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Illusionist Derren Brown pushes the boundaries of mentalism

Derren Brown is an English mentalist and illusionist who for more than 20 years has been performing "magic" on stage and television to critical acclaim. His newest work, a one-man Broadway show called "Derren Brown: Secret," began in September. Hari Sreenivasan recently spoke with Brown about pushing the boundaries of mentalism and convincing unwitting participants to take extraordinary actions.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In more than a dozen television specials and stage shows in his native England, illusionist Derren Brown has showcased a wide range of nearly impossible abilities, including convincing ordinary people to take alarming actions. In his debut Broadway show, brown seemingly reads the minds of the entire crowd.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I recently asked Brown about what makes his brand of magic — or mentalism as he calls it — appealing to audiences.

    In this stage show "Miracle" performed in London, Brown took on the illusion of faith healing and appears to "heal" an audience member with bad eyesight —

  • “Derren Brown:

    Miracle" excerpt: Open your eyes. Let's have a look. Does it look any clearer to you?

  • Woman reading:

    Turn off the shower if you have been out for a week..

  • Derren Brown:

    This is effortless. Your eyesight is healed. You can throw those glasses away.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You go out of your way to tell people. You are not a psychic, a faith healer. What do you do?

  • Derren Brown:

    I'm technically a mentalist.

    Hari Sreenivasan Yeah. What's a mentalist mean?

  • Derren Brown:

    Well…exactly. It's— so it's like a branch of— sort of magic I guess. But it deals with the mind rather than you know finding your playing card or pulling a rabbit out of a hat. What you're seeing is kind of mind reading and influence at work and in an audience participation-based show.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How do you mind read or influence in such a large crowd?

  • Derren Brown:

    I have to work with random audience members. Otherwise it could just look like you know everyone's a plant-

    Connie, very nice to meet you, I'm Darren. And sleep. Right the way down. Right the way deep.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The suspicion that audience members are in on the act is heightened in a show like Brown's. As this press event, Brown claims to read a woman's mind, guessing correctly which audience member she was picturing in her head.

  • Derren Brown:

    Daniel and David sit down and Justin, you can sit down. One person left. Your name is?

  • Man:

    Brendan.

  • Darren Brown:

    Turn it round who were you thinking of? Brendan! Excellent, well done.

    I think there's a feeling that creeps in that you're the only real person in the audience and everybody else is–

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    (laughs) is an actor.

  • Derren Brown:

    I hear that quite a lot.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The stage show at least you have here in New York right now it's kind of a long process and you're building towards a thesis throughout the program and the audience is kind of revealed one layer after another after another and at the end, they're– Well, hopefully they're impressed.

  • Derren Brown:

    What any magician does is a great analogy for how we interpret the world. You know you're a magician of any sort of which I am. I've got one foot in that world is making you pay attention to certain elements of a story and join up the dots in the way that he wants you to or she wants you to. And of course this is what we do in life all the time. We have this infinite data source coming at us. We edit and delete that to make sense of what's going on we need to form a narrative and then we mistake that narrative for the truth.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What are the things that you're looking for to say this is somebody that I can work with?

  • Derren Brown:

    I throw up frisbees to choose people and within a second of how somebody catches the Frisbee and just says, throws their hand up and says hello or says their name. I know exactly how they're going to be onstage. It's like a little microcosm of how they are on stage and how they are on stage is a microcosm of how they're going to be in life. And a thing that I learned which I found very helpful just for myself just from doing these shows is if people come up and they're nervous which of course they are because it's a baffling weird situation. It's what they do with those nerves. If they're just nervous. And if we are just nervous when we're nervous, the audience love them. Right the audience are feeling vicariously. Well that could be me–

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    They can empathize.

  • Derren Brown:

    They're seeing them as vulnerable, vulnerable and vulnerability is a strength when it's perceived by other people. It doesn't feel very strong at the time but to everybody watching it, it feels like strength.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You almost want to root for them versus you.

  • Derren Brown:

    Exactly.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Brown has adapted the principles of mentalism for TV, showing how the same methods of suggestion and influence used for his stage shows can work in the real world. In his special "The Push," Brown orchestrates an elaborate setup with actors to convince an unwitting participant to push a stranger off a roof.

  • “Derren Brown:

    The Push" excerpt: "Just give him one big push."

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That seems like an insane proposition from the get go. First of all why would you even want to do that?

  • Derren Brown:

    Why would you want to do that– yeah (laughs)

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But then secondly, by the time you get to the end it's sort of a stunning reveal.

  • Derren Brown:

    What I tend to do with these is large scale Truman Show-style set up, so there's normally one person going through it that doesn't know that they're part of a TV show. There's all these actors and it's this sort of dark psychological journey. So the point was through social compliance, could you push someone to commit murder? Obviously, not really commit murder because it is staged but they didn't realize it staged.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You're sort of pulling the audience on camera aside and explaining what's happening, which I think is something very strange to a U.S. audience thinking about magic because 'Wait he's telling us how he's doing. "

  • Derren Brown:

    There's no magic tricks in it.

  • “Derren Brown:

    The Push" excerpt: Chris is enmeshed in a web of lies. That's important I need him to feel theres one way out when he is told to commit murder.

  • Derren Brown:

    You're now watching a real person go going through a really, you know, a dramatic situation that's unfolding, which is so much more compelling than someone just trying to look clever. So yeah he– And the point of it is to show about social compliance and what the people that did it. I don't want to give away the ending of the show from these from these things that do come away very often when the sense of they all come out feeling amazing about it even if it looks like a very dark and reckless journey.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the other ones "Sacrifice"–

    Derren Brown "Sacrifice" Excerpt: "There is absolutely an immigration problem in the United States."

  • Derren Brown:

    Yes, I'm taking someone who's essentially kind of racist and seeing if they'll lay down their life for an illegal immigrant and using these powers of persuasion and programming and conditioning and so on to get in there. He was caught up in a narrative for his own socio– socioeconomic pressures that he was under. And he had a particular narrative about Mexican people and what that meant and what their motives were. And the key was to undo that and actually–.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    To break the story–.

  • Derren Brown:

    -and have him see real people. And this isn't a kind of– it's not one of those kind of makeover-y type shows where people are spat out on a conveyor belt every week. These things take maybe eight months to make. I do one of them a year and it's a huge thing for somebody to go through. I've always remained friends with them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are you concerned that these people might have PTSD after surviving something like this?

  • Derren Brown:

    Well I would be if we if we treated them irresponsibly. But despite how reckless the shows can look, they're incredibly well handled and vetted. And in terms of the sort of duty of care afterwards, all of that is huge. And I've just stayed in touch with them forever and they've all said it's the best thing they've ever done. Aside from the weddings and having children.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Derren Brown, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Derren Brown:

    On that note, thank you very much indeed. Thanks for having me.

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