Being the Mole is a dirty, thankless job, but somebody had to do it.
Or, depending on how you look at things, someone got to do it. It is, after all, a challenge like any other: secretly manipulate your fellow players and sabotage missions to keep the prize pot low and your identity hidden as everyone around you falls, one by one. And on the first season of Netflix's version of The Mole, that job went to Kesi Neblett.
Neblett, a former software developer and engineer, did not enter into the audition process specifically to be the Mole. Instead, she was just looking for something new after having just quit a corporate job.
"The very next day, my friend from high school had texted me and sent me the flier and said, 'I think you'd be amazing on this. You should audition.' And I remember sitting with my brother and just laughing because the juxtaposition of the two occurrences seemed very supernatural in a way — like, how did this happen the day after I left my job? And he was like, 'You should do it.' And I told my brother, 'I think I am. All I have is time, why not?'" Neblett tells Metacritic.
But as she went through the casting process, the production team turned to her toward the end and asked if she wanted to be the Mole. "They asked me three times, actually, and the first few times I was like, 'Absolutely not!" Neblett admits, citing the fact that she doesn't typically like "drama or to be in the midst of maneuvering people." But maybe the third time really is the charm because when they asked again, she changed her mind.
"My mom always told me with time and resources, you can do anything. And I said, 'If you give me time to figure it out, then I think I can do it," she recalls.
And she certainly did do it, sabotaging missions by not sharing pertinent information with team members, steering team members toward time-wasting exercises, and, during the very special Snowy Mountains Mission, literally tossing cash aside.
Here, Neblett reflect on her journey as the Mole with Metacritic, including sharing some sabotage you didn't see in the final cut of episodes. And click here for our interview with the winner.
How did you prepare to be the Mole? Were you able to study information on the other players the way you were briefed by producers about the missions ahead of time?
In the weeks leading up to leaving for Australia, I was studying a lot. I was reading John le Carré's espionage novels, watching the movies; I was studying probability and statistics with one of my friends from school. I was also reading about the art of acting and telling stories and psychology.
Production really wanted me and my performance on screen to be authentic, so I did not have full dossiers on these players; I just only knew tidbits. So, for example, I knew that there was one player from Ohio who was terrified of trains; I knew that there was a couple players who were bad at math; and I knew there were a couple of players who kind of looked like the Hulk, but they did not tell me the names. The first time we met on camera was genuine: We had not seen each other before, and I think they wanted to make sure that that moment was genuine for me.
Once you met and started working alongside the other players on missions, you had to notice some of them were throwing suspicion on themselves on purpose or just making big mistakes costing the pot money, so how did you have to adjust what you thought your gameplay would be to account for all the things they were doing? Was there one mission in particular where you had to completely rewrite what you were going to do based on actions or inactions of other players?
I had no idea that Joi would be this amazing Mole-not-Mole in the game, and so, as I started realizing who other people were suspicious of, then I knew that I needed them as decoys. That's something I could not have prepared for. I didn't know that Joi, Jacob, and Casey were going to be the main suspects. But, for example, when I was picking which player had money in their bags [in the Mountaineering Mission], I knew that I needed Casey to have money in her bag because, at that time, she was a huge suspect for a lot of people.
I would say another time I truly had to pivot is also working with Joi in the mission with the ice blocks. It's so crazy because Joi was also sabotaging that mission.
Wait, do you think she was actually sabotaging it or do you think she's just not good with directions? The instruments you use to fly a plane have to be different than what you were using on land.
I haven't seen the second to last episode, so I don't know if this is in there, but there's a scene where we have walkie-talkies, and Joi dropped the walkie-talkie in the snow. I saw her drop it. It's because she knew Avori was voting for her and she wanted me to tell Avori that she did this. But I was like, "Listen, lady, I also have to sabotage this mission; I can't just be a passive Mole and let you do all the work!" So then I had to pivot; I couldn't mess with the walkie-talkie because she already did that. And she had already suggested let's just rush back, which is one of the things I could have done. So at the last haul, I had to throw the ice blocks off the sled.
And what's really interesting about that challenge is the show cuts to confessionals with you where you are talking about wanting the others to suspect you during that mission. Was that said just to throw the audience off? How did you feel about people actually suspecting you and voting for you, versus perhaps getting all the way to the end and fooling everyone?
I'm a natural competitor; I've been playing volleyball all my life; in my wildest dreams, I would have loved to get to the finale and Joi and Will vote for each other and then one of them just accidentally wins. That was my wildest dream because I had watched the Belgium Mole to prepare and I watched the season with Leonard, and he was an incredible Mole because no one voted for him until the final three, and I wanted to exceed that. So, when I'm saying that on camera, I had to make it make sense to the audience. At the time, it was so blatant, I couldn't say it was an accident; I had to come up with some other narrative that is believable for the people watching.
If neither of the finalists had guessed that you were the Mole, would one of them really still have won, or was there a plan in place where you could get the money?
I wish I would have won the money! I don't know, I think maybe someone would have won by accident — who just accidentally got the most questions correct.
I do want to dig into some the money-specific sabotage because your job across the season was to keep the prize pot low. But the dossier exemption temptation was when the pot took the biggest hit and it was because of Joi, who bid $25,000. What had you bid and how did you arrive at the number?
I bid $3,500. At that time, I knew this was not the mission for me to go all out. I had a strategy of being trustworthy in the beginning, taking my time — with the pace at which I was getting to know the cast and the pace at which I was sabotaging, there needed to be a slight delta and the pace at which I was getting on the cast needed to be a little faster. So, my sabotage started off very slow and that was not a time where it was time to ramp up.
Another exemption temptation was the detonator challenge, and I'll just say it: If I was the Mole, I would have told the producers to give me the real food or I'm out. Did you actually get to make that deal or was sitting on the detonator luck?
With the producers I usually had about five or 10 minutes before the mission to meet with them, which is crazy because that is not enough time to debrief on everything that happens! But that meeting they had told me, "OK seats two and four have detonators, try to get in one of them," and so, I ended up in before them and I was able to pick my seat.
To be honest, that is actually a really funny, funny mission. This new series is very much mirrored on the Belgium Mole, and they do have the lunch scene, but when I got the clips from production, it cut off the last 10 minutes, so I didn't know how it ends. So I had an idea of the mission, but I still didn't fully understand it. So, when I was sitting there, it was so clear to see how has bad or good food, so I was like, "I'm going to make it to the end," but I did not anticipate Joi and Will staging a complete coup to get me off the table. I was already thinking, "What do we do when we're at the end when Will and I are both on the detonator; what's my next steps?" I was thinking about that, and I didn't see the coup coming that kicked me off the table.
Were you also thinking that strategically about the art you made for "Spot the Fake"? There was interesting discussion in the episode about how maybe the painting was literal, as in, "Stop, don't pick this one."
That art piece was pretty straightforward, but before I did that one, I had to redo it twice. And the first thing that I drew was actually very abstract. It was two heads back to back — nothing crazy, just lines, two faces back to back. And that was really special to me because it was very simple, but what I was saying is that sometimes the person right next to you is a person that you can't see and you don't recognize, and I had written underneath it, "Tag, you're it." Because also playing this game kind of feels like tag or hide and go seek, in a way, because you're a group of people who are looking for one person. That was probably more special to me than the "Stop."
Then it's probably better they didn't use that one and destroy it! What was your strategy for voting to bring Dom back into the game? Sandy was so vocal about not wanting him back, she was kind of giving you an easy bandwagon to jump on and keep $10,000 out of the pot, but you were still nice to him with your vote.
It's definitely a very easy way to knock out money, but I will say this, that decision also very much helped me in the chain mission. Part that you do not see there is, I give this speech about, "How do we pick the person to go?" When I was explaining that, I was like, "Think about who wanted Dom back, think about who didn't open the dossiers, think about who has been willing to be a team player." I knew that I couldn't say vote for me, but you can get people to think a certain way. So, although like it wasn't as beneficial as far as not adding money to the pot, it is a big part of the reason why the chained up mission went the way that it did.
That actually changes a lot because all we saw were the votes, and people calling you the most trustworthy, but hearing that you manipulated them into that says a lot about your skills as the Mole. It also probably painted a bigger target on your back come quiz time, though. How did you handle that time; were you actually taking the quizzes?
In the beginning, the producers, when we talked about the test, they advised me to take the test for myself. Being with the cast and knowing how much people were preparing for the test and knowing that I had to go into these confessionals as well and explain why I was voting for certain people and also being a player, I would need to be able to converse that way. So, I made the decision that I would take the test as a player and use the strategy of probability and statistics to pick the people that I was voting for. I would pick the people that I thought were closest to figuring out who I was.
Looking back on your experience, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Here's the thing: I definitely, definitely made a lot of mistakes in this game. On one hand, though, I do think every mistake, I learned from and, as you get to the end, you see my whole entire strategy change, and I think that was learning from my mistakes. But I think I would have tried to figure out a way to be more convicted or bring myself. I think I was very nervous to be my full self on camera because maybe it would draw too much attention and part of my strategy was laying low. Usually I'm a lot more playful and I'm joking around and I'm just really goofy.
When you say you made a lot of mistakes, what is something you consider a mistake, even if it worked out in the end?
I was going into the wrong groups all the time, or I would be very passive in the beginning and let people decide where I went, which was a part of my strategy because I didn't want to be too influence-y because I think that would be kind of a sign — why is she trying to influence so much? But I do think making those early mistakes of being passive helped me, at the end, be a lot bolder.
At one point in the show you made a comment about how it's easy to lie once but hard to maintain the lie. After going through this experience, do you still feel that way or have you learned a lot about the skill of lying?
My first impression of the Mole was someone that was stealthy like an agent, like you don't even see them coming; they're just in the background, influencing people, et cetera. But that doesn't make the best television because you can't see the visuals. So, what I learned about being lying is it's about being blatant — right in your face — but having a story behind your actions that is so convincing that people still don't believe what they see. If you think about the people in your life that have deceived you the most, you saw the signs, no? You saw it coming, but you just couldn't accept it. And I would also say a big takeaway from this is, I read somewhere that when you take on a great role, it changes you. And I'm not saying I'm an actress; it's not my specialty, but I truly think I changed a lot and learned so much about myself while playing this role.
So does that mean you're pursuing something totally different from software development now?
I'm also a very free-spirited creative writer, so I took this year to take writing classes and explore more and write about the people in my life. So, you'll see some more writing come out, and I think you'll see the things that make me a Mole and the interest in being around people come out in my writing, too.