How to get on “Survivor:” Behind the scenes of casting season 45

How to get on “Survivor:” Behind the scenes of casting season 45

Survivor is the ultimate contest. The OG and gold standard of reality programming pits players against one another in a brutal test of endurance to see who can outlast the competition to reach the promised land. And that's before the show even begins.

Because as difficult as defeating 17 other contestants out on the island may seem, it is nothing compared to the 25,000 Survivor hopefuls an applicant must best just to get there. That's what it takes to get on Survivor, and that's what the 18 players that comprise the cast of Survivor 45 (premiering Sept. 27 on CBS) had to do before they could dramatically jump off a giant barge into the crystal-clear waters of Fiji.

How does one make it through the gauntlet of application videos, interviews, callbacks, more interviews, and more callbacks? And what exactly are producers looking for in a Survivor player? "First of all, there has to be drive," says host and showrunner Jeff Probst. "That should seem obvious, but it's not always the case. Sometimes people apply and even though they say and do all the right things, you can tell that the drive just isn't there. And if we don't sense a real need to be on this show, then we know it's not the right time for you."

The second thing Probst is looking for is simple self-awareness. "Do you know who you are?" asks the host. "If you haven't spent time reflecting on who you are or if you don't have a circle of friends who will tell you who you are, you need to know how you see yourself. And it really helps if you have an idea of how the world sees you because they're not always the same."

Probst notes that trying to put on an act — especially an act the show has already seen before — is unlikely to move the needle. "Where some people can trip themselves up a little is trying to be something that they're not. If you try to anticipate what you think we're looking for, or if you see somebody on a season that was really popular and you try to emulate what they did, it's not going to work."

The cast of 'Survivor 45'
The cast of 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS The cast of 'Survivor 45'

The final tip of the casting trifecta is finding players who are simply good at… talking. "You have to be able to tell a story," says Probst. "Because we task the players with a giant responsibility. They are the narrators for their season. Everybody thinks they can tell a story, but the truth is, it's a specialized skill to be able to sit down and say, 'Okay, here's what's happening,' and tell that in a way that is entertaining or dramatic, but also clear and concise."

While all applicants who make it on to Survivor must possess all three characteristics — "I'll have a pretty good idea whether you're going to be on the show or not after 10 minutes," says Probst — no two contestants are the same, and neither are their journeys through the Survivor casting process. Kendra McQuarrie did her casting interviews while making a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Emily Flippen ended up on the show after sending in an application video because "I was really angry that morning after watching Mike Gabler win, and I decided that that was not okay in my book." (She got a call back that same day.) Julie Alley ignored her daughter's pleas — "Mom, that's so embarrassing!" — to stop texting a casting producer after getting ahold of her number. And Bruce Perreault essentially got to skip the entire process for season 45 since he went through it the previous year before being injured just minutes into Survivor 44.

What is an actual voyage through the Survivor casting process like? EW went behind the scenes to present the stories of five different players from the new season and how they ended up on the show. It's a tale of youthful exuberance, second chances, last-minute substitutions, cocky charisma, and good old-fashioned social media stalking. This is the casting story of Survivor 45, as told by those who went through it.

The Annual Applicant

The official casting process for Survivor 45 — which would commence filming in April of 2023 — began in August 2022. That's when casting producers started poring over the thousands of videos already submitted since the end of the previous casting cycle. The head of casting, Jesse Tannenbaum, estimates there were already 16,000 videos waiting for them when they began work for seasons 45 and 46, which were cast simultaneously because they filmed back-to-back.

Tannenbaum's casting team — which includes four other producers and two managers — then reached out to applicants they thought had potential, leading to multiple interviews and often reshot audition videos. "Sometimes we give them pointers like that it's okay to be vulnerable and open and tell us about who you are," explains Tannenbaum. "So the producers will work with them to create a great audition video."

The casting producers are not just the gatekeepers to the Survivor kingdom at this point — determining which hopefuls they will present to Probst, executive producer Matt Van Wagenen, and co-executive producer Hudson Smith III — they are also cheerleaders doing everything within their power to help their favorites along. "We're not just passionate about the show," explains Tannenbaum, "but we're passionate about the people we meet with. Those are the people that spark a fire and those are the ones that we want to see on the show."

Every fall, Tannenbaum sends the best audition videos — scaling thousands down to a few dozen — to Probst and the show producers, who then pick out the folks they want to meet. After the producers make their selections, that group of approximately 30 hopefuls per season moves on to the first round of what are called "casting finals." At this stage, anyone still in the running meets with the show's psychologists, completes a background check, and sits down for more interviews with the casting department, show producers, and executives.

The approximately 24 people who make it past all of that are eventually brought out to Los Angeles in February for the in-person meetings that constitute the last round of casting finals. "If a player is going to panic, this is the stage where it happens," says Probst. "The pressure ratchets up when the room is full of producers and CBS executives. This too is by design. If you drop the ball at this stage, you probably won't get on the show this season." Once those in-person L.A. interviews are complete, the casts for the next two Survivor seasons are finally set.

It's a long, arduous experience. But for Brandon Donlon, the casting journey started much, much earlier than all of that. Brandon still remembers watching Survivor for the first time during the Gabon season in September 2008. "It felt like this religious experience," he explains. "It felt like I was watching some higher power who was like, 'This is going to change your life. Whatever this thing is, you have to do it.'" He immediately sent in an application. Just one problem: Brandon was 11 years old.

Brandon Donlon on 'Survivor 45'
Brandon Donlon on 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Brandon Donlon on 'Survivor 45'

"I sent in videos before I was 18 and eligible to apply," he laughs. "Which I understand now, having met with casting people — very annoying." Once Brandon turned 18, the videos continued. Every single year. As did the radio silence back from the casting department. "I knew that I had the sauce," says Brandon. "But Survivor did not care about my sauce. Zero percent interested in my sauce."

However, another CBS reality show was interested in tasting the sauce, as Brandon went to an open casting call for Big Brother and in 2019 made it all the way to the finals for season 21 of the summer series. "I watched the Edge of Extinction merge episode where Rick Devens comes back while I was in California at Big Brother finals," recalls Brandon, now 26 years old and a content producer at Temple University. "I was in a room with Ovi, and Cliff, and Jackson Michie."

But being cut at the very end from Big Brother turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because by this time, Big Brother's casting director, Tannenbaum, had taken over Survivor duties from original casting legend Lynne Spillman. And when Brandon finally got his callback for Survivor (actually for seasons 43 and 44), the superfan felt more prepared because of his Big Brother experience. "Like any kind of formal interview, if you have any experience, you are much better through those processes," says Brandon. "I went in with a little bit cooler of a head in that I knew what I was expecting."

Brandon's preparation even surprised Probst, who hopped on a Zoom with the prospective castaway for the first time back on Sept. 27, 2021. "I was like, 'Jeff, I don't know if I'm ever going be able to talk to you again,'" remembers Brandon. "'So I have 10 questions that I have always wanted to ask you, if you don't mind me running through them.' And he was like, 'Nobody's ever done this. By all means, kick off your questions.'"

Apparently, the approach — which also included Brandon crying in excitement at some point in every single interview — worked. "A super fan who is desperate to prove he can play this game and win," read Probst's notes from that first interview with the hopeful. "He's engaging, self-deprecating. He's very aware of the influence social media has had on his life and shaping who he is." After a later meeting, Probst wrote, "With every interview, he's getting more comfortable and more likable."

Brandan Donlan of 'Survivor 45'
Brandan Donlan of 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Brandan Donlan of 'Survivor 45'

Even so, when it came to the final list of Survivor 44 players, Brandon's name was not on it. Just like with Big Brother, he made it through every step but the last one. He even remembers the date: March 16, 2022, "I got a call around when the 44 folks were getting their calls saying that 'You're on,'" remembers Brandon. "I got mine saying, 'You're off.'"

Calls like the one Brandon received for season 44 are not easy for the Survivor casting team to make. "It's hard because we get invested in their stories," says Tannenbaum. "We care. We don't treat our cast like pawns in a game of chess. We treat them as people. This process is so long that those calls are really hard to make, but it's really important that we call them and not just send an email. We would never even consider doing that."

Rather than giving up after years of fruitless applying, Brandon kept hoping, and that hope was rewarded when a year later he got the news he was waiting for: He was going to be on Survivor. But even that featured a few twists and turns. Caitlin Moore from Survivor casting had reached out to tell Brandon that things were looking really good for season 45 and to expect a call soon, only there were problems keeping the line clear at the home he shared with his parents in Sicklerville, N.J. "My mom was on the phone with Verizon," recalls Brandon. "I grabbed the phone and I just hung up. She was like, 'What the f--- are you doing?'"

Two days later, Brandon finally got a text telling him to jump onto a Zoom, only he was visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York at the time and couldn't get service in the "dinosaur diorama room." A day later, he was back in his basement in New Jersey, finally on a Zoom with Moore. Once she pressed the record button, he knew. "I'm like, 'Oh s--- !' I was already crying before she even said it. I lost it."

At the same time, Brandon Donlon also won. He had finally made it onto Survivor.

The Social Media Savant

When it comes to Survivor casting, Dee Valladares is an anomaly. Like notorious Mike Gabler detractor Emily Flippen, she came in very late in the Survivor 45 cycle, submitting her audition video in December 2022, just two months before the cast was locked. And the video she sent almost got her banned from the process.

The video itself was not the problem. It's what Dee did with it. Like all the other Survivor hopefuls, she submitted the clip through the official casting website. But then, not unlike the Grinch, Dee had an idea. An awful idea. A wonderful, awful idea. "I told myself, 'How can I get above the noise?'" says Dee. "Because there are thousands of people that are auditioning for Survivor. And then I'm like, 'You know what? I'm just going to post my audition video on Instagram.'"

And she did not stop there. Dee then had "all my loved ones, friends, family, people I don't know, people I met once, ex-boyfriends…" comment on the video, and tag casting director Tannenbaum in the process. "I was stalking him," Dee reveals. "He was on a trip to Hawaii. I was like, 'Okay, this is the time zone difference. I need to tag him when I know he's in bed scrolling on Instagram.'"

"I don't turn my phone on silent just in case there's a family emergency," says Tannenbaum. "So I remember trying to go to bed one night hearing ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. She had asked everyone that follows her, and their friends who follow them, and their friends that follow them to tag Jesse Tannenbaum. And I was just like, 'Oh my God, I hate her.'"

Dee Valladares on 'Survivor 45'
Dee Valladares on 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Dee Valladares on 'Survivor 45'

"The video kind of blew up," laughs Dee. "The very next day, I get a call from a casting person and she's like, 'Hey, I need you to take down that video. You're driving my boss crazy.'" Dee's reaction? "I'm like, 'Okay, that's good. That means he saw it, right?' And she's like, 'Yeah, he definitely saw it.'"

While both Dee — who took down the video — and Tannenbaum strongly advise against such guerilla tactics ("That's not the way to go about the casting process," says the sleep-deprived victim), it kicked off what Tannenbaum refers to as "a playful love-hate relationship" between the pair.

"I feel like Jesse and I vibed as people," says Dee. "But he was annoyed for sure. I would tell him, 'Dude, I would be annoyed if I were you. I'm sorry, but I'm not sorry.'"

As for Tannenbaum, he concedes that "I loved working with Dee… eventually." Part of that love came from the applicant's unbridled energy. It's an energy that threw the 26-year-old entrepreneur from Miami into the casting mix even though she was months late applying. "I knew it was late, but I also knew that if I'm able to get that call and have a Zoom interaction, then I'm in."

Dee Valldares of 'Survivor 45'
Dee Valldares of 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Dee Valldares of 'Survivor 45'

But she first had to get past Probst. "My very first interview with Jeff was an hour after I landed in Iceland," says Dee, who had a layover on her month-long Nordic vacation, but didn't want to risk doing her one-on-one in a crowded airport. "So I landed, had to run and get the rental car, and then booked a hotel room. I'm like, 'I need a room right now! Do you have any rooms available?'" After procuring a space, Dee and the host chatted for 15 minutes about family, business, and dogs… and not necessarily in that order. (Probst's attention-starved Bernedoodle Stevie — named after Stevie Nicks — kept interrupting the proceedings for kisses from the host.)

Like Tannenbaum, Probst was won over. His notes from that first interview read as follows: "LOVE HER! So engaging and bright. Instantly likable out of the gate. She's funny. She is super likable. I love her, love her, love her. She really LISTENS. She picks up on every cue. She's very tight with her family. She knew she would be an entrepreneur. I see her on the show. Great winner. Could win."

"I was in 100 percent within the first three minutes," Probst adds now. "I was always in. I knew she was going to be on the show. It was just a matter of will she end up on season 45 or 46."

A few months later, when Dee hopped onto a Zoom and learned she had made the cut for Survivor 45, she was already all dressed up for a big dinner out with the girls. Yet after receiving the news, she started her celebration with someone even closer. "My dad was downstairs, so I go downstairs and I start crying and I'm like, 'Dad, like I'm going to be on the show!' We cracked a Corona outside, and we were just like, 'Wow, this is happening. And my life is about to change.'"

The Natural

Jesse Tannenbaum's phone was ringing, and it was Daniel Gradias on the line. Nothing unusual about that. Like a regional sales force, the folks that work in Survivor casting all cover different areas, and Daniel's territory for seasons 45 and 46 included British Columbia. Communication is common between Tannenbaum and the rest of the department, but there was an uncommon fervor in Gradias' voice when Tannenbaum picked up the call. "Jesse, you are going to freak out when you see this guy's audition video."

Tannenbaum's response: "Okay, let's do it." Gradias forwarded the video and Tannenbaum pressed play. "Within 30 seconds, I was like, this guy's a star."

That guy was Kaleb Gebrewold. Like many in the Survivor 45 cast, Kaleb started watching Survivor during the pandemic. Because he naturally gravitates toward the villains ("I love the style points, the flair, the personality"), he began his binge by looking up the greatest villain seasons ever. "I watched them just all in a row — season 1, seasons 6, 7, and 8, then seasons 19 and 20. Then I went back and watched all the other great seasons. And then I just went back and watched everything else."

Kaleb Gebrewold on 'Survivor 45'
Kaleb Gebrewold on 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Kaleb Gebrewold on 'Survivor 45'

A Canuck himself from Vancouver, Kaleb was excited when Canadians won seasons 41 and 42. "And what do they do on season 43?" he asks. "They don't even put a Canadian on the cast! I was so morally upset." It was time to take action. The 29-year-old software salesman was confident he could kill in an interview ("I knew once I got the callback, I'd be good"), but was less assured about how to construct his three-minute video ("I've never done anything in three minutes my whole life").

So he turned to a professional. Casting coaches have become a resource for wannabe reality TV contestants looking for tips of the trade to help their audition videos pop and cut through the clutter of 25,000 other clips. But they come at a cost. The man Kaleb hired, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X winner Adam Klein, jumped with both feet into the casting coach game, charging $225 for a 45-minute audition video review. He also has "Premium" and "Fresh Start" packages reaching up to $445.

For his part, Tannenbaum takes a dim view of casting coaches and thinks they can do more harm than good. "Quote me on this in capitals and bold letters," says Tannenbaum. "Don't hire anybody to help you through the casting process. Don't pay anybody to teach you how you should be, because now you're being someone that you might not be because someone told you this is what we're looking for."

Tannenbaum also doesn't like the thought of people having to part with their hard-earned cash in the hopes of getting on television. "You shouldn't have to spend any money to apply for any of my shows — or any show in general, to be honest," says the casting director, who insists Kaleb would have gotten on Survivor without any help: "Kaleb never needed that."

Kaleb Gebrewold of 'Survivor 45'
Kaleb Gebrewold of 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Kaleb Gebrewold of 'Survivor 45'

In fact, Tannenbaum was so high on Kaleb that he quickly identified him as a "Fall on the Sword" candidate. Fall on the Sword is, essentially, the hidden immunity idol of the casting process. If an applicant has a bad interview or for whatever reason looks like they are not going to make the cast, someone from either the casting or production side can Fall on the Sword. Explains Probst: "If the casting producer said, 'Look, I know it didn't go well. I'm falling on the sword,' that's them saying they need to be on the show. And that person will be on the show. It's over. You fell on the sword. That person's on the show. Let's move on."

Of course, it didn't come to that with Kaleb. Probst remembers the cocky applicant showing up for his Zoom interview with his shirt unbuttoned down to his belly button. "He had this beautiful look," he recalls. "And he was walking around his apartment basically just saying, 'Jeff, I slay in life.' And I found myself going, 'I want to come watch you do that!'"

The notes Probst took from the interview reflect the host's enthusiasm. "He's amazing!!! I love him. So charming. He leaps off the screen. An incredible story of resilience. Fans will love him." And while Probst definitely took note of Kaleb's "swagger," he also is quick to point out that while the self-assured applicant may have acted cool, it certainly was not too cool for school.

"There are people that want to just kiss your ass in the casting process," says the host. "I don't need that. Don't worry about kissing my ass. I kiss my own ass plenty of times. But what I do like is somebody who's respectful of the process and that we're spending an enormous amount of money to get to know you. And Kaleb, for all of his confidence, was very respectful. He showed up on time, he asked questions, he understood when we needed one more meeting that we weren't trying to mess with him. I was all in from the go."

Just as Kaleb predicted.

The Alternates

Kellie Nalbandian's Survivor story begins like so many others. She sent in her casting video. She did all her interviews. She made it through the casting finals. She got on a plane to Fiji. She sat around for five days at Ponderosa (where the contestants stay before filming and after being voted out). She sized up the other contestants and took notes on whom she might and might not want to work with. But then, on the day the game began, she flew home.

That was in April 2021. And the season was Survivor 43. No, Kellie did not suffer a game-ending injury in the opening moments. Instead, she flew out to Fiji as an alternate. The show now brings one male and female alternate to location every season, and when no other women were subbed out in the days leading up to the game, it could have been the end of Kellie's Survivor journey. Instead, it was only the beginning.

The thing that ultimately kept Kellie off of season 43 was timing. A critical care nurse in New York City, Kellie was inspired to apply to the show from her experience dealing with the rigors of the COVID-19 outbreak. "It was after a really scary experience for me," the 30-year-old recalls, "and coming out the other side made me realize that I should just go for whatever I wanted to do and that I'm capable of a lot more than I thought." After a push from her girlfriend (now fiancée), Kellie sent in a video (seen below) talking about how her job of working long shifts in the worst conditions had prepared her for Survivor. The video was great. The fact that she sent it in on New Year's Day 2022 was not.

It still got Kellie a call back from casting producer Caitlin Moore, who then reported back to Tannenbaum. "I remember specifically when Caitlin called me about Kellie," says the casting director. "She's like, 'This girl is a force of nature. She was dealing with being a nurse during the height of the pandemic while in grad school at Yale. She's funny, charming, competitive.' She kind of reminded Caitlin of an East Coast version of [Survivor legend] Parvati. And when she said that to me, I was like, 'Sold.'"

Kellie Nalbandian on 'Survivor 45'
Kellie Nalbandian on 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Kellie Nalbandian on 'Survivor 45'

While Moore informed Kellie that it was too late for seasons 43 and 44, "I kept doing more interviews and they were asking for more information," says the nurse, who had to pound Red Bull and coffee to stay up for interviews after pulling all-night shifts at the hospital. "I was like, 'Okay, what's happening?' Because I thought there was no chance."

But Kellie kept impressing everyone she spoke with. "F---ING HOME RUN!" Probst wrote down after his first interview with the hopeful. "She's really comfortable. She's a great talker. She's hungry. She can play. She will be devious. She can win. Only question: Squeeze into 43 or wait for 45?" All the time, time was running out. "I remember meeting her and saying to Jesse, 'What's the decision?'" recalls Probst. "Do we bump somebody from 43 or do we just hold her for 45?"

When Kellie received her answer, she was just settling in for a meal at the Cheesecake Factory, "which is a good place to receive bittersweet news." It wasn't a yes. But it wasn't a no, either. Instead, Kellie was asked to fly out to Fiji with the rest of the season 43 cast as an alternate, meaning she would only play if one of the other female contestants had a medical issue or for some other reason did not pan out in the pre-game time out on location. "Obviously, in my head, I was like, 'I'm gonna kick someone off the cast,'" laughs the nurse.

"We talked to her," says Probst, "and we said, 'Look, we love you, but in fairness, it's respecting the people that have been in the process.' We're not just constantly trying to upgrade people. If we tell you you're on the show, we're trying to keep our word that you're going to be on the show."

While the chances of Kellie playing on season 43 were slim, once she traveled out to Fiji with the rest of the cast, she had to mentally prepare like a relief pitcher who could get called into action at any moment. "My two people I wanted to work with the most were Cassidy and Owen," she reveals of sizing up the 43 cast. "Owen was sitting near me and looking at me a lot. Very smiley. He's kind of bro-ey, but also kind of nerdy, and that's totally my vibe. And I just liked Cassidy's vibe. She gives off this very positive flower girl aura. And I remember sitting across from Jesse on a boat the last day and getting this vibe from him that was like, 'He's serious. He's here to play.'" (She also notes that "I was pretty shocked by the winner, I'm not gonna lie.")

Kellie Nalbandian on 'Survivor 45'
Kellie Nalbandian on 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Kellie Nalbandian on 'Survivor 45'

Eventually, the jig was up. The official cast photo was taken, and Kellie wasn't in it (although the male alternate who traveled to location, Geo Bustamante, was after getting elevated to the main cast). "Everyone's like, 'Okay, why is she not in it?'" Kellie recalls of the cast realizing she was an alternate. "I was obviously upset about it. Anyone who wants to play Survivor would be a little sad — and would not be a good Survivor player if you didn't want to play."

But Kellie was just down, not out. Moore reached back out in August 2022 once casting began for seasons 45 and 46, and the New York City nurse was fast-tracked through the process, not even having to fly out for February casting finals in Los Angeles since she had done so the year before. Exactly a year later, Kellie found herself back in Fiji, and this time she wasn't an alternate.

Not only was Kellie now on the show, but she had a leg up on her Survivor 45 castmates — at least ones not named Bruce Perreault. "Every alternate who's ended up on the show — who came out, went home, and then came back — has said it was a massive advantage," says Probst. "Because for them it's like, 'I'm able to breathe a little more a second time because I now know the pace. I know how many days we're going be out here. I know what it's like to not talk. I know how to examine other people and take notes. I've refined my note process. I know how to pick up on little clues, things that might indicate what's going to happen in the game that nobody else can see.' So there's a lot of upside."

Kellie backs up what the host is saying. "It was nice for me to have an idea of the pacing of the week and what things entailed. I wasn't shocked by 'Oh, we have to wake up at three in the morning to get on a boat.' I was prepared to sit in this hot sweaty tent for eight hours while I waited to go talk to Dalton for a press interview."

While Kellie was a seasoned veteran of the process by the time she showed up to chat with this EW writer for Survivor 45, Austin Li Coon thought he was out there for his own future training. Like Kellie, he had applied — more than once, actually — and like Kellie, had received an invitation to fly out to location as an alternate.

"Super likable, smart, excitable," read Probst's notes from his interview with the contestant. "Understands the game is about one thing: relationships. Will play the first time like he's playing the second time. He grew up insecure, so he still has that underdog living inside him. And that's very appealing in terms of what we want to do with younger viewers in terms of inspiring them. Kids, women, men — everyone will love Austin."

Austin was in a business graduate studies class at the University of Chicago on Feb. 27 when he got the call informing him of his Survivor fate. He ran into a conference room to take the call from casting producer Penni Lane Clifton, and as soon as he heard her voice and tone, he could tell it wasn't good news. But when Clifton put Tannenbaum on the line to deliver the verdict that Austin had been selected as an alternate, the hopeful figured that "for bad news, it's the best bad news I could get."

Austin Lee Coon on 'Survivor 45'
Austin Lee Coon on 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Austin Lee Coon on 'Survivor 45'

Austin returned to class but was "completely zoned out the entire time" because he only had a day to mull over the alternate offer — an offer that involved ultimate uncertainty in terms of future plans and not knowing whether he was putting his entire life on hold for just a week or over a month. Ultimately, Austin decided that even if he accepted and never actually made it onto the show, "I still get to meet the cast of Survivor, which is super cool. I still get to hang out with Jeff Probst for a little bit. I still get to go to Fiji and do all these really cool things. I really would only regret it if I did not accept it. And once I had that clear in my mind, there was no other option for me."

But that choice brought other complications. Namely, his studies. Since Austin had no idea how long he would be gone, he wasn't sure if he should take the whole semester off or continue being enrolled and risk paying "insanely expensive" extra tuition should he end up getting elevated at the last minute to the main cast.

Austin's mother — a massive Survivor fan since day one of the show — advised her son to not play the middle ground, telling him he should either drop out of school and be an alternate or not be an alternate at all. For Austin, "I felt like it was too risky. Since I was an alternate, I had to be like, 'Okay, I probably shouldn't drop out of school for a small chance of actually playing the game'. So I stayed in classes."

Austin Li Coon of 'Survivor 45'
Austin Li Coon of 'Survivor 45'

Robert Voets/CBS Austin Li Coon of 'Survivor 45'

The 26-year-old Austin traveled to Fiji assuming the worst so he would not be disappointed, but even still could not help occasionally getting his hopes up, like when one of the cast members showed up an hour late to the airport: "I was like, 'There are nine guys, there are 10 women here. This is amazing!' And then finally that tenth guy came and I was devastated again."

He saw other players writing in their journals obsessively, but could not bring himself to do the same. "I'm like, 'I guess I should take notes'" recalls Austin. "I took some half-ass notes, but I was not looking at, 'This is who I want to work with.' I didn't want to let myself think about being in the game too much because I knew that there was a 90 percent chance I wasn't going to be in the game and I didn't want to be all sad about it again."

Austin was more confused than sad when contestant manager Michael Diefenbach (who helps shepherd the cast members from place to place and keeps them from talking to one another) informed him that they needed to take some extra photos in case he made it into the game. "They position me overlooking this beautiful valley jungle thing," the player remembers. "He takes his phone out and then a helicopter goes above us, and he's like, 'Okay, I just got to wait while the helicopter's going by." And, I was like, 'Wait? Why? Just take the picture!'"

But Diefenbach was not actually taking a picture. "He starts recording. I'm thinking he is taking pictures and I'm just smiling. And he's like, 'So, you're on!' I'm like, 'WHAT?!' And at that point, I didn't even know how to react. I remember almost falling down and putting my hands to my face and saying 'Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!' I kind of froze because 90 percent of me was like, 'This is the best day of my life!' The other 10 percent is like, 'Oh my God, in three days I'm going to be starving!'"

The cast was now complete. After eight months, a pool of 25,000 applicants at long last narrowed down to just 18 contestants. But before Austin could fully and finally agree to join as the concluding cast member of Survivor 45, he had one unusual request after a most unusual casting journey: "Can I tell my mom that I need her to drop me out of school right now? Because I'm still registered."

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