Monty Brinton/CBS
Steve Helling
May 21, 2014 02:15 PM

For a show in its 28th season, Survivor has proven itself to be shockingly resilient.

The newest installment, Survivor: Cagayan has been one of the most engrossing seasons in years – and the viewers have noticed. Ratings have spiked, and the show regularly beats American Idol in its time slot.

But it all comes to an end on Wednesday night when the show crowns its latest winner. Unlike previous seasons, each member of the final four could make an argument to win the game.

Tony, the Jersey cop who thinks like a criminal, has steered the game for several weeks. Spencer, the cocky yet likable economics student, can point to his physical dominance in challenges. Woo, the Keanu Reeves-like martial arts instructor, hasn’t ruffled any feathers. And Kass, the acerbic lawyer from California, flipped the game on its head after flipping alliances.

No one is more excited about the season finale than Jeff Probst. The affable host, 52, seems genuinely delighted to talk about the finale of the long-running show. He breaks down the final four – and talks about how future contestants can get on Survivor.

Jeff, this has been the strongest season in years. Why?
I’m glad you like it! It all comes down to casting. We had a good concept, but we really had a great cast. I think we found a balance between good strategists and interesting players.

I’ll admit, I was worried that this season would run out of steam. The first five or six boots were all huge characters.
You’re right; a lot of people went out early who were good players and interesting people. But every time, after tribal council, we’d focus on who was left. Tony. Kass. Tasha. Spencer. That shows how good this cast is; a lot of great characters went really far. The game has gotten better and better. People are playing this like it’s their second time.

Some of the contestants have said that they grew up watching the show.
It makes me feel so old. They’ll say, “I’ve been watching you since I was 7.” They seem surprised that I’m not using a walker! But nothing makes me happier. We have a lot of loyal fans of all ages.

When Sarah went home, it was the best tribal council in years. I was literally screaming at my TV while watching it. What were you thinking?
I knew it was fantastic; I had no idea what was going to happen. There’s a perception that we have a bank of monitors that I’m watching every day. But I truly don’t. I’m testing out challenges or doing other things.

I love it when there’s a surprise tribal council like that one, which I agree was one of our best ever. I get so excited about tribal councils like that … but I have to be even keeled about it as the host. I try not to show it.

I notice that you cast a lot more loyal fans of the show. Is that why it’s so good this year?
I don’t agree that you have to have 20 experienced Survivor players to make the show interesting. I believe it’s better when you have a mixture of players. Some can be really big fans. Some can be physical threats. And some can learn as they go along. Everyone brings a different perspective and entry point.

But it can be frustrating to watch people who just don’t have a clue how to play.
We’ve been very successful with people who started from nowhere and figured it out. But we do have to have some people who know how to play. In the past couple of years, the gameplay has gone to another level.

This season, it was almost like there was an unspoken agreement to play to win. There weren’t lame people who said, “Oh, I just want to make the jury.” These people came to play. And we’re left with a final four where anyone can win.

Anyone? Even Kass? I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such disdain for a contestant.
Kass needs to go into the final tribal council and say, “I made these moves, and here’s why.” She can’t be apologetic. I have a beef with a lot of players who make it to the end. I don’t understand what happens when they get to an end of the game like Survivor, and the whole thing is about lying and cheating, and the first thing they do is say, “I’m sorry.”

No! Don’t apologize. Come in and say, “I kicked your ass, and here’s how.” If Kass plays the finals right, she can win this game.

When I see a contestant like Kass, I can’t help but wonder what you saw in her when you cast her.
She came into casting and was a different woman each time we saw her. She was so undefined. So we took a big chance on this woman who we didn’t even know because there were so many aspects of her personality. And then she showed up with the most chaotic version of all those personalities.

There is a place for a contestant like Morgan, who by the way pleasantly surprised me because she did have a strategy. She was put on the show because she’s young and embodied what we wanted in the beauty tribe. But Kass was a big question mark. We took a chance with Kass, and as you see, she really paid off.

How about Woo? People have told me that he was Tony’s puppet.
Look, Woo’s a likable guy. He hasn’t upset anybody. And at the end, Survivor is a social game. This is what he needs to say: “I didn’t necessarily make the big move, but I was there every day. I was always positive. That’s how I live my life. I’m not Kass, Tony or Spencer. I’m a young kid who studies martial arts. My attitude should be rewarded.”

Before the season, you said there was no way Spencer could win the game. Discuss.
I have done this for 28 seasons. And in 28 seasons, I have never been as wrong about a contestant as I was about Spencer. He could walk away with this game, because he’s smart, physical and strategic.

Part of it was me giving Spencer a hard time. I thought he was quite full of himself. My hunch was that his arrogance combined with his lack of life experience would get him knocked out early. I was completely wrong. I will tell him that during the live show.

And let’s talk about Tony.
Tony is a great example of someone who played this game hard. Sometimes too hard. Sometimes made mistakes. But if he makes it to the end, it’ll be hard to argue that he didn’t deserve to be there. He has guided this game. There’s a final two this season, and it all depends on who Tony goes up against.

The talk is that Tony is the next Russell Hantz. What do you say?
There’s a giant difference between the two. A lot of people would have a good time having a slice of pizza and a beer with Tony. He’s not an evil person at all; he’s sort of a fun, strategic player that can be called a villain. Russell played an evil game, because in his heart, there’s some evil. So Russell would be an evil villain to Tony’s fun villain.

People think we cast Tony to be the next Russell, but we don’t cast like that. We don’t need another Russell; we just need interesting people.

Speaking of casting, how would one go about getting on Survivor?
You have to have an interesting life story. We look for people who are unpredictable and good TV. There are a lot of interesting people who don’t make the show; you have to be good television.

I’d say we look for people who know themselves, do interesting things, and can present and articulate themselves well. Not everyone is going to be a young beauty like Morgan, and not everyone is going to be as large of a personality as Tony. We’ll cast a Kass, Trish, Woo or Tasha. We want people who are dynamic, genuine, and totally open to the adventure.

A lot of people apply and put on a show that isn’t really who they are. Don’t do that. The best advice I can give is to just be yourself.

The best, brightest, most interesting version of yourself.
(Laughs) Yes. Exactly.

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