Mindfreak magician Criss Angel knows that every time he tackles the stunts and illusions for his top-rated A&E series, he risks danger, yet he constantly attempts more and more death-defying challenges. While taping Season 6, which begins airing Aug. 4, he pushed the experiences so far that one stunt nearly ended his life.
During a long interview at his new home Serenity, Angel talked candidly about the six new one-hour Mindfreak episodes, their highlights and if the series will continue after this year.
"We're done shooting it and are now in the process of editing it. I'm dealing with that on a daily basis now while still doing the two Believe shows nightly. Fortunately with today's technology, I don't have to be in California to do it. Believe is now on its long-planned two-week hiatus, and I have a theater upstairs with all the editing equipment hooked up. So I can actually edit right from my home. I communicate with my editors in real time in Los Angeles. It's wonderful because I have the luxury of being here. I have offices set up here, and I have my 30,000-square-foot headquarters warehouse six minutes from the Luxor where we manufacture everything for the live performances and the TV shows.
"We did the same 12 half-hours of content for this new season, but they will run this time as six one-hour specials. I thought I only had the time to do five, but the network wanted six and so we have produced those now. The only thing is this time around, I can't start out with a new live daredevil act because of the logistics of being live at Believe nightly. The logistics of the live Believe show made that problematic. But we have a lot of really wonderful episodes this season. I'm very proud of it. It's a season that really challenges us artistically and raises the bar for what I wanted.
"Walking up the side of the wall of the Luxor took me almost 13-plus minutes! I think it's a 39-degree angle. What's so challenging now compared to what magicians have done in the past is that technology with cameras, videos and computers is so accessible, I can't control the environment. I had people 360 degrees around me. People from other hotels were above me. People inside their Luxor rooms watched me, videotaped it and took photos of it. It all makes it a lot more challenging now than it was for magicians in the past, and more so for me now because people know who I am now, whereas in the first season of Mindfreak, nobody knew who I was, so I was able to do stuff under the radar."
Angel gives credit to his dream team this season for pulling off the latest illusions.
"All the hour specials are filled with extraordinary highlights thanks to a wonderful team that I was able to assemble. I call it the dream team because they really were. I pulled people that I had relationships with since my teen years in the art of magic and escape. They had a lot of wisdom and experience as performers and creators. Not only did we have an amazing time creating this season's illusions, but also I think artistically it's going to speak beyond all the previous seasons.
"In addition to walking up the side of the Luxor right on the Strip, we went to Lake Havasu in front of 12,000-plus people to perform a kind of perverted version of Houdini's bridge jump. My body was completely restrained in 21-plus padlocks, chains, handcuffs and shackles, and I had to escape from all of them underwater — or drown. This season, I'm also going to attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by making the most amount of people vanish at one time under test conditions put together by Guinness executives.
"I can't tell you what happens because you're just going to have watch it. But I took on the challenge of attempting to vanish 100 people all at once!
"Evel Knievel was my inspiration to the jump we filmed at the Grand Canyon. We set up a 20-foot high by 60-foot ramp. I had a three-wheeled T-Rex hybrid motorcycle and car that was specially designed for me capable of taking off 0 to 60 in 4 seconds. Basically, I started from point A, built up enough speed to hit the jump, and then while I'm in the process of taking off, a helicopter hovers 4,200 feet above the Grand Canyon west floor, and it has a jail cell cage wired to the bottom of it. It's completely empty. You can see through it the entire time in one continuous shot. On the T-Rex, I need to go from point A to point B, somehow vanish and end up inside the cage while it's hanging over the canyon.
"So, is it possible? I'll be the first to admit I can't outdo Evel Knievel, but he was an inspiration to me and to so many people. I watched him attempt the Snake River Canyon jump and not succeed. That left an overwhelming impression on me as a youngster. I wanted to take the spirit of what he did and combine it with my art form and come up with something completely unique and even more exciting. Watch to see what happens. It's absolutely amazing."
When asked how close he comes to risking his life if something goes wrong, Angel calmly said that every illusion, stunt and demonstration has inherent risks. "I was completely by myself unsupported by anything or anybody when I walked up the side of the Luxor. One wrong step and I would have crashed all the way to the sidewalk. When you actually go up to the wall and look up and then just imagine walking up that thing all alone, you don't want to look back. You want to look forward, and as you get closer to achieving the goal, your mind starts to play tricks on you. You start to think, well if the method that I'm employing doesn't work, I'm screwed. There's no way out, there's no surviving this.
"Then I wanted to do the Houdini escape at Lake Havasu. Normally, they watch from on top. So they only see the person emerge from the surface of the water. They don't see the process, and I wanted them to see that. I took a crate and hung it where they could see the process of my escape. I showed the picks, the chisels and the tools I would take inside to make my escape. I wanted them to be able to visibly see me the entire time because my face and hands would be sticking out. It really becomes more dangerous because I messed with the integrity of the crate to get the panels loose, to get the supports loose, to make my way out, and as I do that, it becomes more dangerous. It definitely shows people what goes into escaping from a crate right there out in the open. That could come with devastating consequences, but it makes it far more interesting because it becomes much more dramatic and suspenseful.
"There are demonstrations that obviously have huge risk factors. They really concern me so much the night before that I can't sleep. I think I have such an amazing life that I don't need to this, but something inside me needs me to do it. We really prepare, but time is really difficult because of doing the live Believe show and so many other projects that I don't have the amount of time to prepare that I did the first season.
"You don't even think about the danger factor, but there was one that almost bit me really badly this season. I was at Little Baja right here in Las Vegas where I bought a lot of items for my house. I'm doing house shopping with my mom and shooting it for the TV show. I decide to do a demonstration with one of the items they're selling. A quad is pulling it, and instead of spinning like a Lazy Susan turntable, it literally rips right out of the ball bearings and flips over. Literally by a fraction of a second, I was able to get out to the amazement of everybody watching. That wasn't supposed to happen.
"It shook me up, and it just goes to show you people can say, 'Oh, this isn't dangerous,' but BS! There is a danger in everything. Even when you walk across the street, you never imagine getting run over by a car. But with some of these smaller demonstrations, with over 100 episodes and 1,000 demonstrations, you never think about trying to vanish, and then the apparatus tears apart. I could have been seriously injured. That in one split second could have been the end.
Has Angel become more fascinated with escapology than he is with magic. Is one a bigger test than the other?
"I think as an artist, you want to achieve the pinnacle, and for me you never achieve that. It's always a constant striving that you get closer, but sometimes you fall backwards and you get up and you get closer. So, for me, the illusions that I want to create in my live show or on TV, I want to only do things that have never been done before.
"Let's just say the things that you can do in magic: vanishes, levitations, appears, rip it, put it back together — there's only certain things that you can do. The principles are already established of gravity and the laws of nature. So what I try to do is to come up with methods of ways to do things that even magicians will marvel at. They might initially write it off as trick photography because they don't understand how I'm doing it. But then when they come to see the live show, they're completely dumbfounded because now they see it live in the show, just like I did it live for the TV cameras. Unfortunately, people always want to assume the worst of things.
"So I always want to strive to do things better and bigger than has ever been done before even if it doesn't risk my life. But it's still risking my reputation and putting it all out there on the line to be the best that I can be in the art of illusion. The best that I can be in risking my life in an escape of an illusion. Whatever I do, though, I want to try to reach the highest level of perfection and create art that connects to people and says something to them. I've been so fortunate and blessed being able to connect so many people to it.
"Houdini's name is still synonymous with magic, even though he died in 1926. He had the emotional connection. He said to that person who watched him escape from impossible situations from straitjackets, from handcuffs and restraints, 'Hey, if I can get out of this and I'm just a little guy, you can escape problems, poverty and make things better.' People had that connection. I think I speak the same way: 'Hey, if I can do this crazy thing, you cannot have any fear of a plane or getting in an elevator. You'll lead a richer life, a more fulfilling life by confronting the things that make you fearful in life.'"
During his six seasons of Mindfreak, Angel has completed more than 1,000 illusions, escapes and demonstrations of mind, body and spirit. Will he keep the show going? Will there be a Season 7?
"Mindfreak is something that will go in any number of different facets in the future. At the moment, I am most excited about our official Criss Angel Mindfreak magic kits going into 50,000 American retail stores as of Aug. 14 without even adding up worldwide distribution.
"Mindfreak really enabled us to do everything else. I started off doing Mindfreak the Broadway show. From there, it became Mindfreak the 1-hour ABC special, and because that was the highest-rated program in their 13 nights of Halloween, it led to my Sci-Fi special. That led to my 2-hour special in Japan, and when I came back home, my agent Dave Baram and I sold the Mindfreak series to A&E. Our master plan all along was to do the live show. The TV show has been an amazing opportunity for me, and I'm very grateful to A&E and all the executives there for believing in my vision and supporting it.
"It's pretty crazy to think we are only four years away from what could be Season 10. We were so fortunate to break so many records for A&E. We skew to the youngest demographic in A&E's history. I think it was originally 49, and I think I got it down to 29 or 30, which is great for advertisers. We were the No. 1 show in our time slot for many, many weeks. It's just been a great opportunity to expose my art all over the world and to really connect with people. It's really evolved and developed into this crazy phenomenon that put me on the map all over the world. It's given me the platform to do so many other things. Mindfreak became a brand and even more. Now for me it's become a way of life.
"It's what I do. It's even better terminology than a magician because a mindfreak embodies so much more than what a magician represents. That's why I came up with the word mindfreak to replace the word magician. They use it in the business section of the papers. They use it in the sports pages describing the crazy moves of a basketball player. It's a wonderful thing to create a term that meant something special to me and is now translating to other people outside the realm of magic.
"I will always do something with Mindfreak. It has given me the opportunity to do all of the other things, so I'm already thinking about things to do with Mindfreak in the future. I'm also exploring other avenues of what I want to do. I have a new deal with a clothing line with Affliction called MF13. Since the first season, I've always worn Affliction clothing. Now they will have MF13 available in stores across the country by the end of the year. I just did an event with Affliction and my friends Rampage Jackson and Randy Couture in Nebraska for Buckle, and all the store managers are very excited about what we're doing. I'll be spokesperson for the brand. I don't do that with anybody else unless it's part of my lifestyle."
Part 2 of this conversation with Angel will be online tomorrow and include a look at the additions Angel's making to his Cirque du Soleil show, Believe, at the Luxor. During the next two weeks of vacation, Criss will finalize the remaining new illusions. Through the rest of the summer and into early fall, they will be introduced into the production to tie in with its second anniversary in October. By then there will be more than 40-plus illusions in the show.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.