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‘Survivor’ Legends Boston Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine Break Down Being Mentors for Season 39’s ‘Island of the Idols’ (Exclusive)

'Survivor' Legends Boston Rob and Sandra
Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine on 'Survivor: Island of the Idols.'Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

Bringing in the big guns. Survivor is doing things a little differently this season by bringing in two previous (and popular) winners in Boston Rob Mariano and Sandra Diaz-Twine to give the new castaways a lesson in living on a remote island for 39 days while fighting your way to a million dollars.

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Both legends in their own right — Sandra, 45, is the only player to ever win the game twice — each brings a different set of skills and strategy when it comes to the physical, mental and social aspects of the game. While Rob, 43, who played in seasons 4, 8 and 20 before taking home the title in season 22, was always dominant in the challenges and superior when it came to social manipulation, Sandra, who won seasons 7 and 20, and returned for season 34, coined the “anybody but me” strategy and was a pro at slipping under the radar as other players targeted each other.

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For this season, the duo live on their own island, unbeknownst to the cast, and wait for the castaways to be sent to the “Island of the Idols.” It’s there that they’ll receive priceless wisdom from the former winners and have the opportunity to gain advantages in the game. But can they keep it a secret? And should they?

Below, Boston Rob and Sandra break down this season for Us:

'Survivor' Legends Boston Rob and Sandra Break Down Their Role
Sandra Diaz-Twine on ‘Survivor: Island of the Idols.’ Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

Us: You’ve both played this game several times. Why come back and why now?

Sandra: I can never say no to Jeff [Probst]. So, the minute Jeff called me and said, “Hey, we’re doing something new, Island of the Idols. It’ll be you and Boston Rob” … Boston Rob was another incentive. Like, “Oh, OK. That’s wonderful. No matter what happens, I’m out there with a pro.” So, it didn’t take me but a split second between him saying, “Would you?” and for me to say “yes.”

Rob: Yeah, so it’s different this time, obviously. You know, we’re not playing the game. It was presented more of like an opportunity to mentor or coach or, you know, teach what was learned over almost two decades and see if we can impart some of that wisdom on the new generation of players. So it was kind of different. Also, being able to have my kids … they’re at the age now where they’ve heard that their dad was on Survivor, but they’ve never actually seen it. So I think it’s kind of cool. They can’t vote us off and we’re not playing the game. But they get to still see us, see the entire experience throughout. So that was a big selling point also.

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Us: Would you have gone if someone else was the other mentor?

Sandra: I think I still would have done it. But being that it was Boston Rob was a plus. And I tell a lot of people, when I first applied for Survivor during season 7 and I got on the show, and they said, “What Survivor are you most like?” I said, “Boston Rob,” because I felt we had a lot in common. We say what we want to say. We don’t have hair on our tongues. Stuff just flows out. And then I was with Boston Rob on Heroes Vs. Villains, although his time was cut short, but it was like, “This was the perfect match for me.” It all depends, I guess, on who it would have been that I maybe would have been like, “Oh, I don’t know. I really got to think about it.” But the minute they said, “You and Boston Rob,” I couldn’t see myself with anybody else.

Rob: Sandra and I have always got along. We’re almost the same age. Her and I have a similar sense of humor and I have always had respect for Sandra and the way she played and everything. So it seemed like a natural fit. She’s played the game three times and won twice so she knows what she’s doing. She’s definitely qualified and it seemed like a good fit. It seemed like a good match.

'Survivor' Legends Boston Rob and Sandra Break Down Their Role
Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

Us: I’m assuming all the players knew who you were. (Let’s hope.) Were any reluctant to take advice?

Sandra: No, I don’t recall anyone not knowing who we are. And that’s the thing, they’re like, “Oh, my God, Sandra! Boston Rob! What are you guys doing here?” The game has just started, so they know they’re the first ones on Island of the Idols and that no one knows their secret. But then for us it’s like, “Hey, how long can we maintain this secret?” So, that in itself was something Rob and I wanted, was to keep the secret as long as we could. So, it’s crazy how week after week someone comes, and still they had no idea. They had no clue. So we keep pushing and drilling, like what happens here stays here. It was nice. No one expected it. I think our secret was very guarded by all because Rob keeps telling them, “You have something no one has, which is knowledge that we’re out here. Why would you want other people to have this knowledge and then even hold it against you?” So we try to keep it as secretive as possible, and it worked out.

Rob: Yeah, I think they were pretty receptive to it and the process and everything. Whether or not they actually implemented the advice we gave them, I don’t know, because we didn’t really go back to camp with them, you know? But no, while they were there everybody was pretty respectful and open to suggestions.

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Us: What was the hardest facet to teach them the physical, the social or the strategic?

Sandra: The strategic, because a lot of times they’re already set in their ways. They already know what they want to do. And even when we talk it out with them, if a person comes and says, “This is what I’m going to do,” there’s nothing you can do about that. You just have to let them, allow them to play their game and hope that it works out. Because as they come, we know a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more. And so, for instance, if you came and you said, “I’m going to do this this way, and I’m running the show.” And the next thing you know, we thought you were running the show, but you get voted off, that didn’t pan out for you. So, we’re also learning. And a lot of times someone may perceive that they’re doing really, really well in the tribe and that they’re running stuff. And then next thing you know, it wasn’t what they thought it was. So, it’s hard for us as well because we’re taking your word for what’s on back at camp.

Rob: Psychological things. Some people have a brain for that. Mathematically speaking, you can teach somebody numbers but to be able to gauge how to read someone based on intuition and their actions and that kind of stuff. Some of that is just instilled in people and it’s really difficult to teach. … We had such a snippet. They only visited our island for a couple of hours, and that was the only perspective we had was that of that person. So if you get somebody like Benjamin Wade — “Coach” — comes to the island and he thinks he knows everything that’s going on, but in all actuality maybe he doesn’t. We had some people like that and we’re like, “Oh, wow. They think they really got it all figured out.” And then find out if you, well people come there and they have no idea what they were doing. They’d definitely throw us for a loop sometimes too.

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Us: You both have different strategies. How were the things you were telling the players different?

Sandra: There were times where he’s like, “Hey, this is what you do because I’ve been through that.” And I was like, “Well, I’ve been through it too, but I’ve been on the other end of it, the receiving end where it didn’t go well. And this was what I did.” Most of the time, we have a similar situation. We both have encountered the same situations, but we went about them totally different. With Rob, it’s more like, “OK, I’ll go to the challenge and I’ll try to win immunity. Then I don’t have to face that fear.” With me, I was never going to win an immunity, so I have to face that fear and say, “OK, how do I overcome this situation because I know there’s no way in hell I’m going to ever win immunity?” So, we go about things very differently. And I think that helps a lot of the players too.

Rob: I mean she basically can’t stand challenges and she’d rather sit out than play. And I’m the opposite. I can never sit out because if I do, I’m going home. So depending on who the persons were, they definitely got two different viewpoints. It was kind of up to them to decide which direction to take it. I think that’s good. We balanced each other out pretty good.

'Survivor' Legends Boston Rob and Sandra Break Down Their Role
The cast of ‘Survivor: Island of the Idols.’ Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

Us: Tell me about the tests you give the players. Explain that a bit.

Sandra: So, usually Jeff tells us what we’re going to test them on, and we just talk about it. And a lot of times it was in Boston Rob’s hands because he has more to pitch because that was his fifth time going out there. He had already played four times. We just talk about it, discuss it, try to remember situations that we were in that are similar.

Like, for the first one, there’s a fire challenge. And that’s not a secret because Jeff already spilled the beans on that one. So, pretty much, they give us the material. We’re going to test them. We’re going to have an area where they’ll go up against one of the two players. Even if you’re a pro at making fire, depending on who you’re going up against, you’re going to want to practice, so we have a practice area. It was easy because, like I said, the person comes. We get to know them. We talk, talk, talk. And they’re like, “OK. Your first lesson is making fire. How do you think you’ll do?” And usually either they’ve practiced or they haven’t. And then we let them know, “OK. Because once you practice making fire, then you get to go up against one of us. So, do you feel you need to practice?” And, of course, you’d be like, “Oh, my God. Yeah, let me practice just in case.” And then we let them know, “These are the two fire stations where the fire will be made. Everything is up to code. Everything is identical.” The measurements are identical. You don’t want any issues, that one is higher than the other, and the string was higher, and the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, none of that. So, then they go practice making fire. Then they’re like, “OK, I’m ready.” So, then they come down and they make fire.

Rob: The tests would be different depending on what the lesson was. So, for example, if the lesson was how to make a fire, then we’d teach them and we’d wholeheartedly teach them everything we knew about how to do it and then the test would be to see if they could make one quicker than us. Right? So if they can make it quicker than us they might get an advantage they can use in the game and if they can’t, they possibly lose something like maybe their vote or, I don’t know, something else.

We used psychology, like risk versus reward. What are you willing to risk and are the stakes worth it? You have to calculate everything in Survivor. You have to constantly be thinking and you can definitely see some players wheels were turning and they push the envelope and we had a little bit of leeway as far as what we could negotiate and other people just kind of took what was offered to them and that was it. Other people are smart enough to maybe say, “Oh, I don’t know if this is a good idea for me.” So I think that plays to their individual characters.

Us: You mentioned you were pretty impressed with this cast. Do you think the casting has gotten better or the caliber of players has just increased over the years?

Sandra: Yeah. It was like whenever they came, whatever we were teaching them … it was right into the issues that they were having at camp at that time. So, everything just flowed so well. It wasn’t like we were teaching them something that they didn’t need. It was something that actually they were dealing with and they were all dealing with. Like I said, we didn’t know who was coming until they showed up. We didn’t know anything about them.

Rob: Both. I think both. I think you have to take an active role in casting in order to find people that are genuinely interested and understand the show and understand it’s not the same show that it was 18, 19 years ago. It’s evolved and the players have too. If you go out there and try to play that same strategy that they had in Survivor Borneo, you’re not going to last three days. So I guess like everything, time goes by and people become more efficient to different ways to do things. Whether it’s riding a bike or doing your job or whatever. As time goes by you get better at it.

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Us: Had you been offered this kind of role in the game, say 10 years ago, do you think things would have played out the same?

Sandra: Oh, yeah. I don’t think the time would have mattered. Because like I said, I always looked up to him. He was there before my time. One time he said to me that we got along because Puerto Ricans and Italians were loud. Or what was it that he said? I can’t remember. He was like, “Sandra, you know what we get along? Because you’re Puerto Rican. I’m Italian. We’re loud. I’m glad that I was given the opportunity to be out there with him. And, like I said, we got along really, really well.

Rob: I think the time though lends a little bit of perspective to the history of it all. Like the fact that it had been almost 10 years since I played the game. You get to see other people try different strategies and it really just shows what actually does work and what doesn’t. And sometimes things work for one person but they don’t work for others.

Us: No chance you’re entering the game right? That happened on Big Brother

Sandra: No.  Jeff always said, “You will not be entering the game. You will just be out there as mentors and mentors only.” And that was it. It was cut and dry. That was it.

Rob: No, we knew before we went out there. Maybe the players probably will be wary of it because it’s just the way it always is. But it was pretty well defined that we weren’t going to be taken in their direction.

Survivor: Island of the Idols premieres on CBS Wednesday, September 25, at 8 p.m. ET.

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