [are] sending tapes in that look like they are just reality TV tapes; ‘hey, pick me.’ They don’t even say the word Survivor … they’re sending in really nicely produced tapes that could be for The Real World, Big Brother,” Spillman said. In addition, fans of the show who “know we do do a lot of recruiting to get different types, and they kind of feel like they don’t have a chance, I guess,” so they don’t bother applying.

Overall, then, applications are down. “We don’t get as many applicants as we did three years ago; it keeps dwindling and dwindling. The same people, though, have kept applying,” Spillman told me. Thus, for season 18, the age limit was lowered, “in hopes of getting a lot of 18, 19, 20-year-olds,” she said. “They may not be ready to play this year, but at least we’d kind of have them and get to them for another year.”

While Spillman said the lowered age limit meant they “got a lot of people that were big fans,” she noted that “the typical 18-year-old guys, there’s not enough there, from the tapes we got.” Younger contestants “just seem too immature to do well on the show,” she said. “I can’t think of any breakout stars that we’ve had [who are] that young.”

Spillman identified the best characteristics for a cast member: “I think people who do better and are more interesting television have really strong opinions, they know who they are, they have a foundation, they’ve worked, they’re in college or a fraternity. They’ve had a lot of social interaction, I guess.” And as she has said in the past, “The perfect contestant exudes sex, conflict, and humor. I shouldn’t say we’re not interested in who wins, I think you want to know that they can all play, but sex, conflict, and humor to us, that makes the best contestant.”

The lack of applicants has led casting producers to recruit people, which has even as it has diversified the cast but still is the subject of much debate and even derision among some fans. But Spillman insisted that recruits are not all fame-seeking wannabe actors. “Nine times out of 10, the really good ones don’t want to do the show and you actually have to talk them into it. So it’s not like they jump at it because they look at is as 15 minutes; the really good ones, the ones you really want, are the hardest ones to get to do the show,” she told me.

Producers get referrals from past cast members and others, but she said, “a lot of times they’re doing favors for other people, and a lot of times it doesn’t work out.” However, Spillman said if she finds her cast is “light in the south, I’ll e.mail three southerners in the age group we’re looking for” to see if they know anyone. Beyond that, Spillman said the perception is that “we go to clubs and look for the hot girl dancing on the bar, [but] that’s so not how we recruit. I think that’s the misconception that people have. We watch these people,” she said, and also research them online: “what are they like, what are their interests,” “are they funny”?

Spillman said she is “the most annoying person to go out with because I am never 100 percent present,” and looks for people on airplanes, in restaurants, and elsewhere. “I never let anyone pass me by on the street, on the store, where I think there’s potential there, for any of the shows.”

Finding people literally on the street implies an exceptionally superficial set of criteria, but Spillman said “we don’t just pick someone because they’re pretty.” When I pressed her on the cast members’ general attractiveness, she said, “I’m not going to say it’s coincidental. We’ve definitely had not the most attractive people on the show as well; it’s having the balance of the two. … Plus, you’ve got to remember, they start looking better out there; they get tan, they lose weight. If you’re looking at the third episode, they’ve already lost 10 pounds,” she said, acknowledging “that sounds stupid.”

Those who are recruited are treated just like other contestants. “It’s completely the same process. Sometimes, depending upon how far along in casting we are, it’s not only giving them the application, but you’re handing them the huge contract. You’re like, here’s the application, and sorry, I’ll see you next week, but this is the contract for the entire show; you might want a lawyer,” she told me.

But ultimately, recruits do the same thing as someone who sends in an application. “They still have to make a video, they still have to go through the process, they still have to come to finals, they still have to go to the network and get approved,” Spillman said. “It’s just a shorter process because usually when we’re recruiting like that, it’s just at the very end.”

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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