Alex Casey interviews Australian grand illusionist Cosentino about learning the tricks of the trade, being on a talent show, and whether or not a dog can learn hypnosis.
The first time I ever saw Cosentino on television, I was incredibly hungover on a Sunday afternoon. His Australian TV specials have a habit of creeping up you when you least expect it, leaving you feeling equally transfixed and nauseous as he gently changes the colour of a sneaker using what I can only assume is witchcraft. Cosentino is interesting TV talent and illsuionist and escapologist who is part Criss Angel, part Jack Sparrow, mostly Michael Jackson. He’s not a suit like Derren Brown, nor a hoodrat like Dynamo. He’s softly spoken, very bejewelled, and massively intriguing.
For some reason or another, I have always found magicians alluring. I blame it on The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s illusionary masterpiece, that I watched many times during the formative years of my adolescence. So, naturally, I was pumped to meet Cosentino in the flesh. He was doing press in the Winter Garden at the Civic, and I don’t think it’s going to surprise anyone to find out that he was wearing a fedora inside. I was his last port of call for the day, and he was absolutely shattered. Fiddling with the many intricate plaits and feathers in his hair, he asked if we could do the interview on the floor. We sat down on the carpet in the middle of the room, and he did a series of legs stretches despite wearing tight leather pants. The magic had already begun, it seemed.
How did you get into magic?
I stumbled across a magic book from the library. I didn’t actually want to be in the library, because I was a shy kid with reading difficulties. A library is the last place you want to be when you hate reading. But I was in there for a school project and I stumbled across a magic book in the puzzle section, because of its pictures. Where do you think a kids going to be who’s got reading difficulties? To the puzzle section, learning how to make paper aeroplanes and playing with the Rubix Cube. There’s this magic book, which has all these Vaudevillian pictures of famous musicians; Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston, with really cool imagery.
My mum, who was the school principal, saw me looking at the book, so she took it home and read it to me. I learned about these cool musicians, but more importantly I learned the magic tricks. I performed my first trick for my father. He is a structural engineer and, in my world at the time, he was a bridge-building genius. I made a coin disappear, and my Dad said to me, “how did you do it?” There was this huge transfer of power – I could do something my father couldn’t. And he’s a genius.
Did you show off your magic skills straight away or did you keep it under wraps?
No. I kept it very under wraps. Even to this day I’m kind of reluctant when people ask “show me a trick”. I got into magic for selfish endeavours, because it was about me feeling good about myself. I didn’t really care about impressing other people because I impressed myself. So it’s coming from a very real place. It was just about building my confidence to the point where I am now.
So when did that transition start to happen? When did you start putting magic on for people?
Well my first show, reluctantly, was inside my house for my family when I was about 13. I didn’t tell my school friends until I was about 17. In fact I didn’t tell them, they saw me on a TV show. I was wearing lots of masks, and for the first three minutes you didn’t even know who it was. The mask came off because they made me take it off, and then my friends from school all realised who it was. They’d had no idea.
Your big break came on Australia’s Got Talent, how did it feel to go in front of such a huge audience?
I didn’t want to go on the show, I was about to pull out about a minute before I walked on. You’re being judged by three people who have no idea about magic. I mean that in the kindest sense, I don’t mean any disrespect. They’re judges. With an X, and a button. They could knock you out. It’s pretty full on.
Luckily they responded positively, and more importantly, it resonated with the Australian public. That’s where my confidence was because I’d been doing lots of theatre shows. I was already putting bums on seats, talking on country radio, making my own TV ads, building my own posters and travelling around Australia trying to get people to come to my show. I’d done all of that, so I knew I’d have a connection with the Australian people.
What do you think about talent shows in general? Do you think they are a good idea for struggling performers?
You’ve got to understand, that is tough question to answer. The proper answer is this: don’t go on those shows when you are a kid. Hone your craft. If you are 14 and you’re that brilliant, imagine how good you will be when you are 18. Have you been in the trenches? Have you had people boo at you? Have you really fought for it? Then go and do it. And capitalise on it. So are those competition shows good for talent? Yes, when you’ve done the pre-work.
I had done all the work before I went on Australia’s Got Talent, I was pitching TV shows for years before I got famous. So when you would hear me saying things like “don’t come here if you don’t want to die for a spot,” I actually meant it. Maybe that’s psychotic. I don’t care if you want to be a lawyer, a doctor or a journalist – you’ve got to have the passion. I don’t care what you do! Be an engineer! Be a principal! Be in PR! But have passion.
Just as a side note, have you seen the dog that hypnotises people on Britain’s got Talent?
I’ve never encountered a dog that can hypnotise people. I’ve studied hypnotism, and as far as I am concerned it was due to power of suggestion and wording. I don’t know how a dog does that. Did the dog win?
He got booted in the semi-finals.
That doesn’t seem like a talent, to me that sounds like a miracle. I don’t know why you would boot that. Maybe I’ll poach him for my show.
There are no other Australian TV magicians are there? Where did you get the idea?
I was the first Australian magician ever to have my own TV show. I studied the work of David Copperfield and David Blaine and Criss Angel, and they had their influences on me. I had a very clear outline of what I wanted my show to be.
How did you get so good at magic? Are you allowed to tell me?
It’s so much easier now with Google and Youtube. When I started their were books and VHS tapes. You’d learn the trick, do in front of someone, gauge their response and refine the trick. You just have to hone it.
So I could learn? There’s no magic underground sect that you have to join?
Totally. My advice would be to hone your skills, practice and hustle. Dont run before you can walk, leaern what style of magic works for you.
What I like in your TV specials is that you show your failed attempts – is that something you had always intended to include?
I think it’s cool for people to see that it’s really, really hard. Things can still go wrong. I could have hidden it, or just cut it out, but leaving it in shows that it’s real. I wanted to show a vulnarability, because often magic gets so wrapped up the superhuman. When I’m bleeding from the ears, I’m human.
What do you say to people that dismiss magic on TV, because everything on TV is fake?
Everything that I do on TV I do live, but I can only talk for myself. I won’t do anything on TV that you can’t see me do for real. I don’t mean for real, because magic isn’t real, but in real life.
Who are you favourite TV magicians?
I love Penn and Teller and I love David Copperfield. I like Criss Angel, and the fact that he had a more edgy approach. I like David Blaine’s street magic because it feels real and organic. I wanted to keep that feel, which is why a lot of my tricks are done in one shot. The modern audience don’t actually care if you edit a trick, but it matters to me.
Why is it that you don’t see many women in magic?
I think when you are a magician, and you can do these amazing things, it becomes threatening when others do the same. I think that’s why a lot of males get involved in magic, because it’s all very egotistical. It’s such a power trip. Males tend to be more controlling.
So often magicians try to be all powerful and mysterious – if I was like that I wouldn’t have told you how I learnt to do magic. I would have just told you I was taught by a real mystical shaman
What is the most dangerous trick you have ever done?
The one trick where I got dropped deep underwater ruptured my ear drum, with all the locks and the pressure that was too much. But I’ve got tricks more dangerous than that planned. It’s about pushing the envelope, seeing how deep you can go and how high you can go.
Do you ever get worried about spilling your secrets in your sleep?
That’s a good question. I don’t sleeptalk, and all my crew are sworn to secrecy. My tricks are very heavily legally guarded, and I will never tell.
You can pick locks, have you ever thought about throwing in the towel and becoming a career criminal?
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