When Ryan Seacrest announced the names of "American Idol'"s two finalists Wednesday, each thought he was going to hear another's name.
"I couldn't believe it. I thought he was going to say David Cook," says David Archuleta, 17, named the first finalist as Cook and Syesha Mercado awaited their verdict.
During an interview shortly after the show, Archuleta said: "I just feel like shock. Am I really in the top two of American Idol?"
Cook, 25, says he thought he would be going home. "I thought my ticket was punched. I honestly did," he says. "Syesha is an amazing performer, and she really hit her stride in the last two, three, four weeks."
Each singer already is working on three songs for the final performance Tuesday (Fox, 8 ET/PT). "For me, it's going to be taking a week to prepare myself to be as strong as possible," Cook says. "I've really pushed myself this season vocally and musically. It's going to be a matter of taking a step back and making sure I can prepare myself amid the chaos that's going to ensue this week."
Archuleta will continue heeding advice from judge Paula Abdul: Have fun. "I've been doing a lot of slower stuff. I love the slower stuff, but I just need to show I can have fun on stage," says Archuleta, who picked Chris Brown's uptempo With You to sing this week. "It wasn't a song where you showed all the stuff you can do (vocally). I've done that … It was: Have fun. Show people you can have a good time."
Archuleta says he wasn't distracted this week by the controversy surrounding his father, Jeff, who is no longer allowed in the room when his son is rehearsing. Even with that, Archuleta says, his dad "always gives his opinion. … Syesha was next to me, and she was talking to someone, saying, 'What do you think about this, what do you think about trying this out?' It's the same kind of thing."
He calls absurd a report that his father's pressure had made him cry, and he says such stories "were kind of weird. I tried to stay away from (those stories). I think I would know of all people what my dad was like. … He's a great guy. Just to know he's my dad and how much he looks out for me is really cool."
Although the final songs haven't been revealed, Cook will sing first. Archuleta won a coin flip taped after Wednesday's show, and chose to sing second. He says he wasn't thinking about the disadvantage of singing first on "Idol," which has been borne out by statistical analysis and has been referred to as a "jinx."
Only one can win, but the finalists praise each other. "I've always looked up to Cook and admired all the work he's done with his talent," Archuleta says. "To be here standing next to him is just unbelievable."
"I consider it a huge honor to share the stage with the kid. He's the real deal," Cook says. "All the buzz coming in, he deserves."