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Tough As Nails Phil Keoghan exclusive interview: COVID-19 workarounds and the new cast

Phil Keoghan
On Tough As Nails Keoghan serves as host and producer. Pic credit: CBS

CBS series Tough As Nails Season 2 premiere kicks off on Wednesday and is back with producer and Emmy-winning host of The Amazing Race, Phil Keoghan. The series defies gender tropes and features individual and team tests to celebrate everyday Americans who get their hands dirty while working long, hard hours to keep the country running.

The premise remains the same, the show is hosted by Keoghan and features contestants competing in challenges at job sites that test their toughness, with one participant eliminated in each episode.

In 10 episodes we see two teams of six people divided by men and women. Additionally, individuals are given tough challenges to master, as the final five competitors will battle to be crowned the champion of Tough As Nails and win the $200,000 prize.

In season one, Marine Corps veteran Murph of Indiana was the winner of Tough as Nails.

As in Season 1, the Season 2 series’ contestants are battling in strength, endurance, life skills and their overall mental toughness.

Contestants compete in 6-on-6 team challenges, individual competitions, and elimination battles, referred to as “Overtime.” Contestants who lose elimination challenges do not leave the game and still have the opportunity to win additional prizes during team competitions.

Each team competition gives the winning team $12,000 ($2,000 per member) and earns the team that challenge’s Badge of Honor. The team that has collected the most Badges of Honor by the end of the season receives an additional cash bonus of $60,000 ($10,000 per member) If both teams have the same number of Badges of Honor, then they will hold a tiebreaker.

In each episode, contestants compete in individual challenges in order to stay in the running for the grand prize. At the end of the season, one contestant is crowned the Tough as Nails champion and wins the grand prize of $200,000 and a Ford truck.

Fans of Keoghan have watched the intrepid New Zealand native traverse the world on The Amazing Race, for National Geographic Channel on Explorer, and even in his award-winning documentary, The Ride.

Monsters & Critics spoke with Phil from New Zealand in an exclusive interview to get the low down on the new season and see how he had to work around COVID-19 protocols.

Monsters & Critics: Let’s talk about the cast this season…

Phil Keoghan: Six men, six women, all walks of life. Some new jobs, new occupations. One of the decisions we made just with the events of what happened in 2020, we’ve got a travel nurse, young Aracelis “Celi” Garcia who has been doing a lot of work with COVID in 2020.

If anybody is being tough as nails, it’s been our healthcare workers who have been dealing with this pandemic in 2020. So that was important for us. And she’s just so lovely. So full of energy, so positive and extremely mentally tough.

I think people are going to fall in love with her. She’s just got that bubbly personality. She has that ability to be able to comfort somebody when they’re dying. Of course.

And anybody who works in healthcare has seen so much this last year, you wonder how so many of them have managed to keep on working and to keep on going to work every day.

That is life and death tough as nails. We love them all, and I can’t help it. It’s just because they’re all very special human beings. Out of the gate, when you do a first season, it’s always difficult to get people excited about a new show, because they’re like, what is this?

I remember with The Amazing Race. It was like, ‘What do you mean? They go around the world? How’s that work? How do they travel? What do they do?’ There’s a lot of questions in a season one.

Then you’re trying to entice people to come onto the show or to reach out. And when you haven’t got a brand established, so they don’t know what it is exactly they have to do, or how they’re going to be depicted. They don’t know. And so then when the show goes to air, we were just absolutely inundated with applications.

M&C: You are a producer as well. How is it producing a show like this where people are in such close contact with each other in the team events with COVID?

Phil Keoghan: That was definitely a big change from season one. A lot of shows who have gone back to shoot during, COVID—say let’s use Big Brother as an example—they shoot it in one location. So wherever you shoot, you have to come up with a COVID plan.

Where do people go to the bathroom, have lunch? Where do they park? How do they crisscross each other on location? How much spread is there? How much room is there? How much ventilation is there? There’s so many factors that go into saying, ‘okay, this COVID plan that you have is good and we sign off on it and you can operate in that space.’

But we had almost 30 locations. And every single location had to have a separate COVID plan. And there were many locations that we found that we wanted to do challenges in that would have been perfect.

But we couldn’t find enough parking, enough separation, enough places to put toilets enough separations to put hand washing devices, and enough ways to be able to separate the cast and have them walk in one direction and one way.

So the fact that our production team was able to do all of that and on top of it, we were still able to produce the show feels truly remarkable.

I’m pleased to say that even with upwards of 250 people involved in the production at a given time, we got through everything with not one incident of COVID. We would go to work and we’d be on a construction site or we’d be on a farm and we’d get a message from our COVID officer, ‘All right, everybody just remember be super diligent, just found out that a code blue case in a production nearby…We want to remind everybody, please follow the protocol…’

We got through with not one incident! And that is truly remarkable and one of our biggest achievements.

We had red zones in green zones, and then I was in the red zone because I was on camera with the cast and nobody could come near us. The art department were green zone. So they would go in and set things up.

Then we had to spray down and wait 10 minutes. Then we could go in. I mean, it definitely had an effect on how efficient we were at shooting because everything had to be done in a particular manner. I’m not going to say it wasn’t stressful. It was stressful, but everybody rallied together and we got through it.

M&C: As a producer, how much of a cost does this add all this COVID preparation and protocol?

Phil Keoghan: Yeah. Some of it is not calculatable, I mean, it’s impossible to sort of know because there has to be certain amount of spacing, red zone people can’t travel with green zone people that affects transportation because you can’t have catering services and everything has to be pre-made. It changes the cost.

And then the preparation time and the work to get the food there. Extra hand washing that has to take place. I wouldn’t know. It’s a substantial increase and exactly what that is and what the increase is in the budget is yet to be determined.

But I will tell you that our show is an extremely cost-effective show. We have an expression in New Zealand that you make something from the smell of an oily rag. We don’t have a lot of overhead in our show. We’re a lean, mean machine.

Compared to how the shows, when I hear some of the budgets that have been spent on the shows outside the network, even like streaming budgets, I’m like, are you kidding? We would die to have some of those budgets.

It is sort of been in line with the ethos of the show, which is make it happen, make it work with what you have focused on what you do have and what you can do instead of what you don’t have and what you can do.

It’s like we made it work season one. We did it with a lot of ingenuity. We were super lean. That’s what made us more viable. Like even if you add on the cost of COVID, our show is still incredibly viable compared to a lot of other shows.

M&C: Was there a surprise challenge for, uh, both teams that you were impressed with or were really curious to see how the outcome would be?

Phil Keoghan: The idea with the challenges is that there we’re trying to plug into real-world job sites that we don’t build sets for the show. We don’t build obstacle courses from scratch. We take people to a farm, we take people through a construction site, you take people to a building to work on…actually in one case, we actually go to a stadium.

All the jobs are fresh and interesting that bigger and grander in season two, we’re trying to up our game. There were lots of surprises.

There was some challenges that literally stumped some of our contestants. The challenges are hard. I mean, this show is called Tough As Nails for a reason where it’s not something that anybody could just jump in and do. These are tough people. Even as tough as they were, there was some things that really stopped some of them in their tracks.

People are coming from different walks of life. We have Freight Train, who’s a delivery guy. He’s coming with a different set of skills from Sully the nurse or Scott who works in construction, or Knuckles who is a cement Mason, they all bring different life skills.

And so some of them are completely like fish out of water in some challenges, and then in others. And it’s all random because we make the challenges up before we locked the cast.

You find people that are farmers, for instance, are extremely adept at doing anything because on a farm, you have to do everything. You got to fix a fence, you gotta help a cow give birth. You’ve got to fix the roof, you’ve got to paint the bar and you’ve got to patch up holes in the, on the road.

You got to change the carburetor on a tractor. I mean, you do everything. Farmers tend to be the best Jack and Jill’s of all trades and have the most number of life skills that they can walk and they can do anything.

They can shovel manure one day and hammer nails into a new shed the next. I mean, they do everything right?

M&C: Can you give us insight as far as the women versus the men. How did the women, I know Murph won last season. Do the women’s fair better overall this season?

Phil Keoghan: Let’s just remember how well the women did fair last season. Let’s remember that in our top five that two in our top five were women. Linda at 133 pounds out-chopped three men.

One of whom was Murph. The other who worked in forestry, she out-chopped him to. And the other drywall, Danny who finished second, who is incredibly powerful. She out-chopped them all at 133 pounds.

Nothing to do with power to weight ratio. It’s interesting, we have men and women competing on the show against each other. We’re seeing that we not just measuring toughness by strength and endurance and agility. We’re saying that we want to factor in life skills. We want to factor in mental toughness.

Most of the people who wrote about men and women were women saying that they thought it was unfair that men are stronger in the upper body than women, and that they felt the challenges were unfair.

I had to remind them that it was Melissa, the farmer who out shoveled everybody and that’s upper body shoveling. And it was Linda who was our smallest contestant who out-chopped the men.

People are not used to the idea that men and women can compete in physical challenges equally. Quite frankly, on Tough As Nails, it is not about whether you’re bigger, stronger, or faster, it’s about working smarter, not harder.

It’s about using your smarts. It’s about using your life skills. It’s mental toughness against mental toughness.

It’s not a show about men against women. And the more people see it as twelve people regardless of their gender, the sooner that happens the better.

Tough As Nails airs Wednesday nights at 8/7c on CBS.

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