Oh, you thought the world’s biggest sporting event was over now that the 2020 Olympics have come to an end? Don’t let T.J. Lavin hear you say that.
The Challenge returns for its 37th season on Wednesday, Aug. 11, and it’s easily the MTV reality hit’s most ambitious season yet. Spies, Lies and Allies features 17 international players alongside the United States’ finest, including returning champ and legendary Challenger C.T. Tamburello . But, more importantly, this season’s cast is made up of the same amount of rookies as veterans, bringing in competitors from Survivor , Love Island and other franchises.
And if you thought winning The Challenge was hard, imagine assembling the cast for it, which is exactly what supervising producer and casting lead Skye Topic has been doing since season 26. If the show is a circus, consider Topic the ringleader, assembling and managing the talent that makes it to the main stage. And she broke down her process in an interview with E! News, opening up about taking the show global, the difference between a good reality TV contestant and a Challenger and which rookies to keep an eye on in Spies, Lies and Allies .
Oh, and she answers many fans’ biggest question: Where the f–k is Johnny Bananas ?!
E! News: How long is the casting process for each season and what comes first, the format or the cast members? Skye Topic: It was quite a long process for this one. We will start digging through all the potential names and interviewing them before the format has been fully locked because there’s a lot of people to interview and a lot of new faces. I’ll talk to all the vets and get their availability. So at least I have something in the mix for when The Challenge team lock in the format, I can immediately pull down who I think can work for it. So it sort of happens before but it’s all sort of happening at the same time.
E!: The show has pulled from other reality TV franchises and international shows for the last few seasons. Where did that idea come from? ST: Once Viacom opened it up not just The Real World and Road Rules and then to the MTV shows, the world was our oyster basically. That first idea to cast Brits really came from us seeing strong talent in the U.K. and looking at how we could really amp up the eyeballs on The Challenge , not just for the U.S. audience, but for the global audience, which is I think where we’re trying to go as a whole for the casting of the show. Like, how does this become an international Challenge where people from all over the world are competing in an Olympics-type game that happens to be on Viacom?
E!: What is it about someone that makes you consider them for The Challenge ? ST: Kyle Christie is a great example. He obviously popped on his season of Geordie Shore . A big part of it is how they pop in the interview sitdowns. I’ll do them pre-production, sometimes you’ll see someone pop on their show and then they’re like, “Oh, is this person a Challenger?” You’ll realize maybe they’re not. With Kyle, we knew that The Challenge was going to be a much more stripped-down environment for him. He was such a partier and the Challenge is the very intense environment—no phones, it really is a bubble—and we just kind of knew from the answers that he was going to thrive.
Sometimes you’ll get great people, but during the pre-production you’ll realize they’re not quite a Challenger and you don’t want to set someone up for failure. You have to have a pretty political mind to play our game well because it’s not just about can they scale a beam above the water for 20 minutes, but can they do that and then get back to the house and start navigating how I keep myself out of elimination? That part is equally as difficult.
E!: So what makes someone a good Challenger in your mind? ST: I would say that if I was going to play this game I would really, really focus on the house politics. I think if you’re an incredibly strong and intimidating athlete, say like Fessy [Shafaat] or C.T., that can you keep you safe for a while, but ultimately, you’re in trouble, right? People want to keep you out of that final. So if you play a clever game, politics-wise, you can really get to that final over and over. Often, the house is very stressful and sometimes just being funny…I think honestly sometimes that’s why Kyle is there for a lot longer. They don’t see him as a threat even though he is actually much stronger than we all think, but he’s so funny and he’s so warm and I think people are like, “I don’t want to eliminate Kyle because he’s keeping this house a little buoyant.” I think sometimes that social game is super valuable if you can play it the right way.
E!: For Spies, Lies and Allies , how did you assemble the right mix of veterans and rookies along with adding in over a dozen new international competitors? ST: We have initially over 300 names in this initial casting desk and we slowly go through all those people, who’s available and who’s interested. Then we basically get to around 65 names of people we will do full interviews with and then you get to half of that and you get to your cast of around 32. It’s a massive jigsaw.
As far as finding the names, there’s really nowhere we can’t pull from now. We really do envision the show as a place where it’s an intersection of society and it’s a place to see people collaborating and living and working together of all different races and sexual orientations and geography and gender. We’re not really looking at anything specific, but we’ll scour through all the shows, we’ll see who popped and then sometimes I’ll scour through someone I thought was good and see who they’re friends with. A lot of these reality show contestants are friends with each other.
E!: And how does the alternates process work? Rivals , you’ll need teams as alts because you can’t just insert someone. It is a big process to be an alt because you have to go through the same process as everyone else competing on the show and we do have a lot of alts in the mix. But we honestly end up using so many of them, it’s quite crazy what happens in people’s lives. You always need a lot of alts. We tell them their alts though. We’re very transparent.
For people who have never been on the show before, I tell them, “Listen, this is a really good way for you to get in process because once you’re on that alt list, you are immediately transferred to my life for the next season and for availability calls at the very list.” It’s worth taking the shot at being an alt, even though you get all your hopes up and it potentially doesn’t work, because you’re suddenly part of this family and maybe pulled in for the next season.
E!: Are there any rookies viewers should keep an eye out for this season? ST: There are some absolute surprises and gems in this season and rookies that I think people are going to really root for and really going to get a lot…There’s a lot of laughter, there’s a lot of partying, there’s a lot of incredible athleticism from these rookies and some of them felt like this was the opportunity of a lifetime, a really thrilling experience for them. And that joy and pleasure was just so rewarding for the producers because sometimes you’ve been on the show a lot, it’s quite grueling, you’re maybe coming in with a little bit of, “Oh my God, here we go again,” and these faces were just so excited and it was very, very contagious in a great way.
E!: Speaking of vets, one massive name has been M.I.A. since winning his seventh Challenge. Where is Johnny Bananas?! ST: Johnny is obviously a huge star of the franchise. That last win on Total Madness , I think he couldn’t believe it and it was everything he needed. I think in a weird way, he personally just needed to take a pause. We always call all the vets that we feel are valuable, just to see if they’re interested. Obviously, we call Wes [Bergmann] , we call C.T., Aneesa [Ferreira] always wants to come back and we love her, but sometimes these people need a pause because their return to the franchise after a little break is just so great for the fans. Bringing names we haven’t had in the mix for awhile back who are big tentpole names is a big conversation every season and it’s just who makes sense based on who can actually do it and who makes sense based on the mix of names we have that we for sure want.
E!: It seems like the veterans often take breaks to come back at the right time. How do you know when that is? ST: Every case is very personal and I take every person’s story very seriously. It’s not a joke. I’m all over what’s happening in their life. Does it make sense? Are they in the right head space? I adore Devin [Walker-Molaghan] and after Final Reckoning [he] needed a pause, he had gone through a lot of family trauma and it wasn’t quite right. We always call a lot more of the vets than we need just to see who’s around because you never know, someone might get sick or someone has to bail at the last second. I had been calling Devon for example after he had taken a break, but it just didn’t seem exactly right. And when we brought him back, he was so ready to go and it was a much more rewarding experience for the audience.
E!: Looking back, have there been contestants that you’ve cast that you really thought would pop who end up not really connecting with The Challenge fans? ST: I don’t want to say names, but we have cast people where we think they are going to be really good based on their original show and their pre-casting tapes and sometimes they can’t handle it. Honestly, it is a very, very intense and tough life to live in that house. It is no joke. When I see a cast member meditating or getting up early when everyone else is asleep and taking some time for themselves, I’m always like, ‘Let’s watch that person because they’re going to have the mental strength to get through this season.'”
E!: And which more recent additions do you think have really worked well? ST: I mean Kyle blew us all away from the beginning and continues to deliver for us. Big T [Fazakerley] is someone who at first we didn’t think she was going to be as incredible as she was. This was a great example of bringing someone back for a season two and that’s where she thrived. Sometimes it takes one season for people to find their footing and then obviously she killed it in Prague [season 36]. She’s someone that we all absolutely root for and love because she’s really a strong person and brings something really unique and different.
E!: Is scouting the primary way you are casting new contestants? ST: It’s mostly scouting and then sometimes a cast member will give me a lead. Ashley Mitchell will tell me, “I was partying with someone in Vegas and they’re incredible, you should interview them.” I’ll trust Ashley’s recommendation because she’s a great cast member. They’re not going to get cast because of her recommendation, but I may take them to the next level because someone will recommend them to me.
E!: Are there any reality TV franchises you haven’t tapped yet that you would like to in the future? ST: There really is no one who is off limits. What I think we really are looking to explore more are people who have a big presence in a sporting world or shows that are popular overseas that we haven’t explored, like obscure shows that maybe don’t have a lot of eyeballs. We are trying to get different countries in that we haven’t before.
The Challenge: Spies, Lies and Allies premieres Wednesday, Aug. 11, at 8 p.m. ET.
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