Criss Angel On Forging An Emotional Connection With His Audience

Getty/Criss Angel

A magician and performer for more than 40 years, Criss Angel has become known for his over-the-top, death-defying stunts. Balancing his time between his stage shows to huge crowds, illusions performed to small groups of people on street corners and rooftops, and a successful television run with A&E’s Criss Angel: Mindfreak and Spike TV’s Criss Angel BeLIEve, his name has become synonymous with magic’s new era the world over. We got the chance to talk to Angel about where he finds his inspiration, forging an emotional connection with his audience, and how he sees his magic like a musical instrument.

You started performing magic at a very young age. What was it that drew you to it?

I was six years old when I did my first trick. I was playing music starting at that age as well, so I was doing magic and music since I was a kid. [I did] nothing else and didn’t want to know anything else. I was obsessed with it and really enjoyed dreaming about it, creating, and performing. It was just something I always knew I was going to do.

Given that you’ve been performing pretty much your entire life, how would you say your act has evolved?

Well, it’s constantly transforming and evolving. What I do at The Luxor 10 times a week, what I do over 450 times a year, we believe is the most revolutionary magic spectacular or experience that you could have. We combine 3D immersion, which has never been done, the latest in technology, athleticism, artistry, and this incredible cast that I’ve been very fortunate to have through Cirque du Soleil. It’s just a spectacle unlike anything the world of magic has ever seen.

It’s truly something that definitely connects to people on an emotional level. It really exemplifies the magic of emotions. And so, for me, since I was a kid, I always wanted to create something that was unique, original, revolutionary, and something that really had the most important component — which magic typically doesn’t have — and that’s some type of connection to the audience on an emotional level. That’s been that ongoing process to figure out how to do that since I was a kid.

You talk about that emotional connection, is that harder to pull off with your big stage shows versus the smaller crowds that watch you perform on the street?

For me, it doesn’t really matter what I’m doing. Whether I’m doing performances on stage, or on the street, directing a video, or whatever project I’m doing, we have to have a clear understanding of what is the emotional intent that the viewer is supposed to have while experiencing this product. That is critical. If you don’t have that, then you have been saying nothing to the audience. It’s only going to be a puzzle, like an enigma. How do you do that? I don’t care about people thinking about how I do it, I care about how do they feel when they watch it.

To me, that’s more potent. Of course, you want to have the greatest, [most] revolutionary illusion possible, but you have to have a lot more than that to really touch people. It’s what movies have been notorious for: to have a story, to have a connection, to have a human element, and that engagement that people can relate to it. How the hell are people going to relate to something disappearing? You have to really surround it and give people something that goes beyond the trick.

So, that intention stays the same, regardless of the kind of show you’re putting on.

Absolutely. Even when I’m doing other projects that has nothing to do with magic. [If] I’m producing and directing a music video, the first thing I’m thinking of is what the viewer [is] supposed to feel when they watched it. What is that emotional intent? Because if you don’t have that, then you don’t have a guide to travel to understand why you’re making certain decisions and why you’re not. That’s a really critical part.

It’s really why, I believe, I’ve been so fortunate to have the success I have globally. You know, there’s been many magicians on television, but no one knows who the hell they are, because they didn’t really engage the public in a way that’s profound or that’s memorable. So there’s a lot of elements that go into accomplishing that.

How do you go about finding that connection?

It’s important to listen to the audience. Every audience is different. You’re never going to have the same people in the same room, ever in the history of the planet, it’s never going to happen. So, you have a unique audience ever single performance. It’s very important that when I play characters and stuff like that, that I really become those characters and really believe what I’m doing. If I don’t believe it, the audience is not going to believe it. That motivates me to give 110% in each performance, because I’m never going to have that same group of people in a room ever again.

Does that level of intensity ever get difficult to maintain?

The show is incredibly physical, dangerous, and literally I put my life on the line every performance. There are things that could kill me, literally, in the show, or maim me or really hurt me. I’ve got to be in the moment. But yeah, sometimes, I don’t feel well, I’m sick, my body hurts me, or I’ve pulled something, a tear in my shoulder, or whatever. But ultimately, I do this show no matter what. As long as I can walk, I do the show. Your adrenaline kicks in when you have the flu, you have food poisoning, or whatever the situations that I’ve dealt with.

I know what it’s like to come to Vegas, coming here, you’ve got tickets for a show you want to see, you’re dying to see it, then it’s canceled. It’s very, very disheartening. It happened to me back in the ’90s. It was very frustrating. I swore that I would never do that. I’m probably fortunate enough [that] I’ve never done that. For me, it’s about being a professional, doing my job, and as soon as I start that show and I’m onstage and I appear in a puff of smoke, I become that character and that switch goes on and I try to do my best. Every night I give my best. Sometimes my best is better on certain nights, sometimes my best is under the surface, but I always try to give my absolute best, and so does the cast. I’m really grateful that we have such an audience, and such a demand to see Mindfreak Live! at The Luxor, that we want to give everything we can because we don’t take one patron for granted.

What’s your approach when dealing with skeptics? Does it ever get to you?

No, I welcome it. I think it’s fantastic. The more skeptical you are of what I do on television, on the internet, the web, the better. Because when you see me levitating on television or levitating somebody else on the internet, everybody’s, “Oh, that’s trick photography. Oh, that’s movie magic.” That’s whatever they think. The difference between me and most people out there is that what you see me do. Take levitation for example, you come to see my live show and you’ll see me walk up and down a ladder completely in a way that is like walking down a wall. You’ll see me float around, fly around and do things [on] a brightly lit stage, you’ll see something that you’ve never seen in the history of magic.

So, it’s because of that skepticism, when they see it live, they can’t believe that I just ripped a girl’s body in two pieces. You’re completely in the open after two spectators examined her. So, these are the things that people see in my show that they can’t see in any other magic show in the world. If they see another magic show, or they see me on television, they can’t comprehend because it’s far above that they’re ever expecting.

I’ve worked up some of these illusions for over 18 years, by cutting in half my brother, trial and error and the evolution of the idea, and got people that worked for NASA to help facilitate some of these things. It’s really on a whole other level. So, when people or very skeptical and they come see the show, I see their faces, immediately people jump to their feet with their mouth open. People cry, people freak out, people just go crazy. You can go on my Twitter and look at me walking down the ladder and see the reaction from the audience. People immediately jump up. That’s not like that one time for the camera, that’s like that every night and every show.

When you talk about how long you’ve spent on some of these illusions, where do you look for inspiration?

Yeah, I look everywhere but the world of magic, because magic doesn’t really doesn’t speak artistically to me at all. So, what I try to do is visualize, what would I like to see as a fan of the art of magic. What is it that would inspire me, what is that I want to say with that piece? I have a piece talking about children [with] cancer. And utilizing a very, very delicate subject and being able to present it in a way that is probably one of the most powerful pieces of magic that I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never seen an audience shed a tear for a magic trick in my life, and I’ve seen every magic show that you could possibly think.

In [that] show you see people bawling. Grown men, bikers, because we’re talking about a real, real situation that affects many, many millions and millions of people. And people can relate to it because it affects their family or a family that they know. It affected me, my own son, so I talked about that. I create a segment where it deals with that and it’s done in a way that’s artistic and it’s sensitive to the subject, but it also brings a spotlight to a very difficult issue using art, very much like musicians do with songs. I believe magic should be the same type of instrument. It should be an instrument that can connect the people and create that emotion like a musician would do or like a film would do. And that’s ultimately something that I’m really proud of. My inspiration comes from many, many other places, but it always comes from a place of emotion.

Finally, I know you’re getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That’s got to feel like a milestone.

It’s incredible. I’ll give you a quick story. Many, many years ago, back in the ’90s, I was broke. I had a dream, and that was it. I came to California, and I remember walking down that street and I saw Houdini’s star. And I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, he died in 1926 and to this day, that is here and that will be here long after I’m gone.” What that must feel like, if you consider that the Hollywood Walk of Fame only has 2614 stars, and there’s been countless artists, Broadway performers, actors, movies, musicians, to think about how many you can name off the top of your head. It’s just countless.

To think that there’s only 2614 is mind boggling. I always worked really hard and had a tremendous dream, but to think that there’d be 2615th star is going to be presented to me, it’s just really mind boggling and I’m just so honored, so grateful, and thankful. The only thing I would say is that, anybody that is reading this, understand that nothing can hold you back from living your dream. If you want something bad enough and you work for it, and you’re relentless, you persevere, you will eventually achieve it. I’m just like everybody out there, except I had a dream and I worked ass to get it. It went beyond even my own dream. It’s incredible.

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