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Exclusive Interview with Criss Angel: Mindfreak

August 26th, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

He’s set himself on fire, suspended himself by hooks over Nevada’s Valley of fire, and gone beyond some of Houdini’s most memorable demonstrations. Criss Angel, a self-described artist, provocateur and “Mindfreak” has wowed audiences in person and on television with his mystifying performances. The star of Criss Angel Mindfreak (Season 1 episodes and clips are available on Hulu), he’s pulled off incredible illusions, fearless demonstrations and surprising physical feats, all while cheating death time and again. He’s currently putting his life on the line each week with special episodes that place him in harm’s way, from being buried alive in ice and snow (a feat Houdini himself couldn’t pull off) to traversing a field of live explosives — and coming out in one piece. Tonight, he takes levitation to new heights by suspending a whole crowd of people in air. (Criss Angel: Mindfreak airs on A&E Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific.) Hulu spoke to Angel by phone yesterday to get more insight into his death-defying ways. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor

Hulu: How much time do you spend preparing for your larger stunts?
Criss Angel:
They all kind of fluctuate. Some of them require a hell of a lot more planning and training. Some of them I’ve been working on for 12, 13, 14 years because I couldn’t come up with a safe enough method or technique that would work. Some of them are things I just come up with and I’m able to do quite quickly, so they all kind of fluctuate depending on what the parameters are.

Do you find that you run into any obstacles doing stuff on camera?
I think, you know, performing on the streets, whether it’s on the sidewalk in Las Vegas, in the parking lot, or on a mountain, what have you, it certainly has its challenges because I have sometimes thousands of people watching a particular demonstration. Each of them pretty much has a cell phone, a camera. When we’re around buildings, you have people shooting from all different aspects and angles. I have to really be on top of my game, because we live in a technological age. People know who I am now, where in the first season, or when I was shooting my early TV specials, no one knew who the hell I was [Laughs], so they didn’t really pay that much attention. But now, people are trying to burn me and trying to see how it works, so I have a lot more to lose and I have to be on my game even more so today than I did in the beginning.

What goes through your mind as you’re performing, say when you’re buried alive, or suspended over something like the Valley of Fire?
I’m just completely focused on what my goal is. I just remain focused on what my training is, what my strategy is, and what I have to accomplish in order not to get hurt, not get killed, and to be successful. I’m not thinking about things that don’t pertain to what I’m doing, and I’m pretty much just in the moment, thinking about what to do. You know, a lot of times, I’m going down unchartered territory and there are a lot of instances where something will go wrong, or something will happen that I wasn’t anticipating, and I just have to remain focused, calm, cool and collected to address whatever the obstacle is and try to get through it. And a lot of times, while training for these demonstrations, I’m unable to be in the actual environment, like in the mountain when I was buried alive in “White Death” (which recently aired on A&E). I was trying different training techniques for different aspects of it, but it all came together when I actually did it. I couldn’t recreate that demonstration to practice it, because, obviously, of all the logistics.

How do you dream up this stuff?
As a kid, I was always fascinated by these things and I just let my mind wander and be free and just think about what I’d like to see somebody do, and then I try to bring it to life. Sometimes, it’s not possible to do in the timeframe I’d like but, you know, I’ve had demonstrations that have taken, literally, 12, 13 years to bring to fruition.

What do you think makes you well-suited for doing these feats?
I think it takes a certain type of person. We all have gifts, and some of us are fortunate to discover what they are. Since I can remember, I’ve been doing what I’m doing in some simple form, even as a kid. I’ve always been into very physical activities. I remember when I was probably 11, 12 years old, thinking I was a stuntman, and I was jumping off the roof of my mom’s house, the family home, into the hedges. And doing jumps on my motorcycles, and you know, studying martial arts for years. I was just very physical. I think the combination of having that physicality and also being able to be mind, body and spirit-focused — and understanding the power of those three when they work together — allows me to address what I have in my career.

Are you actually scared of anything?
No, if you don’t fear death, there’s nothing to really fear in life. So no, death is inevitable, obviously, for all of us. It’s something I obviously don’t look forward to for today or tomorrow, but for me, doing these things gives me the opportunity to feel like I’m living life to its fullest and also showing people that anything is truly possible. There’s nothing to fear. When art connects to people on that kind of visceral, emotional level, and I have fans that come up to me and say, “Hey Criss, I watched you do this, and I overcame my fear of that,” or, “I got help to do that,” that’s the greatest reward. I like to connect to people on an emotional level, so for me, by doing these things, it allows me that connection.

For the “Five Ways to Die” special that’s currently airing on A&E, how did you come up with those five acts?
There are reasons for each of them. If you take something like “White Death,” which I already did, it was something that Houdini did a test of being buried alive. He wasn’t very successful in his test, and he vowed at that moment that he would never, ever attempt it because he said the weight of the earth was too great. That kind of really made me want to do it. There were other people that attempted it. I know another magician, Joe Burruss, lost his life doing it years back. It kind of motivated me to say, “How could I, in a sense, do this and cheat death, and see if I can do something that others unfortunately weren’t able to do?”

In “Mass Levitation,” I guess it’s one of my signature pieces, to levitate; I’ve levitated over the Luxor, I think over 400 feet above Las Vegas Boulevard, and have done levitation to others, like on Fremont Street [in Las Vegas], or in Manhattan on Broadway and 43rd, when I levitated a girl completely, 360 degrees and around. And so I was like, “How can I ramp this up?” I’ve always wanted to do a mass levitation, and so [tonight] I get the opportunity to do that, to go into a public place where there’s probably more than a thousand people there, and select a variety of people and do a mass levitation. And then actually turn it around to the home viewer and give them the experience, if they believe in levitation, to have that experience right in their own home. So it’s different reasons for different things. I started off with levitation with my mom when I was 14 years old in my living room, I actually levitated my mom on a broomstick, I suspended her on a broomstick. These things always fascinated me as a kid, and then I try to bring to life.

How do you prefer to be called? Magicians get such a bad rap these days.
I just consider myself to be an artist that uses a lot of different paintbrushes to paint. That’s why I came up with the name “Mindfreak,” because I hated the word “magician.” I love the art of magic; I think it’s an amazing, amazing art. But it’s been beaten down by magicians for so many years that magic hasn’t garnered the respect that cinema has, or musicians have. I think that’s because magicians still, in a sense, present these hokey presentations. It’s all about this puzzle, there’s no emotional connection at all. Some of them are still shoving a girl in a leotard into a box. I just think that’s crazy. I wanted to come up with something that was more popular culture, more provocative and that’s how I came up with Mindfreak. Ultimately, Mindfreak, mystifier, artist, provocateur … I prefer all those over “magician” or “illusionist.”