There will be a few familiar faces when Survivor returns this fall with its 37th season, David vs. Goliath. However, they’re not returning players, but rather folks who have made their mark in other areas.
Writer and actor Mike White — best known for School of Rock, Chuck & Buck, and HBO’s Enlightened — adds to his reality résumé after two seasons with his father on The Amazing Race. He’ll be part of the Goliath tribe, along with professional wrestler John Hennigan (who also has about 20 other aliases, including Johnny Mundo and “The Mayor of Slamtown”). We spoke to Survivor executive producer Matt Van Wagenen out in Fiji (where the show is currently filming its 38th installment, for 2019) to get the scoop on next season and the two big names competing on it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So Survivor: David vs. Goliath was just announced for the fall. Jeff Probst and Mark Burnett already laid out the groundwork for us, but give me your take on the David vs. Goliath theme.
MATT VAN WAGENEN: On the surface, David vs. Goliath is the underdog versus the favorite. It’s a gamble when you put that many people who have really succeeded and who, on the surface, you would think maybe could dominate against people who’ve had it a little bit harder and who might have a tougher time in the game. We decided the story of how these people were brought up and their own personal experiences and how they would interact with each other was worth the risk on what kind of result we would get.
And you have a few famous faces in this cast. Tell me about putting Mike White — who I wish was still writing and appearing on the criminally underrated Enlightened — on the show. We’ve seen him on Amazing Race twice before and know he’s a huge fan of reality TV.
I think he had talked about Survivor for a while, and I know he had done Amazing Race. When he came in to interview with us, he said, “You know, here’s the thing: Yeah, I’ve done Amazing Race, but I’ve always wanted to do Survivor.” I think he went on Amazing Race partially for the relationship with his father. This was a show that he was really interested in.
We’ve had other celebrities come in before, but it’s mostly been professional athletes. This was a different take for us, and we weren’t sure how his gameplay was going to be. Was he going to come in and tell everybody who he was? How open was he going to be with all of this? It was just a fun experiment for us to see how he played, and I think appropriately enough, he was also on the Goliath tribe because of his record and how successful he is.
Of course! School of Rock, man!
He’s a titan in Hollywood. He definitely belonged on the Goliath tribe.
Let’s talk about another Goliath. The Van Wagenen family certainly knows something about wrestling. So was it your brother who got John Hennigan on the show?
Yeah, my brother Eric also works with Mark Burnett, and he’s the executive producer on a Mexican wrestling show called Lucha Underground. Once he was giving me a tour backstage of their set and I ran into John, and he was saying, “I really want to do Survivor!” I was like, “Dude!” and I started asking him some questions. He knew it, but he didn’t know it know it. I said, “Dude, you need to go do your homework.”
That was three or four years ago. He’s been watching faithfully ever since and really, really digging into it. I was like, “Okay, but we’re going to treat you like everyone else. You’ve got to come try out and do all that stuff.” He came in and really impressed all of our casting department, and CBS said, “We love this guy. Let’s get him on.” He physically embodies the Goliath tribe. I mean, that felt like such a no-brainer to bring him in for that season.
In terms of physical appearance, he certainly seems like he’s the Goliath you put on the poster, right?
He is a big, big dude.