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Magician to the stars Keith Barry reveals all about succeeding in Hollywood, performing for Justin Timberlake, Paris Hilton and Jack Osbourne, being given his own MTV show, and the perils of his orthodontically hazardous work with bullets. Interview by Tanya Sweeney. Photos by Graham Keogh.
Tanya Sweeney, 07 Jun 2005
When you think of an Irishman blazing a trail through Tinseltown, a chemistry graduate from NUI Galway isn’t quite the first person that springs to mind. Still, magician Keith Barry is holding his own in Hollywood’s fast lane, and is picking up as many celebrity pals as he is plaudits.
“My first year there, I blagged my way in, schmoozed the Hollywood scene and started doing magic, and they got to know me,” explains Barry, who decamped to LA from Ireland in 2001. “Now, I guess I’d be mates with Justin (Timberlake), insofar as when I see him about, we have a few drinks. Eve is also a mate…she’s one of the sweetest girls ever, and is very down to earth. She loves her booze, though. The latest friend I’ve made is Wilmer Valderrama (of That ‘70s Show). He came to Vegas with me when I did my show, and we partied non-stop. And next week, I’m playing soccer with Robbie Williams – he’s just built a full-sized pitch in his house! I still have to pinch myself.”
Being not so much the enfant terrible of the Magician’s Circle as he is the lovable scamp, his West Coast profile is steadily on the ascent. Having gatecrashed Hollywood nightlife with enviable élan and garnered something of a cult following, Barry was promptly given his own MTV show, Brainwashed, in the US.
“I was in a nightclub, drunk and doing magic tricks for Paris Hilton and Jack Osbourne, and they were freaking out, running around and screaming,” he recalls. “An MTV executive was there, and he simply said, ‘we have to do a show with you’. So last March I did a show for spring break, down in Mexico, and it topped the ratings alongside Newlyweds.”
Granted, it’s almost impossible to picture Paris Hilton, who seems to have mastered an air of world-weary ennui of late, getting overly animated about something like card tricks.
“I’d go against what people would say about her, she’s a really nice girl and normal if you take her out of the whole madness,” he insists. “Every time I’ve done magic stuff around her, her friends have been arseholes, but she was the one who was saying, ‘shut up, he’s great, a nice guy’. She’s not an airhead…I mean look at the money she’s making. In saying that, I wouldn’t be into her if I saw her on the street. I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. There’s no meat on her…give me a girl with a bit of meat!”
Having seemingly met the cream of young Hollywood already, is there anyone left that he’d like to get acquainted with over there?
“I’m a big fan of Pink’s, and I’d love to fuck with her head,” he smiles. “I reckon her personality would work well with magic. She’d probably scream and go mad, and that’s the reaction you want.”
It’s certainly the reaction he’s hoping for at his upcoming Vicar Street shows. Then again, it’s not everyday an Irish audience watches a guy hang himself onstage or take a bullet from a marksman through his teeth, so he’d do well to expect mild hysteria.
“It’s the black magic trick, if you like,” he says of the bullet ‘trick’. “No-one really does it any more. 13 people have been genuinely killed trying to do it in the past, so I thought, ‘well I have to do it’. So I had to research how the other guys did it…not the guys who got killed, obviously. In a way, you have be afraid of dying, the day you lose your nerve is the day it all goes wrong.”
With such stunts impossible to practice, rest assured that for the most part, Barry has a contingency plan of sorts tucked up his sleeve.
“For the hanging stunt, I have three safety aspects that people at home aren’t aware of,” he admits. “So if all three go wrong, I’m fucked. There are three people responsible for my safety, and if one of them fucks up I would hang. The scariest moment so far in that respect was the bungee jump. Dave Fanning selected a card, we mixed it with 20 other decks and put the cards into air cannons. I did a bungee jump when the cannons were set off, and I impaled his card on the tip of a sword. The wind was howling that day at 60 mph, and I was shitting myself. But your adrenaline is always rushing, and you know the day that doesn’t happen is the day you should stop.”
Since the run of his RTE show Close Encounters With Keith Barry, his ‘mind-magic’ tricks, in the grand tradition of David Blaine, Derren Brown et al., have become near legendary. I, for one, have laughed at Barry’s slightly excitable subjects on more than one occasion, and have been known to denounce such mind-games as something of a fix, something that’s effortlessly achieved through the medium of television.
Naturally, he’s up for the challenge to prove otherwise; he asks me to pick any single word in the English language (and I’m sure you’ll agree, there are plenty of those), write it down on a card, and put the card into a wallet. After requesting that I repeat the word – ‘heart’ – over in my mind, he picks the right word instantly.
Admittedly, such was the shock of this moment, that details are quite sketchy after this revelation, but a playback of the interview recording suggests that yours truly was reduced to a squealing, gibbering wreck.
“It’s simple…you just have to believe,” he says, somewhat cryptically. “Just pretend Santa Claus exists, and it’s real.”
As you might expect, audiences of Barry’s live show are to expect similar ‘mind altering’ experiences.
“I project a thought into the whole audience so the audience thinks the same thought at the same time,” he reveals.
With that, there’s only one thing left to ponder: do letters to Santa Claus still go to the North Pole or not?
Keith Barry appears live at Dublin's Vicar St. venue on July 9 and 10.