Whether building Fort Bangarang, or performing turtle CPR, Benji Lanpher emerged as NBC’s The Island’s inspirational leader. We peeked under the hood to find out what makes him tick.
GMP: Did male stereotypes exist on The Island?
Benji: The Island was a very unmanly place. It was kind of refreshing to be in that setting. There really were no alpha males. Well, Taylor (Cole) maybe, but he was off in two days.
GMP: As each episode unfolded, the show began to resemble some sort of social experiment. Do you think that was the case?
Benji: I do! They had taken modern males and plucked them out of society, men with strong personalities. These were in-depth conversations with smart men, largely brought on by being more in-tune, almost hyper-focused due to a lack of technology.
GMP: Do you think this experiment would have been different if the cast had been all women?
Benji: They tried it with just women in the UK. Having just males served the purpose of not making this a show about hook ups, and anything else that could take away from the survival and social experiment. The women, by the way, instead of killing a pig like we did, made the pig a pet. In the end they had to eat it, but it was only after they had starved for a while.
GMP: How has this experience changed you?
Benji: When we came off The Island everything seemed extremely surreal. I explained it as being in a “Life Coma.” Nothing could phase me and I don’t think anything could touch my newfound confidence. I became the jungle. (Viewers may recall the finale episode when Bear Grylls dragged a palm frond and birthday suit-clad Benji to the boat.)
GMP: What were your goals?
Benji: Since I was about 12, I’ve wanted to buy an island. I pictured the experience would be like Hook mixed with Blue Lagoon. I needed to find out if I would grow out of this Peter Pan syndrome, or lean into it more.
GMP: Why do you think (former police chief and self-confessed “grumpy prick”) Jim (Murray) didn’t want to participate? (Jim refused to stay at the main camp, or consort with the other cast members).
Benji: Insert villainous music! He would talk to the majority of the group as though he knew better than us because of his age, yet he didn’t do a damn thing to better our situation or his own. He was constantly profiling everyone—me as a serial killer/cult leader… Which he nailed (laughter). Also…he’s an obsessive reality TV watcher who’s been trying to get on Survivor for 10 years! I think he thought you had to build alliances and could get voted off.
GMP: What is one secret people don’t know about The Island?
Benji: NBC basically handed a multimillion dollar show over to 14 people they had never worked with. Every story you saw was real. For the first time the crew was the same as the cast. I can’t believe a big network like this even got away with this type of show! We were literally on the verge of dying for days when we weren’t we were fighting to stay alive.
GMP: In short order, The Island’s weirdest, funniest and scariest experiences?
Benji: One of the cast members had no idea how to poop in nature because he had never learned. So we were telling him, “You have to bend over!”
Benji: Funniest happened with Rob (Brothers). Every day he would put on his own talk show. He would choose one member of the group, sit them down and ask them hilarious questions while he filmed it. The “show” eventually moved to Fort Bangarang (Benji’s camp, which even had working windows!) We would pretend our guests were being prepped in the Green Room, and say, “Well, you know, a lot of people are watching the show, so try not to be nervous.”
Benji: Scariest was definitely going without water for two-and-a-half days. People started to breakdown and go mentally insane. Cast members who weren’t camera operators thought that we were being given protein drinks, which of course, wasn’t true. Mike (Rossini) clenched a machete and said he wanted to kill himself.
Benji’s mom, Judy Lucas says Benji prepared, reading two survival books, an Army manual and even speaking with his friend, one of California’s finest survivalists and TV personality, Cliff Hodges.
Maybe that’s why when it got gritty and real, Benji didn’t just survive, he thrived.
In between coughing, and a hoarse throat worsening as we talked, Benji confessed he missed girlfriend, Sarah Nelson the most, although when questioned by the press, he’d previously stated he missed booze. Hi mom argues he also missed water and that he seems to have new appreciation for it.
Benji hung tough for the final questions, although he informed us he still wasn’t back to 100 percent.
GMP: What did you think about filming some of the cast members more vulnerable moments?
Benji: The dangerous moments have to be filmed for insurance reasons as well as the story. There was no one else there to see what was going on. Some of the men threatened to kick the cameras over and delete the footage, which of course, would cost a ton of money to the network. I did set the camera on the ground when Mike was breaking down, then immediately called SOS and got him removed.
We wondered which was more treacherous, the dangerously cold climate endured in the remotest areas of Alaska while filming National Geographic’s Life Below Zero, for which he was recently nominated for an Emmy for Director of Photography, or the punishing heat of The Island. Benji assured us, “Even if it got to 80-below zero, The Island was all about duration. In Alaska, you always had a warm place to go and a survival guide looking after you.”
When asked how he would top this great adventure, he admitted “It will probably go unmatched for the rest of my life…until I buy my own island.”
Photo credit: Benji Lanpher