‘Survivor’ Castoff Joe Mena on Employing the Phillip Sheppard Strategy: ‘Just Annoy Everybody’

Joe Mena Survivor
Joe Mena on ‘Survivor.’ Robert Voets/CBS

One coconut down. One more to go. The ever-entertaining Joe Mena unfortunately got the boot during the latest episode of Survivor season 35 “Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.”

Although the Bronx native, 34, acted super confident that he was safe during tribal council, he tells Us he knew he was probably going home and put on an act for his fellow castaways — just in the off chance he wasn’t actually being fooled.

After all, the probation officer, who played a rather erratic and admittedly “horrible” game, was being promised everything he wanted: Ben Driebergen out, Ryan Ulrich’s idol flushed and Lauren Zimmer’s advantage played. What could go wrong?

Here, Mena breaks down his game with Us:

Us Weekly: How did you feel going into tribal council? Did anything tip you off that things might not go your way?

Joe Mena: I knew I was going home. Every Survivor player says, “I knew I was going home.” But I knew it. Devon [Pinto] didn’t speak to me or give me eye contact. Lauren was the same way. The way that they pitched it to me was, “Ben’s going home. The idol’s going to be flushed. The advantage was going to be used.” That was a great pitch from them and I felt like I had to take my chances. There was a 20 percent chance I wouldn’t go home. But I had to play it off at tribal that I was secure and safe, and hopefully it doesn’t tilt anything the opposite way.

Us: So you went in knowing you were going to play it up that you were safe?

JM: Yeah. I usually cause ruckus, like let me try to flip the script. But in that situation, I had to play it cool because the perks. Ben’s going home, the idol will be flushed and the advantage will be used. I’d be stupid to try to screw this up. I just played it cool for the first time at tribal.

Us: What did you think of their acting? Did they convince you?

JM: Ben’s acting job was great. Like I said, Devon and Lauren gave it away. They didn’t give me any eye contact and I knew something was up. I really had no other option. I really was blinded by the perks. I think that was a package deal. If they didn’t give me that package, I probably would have flipped with Ryan and Chrissy [Hofbeck]. That was the game plan for me and I mentioned it in my Ponderosa video. My goal was to blindside Devon. I wanted to go with Chrissy and Ryan, but once they pitched that package deal, I fell for it, for sure.

Us: So you recognized Devon as a dangerous player at that point?

JM: Oh, yeah. The thing is, Devon would strategize with me all the time. If he wins this game, I deserve at least 100 grand. He would come to me with these crazy ideas and I’m like, “Devon, no, that’s not what you do.” When I called Ashley [Nolan] a “goat”…. his initial plan was to take Ryan and Lauren to the final three. I was like, “No, no, no. Lauren will beat you. She has a story. And Ryan’s kind of dangerous. He’s like Spencer [Bledsoe]. You need to bring Ashley. Ashley’s a goat. You have a relationship with her. You need a goat.” I knew he was a smart player. He was playing up that whole surfer thing. We spent a lot of time together. He’s extremely intelligent. He’s articulate. I knew there was more to his story than just being a surfer guy. He was my target. I overlooked Ben and wanted to take Devon out, so that says enough right there.

Us: Why did they target you now? Was that smart on their part?

JM: Oh, absolutely. What they didn’t show was that I was going after Ben from the beginning. The name Ben did not leave my mouth. That “Ben has to go. Ben has to go.” That’s all I was saying. So that was smart for him. He needed to get me out because the tables were turning a bit. People were opening their eyes at that point.

Joe Mena Mike Zahalsky Mike Zahalsky Devon Pinto Ashley Nolan Survivor
Joe Mena, Mike Zahalsky, Lauren Rimmer, Devon Pinto and Ashley Nolan on ‘Survivor.’ CBS

Us: Do you think your antics helped or hurt your game more?

JM: Honestly, at the swap, that’s when I decided to cause the ruckus with Alan [Ball]. And obviously that was effective there and worked out. So once I got to the healer purge, I realized that they were just going to eliminate us one-by-one and I needed to do something. I couldn’t find the idols. So I said, why not come up with this whole Phillip Sheppard thing and just annoy everybody. Hopefully someone will bring me to the end. I knew it wasn’t going to take me far, but at least until … kind of where I left off.

Everyone made it very clear, “Joe, you know this game. You’re strategic. You’re very smart. You’re playing this game hard. I would never take you to the final three because we respect your game. And if you were to make it to the final three, you probably would win.” The relationships I did establish out there were real relationships. No one could say “Joe was full of s—t.” I don’t think anyone could say, “Joe was disloyal.” I was the opposite of that. The conversations I held with everyone were genuine conversations that I can speak about to this day. I don’t think my antics really hurt me. I think they did benefit me to at least get to where I needed to go to find cracks. But unfortunately, it didn’t work.

Us: Yeah, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to play an under-the-radar kind of game. It wouldn’t work.

JM: It wouldn’t and I was pretty self-aware that I’m from the East Coast, I’m bald-headed and people were going to make that comparison to Tony [Vlachos]. Once I found the idol and I used it effectively, I really had no choice but to be true to how I wanted to play the game. I lasted 30 days and I didn’t take advantage of the few opportunities I could have taken advantage of. Kudos to them. They’re still in it and I’m here.

Joe Mena Survivor
Jeff Probst extinguishes Joe Mena’s torch at Tribal Council on ‘Survivor.’ CBS

Us: Do you get frustrated with the Tony comparisons or you take them as a compliment?

JM: I get it. When I saw Mike, I said “David [Wright] 2.0.” When I saw Ryan, I said “Spencer.” If you’re a fan of the game, you’re going to make those comparisons. I don’t mind. I mind now because I’m a loser and Tony’s a winner. So there’s no comparison. Tony played an amazing game and I played a horrible game. It is what it is.

Us: It was entertaining though!

JM: My goal was to win and be boring. Not to be entertaining and be a loser.

Us: Fair enough. But I don’t think you could ever play a boring game…

JM: No, it won’t work. I just have to play up my strengths. I wanted to go out there and lie and manipulate. I didn’t have it in me. I stuck to who I was. I’m loyal. I’m honest. I’m blunt. I was me and I lasted 30 days. Who knows if I played a better game if I would have lasted longer.

Us: I want to talk about you and Dr. Mike [Zahalsky] — a.k.a. “the coconuts.” What an unlikely duo. Seems like you guys had a lot of fun out there.

JM: Me and Mike had a blast. They didn’t show half of the crap we did out there. We would play chess and say whoever lost would be the next eliminated. We did a lot of stuff. Mike is hilarious. I think our relationship, initially — obviously everyone called me a bully online — but the reason I approached Mike initially on healer beach is because Mike is a player. Back at the marooning, it was only me, Ryan and Mike looking for the advantage. Immediately I indentified Mike as a player. He’s looking for an advantage. To me, he was David 2.0. I knew he was a gamer. And once we touched down on the island, he’s looking for the idol. I’m like, “No, no. This guy’s gotta go.” He would wake up every night and look for an idol. This guy was playing 100 percent. That relationship kind of developed because we saw each other as strong players. And Mike is hilarious. I don’t take things too serious. Mike doesn’t. It’s an odd combo, but we’re almost like meant for each other.

Us: What was your biggest mistake in the game?

JM: The biggest mistake is that I set everything in motion. This entire season is full or errors and I think that’s what makes it perfect — is that it’s imperfect. The fact that you have 18 players that think they’re really good and they’re just not. Even the clue that I found — I didn’t think it was a raft. I thought it was a floating buoy on the island. That’s what happens when you’re a fan. You’re like, “Wait a minute. Last season…” Game Changers was going on and it’s at the well. I was able to see Tai [Trang] find two idols at the well. So I was like, “There’s no way they’re going to do it at the well. This is the first season they put it on the tree, so it’s not the well. It’s out in the ocean.” I think that was error No. 1 and from there, it spiraled. If I had discovered that idol on my own, I would have found all three idols and it would have been a completely different game.

Us: Do you think there was anything you could have done at tribal council to change your fate?

JM: That’s hard to say. I don’t think so. I went in there with the idea of laying low. That was the only tribal I laid low. Not because I felt secure, but because my gut told me I was going home. I knew that. I said it in one of my confessionals. But the perks! Ben going home, the idol being flushed … I thought if that goes through, I won the game. Kudos to them and kudos to Ben. I put a huge target on his back and people were still wanting to play with him. Give him the Oscar because that was amazing acting out there, for sure.

Us: Who impressed you while watching the show back?

JM: Ryan! Ryan really, really, really impressed me. I had no idea. He really impressed me with his social game and finding that advantage. Being able to make that connection with Devon and Chrissy. So he impressed me. I knew Ben was playing, but I didn’t know people were just handing him all this information. That was pretty impressive.

Us: Last question — will we see you again?

JM: My goal was to win and never play again, but now I completely understand why people make a career out of this. So as long as I have vacation time and my job allows it, I’ll definitely play again. I would love to play again. I just have to make sure I don’t play with 17 fools because this cast was full of — including myself! — this was the worst season when it came to mistakes. I love this season, but it’s just error after error after error. But that’s the reason why I love it.

Survivor airs on CBS Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET.

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