Meet the 'Survivor 45' Cast! Austin Li Coon Describes Himself as a "Chameleon"

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There's no one way to describe Austin Li Coon. Though only 26, he grew up a "shell" of his current self, changing color from an introvert to extrovert and traveling the world before settling in Chicago to get his MBA. No matter where he's gone, even on a 230-mile hike through the mountains, the dream of Survivor had been in his eyes. Though Austin has the appearance of a jock, he acts much more like a class clown, loving the big characters of seasons past and hoping to find a ride-or-die that can keep him laughing until he gets the last one.

Read on for my interview with Austin, and check in with every day for interviews with this season's contestants and other tidbits. Survivor 45 premieres on September 27 with a 90-minute premiere on CBS.

Related: Meet the Full Cast of Survivor 45

Interview with Austin from Survivor 45

To start, tell me about yourself.
My name is Austin Li Coon. I'm 26 years old. I grew up in California, but I'm now an MBA student at the University of Chicago. I think right now, I'm supposed to be taking a midterm for my supply chain management class, but I'm ditching that to be here. I'm sure the prof will understand. So I'm feeling really good to be here. Extra good that I don't have to study.

Well, you just transferred to the school of hard knocks on Survivor!
[Laughs.] Yeah, I'm sure I'm gonna learn more here, honestly. So, let's see how it goes.

So what made you decide to skip out on class to come onto Survivor?
What started me in the whole Survivor journey is my mom. She's been watching ever since the first first episode. And that came out when I was four. But back then, I was not huge into reality T.V. I didn't really watch Survivor. I loved playing video games and watching hockey games and stuff like that. But I remember I came home once over Christmas break, and my mom would always be watching these reality T.V. shows–especially Survivor–just by herself in the living room.

One day, I came back. I was like, "Man, it's kind of sad. I should just sit and watch it." And I was instantly hooked. I was like, "This is so awesome." So I just binged everything. And we text every single day about Survivor strategies; we call all the time. This whole process getting here has been like a shared dream. So that's really what got me here. So I'm just super excited. I know she is super excited. She's gonna be so excited hearing me on this podcast, too. She's a huge fan. So, this is awesome.

Well, hello, Mrs. Coon! Shoutout for getting your boy here. Give me one Survivor winner and one non-winner who you identify with the most.
I think non-winner, I'm gonna go with Owen Knight. Just came from Season 43. Similar kind of long-haired Asian, loves the outdoors, "Never Say Die" attitude. It was actually kind of crazy. Because when I was applying for this season, the cast announcement just came out for 43. And I was look at it, and I came across Owen Knight, and I was just like, "Are you kidding me?! They don't even need me anymore! They just cast me. I don't even need to submit an application." Luckily, I ended up watching the season, and we're very different people; we just have a lot of similarities. So that was really exciting to hear. But Owen is definitely the one identified most that's a non-winner.

I think the winner I identify with most would probably be J or Wendell, just in terms of how they're going to be playing and how I want to play. They're seen by a lot of people as big threats, very physical. But I think the base of their game really revolves around their connections with other people, one-on-one relationships, and using that to make their threat level a little less noticeable to other people. Or make other people be like, "Yeah, you're a big threat. But I still want you here because you're fun to hang out with." So those are the two that I feel like I'll try emulating a little bit out there.

You described yourself in your bio as "a bit of a chameleon." You talk about how you could be this adventurous hippie one minute and then an anime lover the next minute. You talk about going to Australia and then D.C. and Indiana. You have done so many things over the course of your life. Has that just given you a natural adaptability that you hope to bring to the game?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, you look at me now, and I was nothing like this even 10, 12 years ago. I feel like I was a shell of my current self. I was very introverted; I was very quiet. I was very scared of doing things. Even raising my hand in class would petrify me. And then, slowly and surely, I started moving to new places, trying new experiences, and just building up my own confidence. And that ultimately led me to get here. But I think living that entire introversion/extroversion spectrum has made me a more empathetic person. I can connect with someone who just wants to sit in the room, play video games, and not talk to a single person for eight hours because I've been there. And I can also talk with the people who just want to go out, have a good time and party too because I've also been there. [Laughs.]

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What's your favorite moment in Survivor history?
I can think of two moments. The first one is Heroes vs. Villains, the very first challenge where Coach just demoralizes Colby. I thought that was hilarious because Colby is carrying Coach over, and Coach is looking at his tribe, like, "Just wait." And then, like, at the end, Colby is all tired. He just carries him over, gets the point. And then Colby's kind of ruined for the rest of the season from that. I just thought that was hilarious—I am a big Coach fan. The second one, I remember watching All-Stars. And just that whole story with Rob and Amber was super awesome. And that was kind of a dream. Like, "Maybe one day I'll find my Amber out there on the island. That'd be so cool." That was a really cool moment.

Is that an intention you've carried over to this day? I mean, with the Matt and Frannie of it all, I have to ask!
[Laughs.] It's not really an intention more. Go with the flow; whatever happens happens. I'm open to it, but I'm definitely not looking for it. Because at the end of the day, it's about the million dollars, it's about the title. Anything else is extra.

So I gotta get into perception with you. Because you talk about this "surfer vibe" that you have, this internal ability to morph yourself into any environment. How do you think the people out here in your tribe are going to perceive you initially?
I think it's hard not to look at me and be like Woo or Ozzy or something like that. And that's fine with me. I'm happy if people look at me and they immediately assume a character like that because those players are known for their physical abilities, sometimes their social abilities, but none of them are really known to be strategists. And I think that's kind of something that I'll be bringing into the game that people aren't gonna be aware of. And I'm going to try underplaying that. I can't hide my physical strength. I can't really hide talking to people, but I'll be able to hide the strategy going behind the scenes.

You talk about physical strength. What's been your prep for coming onto the show?
Oh my gosh, I've been training for this for years. But I guess just looking at the past couple of months, I did a 60-hour fast. My classmates are like, "Why are you fasting for so long? You're crazy." I'm like, "I just want to see if I can do it," Obviously, I can't tell them I'm gonna be here. I've been working out twice a day. I've been like playing hockey, boxing, volleyball. A couple of years ago, when my dream of being on Survivor was starting to really peak, I did a 230-mile backpacking trip on the John Muir Trail. So I started at the base of Yosemite, I climbed to the top of Half Dome, and then I backpacked with 40 pounds on my back 230 miles to Mount Whitney, and I climbed that. And the entire time, I was thinking about Survivor, how I'd win that. And it was sort of a Zen moment, just thinking about Survivor, being like, "This is what I've got to do. I've got to just be prepared. I can do whatever I can, and I've got to crush it once I'm there."

Let's talk about your competition. What are you looking for in an alliance partner?
I think a lot of people talk about, "I want someone who's loyal to me," and all that. Obviously, that's a given. I think what I'm really looking for is someone who will laugh with me, who's fun to hang out with. Laughter is truly the key to my heart. So, if we're vibing and we're laughing together, then I know we'll be able to trust each other, we'll be able to make some moves together. So laughter, that's the number one thing. Make me laugh, and I'm yours.

When it comes to perceptions, is there anyone in this time before the season that you're eyeballing as people you do or don't want to work with?
Oh, yeah, I've got a lot of those for both those categories. I think this is kind of the perfect season for me. I talk about laughter being the key to my heart. I'm looking around, and I can tell that this cast has got more than a couple of goobers, myself included. It's gonna be hilarious. I think it'll be an all-time funny season, just sensing the vibes of people. Obviously, we can't talk. But you can feel that funny energy coming from people.

There's this other guy with long brown hair. I would love to work with him; we could be like the "Flow Bros" or something. He seems like a really funny dude—definitely big green flags from him. Red flag, okay, there's one guy, big afro. And I could tell he's selling. He's gonna be playing all sides. Like he's smiling at everybody, looking at everybody. You can't talk. But you can tell that he's making his rounds, trying to get as much eye contact as possible with everybody versus other people that are a little more selective. Those are just a couple right off the bat.

Related: Everything to Know About Survivor 45

Let's say a boat shows up to your camp on Day 2, asking for one person to go on a journey. How would you approach the situation?
Oh, man. I think that's a case-by-case basis. I can see a lot of different outcomes. I could definitely volunteer. I feel the early game is when players like me have the most power, in the sense that we are least likely to be voted off really early in the game. So making big moves early on to maybe pad myself, give myself a little protection when the merge starts coming. I could see myself doing that. I think, for the most part, I'd want to send out one of my closest allies to keep the target a little bit off me, but keep it close enough where they'll tell me whatever they get. And drawing rocks, worse comes to worse, but still, a fine outcome, I think.

Outside of the journeys, how are you planning to approach idols and advantages?
Oh my gosh, the advantages and the idols of this modern-day Survivor are both terrifying, but also extremely exciting. I feel like for strategists, people who are able to play fluid games, these advantages that come in, if you're able to make the pivots in time, it could be a benefit for your game. But I think my strategy in terms of advantages, I really want to go into the merge with some sort of advantage, some sort of safety. Because I know once we clash together, we may be split into two groups, and maybe one from each of them go off. When that happens, you've seen in past recent seasons, the big guys like me, they get picked off. So having any sort of protection during those moments, I think, would be really, really helpful for me, and I'll definitely be trying to find some stuff.

What would you say is your biggest superpower and your biggest kryptonite in your life, and how that may play into your game?
I think superpower, going back to living that whole kind of chameleon thing, a bunch of different lifestyles. I think I am a lot more sensitive and empathetic for someone who might look like me and big and strong and stuff. You might think of me as a surfer bro or meathead. You might not know just how sensitive I am. At the same time, I feel like that's also a kryptonite for the game. Because the one thing I'm really nervous about is getting actually genuinely really connected with people and then having to cut them off. I already thought about if my tribe loses first immunity and we have to vote someone off, that's going to be a heartbreaker. That's something I don't think I can really be prepared for. I just have to be ready to suck it up when the time comes. And I hope I can; I think I can. But we'll see.

What is your hottest Survivor take?
I think Phillip Sheppard is an A-tier player. I love Philip Sheppard. I think he's awesome, and I would have loved to play with them. But I know he's not everybody's cup of tea.

You're not just jockeying for a nickname, are you? He could call you "The Chameleon"!
I also would love a nickname. That's something on my Survivor bucket list that I can't get unless I play with him. So Phillip, please. Let's play together. Let's do this.

What celebrity or fictional character would you want to come out for a Loved Ones visit?
It's not Phillip; it's actually Coach. Coach is above Philip. The Dragon Slayer is my first and favorite character of all time. I love him; pure comedy. I think it would be a kind of a pain to work with him. But having him come over for a little bit, give me a little coaching advice, I think that would be pretty awesome. Worse comes to worse, it'll be a good laugh and something to tell stories about, because he truly is the biggest legend in my mind.

Would you accept the title of assistant coach and allow him to stretch you out?
I would do anything. I would take the title of assistant coach over a nickname by Phillip Sheppard. That would be amazing. I would share that with Tyson. I would love to be Coach's Assistant Coach; that would be awesome.

Next,  check out our Survivor 45 interview with contestant Kendra McQuarrie.