As Keith Barry hits the road with his latest tour, he tells Marjorie Brennan about his life in magic, working with Hollywood stars, and the hypnotised person who tried to have sex with a chair.
You’ve been called a magician, illusionist, brain-hacker, hypnotist… how would you describe yourself?
I suppose brain hacker encapsulates everything I do but I do a multitude of other things. I like ‘entertainer’ but I don’t mind if people want to call me ‘magician’ or ‘blackguard’.
What is your first memory of seeing a magician?
That would be Paul Daniels on BBC. One trick that sticks out is his famous ‘chop cup’ routine, which people can see online. It’s a common trick but he was the master at it, the best in the world at it.
Who was the performer who made you want to pursue magic and illusion as a career?
Paul Daniels was one, David Copperfield was another. As a kid I remember rewinding VHS tapes of his specials, trying to figure out what he was doing. He inspired me a lot.
What illusionists working today do you look up to?
A lot of them would be people that mightn’t be in the public eye — Jared Kopf is an amazing magician, and Aaron Crow, who’s a friend. I’m also friendly with Dynamo, he’s done a lot for magic; David Blaine the same. Derren Brown is amazing and will probably go down as the most famous mentalist of all time.
What is the best trick or illusion you have ever seen?
There are so many. but the last time I was ever fooled, and it was an amazing magical moment, was by a guy called Chad Long. It was at a magic convention in Las Vegas about 12 years ago. He walked up to the wall in the room we were in and he examined the wall, rubbed his hand on it, and then he pulled up his sleeve, showing his hands were empty. Then he started to pluck playing cards out of the wall and it looked like he was getting them from an ATM — they were coming straight out of the wall.
We were all fooled, the 50 magicians in the room. I looked at David Blaine and shrugged and he did the same. I will remember it forever. Chad Long is famous for that trick, for fooling magicians. I don’t know how it’s done and I don’t want to know how it’s done, to be honest.
You are also famous for your hypnosis routines… what is the most shocking thing you have seen when you’ve hypnotised someone?
Someone tried to have sex with a chair one night in the Olympia, which was a bit bonkers. More recently with my new show Insanity I have a portion of the show where I ask the audience to think of their most insane thoughts. I try to hack into their brains to find those thoughts and it’s been mental every night.
Do people ever get annoyed after being tricked?
No, because I allow them an option.
I came up with it to be funny, but I also give people my word that if they wear the hat I won’t hack into their brain.
You were a consultant on the heist thrillers Now You See Me 1 and 2, what was that like?
It was brilliant. On the first one, I worked predominantly with Woody Harrelson, teaching him how to act as a mentalist. On the second one, I worked with Ed Solomon on the script, coming up with the magic ideas, like the giant three-card monte sequence, with Dave Franco.
You have had a lot of celebrity encounters in your career, which ones stand out?
Morgan Freeman because he challenged me to hack into his brain,and I was able to tell him about his childhood friend Boo Boo he hadn’t thought about in 60 years. Aside from him, I’ve met Bono a couple of times and it’s a pleasure to hack his brain. The lads from U2 are magic fans, they’ve seen a lot of it and they’ve brought me behind the scenes a couple of times at shows.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I like a lot of different things. I might listen to Janis Joplin one day and Pink the next, or Girls Aloud. Then I’ll listen to Newton Faulkner. I’m also a huge Jack L fan. I love interference — Fergus O’Farrell was based in Schull for years, and is probably our best-ever and least-known singer-songwriter. He passed away a few years ago but there’s a documentary about him out soon. I also love Queen and FreddieMercury — but I’m not averse to a bit of pop as well.
What TV or box sets are you into?
I’m a bit odd, there’s a lot of things I couldn’t get into that other people loved. I like fast-paced dramas — but things like The Sopranos or House of Cards, I end up falling asleep. I don’t have the brainpower after a long day, I need action, action, action. My favourite was The Shield, and I loved Dexter. I binged on Stranger Things, which I didn’t think would be my thing. I also like crime documentaries; I recently watched Don’t F**k With Cats on Netflix, which was unbelievable. Another one I loved was Banshee.
What is your favourite part of performing?
It’s the energy between me and the audience, the instant gratification when something goes right. When things go wrong that’s part ofperforming live as well. If I’m on TV it’s natural that people are suspicious that there are plants in the audience, or actors, but I never use actors or plants. I’m my own boss with the stage show, producing and directing, whereas on TV there are other producers and directors involved. When you see me live you see the real version of Keith Barry.
What can audiences expect from the new show?
It’s my most theatrical performance ever; we have put a lot of money into the set. The first half of the show is based on insane characters from history, like Rasputin. At the end of the first half, I talk about Salvador Dali, and the fact that he used theparanoiac-critical method to come up with inspiration for his art — he would drank absinthe, light a candle, put his hand over it and stare at the candle until he hallucinated. I get someone from the audience on stage and give them shots of absinthe and get them to hallucinate, to believe Dali has infested their mind and body. So yeah, it’s out there.
I know you’re not a clairvoyant but do you think your native county, Waterford, will ever win another All-Ireland?
[Laughs] If they call a mentalist or a magician to help them out, they might have a chance.
You up for it?
I’m always up for a conversation, yeah.
Keith Barry’s Insanity is at the Everyman Theatre in Cork, on Feb 15 and 16, as well as March 13 (extra date); and the Woodlands Hotel, Waterford, March 14. For other tour dates, see keithbarry.com