Jonathan LaPaglia on hosting Australian Survivor: ‘Hopefully it won’t bite me in the arse’

FOR a franchise that, in its original American iteration, has lasted 32 seasons and almost 500 episodes, Australian Survivor has never quite stuck for Aussie audiences.

Network Ten are hoping to change when Australian Survivor’s third season starts on Sunday, 10 long years after it was last attempted.

The show — the first episode at least, which was shown to media this week — is a spectacularly high stakes offering in a reality TV landscape littered with rose ceremonies and cooking demonstrations.

The challenges are punishing, the landscapes awe-inspiring, and the contestants a fascinating mix of brawn and brains, bronzed gods and quirky underdogs.

But the biggest surprise package: host Jonathan LaPaglia. We spoke to the 46-year-old actor about his cross to reality television, and what viewers could expect from this reboot of the show.

There were a few names being thrown around in the media before the host was announced. Yours wasn’t one of them.

I was surprised as anyone else! Endemol Shine approached me, I don’t know why. On social media there’s chatter that they chose me because I look like Jeff [Probst], and maybe that’s it? They chose me because they were hoping nobody would notice I wasn’t Jeff.

You’ve had a successful acting career for two decades now. Why the switch to the ‘dark side’ of reality TV?

I think the industry has changed from five, 10 years ago when you stuck with one thing and didn’t cross over. You can do everything now. Hopefully the ‘dark side’ won’t bite me in the arse.

From what we’ve seen so far, you seem remarkably assured on the show. It’s like you’ve been hosting it for years.

It didn’t feel like that when I was there, let me tell you. It felt overwhelming, because I’d never done anything like this before. It was a steep learning curve for me. The US show has changed dramatically from when it first aired 16 years ago. It was more like a documentary back then, and Jeff didn’t talk very much. Over time he’s added commentary — now he talks non-stop. It was hard for me to get up to speed with that. Calling those challenges when you’ve got 24 people charging across a field — I found that really challenging.

We’ve seen Australian Survivor twice before, in 2002 and 2006, and neither season was a success. Did the producers of this new season look at what went wrong?

I only watched one episode of the 2002 one, I’m sure the producers had a closer look at it. I think they looked more at the American model — it’s worked for 16 years, 500 episodes, so I think they were intent on sticking to that.

The word ‘mateship’ gets thrown around a few times in the first episode, but surely mateship only gets you so far in this game.

Yeah, that’s the source of a huge amount of tension, and that’s what makes [this season] unique. Mateship and loyalty is so important to the social fabric of Australia, and the contestants really struggled with that, because the conceit of the show is that every second day you have to vote someone out. The Aussies had a really tough time reconciling that.

Is it harder to scare Aussie contestants? If you’re coming from far north Queensland, seeing a snake or a spider on Survivor probably won’t rattle you too much.

The rain on the island was what got them. Invariably it happens in the middle of the night. Those poor bastards are out there, 2, 3 in the morning, and then there’s torrential rain. I’d be in my hotel room and I’d get woken up by the rain and I’d be annoyed — those guys are out there with a banana leaf over them! I’d see them the next day and they’d just be shattered. That was the toughest element.

It’s fascinating in that first episode seeing those who are open and honest from the start, and those who are lying and game-playing from the moment they arrive. What kind of contestant would you be?

You need to pick your moments. Try and be as truthful as possible, but there are moments when you’ll need to lie. There’s no one way of playing this game: every type of game play has proven to be a winning strategy at some point. Staying under the radar is probably the strategy that I’d try and take.

You’ve spoken vaguely in the media this week about there being a ‘big blindside’ on the show. Spill.

It happens in about the first third of the season. There’s a blindside with an unforeseen consequence — the contestants didn’t anticipate the outcome. We didn’t anticipate the outcome either, it caught EVERYONE by surprise. Normally the architects of a blindside know what’s going to happen, but they got blindsided by their own blindside! It’s big.

Australian Survivor premieres 7:30pm this Sunday on Ten.

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