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Teller, of Penn & Teller Fame, on Being the Magic Expert Behind Peacock's Wild and Weird Mrs. Davis
Presto! We got the silent half of Penn & Teller to talk with us about his work on the Mrs. Davis.
The only certainty while watching Peacock's almost indescribable drama, Mrs. Davis, is that you will be surprised, befuddled and ultimately rewarded with unexpected answers. Kinda like a magic trick. And so it makes all the sense in the world that when co-creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof wanted to thread an actual magician into their narrative, they turned to Teller, one half of the legendary magician act, Penn & Teller, for his expertise.
Usually the non-speaking member of the act, Teller can actually speak quite well, and he did so with SYFY WIRE via Zoom. We grilled him about his input on Monty Abbott's (David Arquette) Reno magic act, what skills Betty Gilpin needed to know to sell Lizzie's background and if A.I. really is a bad thing for the art of illusion.
** SPOILER WARNING! Spoilers below up through Mrs. Davis Episode 6 **
Was this a cold call or was there a prior connection that brought you into Mrs. Davis?
Teller: I had a very wonderful role on The Big Bang Theory as Amy Farrah Fowler's father. And Tara was on that show. I think when Tara was in Vegas, I gave her a tour of my house and so we were acquainted for a long time. So I think she was just being lazy going to the magician that she knew.
You have a busy Vegas show with Penn, the show Fool Us, and are still recovering from quadruple bypass surgery. What made it worth jumping into this? And how are you feeling?
Just as of this week, I feel really 100%. I've been sort of feeling better and better. But yeah, she asked and we agreed that if I if I could do it by email and phone calls and Zooms, it would be great. And I loved it. First of all, they are so smart to put into the middle of this show, this cheesy magic act. When you think about magic, magic is an uncomfortable sort of form. Because with magic, you see something and you go, "No, that can't be. It must be something [else]." You're constantly being pulled and pushed. It's almost impossible to watch magic passively. And part of it is kind of an insult, right? Somebody is taking what you think you're good at, which is saying what the world really is, and saying you're not so good at it after all. And what is this show? This show is exactly like that as a magic act. You look at the first three minutes of it and you go, "Oh, I see what this is going to be...." And then, it's not! They're continually pulling the rug out from under you by letting you think you know what's going on, and then saying, "No, not quite." It's a very wise of them to put magic in the center of that. And in the center of the principal character, from the time she's a naive girl to the time she's a very skeptical adult. A very skeptical adult who is now embracing different kinds of magic and then being pulled away from them. Then they throw in religion and the A.I .stuff. And it's wonderfully, wonderfully elusive.
Because this show is so confounding, did they send you the whole season of scripts so you could understand it as a whole piece?
I don't remember the exact sequence of things on this, but I think [Tara] sent me the script for the first episode which kind of tells you everything. I think I wrote back to her this is the most original thing that's ever been done. Like how do you pitch this show? What's the log line? The logline is: "What the f---?" [Laughs.]
What was asked of you? Did you put together Monty's The Lazarus Shroud trick?
What she needed from me was just a reality check of what a cheesy magic act like Monty's would be able to do. We're maybe a little generous with his budget. The stuff that we're talking about would suit David Copperfield's budgets, but perhaps not Monty. [Laughs.] Arquette, by the way, nails that cheesy magician so perfectly. It's not mean. It's sweet and it's sort of hungry. You know, like: "I'm hungry to connect with my audience and I'm really a nice guy. And, I'm really not that bright." He is brilliant.
Did you need to work with any of the actors for specific tricks?
I had a conversation with Betty about that. I said, "I think the one thing you really physically need to be able to do is a card production." To reach up and produce a card, so we taught her how to do that. Because what you don't want is, suddenly, a card appears in her hands because then you just go, "That's not real magic."
Did you consult on Celeste's incredible magic vault?
No, that was just right. It's sort of like the the area underneath the stage at the Rio hotel where you can go down and say, "What size duck pan do we need today? The small, the medium or the large? Or, do you want the blood that flows quickly or slowly?" She's there [with] every magician's dream.
And I think her character is a very important payback for all the female magicians over the years who have been treated like livestock. On Fool Us, we take a good deal of trouble to make sure that we get proper representation for male and female magicians, even trans magicians. But particularly female magician's because they've suffered so badly at the hands of the magic culture which is a boys club. Do you know The Magic Circle in London didn't admit women as members until maybe 10 years ago? It's astounding when there were working female magicians doing circuit work. After Alexander Herman died, Adelaide Herman took over and did one of the biggest magic shows ever and toured with it and was fabulous. Female magicians were always around. But male magicians always pushed them to one side. So I was very happy to see Celeste not pushed to one side.
In the last decade, it's become a thing for people to debunk magic tricks and acts online. Do you fear A.I. will be the next tech thing to chip away at the art of illusion and magic?
I'm strangely not worried about it. The business of people getting on the internet and revealing how tricks have been done has been going on for what, five or six years now? I have never had a person come to my show and go, "Oh, boy, that trick was completely spoiled because I saw it on the internet." People's memories for those things are so small. And they have to search and search and search [for answers]. Honestly, if they've seen the show, been amazed by something, search and search and search and find something about it, that gives them more entertainment — which is kind of what it does — so I'm okay with it. A.I., so far, is based on what one has done in the past.
What if it gets smarter?
Well, I'm hoping that it gets good and saves us some trouble! Like type in: a new Penn and Teller bit with a pumpkin, a bucket and and a copy of the OED. If that fed us back something that we could actually do, especially with us having to [create] 21 new tricks for the next season the Fool Us, I bet if it fed us back something even remotely good, we'd build it. [Laughs.]
The first six episodes of Mrs. Davis are now streaming on Peacock. New episodes drop on Thursdays.