Interview With The Mindfreak Criss Angel
Criss Angel has stepped out as the face of magic for our time. We endured David Blaine for a while, and prior to that David Copperfield mesmerized my mom – most likely with all the lights and spinning cages – with magic. As Criss prepares for his 24 hour Cement Block endurance test and 3rd season of his show ‘MindFreak’ on A&E, he took a few moments to talk about what he’s done, and what he hopes is the future of magic.
For our impressions of the illusionist and his upcoming season of ‘MindFreak’ you can head over here. What you’ll find below is the interview in all its glory. Questions are in bold, with Criss’ answers in regular type. The one-hour premiere of ‘MindFreak’s’ third season airs Tuesday, June 5th, at 10:00 pm EST.
First of all, can you talk a little about the block drop illusion you’ll be doing?
Right. Well, Cement Block is something that’ll be starting at 7:30 in the morning. I’ll be encased in a cube less than four feet in diameter. It will hang more than four stories above Times Square. And the public is invited, it’s free, it’s going to be a twenty-four hour celebration. They’re actually going to participate in filling up this cube that I’m encased in with six thousand pounds of cement. I will have twenty-four hours to make my escape. This is not a trick. This is what Houdini did. When Houdini escaped out of a straight jacket he didn’t hide the method. He showed the world how he escaped, and people were engaged by his technique and how methodical he was in his escape.
This is mostly a demonstration to show people how I do it. Moment by moment, play by play it will unfold. And the truth of the matter is I don’t know if I’m going to be successful. At the end of the twenty-four hours it will fall to the ground and plummet to the earth, whether I’m in it or not. It’s going to be a challenge. I have not rehearsed it, I have not seen it, and it’s never been attempted by anybody. So it’s truly a challenge I’m very excited to face. And I’m very excited to have the public participate in this demonstration in Times Square.
That sounds very much like you. Do you have a favorite illusion or escape or trick, any of those things? Anything you consider your crowning achievement?
Yes, absolutely. On June 5th at ten, nine central, it’s going to be a very special one-hour special. That’s why we’re doing the Cement Block to promote and launch the third season, my seventieth episode of ‘MindFreak.’ What I’m going to do is, twelve years ago I made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas. I had no money and I rented a car for thirty-nine dollars. I drove down Las Vegas Boulevard and I looked over to my left, and what I saw was a pyramid called the Luxor Hotel and Casino that emanated the brightest light man has ever made. Forty-two point two billion candle power, a burning rate of eight hundred degrees. One of two man made objects that can be seen from outer space.
I thought that it would be an amazing demonstration if one could actually float five hundred feet above Las Vegas Boulevard in that light, and the world to witness it through their eyes, through their cameras, through their video, under no control of anybody. Because you can’t control the public. There are two hundred and fifty thousand tourists in Las Vegas every two to three days. There are other hotels viewing this, they’re on the ground. It’s going to be on of the most amazing things I’ve ever accomplished in my career if I’m successful with it.
I’ve often heard you say that one of you goals with your demonstrations is to empower people to face their fears. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you in your life have been able to cultivate such a strong sense of fearlessness.
Well it all stems from my greatest inspiration, my father, who got diagnosed with cancer and was given a death sentence with three weeks to live. He really was a firm believer that the mind controlled the body, that the body was a slave if you will to the mind. [He] lived for more than three years. Each and every moment of his life he had a smile on his face. He had such an incredible attitude and outlook, and was such an inspiration not only to myself but to people he didn’t even know. Because people knew he had this disease cancer, carcinoma of the stomach, in the worst stage that it could possibly be. He was in tremendous pain, couldn’t even swallow, and yet just had a positive attitude.
When my father died in my arms it had such a profound affect on me that at that very moment when my dad passed I realized that I needed to face my own fears. People don’t know this, but I used to pass out when I used to get blood taken at the doctors. So the first thing I did was to say, “I’m going to confront the fear of needles.” And I hung for six hours almost in Times Square by eight fishhooks. Then later, in season one of my television series on A&E ‘MindFreak,’ I hung by four fish hooks through my back from a helicopter, more than a thousand feet above the Valley of Fire.
One of the most gratifying things I get as an artist is when people watch me do these different demonstrations, and they in some way feel empowered by what I’m doing so they can confront their own fears. Maybe it’s the fear of getting in an elevator; maybe it’s the fear of going on a plane and seeing the world. But the greatest gift I get is when somebody comes up to me or mails me and says, “Criss, I watched this and I got help.” Or, “I’m able to do something I couldn’t do, and I can live my life a little richer or a little fuller than I did prior to seeing that demonstration.” That’s what the great Houdini did. Houdini connected to people on an emotional level so that when he would escape that straight jacket it wasn’t about the straight jacket. It was about people looking at it and escaping poverty. When you have that it’s the truest form of magic.
We recently, last year, had another magic act, David Blaine, doing a thing at Lincoln Center. It didn’t go over so well. So I think the city might be a little skeptical right now about another stunt. Are you afraid about coming in and following that up?
Well it went over really well when I first did that in Times Square. I spent twenty-four hours underwater, submerged in a water torture cell for the first hour upside down and basically ten pounds of manacles. Then I remained twenty-three hours right side up and made my escape live on ‘Good Morning America’ for people to see. I’m not really worried about what anybody else has done or what they do. I’m just concerned about not looking over my shoulder and looking in front of me, and just trying to be the best I can be. And trying to grow as an artist, and to realize all of my dreams.
People are always going to be, there are always some people who are going to be negative. I don’t try to please everybody, I try to please myself. Trying to please everybody is the kiss of death. As long as I’m true to myself I think people will always connect to what I do. I’m incredibly excited about this. I think that all the skeptics that are out there will see what I do is unlike any performer, or any artist in the world today. I think that’s why we’ve been able to do more hours of television on A&E, or on television period, than anyone in the history of television in the US. Because I understand how to connect to people, and I think I have that bond with my audience. I’m very grateful for that.
Do you think by its nature doing these illusions is a solitary profession, or do you see teaming up with somebody to do something special or a big stunt?
I’ve put the offer out there because, not to sound conceded by any means but rather confident in my ability. I’ve done over nine hundred effects in about two plus years, which is pretty insane. I believe that I’m the best in the world at what I do. I challenged, years ago, David to do anything he wanted to do and he never wanted to. Although he said he would, every time we contacted his camp he always avoided me because his biggest fear is me. At the end of the day I’m just doing my thing and it’s been going really well. If somebody posed a situation, by all means I would do it.
Just recently, actually in the premiere episode of ‘MindFreak,’ I was challenged by Dog the Bounty Hunter. He tied me up to a chair with a hundred feet of rope, and then [threw me] into a body of water to see if I could escape before my lungs ran out of air. I’m sad to say that it’s the first time that I failed in my escape years of doing this stuff. We have a best of three and he has the first one. I wasn’t entirely failing, but in my mind I failed. The public will look at it and think I succeeded to some degree. At the end of the day I’m going to try and redeem myself. That’s what I think is really interesting about these demonstrations. Because it’s not traditional magic where you know everything’s going to be OK. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and failure or death is as real as succeeding. I have to do everything in my power, it doesn’t matter how much success or what I did last or how much money, none of that means anything when you’re in a situation where your life depends on your ability, and your talent, and your physicality to get out of these difficult situations hopefully unscathed. That’s what I’m going to try to do. I think that’s why the public has gravitated to the show.
Growing up I always envision magicians never revealed what they did, or how they did their tricks. I know my father to this day won’t tell me how he did his card tricks. I know you, along with some others; you do reveal how you do your tricks. I want you to talk about why you do that. And do you feel that the entertainment is maybe more important than the actual trick?
Well you hit the nail on the head. You’re absolutely right. The trick doesn’t make the magician, the magician makes the trick. I’m a firm believer of that. The reason I decided to put out an introductory DVD series called Master Mind Freaks, and a more advanced series called Master Minds, or even in my book that I’m proud to say was just on the LA Times bestseller, “Criss Angel MindFreak: Secret Revelations” which has forty mind freaks in it. I did that consciously because one, when I was getting into the art of magic I couldn’t find material that had my sensibilities, that had things that appealed to me. I wanted to put something out there that I felt; I feel everyone should know one good joke and one good effect. It’s an icebreaker.
Also, I just don’t think magic garners the respect it deserves. It’s kind of like a cheap hokey novelty, and it’s about up to this point shoving girls in leotards and boxes. I just think magic is so much more than that. It’s a beautiful art form that needs to be presented in a provocative popular culture way. I think when it is it is well received like my television series. So, I wanted to put some stuff out there whether it was just for some magic enthusiast or maybe is getting bit by the bug to do it professionally. But I just wanted magic as an art form to eventually one day garner the respect it deserves. I think it’s going to take the future generations to be able to do that. So if I have one small part in it, then I think it’s fantastic.
I let my wife watch ‘MindFreak’ this past weekend and she described you as, “Kind of like David Blaine, but hot.” So you have that going for you.
Well, at least I have one thing.
I was wondering, Criss, when preparing for something like this Cement Block demonstration what sort of things do you do the night before to mentally and physically prepare yourself for doing a demonstration for twenty four hours?
The first thing I do is I have to fast. Because I really don’t wanna have to utilize a bathroom that is not obviously in my cement block. But if it’s an emergency I can use a pail. I’ll really just try to get myself in a meditative state, you know just try to get myself focused on the challenge. Very much like an athlete approaches a high jump, or something like that. They visualize it in the mind what it’s supposed to look like, and then you hope your body follows suit. I just kind of get myself in that zone. It’s very difficult to kind of put into words what that is, because what it might be for me might be completely different for somebody else. I just kind of get myself there because it’s really just about being focused, about being prepared, about being methodical, and always remaining calm, cool and collected no matter what crisis arises.
Going off of that, I know you have a background in martial arts. In it you learn various breathing techniques, and different meditation techniques. I was wondering how having that martial arts background has served you in your work, and how you incorporate those techniques into your daily life.
Well I think everything up to this point that I’ve been exposed to in my life has had an influence on me in some way, shape, or form even if I’m not conscious of it. So I definitely think that my studies in wu-shu, kung-fu, karate, kenpo, taikwando, all of that stuff certainly has an affect. I don’t think I follow any discipline traditionally. I think what I’ve been able to do is have everything kind of mutate in some kind of perverted form that just works for me. I could try to teach it to somebody else, but it probably wouldn’t work for them because everybody will have something that makes them tick.
I am very in touch with who I am, and what I am. I kind of do what works for me, and it’s not like a specific type of meditation. It’s just my own type of meditation, if that makes any sense. When Bruce Lee came out, you know, everybody was doing one form of martial art and then he created a whole kind of mixed martial arts by combining many different styles and coming up with what works for him. I guess you could kind of say that’s what I do, and what I’ve done.
What are some of the other season three demonstrations that you’re particularly excited about?
Well obviously the Luxor Light, which I discussed a little bit. There’s one where I make a Lamborghini vanish, the first person to ever make a Lamborghini vanish while it’s going a little more than a hundred miles an hour, with me in it. I get run over by a steamroller. I walk on twelve eighteen-inch screwdrivers that are spread out over a twelve-foot area with my bare feet. There’s just numerous things that we’ve done in this season. I went to Nellis Air Force base and spent some time with the men and women there, and created an episode which I am very proud of from that venue. I get dragged by a quad by my ankles, escaping in Excalibur. I made Thai, the nine thousand pound elephant that vanished from last season; I got letters from kids saying Thai was an endangered elephant on the endangered species list so I need to make the elephant come back. So I made the elephant come back.
Was playing a maniacal killer on ‘CSI: New York’ as much fun as it looked? How did that come up, and has it whetted your appetite for other acting gigs, maybe even acting gigs where you’re not necessarily a magician?
Yeah, you know I had the incredible opportunity first to play myself in the TV show ‘Las Vegas,’ and that went pretty well. Then I got a call from the creator/producer of ‘CSI’ and [he] asked me if I was interested in participating. I said, “Yeah, provided I’m the killer.” He said, “OK.” I worked with the scriptwriters on the actual script, and went in. Actually the day that I shot that last scene, which is me confronting my mother, I had food poisoning. It was rough to get through that, but I never missed a day of work for anything, being sick or anything like that. It was an incredible opportunity and I’m really honored to say, and proud to say, that that episode of ‘CSI’ I was on playing Lou Blade was the number one television show for it’s time slot. It even beat ‘Lost,’ and that doesn’t happen frequently.
The reviews seemed to be pretty good on my acting, so I’ve just signed on to do a movie which I’ll be shooting at the end of this year called Mandrake. Which is based on the comic book strip. It’s gonna kind of be like a kind of cool realm of The Crow but different of Mandrake the magician coming to life. I’m designing and creating the visual effects for that, as well as going to be acting in it. So that’s a very exciting prospect that I’m looking forward to do.
Good for you. Is there indeed a time where you’ll say, “OK, now it’s time to not be a magician?”
Well, I signed a deal for four thousand six hundred performances at the Luxor with my partner at the Luxor and Cirque du Soleil for the next ten years, and they have a five-year option on top of that. So I’ll be doing that live show for quite some time starting summer of ’08 at the Luxor. So I’ll have to do that, I don’t have much of a choice. But I am going to have the opportunity since I’m doing a sit-down for that long period to try other things.
Good for you. It sounds you like you have more things on your plate than you know what to do with.
Yeah. The incredible thing is when you want success bad enough, and you have the days you struggle to get through it to pay your bills and get to do something you want to do, well when the day arrives that you have so many opportunities it’s really hard to say no.
That’s great news about the Mandrake movie. I remember that comic strip so that should be fun to see.
Yeah, it’s gonna be great.
Speaking of movies, last year we had two magic movies back to back with The Illusionist and Prestige. Were you a fan of either of those, and are there any other good magic movies that you think get it right?
Well you know the truth is, and I know this is kind of embarrassing to admit, but I am so insanely busy I don’t even watch my own TV show. I don’t, I just don’t. I did ‘Oprah’ and I didn’t even watch ‘Oprah’ until I don’t know how long later. I just didn’t have the time. But I have seen, the only one I’ve seen is The Illusionist. Which actually was better than I anticipated because friends of mine told me they weren’t really big fans of it. Then I saw it and thought it was actually pretty good. I mean they obviously used a lot of CGI, with nothing outside of that card trick was a practical affect. But I can appreciate that stuff because of where I come from. I haven’t seen The Prestige, so I’m looking forward to seeing that.
But normally magic hasn’t translated very well with storytelling. I mean live it’s been disastrous if you look at certain shows that try to incorporate it throughout the course of the last twenty years. But I think people are starting to get how to do it. I know that the Mandrake project really gets it. Being involved from the beginning in the creation of the script, and of the characters and effects, really gives me an opportunity to work with the director to make sure that it’s really seamless with how they coexist and work hand in hand, and how one supports the other and it’s not contrived and it’s not cheesy. So, I’m really excited about Mandrake and I’m hoping that they’ll get it right better than anyone’s gotten it yet.
Having you involved will probably help with that. Is the big problem, to a certain extent, the use of CGI versus practical effects when they do it, or too much camera trickery?
Well yeah, even in The Illusionist it was a cool movie. You can tell that, I mean I think Ed Norton did a really good job with the manipulations and the stuff that he learned, but I think just in general there’s a believability factor that you have to make people suspend their disbelief. I think with my show and how it’s based in reality it would be interesting to try and have that kind of transfer over into a movie. So that when you’re shooting this stuff it’s shot practical, and people can really get a sense of what’s happening and that it is really real. It has that quality about it, that spirit, you can’t get from CGI.
Switching gears real quickly, is there any dream stunt you haven’t done on your show that you hope to do?
Up to this point the Luxor was the dream, the twelve-year challenge. And now Cement Block, but there’s a few things that I’m cooking up if I do a fourth season that I have up my sleeve that I’ve always wanted to try. I keep them in a book, and some of the stuff when I come up with it is so out there that I say to myself, “How the hell?” You know, how am I going to figure this out without killing myself? The stakes are a lot higher now, you have to understand.
The first season of ‘MindFreak’ I would go out and risk my life, and it would be a struggle to get twelve to fourteen people to watch it. Now I go out and eat an apple and two hundred people are watching. Those two hundred people have their cell phones with the video cameras taking still pictures. So when I go do these public demonstrations I have to really be on top of my game because people are shooting it, people know who I am. If I screw up it will be all over the Internet instantly. So there’s a lot at stake, and a lot more challenging of a degree for me, which is what I get off on. So it’s going to be interesting as the future presents itself.
People magazine had a story on you recently linking you with Cameron Diaz. Can I ask if you’re still dating, do you mind talking about that?
You know what’s amazing? This is kind of funny to me because Cameron Diaz is one of the most, I think, one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood. She’s talented, done a million movies. Take a look at me; do you really think she would be interested in me? We’re friends, we’re good friends.
So they made a little too much of that?
It’s just funny that they want to make stuff up. She is an amazing person, and I’m honored to call her my friend. She’s very dear to me, she’s great.
I was curious if you’d ever seen the Giant Human Comedian Illusionators sketch.
Actually, I had the pleasure of meeting them. I was in a club in Las Vegas and they came up to me and introduced themselves to me. The young lady that produces, or is involved over at A&E, Nicole, used to work with me. I found the pieces of it I saw to be very funny, and that’s the greatest form of flattery when people are mimicking the stuff you do and spoofing it. It’s amazing that I’ve gotten this far that shows like that, or ‘Celebrity Deathmatch,’ or ‘Saturday Night Live’ would reference me or do a piece on me. It’s amazing to see how far I’ve come from a very humble background.
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