‘Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance’ exclusive: Jeff Varner on playing hard, Abi-Maria, tie-breakers, and more

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Jeff Varner is tremendous. We’re not sure that there is any other way of putting it. The man was incredible entertainment almost for the entirety of “Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance“; he played the game in his own words “balls to the wall,” and he was one of the most upfront and honest people before the season even started.

Suffice it to say, we were stunned to see him gone so soon, but we hope that in these four episodes he somehow did enough to get him at least considered for another return. We’d probably vote him back in tomorrow if we could.

Now, let’s turn things over to the interview, which touches on everything from fan reaction to Abi-Maria to some things he did not appreciate about Tasha out there.

CarterMatt – First of all, how are feeling? I imagine that you’ve got a chance to see plenty of love thrown at you.

Jeff Varner – It’s amazing. I can’t even keep up with it. One of the things that I really wanted to do with this second chance is really soak up every little detail of every little moment of every little thing and really be in touch with every fan and every person who tweeted me. It’s exhausted me and last night the gates just opened! I don’t even have the time to read them all; I’m going to have to set aside some time to do it. I’m so grateful. I played that entire game for those people who voted me in, and even though I only gave them four episodes I feel like I gave them two seasons’ worth of stuff in those four episodes. I’m so happy to see all of the love and appreciation; it really puts a bow on it for everything.

Do you sense that people almost forgot about how hard you played? I know it’s been years since I saw ‘Australia’ and I had even forgotten about some of [your game]. Were you really playing this much differently, or was it just presented differently because in the early seasons the show was more about survival?

It was all survival. I was really one of the few strategic ones out there. I laid a little more under the radar and tried to play a little more silently. Here, I wanted to do the same thing, but it really didn’t work out that way. When I landed on the island, you go wherever you go and you go as soon as you get there! Once it started rolling, it just started coming out of me. I told the producers that I was a little afraid because I couldn’t control it. I was emotional, I would see an opportunity and I would do it, and then I would be in the middle of it and be like ‘oh my God, what am I doing?’. My head would catch up with my heart and I’d have to swim my way out of it. You know the editing in the first two episodes was really accurate; that was my experience. I kept just thinking of all the people who voted me in, and I thought I absolutely must deliver. I feel like I did more for those people than I did for myself quite frankly.

You used the term ‘balls to the wall’ and I think that’s accurate. Even before the game started you were vocal about some of your pre-game alliances. (Note: There’s a great video over on TheWrap about it.) Do you think doing that much pre-gaming ended up helping you or hurting you out there? Did some who were not talking with you as much before the show wary of you?

I don’t think anyone was wary of me, and I don’t think making pre-game alliances with people was obvious out there. I think that was obvious later and when the press came out … you’ve been watching it with those glasses on. Out there I ended up on the beach with people I’d been aligned with and who I’d been talking to and I just tried to use all of that as best I could and it was exhausting. If I could go back and do it again I don’t know if I had change anything, but if I could start all over again I would probably not invest that much effort in the pre-game, mostly because you don’t know what way the wind is going to blow when you get there. You just need to be in the best position.

Everybody in an All-Star season is pre-gaming. Even if they don’t tell you they are, they are. Those who aren’t could be doing it through their spouses; I’ve got text messages from wives (laughs). I’m having a conversation with 15 people, those 15 people are having conversations too.

Oh trust me, I think we all knew that people were doing it. I think we just like that you admitted to it.

Yeah! That’s what it is. I think by admitting it when it comes to an All-Star season, it adds to the show a whole new level, and it takes it to a different place. All these people saying ‘that’s not fair’ and ‘that shouldn’t happen,’ it is what it is. If you want a pure game, put all strangers out there. If everybody knows each other and knows about each other and knows ways to connect and if photos are out there, you can either choose to participate in what’s going on or choose not to. I think I’d be interested to ask those who chose not to do it how that worked for them.

I was curious that with two tribal councils in general, the one where Vytas left and the one where Peih-Gee left, whether or not part of your decision had to do with avoiding a tie. I know the rules are different now, but was that on your mind?

The tiebreaker is an Achilles’ heel for me. I didn’t want to touch it, I didn’t want to go near it, and if I had a chance to not do it, I wasn’t going to do it. For that first vote, though, I wasn’t avoiding a tie so much as I was trying to wake up Terry and Kelly, who weren’t really playing the game. I wanted to play with them, I was aligned with them, but voting against them was my loyalty to them. I know that’s hard to understand, but sometimes you can help your alliance members for by voting against them more than voting with them. Day 4, Terry woke up and got it. He understood, and we were able to get back on track. Both of them are lasting longer in the game than me, and I’d like to take a little credit for that. (Laughs.)

It’s funny, because I’ve really tried the past 12 hours or so to figure out what exactly you could have done to save yourself, and I can’t really think of much since unfortunately, your tribe just kept losing challenges. Sooner or later, the odds are higher [it’s going to be you]. Are you feeling that way? Do you have any regrets about any move?

No, I don’t have a single regret. There were things that if I could go back and do again I may approach differently, but I don’t review anything as a regret. I came out of that situation a different human, and was happy with the whole experience. I wouldn’t change a thing. I really wouldn’t. It would have been nice to last longer in the game, but you know what? I’m going to pour two seasons worth of work into four episodes, and it paid off for me! The fans are happy with me, and that’s the most important thing because they trusted me to deliver and I feel like I did. Even though it was only four episodes, I feel like I really did.

Of course Abi was a big part of your game. You loved having her out there, you even said she ‘turns you on’! What did you see in Abi that others didn’t?

Many things. Abi is an asset in that she is a shield. There’s always the Abi card to play, and you can always get rid of someone like Abi at any time. All you got to do is drop her name and everyone is happy to vote that way.

Abi is also someone I saw as a tool because she was pissin’ everybody off. She was throwing daggers at some people, she’s really annoying a lot of people, and I figured out early on that Abi is just a wounded little girl. She’s like a teenage girl. She’s insecure and wants to be appreciated and loved and wanted. You shower her with that and she loves you for it and is loyal to you for it, and whenever she is in that mood to cause trouble, she will cause trouble for everybody but you. (Laughs.) I just learned how to push her buttons that way.

Even though Abi flipped and went with Tasha and Andrew at the end, she was still loyal to me. She couldn’t make any other decision; she made the decision she had to make. She could either go with Andrew and Tasha and have the opportunity to go further, or go with Peih-Gee and Woo who both tried to get rid of her. I’m at least grateful to Abi for letting me in on her plan and what she was doing, but I wish she had fought a little harder to not have the vote go my way. But, I was injured, and that injury was much more severe than the editing showed. I couldn’t hide it, I had to embrace it.

Speaking of that, how’s it doing now?

I’m okay. My toenail fell off last week; it’s been with me for quite a while. I couldn’t walk for a couple of days, and then I limped for several days after and it rode with me for a long time. My toe was black and purple and my foot was all swollen. I know it’s a little toe, but when it’s shot it effects everything. You can’t put a shoe on, and when you’re having to hike up and down a mountain to go somewhere and walk through soft sand with that, you can’t hide it.

Was there anything more you could do to sway Tasha more than what we saw, or did she know from the moment of the tribe swap she wanted you out?

She wanted me out immediately, and treated me like that. It wasn’t even like ‘you’re strong and strategic and everybody likes you so we’ve got to get rid of you.’ It was mean. My memory of Tasha at Angkor beach is a mean, angry, nasty woman who was nice to everybody and hateful to me, and I never did a d*mn thing to the woman, ever. Then I get out of the game and I see her strategy of God and the church telling her that it’s okay, and I was raised in the church and I have a hard time with that. Not just Tasha, but anybody who goes on ‘Survivor’ and says they’re a Christian and uses the God card to get me, an ‘evil,’ I just have no respect for that whatsoever. The Bible is very clear about abusing God’s grace. You don’t live in sin all day and go to bed at night, pray for forgiveness, and then be forgiven. That is an abuse of God’s grace. You just don’t do it, and my hope for Tasha is that through this experience, she sees and learns that this is the wrong approach.

I hope God taps her on the head and shows her at some point ‘little girl, I don’t like that.’ That’s my goal for her, anyway. I really hope for great things from her and she’s got a lot of growing to do.

Finally Jeff, is there any chance that you’re going to want to put yourself through this again?

I would do it in two seconds. Are you kidding? I went out there with COPD, I put on thirty pounds in the past little bit, I had bad knees, a bad back, I dislocated my shoulder the night we landed in Cambodia, I’m not going to lie. I fell in my bathtub, and they had to put my shoulder back in place, and I went through the whole pre-game stuff at Ponderosa in pain but I still did it.

If I get this shot to do it again I won’t be that bad-off, I’ll be able to handle it better. Absolutely, I’d do it in two seconds. I think the night I was voted out I said ‘I don’t want to do this bulls**t again, don’t call me, I’m done’ (laughs), but once I ate some food and got my wits about me I was good. It’s such an amazing experience. Getting out fourth and getting to go on the pre-jury trip with amazing women in Shirin and Peih-Gee, it was spectacular.

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