Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Malcolm Freberg reveals his 'forced time' strategy

Dalton Ross
·17 min read

With season 41 of Survivor delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show's past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they've been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.

Malcolm Freberg is a Survivor producer's dream. Handsome and charismatic, he not only looked good in island gear and gave sound bite gold in confessional interviews, but he also loved making big moves in the game, like his epic double-idol throwdown in Survivor: Caramoan.

But beneath those surface elements and all the brash bombast lurks an insightful and introspective player capable of analyzing people and situations to a T. And all those elements come out to play in Malcolm's Quarantine Questionnaire. The three-time player and fan favorite (who came one day away from likely winning Survivor: Philippines before returning for Caramoan and Game Changers) brings his A-game as he shares tons of behind-the-scenes intel from his outings, while also explaining his "forced time" strategy, sharing some Brandon Hantz stories, and explaining why he regrets the way he treated tribemate Russell Swan. Hold up, bro… it's time to read Malcolm's Quarantine Questionnaire.

Robert Voets/CBS Malcolm Freberg on 'Survivor: Game Changers'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.

MALCOLM FREBERG: I got fat. I mean, there's plenty of other more significant updates, but that's what I'm dealing with right now. During COVID, I've been working from home, living in sweats, with a stocked refrigerator in the next room. This did no favors for my midsection. But because the world's about to open back up, my diet started yesterday. Twenty-four hours in and I've discovered that losing weight is much less fun than gaining it. My lunch today is celery and tears.

I've worked as a writer for about 10 years now in damn near every capacity: marketing copy, scripts, journalism, and a lot of ghostwriting. But for the past couple years I've also been with a production company in L.A. working behind the camera, primarily developing and creating content for NPOs. I've been very fortunate to stay busy during the past year.

Oh, and I just got a dog. His name is Theodore Jackhammer, he's a 5-month-old Australian shepherd, and everything I own now has bite marks on it.

What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?

Has to be the tribal when Jeff Kent when home in Philippines, when I pulled out the idol before the vote.

True story: I came up with the concept of that move before landing on the island. I have the notebook to prove it, slowly molding in a stinky garbage bag with all my old island clothes and memorabilia. Essentially, I had this wild idea about "forced time," that if you were in trouble, you could create a frenzy by changing the dynamics of a vote when you knew a deadline was close — i.e., sitting at Tribal, waiting to vote — which prevents your rivals from reconvening to plot a new strategy.

Then, lo and behold, on the last aired episode of One World before we got on a plane for the Philippines, Colton essentially threatened to do something very similar with an idol. I don't remember the exact situation, but I was fuming — this kid was about to steal my brilliant idea.

Fast-forward about a month, my heart's beating like a renegade jackhammer because friggin' Blair Warner outed my idol and I've got no idea how to handle it. But moments before we walked up the stairs to Tribal, I remembered this wonky idea I'd had back home, cackled, and whipped the bastard out a couple minutes later.

The move to boot Phillip in Caramoan was essentially a doubled-down version of the same gambit. Force adversaries to reform a plan and give them no time to do so, then pocket the idols when they turn on each other. (To everyone reading this: Yes, I know I flubbed the execution, I knew it before we even got to the vote, so I don't need you to slide another essay in my DMs explaining how I could have handled it better.) Because I had a crazy idea one night months before Philippines started, we now have live Tribal Councils. I'm so sorry.

One more bonus moment. In the opening moments of Game Changers, when Tony made animal noises and sprinted into the woods searching for an idol? I looked at Sandra and told her to follow him, and she did it. It wasn't some huge request or power move, of course. But imagine being a superfan who grew up idolizing the show, and having the (then) only two-time winner follow your order? Had goosebumps in the moment.

What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experiences?

Outside of gameplay mistakes — which everyone has, unless they've won the million — the one big regret I had was my attitude toward Russell Swan.

You have to understand, I came on Survivor with a massive chip on my shoulder. I was determined to make a name for myself, steamroll everyone, win the million and not give a damn what anyone thought about me afterward. Obviously, it didn't work out that way, but the first hurdle in my path was Russ.

I cussed under my breath when I saw the returnees approaching our boat on day one of Philippines. This was actually part of why Denise and I bonded so fast: Neither of us wanted to play with returnees. I would have acted bullheaded toward whichever of the three former players landed on my tribe. And don't get me wrong, Russ was a lot on the island. Some of the things he said and did were just as absurd as they looked on TV (i.e., calling Probst "Lord"). But I've said plenty of savage things about some other players over the years that I don't particularly regret. Not the same with Russ. I tore into him hard during confessionals in the frustrating Matsing days, when he truly is well-intentioned and has a great heart.

I reached out to apologize a few years back — several years too late — and of course he was perfectly gracious and kind about the whole thing. Russ is good people.

What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in one of your seasons but never made it to TV?

There's way too many to count, but here's a big what-could-have-been for you:

At the final eight of Philippines, Denise and I proposed the final four deal to Skupin and Lisa. It was my idea to put a time limit on the offer, playing off that same "forced time" principle. I haven't watched the season in years, but I'm pretty sure that when Skupin takes the offer to Lisa, you can hear him say, "Denise and Malcolm want to shake on it before the immunity challenge," or something similar. It eventually played out with Lisa proposing to Penner first, he hesitates, so Skupin and Lisa agree to our deal.

But that wasn't Denise and my only play. If Skupin and Lisa hadn't agreed before that day's challenge, we were going to take the same offer to Pete and Abi. I don't remember the dynamics of how we were going to get through the F8 vote — I think it played off a planned split vote? — but we had a 100 percent solid, locked, ready-to-go backup F4 deal if Skupin and Lisa waffled on our offer.

Speaking of Penner, he gave us young first-timers a great piece of advice in Philippines: Remember your own truth about what happened on the island. It's going to be twisted and shaped for television, and to some extent that will define the experience, but don't forget the little happenings and nuances and intentions that no one judging you from their couch will ever see. A good pro tip for you up-and-comers.

One more what-if/crap-my-pants moment: Brandon Hantz and I had a long strategy talk the night before he shorted a fuse and was taken off the island. At this point in Caramoan, I already knew I was going to revolt against [redacted lame alliance name]. Brandon obviously couldn't stand Phillip either. We chatted long into the night about personal stuff, bonding, all leading toward him keeping his cool until the opportune moment to take out the majority, and he was very much on board with Corinne and my planned revolution. To be honest, Brandon was perfectly pleasant and rational on the island around anyone who wasn't wearing pink underwear — until he wasn't.

Fast-forward 24 hours, Brandon melts down, Probst gives him a back rub, and Brandon starts airing everyone's laundry the day after I reveal my plan to flip. That scene lasted much longer than you saw on TV, and I'm sweating not just from the heat, but because Brandon could have blown up my spot right then and there. He knew the plan, knew who was behind it, could have burned mine and Corinne's game. But he didn't. In fact, mid-diatribe, he made a little joke my way that I can't quite recall, but it essentially insinuated he wasn't going to ruin me. Thanks, kid.

Monty Brinton/CBS Malcolm Freberg on 'Survivor: Philippines'

How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?

I don't think I'm allowed to complain. I've got every title except the one that matters at this point. I won that CBS.com Ultimate Survivor bracket a few years ago (thanks, recency bias!), and some magazine my mom has stored away voted me as Steamiest Castaway af All Time, which I'll never understand. And when I'm feeling extra-obnoxious around family and friends, I point out that I'm still the reigning Sprint Fan Favorite. Then someone pulls up the clip of me locking up on Bold & The Beautiful and my ego crashes back to earth.

Whenever the question of "how you're portrayed" comes up, I always point out how much of the edit is based on results. Example: Say the final challenge in Philippines is anything that doesn't require steady hands. I already have an advantage, so I win the challenge, boot my longtime alliance mate Denise, and win the game. In this scenario, I don't receive the classic "hero who came close" edit that made me likable in the first place. In fact, I'm perceived as a cold and heartless winner for cutting my Junglemama at the last minute. And the show now likely features more of my snarky, harsh commentary that got left on the cutting room floor, painting a much more brutal picture of me and my game.

Taken a step further, if I win Philippines in that scenario, I'm not invited to Caramoan because there were no winners on the Favorites tribe. So "Hold Up, Bro" never happens, no Three Amigos, no Phillip double-idol Tribal, and I'm not on TV for back-to-back seasons. I'm just a long-haired bartender who played well once and won years ago, probably often confused with Fabio.

Or do a total reversal: What if Russ finds the immunity idol on Matsing in the hours before his boot? I'm sent home before the swap, remembered as nothing more than a surfer-looking dude who only wanted to spoon Miss Utah.

What I'm getting at is, very little stock should be put into anyone's edit, by the viewers at home or the castaway getting edited. If Russ had a simple ah-ha moment while looking for Matsing's idol, or one of a thousand other straws I couldn't possibly control had broken a different way, all those titles I obnoxiously listed up top don't exist.

If you ever get on the show, don't let the haters or the praise go to your head.

What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?

Not so strange after playing Philippines and Caramoan back-to-back. I just fell into regular life again, with the new twist of F-list celebrity and a hatred of coconut water.

Game Changers was different. I got home and had no mortgage or lease, no significant other, but I did quickly pick up a bunch of remote writing work. Thing is, I was still pining for adventure after the underwhelming experience of G.C. (thanks, J.T.). So I quit trying to settle into real life and just left again. I packed a bag, bought a one-way ticket to Mexico City, and spent the next year and a half traveling, paying the bills through ghostwriting contracts. Hit six continents and about 25 countries. Ran with the bulls, saw the pyramids, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, nearly died off the coast of Belize and had a hundred more adventures besides.

That phase was partially spurred by opportunity. We'd never had the means to travel widely when I was growing up, and how often in life will you have the freedom to do something like that? But looking back on it — I've been stateside for three years now — there was some postpartum Survivor angst driving that walkabout, too.

Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?

Actually, yes. There've been small flashes occasionally over the years, but not because of anything that happened on the island.

Like I mentioned, I've worked as a creative professional for about a decade. Especially when picking up freelance work in the early days post-Survivor, I definitely won some jobs and contracts because the hiring party loved the show — which made me feel icky.

Those little instances of "regret" were fueled by my own insecurity. Am I actually good at what I do, or just a hack getting work because I was on someone's TV with my shirt off? But that phase passed way back. Nowadays, I just take the work regardless of the client's motivation and avoid the introspection.

Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your seasons?

These days, it's 80 percent Denise and Aubry, and occasional check-ins with a handful of others. Aubry gives sage advice on how to take care of my houseplants, and Denise and I exchange family updates and dirty jokes. Though I should mention that Denise's family and mine have become close and had a lot of fun over the years. Yes, you should be jealous.

I've never really fallen out with anyone from the show… I don't think? I just drift away over time. It seems to surprise people when I explain that I'm aggressively introverted. During and immediately after seasons, you can't help but have a social relationship with some of the people you've met and enjoyed from this wild shared experience, but then life goes on. A hundred memories outside the game are flashing back as I write this, but I don't want dismiss anyone by accidental omission. Suffice to say, a lot of great people, a lot of great times.

Timothy Kuratek/CBS Malcolm Freberg on 'Survivor: Game Changers'

Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?

I fell out of watching the show after Game Changers. Not from lack of interest or burnout, I simply lived overseas and stopped keeping up after 34, and then didn't want to jump back in without having caught up first, and I still haven't. Though I obviously had to watch Winners at War so I could shout unbridled support for Denise on the internet.

Regarding favorite season, I was asked recently by a friend who'd only started watching the show during quarantine (apparently this is super-common?) which seasons I recommend. Told him Pearl Islands, China, and Cagayan. A good sampling across the eras, I think.

Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?

I've never really considered this before, and honestly no one springs to mind. In Caramoan and Game Changers, both times being dumped on a beach with returnees who I'd watched over the years, there was no huge sense of excitement or disappointment when I found out who I was playing with. It felt closer to revealing a game board, seeing where the pieces lay, identifying threats and possible allies, discovering where the lines of power would be drawn in the early days. I wasn't really cursing fate or getting overly pumped to be on the beach with most players, and I couldn't see myself having a big reaction to anyone else.

That said, I can tell you that I immediately cringed when I found out I had to play with Phillip, and that the minute I realized she was on my tribe — for a reason I know she knows, even though I came to adore her — Ciera was going home first in Game Changers. Have fun speculating on that enigmatic little admission…

If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?

I've ranted and raved on Twitter on this topic plenty in recent years. I don't have just one gripe, I've got eleventy and a half. But if I could only pick one change, it'd be that every player be made aware of what advantages are in play each season.

Think about it: What other self-serious game with stakes this high — thus excluding most of the goofier reality competitions — includes such a randomized, unknowable grab bag of unbalanced yet game-defining boosts? Outwit and Outplay are now dwarfed by Outlast, and Outlast lately means playing under the radar, or be the champion of jungle Easter egg hunts. And this is coming from someone whose run on the show was pretty much defined by idols.

Probst's oft-repeated mantra of "In Survivor, you've got to be ready for anything" is ruining Survivor.

Finally, would you play again if asked?

The answer isn't an immediate"YES!"like it was when I was younger. I accidentally grew up since my first time out, about nine years ago, and have something called "responsibilities" now. It's far cry from the year before Philippines, when I was living with too many roommates in a dingy beach house, bartending nights to make ends meet.

Then again, it's always hard to say no. CBS calls and essentially says, "Would you like to spend over a month in the most beautiful tropical locations on the planet, playing on adult obstacle courses for the chance to win a million dollars?"

And I still need a Sole Survivor title. So we'll see.

To keep track of our daily Survivor Quarantine Questionnaires and get all the latest updates, check out EW's Survivor hub, and follow Dalton on Twitter.

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