A 'crushed' Sophie Clarke on finally getting the call to play Survivor again

The South Pacific champ is back, and hopes the wait was worth it.

Because while Sophie admits to being "crushed" when she did not previously make the final cut, she also told me in the days before her long overdue return in Survivor: Winners at War (premiering Feb. 12 on CBS) that the extended wait ended up being a blessing in disguise. And that's not all she told me. Sophie opened up about her first Survivor season, why she doesn't get enough credit for her win, and how she's changed since then. She also revealed her initial thoughts when she met future champion John Cochran, and, honestly, the entire interview is worth a read for that alone.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What's going on, friend? Wait, can I call you friend?
SOPHIE CLARKE: Yeah, we're friends.

Are we friends?
Yeah, we're friends. Officially. We're not best friends, but we're friends.

No, yeah, we're friendly.
Yeah, sure … No, we're friends.

Okay. Just because there's friendly, there's friends, and there's close friends.
And best friends. Close friends and then best friends.

We're not close friends yet?
Maybe, I think, after this interview.

Okay, perfect. So it's been a hot minute since you've done this. It's been what, 17 seasons?
Literally, hot. Dalton has me in the sun.

Yes, it's very hot here. And yes, you're right in the sun. Sorry about that. So tell everyone what you've been up to. Give us the update.
So I think when you last saw me, I was headed to med school, on the path of glory. Had won Survivor. And in the last eight years, I have like deviated from that very linear path. I did three years of med school, absolutely hated it. Hated the patients, hated blood, got bored. I was really bad at it too — honestly, I couldn't memorize anything. So I left and I tried my hand at a lot of different jobs. I tried TV producing, I tried management consulting, and then my godmother told me that she would disown me if I didn't finish medical school, so I finished med school. And I never practiced medicine. I just… I quit, I left it. I kind of credit Survivor a bit with giving me the guts to make those kind of decisions. I'm not sure had I not done Survivor if I would've been the kind of person to have the courage to get off that moving treadmill of medicine. Anyway, yeah. And then I fell in love and I'm getting married this summer.

Congratulations! That's amazing.
I wonder if I'll make any real friends out here who I'll invite to my wedding.

That's a good question. When's the wedding going to be?

August? Hmmm…I mean, I don't know when you're sending the invites out…
Maybe I can use it as leverage.

Are invites already out?
Invites are already out.

Okay. And by the way, by the time people are actually reading this, this has already happened.

Like, you're married.
Oh, well I had a beautiful wedding.

Was it incredible?
It didn't rain at all. Blue skies.

My invite got lost in the mail. Anyway, Sophie, you just talked about a lot of change. Does that impact you out here at all?

I think that to win Survivor, you need to have some kind of intrinsic winner attributes, and then you also need to be dealt the right hand. And when I look back on my season, I think that I was pretty lucky. I think I was dealt the hand for the maturity that I had at the age of 21. Like, I think I had a lot of walls, I think I had trouble opening up to people, it took me a long time to be vulnerable. I think a lot of people saw me as stand-offish and condescending.

And I think I was just dealt the right hand of a tribe full of egos who underestimated me, who I could keep together in a band, and stick it to the end. And over the last eight years, I've had a lot of challenges and I've felt a lot of feelings. I've had to quit things and I've had to realize that I wasn't as good at things as I wanted to be, and I've had my heart broken. And I've fallen in love, and I think just having the diversity of experiences and evolving to be somebody who can be more vulnerable and can be more aware, I hope will make me into somebody who has the opportunity to succeed at more hands.

I look back and I think, "I was dealt the perfect hand." I'm not sure if 21-year-old me played another season, if I would've done as well. But I think I had the right people at the right time and I hope that I'm now, because of the experiences over the last eight years, somebody who could be dropped kind of in any season and do pretty well. And I guess this will be the test.

Was it frustrating not being asked back after you won? I always thought you were not only a really good winner, but a good character and personality for them, which was a little obscured because you had Coach and you had Cochran, who were the focal points of the season. Tell me about the journey, because this is interesting for all Survivor players who wonder, "Am I going to get that call?" And then the call not coming, or the call coming and going to callbacks, but then not getting out on the island.
Yeah, so I think I've gotten called almost every single year since I've been on the show and I've been to the finals casting once. And, you know, I hope I'm not just saying this like post-hoc, but I think that it's probably for the best that I haven't come back until now. You want to go on Survivor when you feel like you don't need Survivor. And I think sometimes people go on Survivor to run away from something, or because they can't handle their everyday life, or because they're so wrapped up in the game that they have this huge thing to prove. And as much as I really wanted to play over the last eight years, and as I much as I was crushed when I was an alternate, I feel like I'm now getting to come back. I'm at this cusp of, you know, I've been at a steady job for a couple years, I'm about to get married, I feel like I've matured into a new person who's able to leave that baggage behind.

There's this quote saying that "Generals are always fighting the last war." And I think if I played three years ago or four years ago or five years ago, I would've been fighting that last war. And people keep asking me, "Do you feel pressure? Do you feel like you need to live up something from your last season?" And I don't. I feel at this point, it's so disconnected from that last season, that I feel like I don't have to do so much comparison between what I was then and what I will be now. I feel like a new person who can just play Survivor again.

Do you feel like you don't get enough credit for your season and how you did?
It's hard to say now. I spent a lot of time after my season feeling like I didn't get enough credit. And I think I've probably let go of some of that emotion, but I think logically, yeah, I still feel like I didn't get enough credit! I felt like I played a really smart game that was difficult. People always say that they played under the radar and they act as if that's something to be dismissed. I feel like dodging the radar is not a passive thing. Playing under the radar can be a really active choice, and I felt like my game, I always actively chose to play under the radar. Quote-unquote, "Play under the radar." Or more like dodge the radar. I was actively always doing that. And I felt like it's just was something that is hard to show on TV, and also something, as a fan, I totally understand. It's a less fun game to watch…

Because it's less showy.
It's less showy. But I'm excited, because I've always felt like I played that way because that was the situation at the time, and I made that the best strategy. And I'm really excited to put it to the test in this game and see if this game does not require an under the radar player, if this requires a more flashy player to win, can I be that flashy player? I think I can, but I haven't proven it yet. Some people here have proven that they can do that.

Was there any hesitation with coming back, just with the timing of your upcoming wedding and stuff like that or was it just like, "Boom, in. Yes, go."
Some hesitation because my fiancé does not have the best creative eye. Apologies, Bobby. So a little bit of hesitation there. Less hesitation because I was excited about the concept of an easy wedding diet. But actually my fiancé literally just left his job and is building a startup. And so for us, this is kind of an exciting time. The three months before we get married, he is going to L.A. for six weeks to start the startup, and I'm out here, and it's just cool that before we signed this paper that binds us in eternity and makes us both fearful of the white picket fence and the dog…

I have a white picket fence, Sophie.
Oh s—, and a dog?

No, three cats.
Oh, that's worse. That's worse. But it kind of gets to remind us both of who we are and who we are apart from each other. He's terrified I'm going to come back and not want to marry him.

I actually asked you the wrong question. The question is: Did you have any hesitation to sign up for Survivor knowing that you would miss Big Brother this summer?
Please don't say it. I hate it. Yes, of course I had hesitation! And the worst part is that the reason I love Big Brother is… I don't like the show. I don't need to rewatch the show when I get back. I just love being in the community at the time. Like, I love logging in to Hamsterwatch and seeing if there's an update. I like watching the feeds to fall asleep. And it's not like other shows. You know, Bachelorette, I'll come home, I'll catch up on it and binge it for a weekend. Big Brother, there's no point in watching it after it's already happened. The whole fun of it is, "I am here, at work, and logging in to Hamsterwatch, and they are there at the moment, in the mansion, and we're at the same time doing this thing." You're leading two parallel lives at once. Sorry. This is Big Brother I'm going on right now, right?

Would you do Big Brother?
I would love to do Big Brother.

It's a long time.
I know. I would love to do Big Brother if it had less consequences. It's long. It's just like a less classy TV show, you know?

I do know. All right, so, excited or starstruck by any of the people that you've seen out here so far? What are your thoughts?
I'm getting more excited. I was initially very starstruck. So when we met in the hotel, kind of all silently with our handlers on the fly, I was almost the first one in the lobby and everybody started streaming in, seemingly from all different directions, and it literally felt like the scene in the Avengers movie where everybody's flying in at the last minute to help. And everybody's kind of walking in wearing the outfit you would expect them to wear. Sandra has on the red shirt, and Parvati has on something cute, and Michele has something cute on. Amber looks like she just came from a soccer game in Boston. And everybody's so perfectly themselves, it really feels like you're surrounded by super women. I think I'm less starstruck by individual people and I'm more starstruck by the concept of us all being together. And being a part of that concept.

Whom do you think you want to work with in the group of women you see here?
For the women, I'm really excited about Parvati and I hope she's excited about me. Parvati used to live in New York, so I know her well, we used to workout together. Like, she's met my family. But we've really been out of touch for the last year or so, like really out of touch. So, I was super excited to see her here, and I keep trying to smile. I keep trying to revive that friendship and I hope she's thinking along the same lines. I also think it'd be a really unexpected alliance. I don't think many people would know that we were friends. So I'm excited about Parvati.

I'm also kind of excited about some of the women who I think have a story more similar to mine, who might feel like they have something to prove. People like Michele, people like Danni, and maybe even Denise. I think that there might be some common bond that I can forge there. And then on the men's side, I mean, I don't know who's here. I assume it's 10 winners. On the men's side, I'm excited more about the egos. I think I've proven myself as somebody who can be a really good sidekick. Even in real life, I don't like to be the center of attention, I like to build people up. I think I'm incredibly conflict-averse, so I like to be the person a little bit more in the shadows. I think there are a lot more egos on the men's side probably. Like, if Tyson's out here, if he needs me to kiss the ring, I'll kiss the ring. I'm a little more excited about the egos over there.

It's been a while since you played, and the game has changed so much with all these advantages and twists and things. Do you think there's any learning curve for people where it's been a hot minute since they've played?
Yeah, I think I was delusional. I came out here thinking like, "I'm in the middle of the pack of winners." And it's true, I was season 23. But when I look at the women out here, most of them either played after me or have played twice and have played after me. Or have just played twice. I think me and Danni even are really the two that have only played once and have played before season 23. I definitely think there's going to be a big learning curve. I hope I can use that to my advantage. I always think you can endear yourself to people by opening up about your vulnerabilities and asking questions. And so I think my reaction to feeling like I'll be behind will probably be the opposite of what Stephen's reaction was, which was to go off into the woods like a lunatic.

When in doubt, always do the opposite of Stephen Fishbach. Let's just state that for the record.
I mean, I think if you are wondering if I'm going to be behind the curve, I think that means that other people are also wondering that about me. And I think that's a good perception to maintain. So I'm okay letting people think that until I kind of get up to speed.

What do you think their impressions of you are?
I hope that they see me as somebody who's very loyal. Because that was something that I was in my last season, and I hope that they still have that in their mind. I think that they'll see me as smart, I think that's unavoidable. I'm hoping that that translates into them being excited that I could help win puzzles and not them thinking that I'm a threat. I also think I'm not seen as somebody who has proven themselves to be an incredibly cunning player. The perception of me should be smart, loyal, trustworthy And I'm worried that, after all this time, after eight years, people might start to question that and say, "Yeah, she was seen as smart, loyal, and trustworthy, but is there more going on there?" I don't know, the perceptions of you are the hardest things to figure out. And it's probably the most important thing.

I agree on both of those points. So what's your biggest weakness, then?
I think two things. Last time, I underestimated some people. I forgot that everybody was playing, and I got too wrapped up in my own game. And I remember watching the game back and seeing a scene of Edna strategizing and thinking, "I didn't realize Edna talked that way to people," because she never talked that way to me. I mean, it's obvious now, we've all won. Nobody out here is going to be underestimated. But I think that's one thing I could end up doing. And then I think the other weakness is I'm somebody who has tons of close friends and not that many acquaintances. And so I tend to get really deep with some people but then assume that other people don't want to talk to me, they have their own thing going on. And the one thing that's happened in the last eight years of Survivor is that it's so fluid, it's not enough to have a two- or three-person alliance that's really close. You have to have a relationship with every single person so that you can, at the flip of a dime, switch over to someone.

So I need to think around these women like, "What is the first conversation I'm going to have with this person?" What can I imagine myself saying that will form a bond between us? And there are some people that I can really see how we're going to click, and there are other people where I'm like, "I don't know how I'm going to connect with this person." And I know that I need to connect with everybody.

You and John Cochran are good buddies now, but give me your first impression of him during this time before Survivor: South Pacific, when you guys were at Ponderosa and he's wearing his red sweater-vest. When you looked at that guy then, what were you thinking?
Dodgeball target. I brought the same journal out here that I brought to season 23, where I have all my notes about every single person. And some of the things I wrote in there about Cochran are just, like, not pleasant. Really not pleasant.

How much did you two talk before you came out here for season 40, and don't say you didn't because I won't believe you?
You know, I told two people, my two close friends from Survivor, Stephen and Cochran, that I was going out, and I spoke to both of them. Stephen, I think the last thing he said to me was, "You're way too calm. You're way too calm." And I was like, "That is a good thing, Stephen." I think it was the opposite of what he was. I mean, both of them are not just Survivor friends, they're some of my best friends, and so I think it was hard for them because while they have so much advice to give, I think probably more importantly as friends they wanted to give me support and build me up and tell me that I was going to win and tell me they were going to love me no matter what. And so I probably didn't get the best advice for them, because I think I got more just like hugs. But I think the biggest thing I'll take from Cochran's game is that I always felt like, watching him the second time, that he was having so much fun out there. And I felt like my season was a dark ass season.

Yeah, it was.
And it's kind of cool that we get to be the weird, red-headed stepchild of Survivor that was super dark. That sounds absurd, but I want to have a fun Survivor season. Like I want to have a Survivor season that feels like an escape room, you know? My last Survivor season did not. It felt like some twisted, Catholic Church confessional murder mystery. I don't want that. No, I think Stephen and Cochran have a lot to teach.

For more Survivor articles, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss, and for exclusive season 40 photos and video, follow Dalton on Instagram @thedaltonross.

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