Derren Brown: Is America Ready for 'Sacrifice'?

Some of you may know Derren Brown as the magician who convinced people to commit murder. Though the stunt in his Netflix special The Push was merely a psychological study that sought to investigate the human mind, the reaction was so great that some viewers demanded the contestants be arrested for attempted murder.

For those that haven't witnessed the master illusionist at play, here's a recap of Brown's greatest hits: He's performed countless stage shows spanning over two decades, opened a virtual reality theme park ride, played Russian roulette with a loaded handgun on live television, predicted the U.K. lottery, and hypnotized an unsuspecting member of the public to assassinate Stephen Fry. (Fry survived.)

Unlike many of his peers, Brown has never pretended to possess any supernatural abilities. In fact, many of his acts are designed to expose the people who do. Instead, the self-styled psychological mentalist—"basically means a magician that uses mind reading" Brown tells Newsweek—pulls off his tricks and experiments using the power of suggestion, misdirection, psychology and showmanship. Brown is a former-Christian, who famously subjected himself to gay conversion therapy (spoiler: it didn't work). The level of complexity in his shows and the range of jaw-dropping stunts across his 18-year career is exactly why he's long been a household name in the U.K.

In recent months, the Britain native has been hard at work breaking into America with a series of televised specials. Sacrifice, out on Friday, is his latest social experiment that explores the power of the mind while testing human compliance. In the 50-minute show, Brown sets out to radically transform one man's prejudices using covert psychological techniques. The endgame: convincing him to sacrifice his life for a stranger he normally wouldn't identify with.

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Derren Brown's "Sacrifice" out on Netflix October 19. Netflix

Congratulations on Sacrifice! In the show you talk about these "aggressively divided times" that we live in "when we so readily define ourselves through our tribal identities."

Yeah, I think nowadays, more than ever, we're moving to the edges in terms of what we believe and what we feel strongly about. We have our own filter bubbles that we live in; our social media feeds with like-minded people just reinforcing the seemingly obvious truth of what it is that we believe.

I'm so caught up in the gray areas of things that I have always found it hard relating to those strong opinions, let alone the aggressive ones. So that's what the show is about. I think the important point of humanity happens in the dialogue between sides and at the moment the climate is such that there's a lot of hostility between sides and not much meet in the middle.

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Do you think political party leaders are manipulating voters like you manipulate your subjects?

It's all stories, isn't it? It's constantly a narrative and we're so susceptible to adapting to other people's narratives and politicians are part of that.

It would be lovely to be in a world where politicians were like: "Well this is a very complex situation and there are various options; we could try this, this would lead to that and it might be difficult, so we're just going to try and do our best with some compassion." But of course, that's not how it works.

Your work has always been unconventional, even within the realm of magic. How would you describe what you do?

When I started, the technical word is mentalist. It basically means a magician that uses mind reading. But as I grew up, the "hey look at me I'm so clever" bit became less appealing and interesting. I figured that putting real people through real situations, challenges and conflicts would make for much better drama and I would take a behind-the-scenes role.

But the stage shows that I do… I honestly don't know really what you'd call it. There's a point when Ghost Train [a virtual reality theme park ride in Thorpe Park] came out around the same time I had a book on happiness which is drawing from Greek philosophy, I don't really know what the word is that incorporates all of those, but I like the fact that it's not just one thing because it seems to give me license to move into different areas. It joins a love of the mind and the psychological journey that's holding it all together.

Derren addresses Auditionees
Brown addresses auditionees for his new experiment. Netflix

Why did you want to be a magician and mentalist?

For a long time, I couldn't just sit and have a conversation with people at a table without showing them a trick. I thought you just had to impress, it was about impressing, which of course is what you do if you don't feel very impressive. Magic is a very efficient road to doing that, it's the quickest, most fraudulent route to impressing people. I just needed that for a bit.

What was the first ever magic trick you learned?

I remember a guy at school, Timothy Newey, had a card trick that he did. It was [former British Prime Minister] Winston Churchill's favorite card trick, but I don't know where he learnt it. Basically you give the deck to someone and have them shuffle it up and they deal them out into two piles face down. They then separated the reds from the blacks without knowing how they'd done it. You don't touch the cards yourself. It was an amazing trick and it just infuriated me. I made him tell me.

As with any magician and mentalist, I'm sure you've had a few tricks or experiments that have gone wrong.

For one of the shows I did, I think it was Infamous, embedded in it all the way through was a running joke about trying to guess somebody's mobile phone number that they're thinking of in the audience. And then at the very end of the show, I'm doing all these lightening calculations and we ended up with this huge total written on the blackboard, which in the final moment turns out to be the person's phone number.

I remember one night just getting it so wrong. It wasn't even just one number out, it was completely wrong. I'm sweating just thinking about it now. I just said, "Oh I'm sorry.… Well, have a good night!" And as I said good night, that was the cue for all the streamers to go off. They all exploded. The audiences were sort of confused and politely applauding and clearly baffled by the ending. That sort of thing occasionally happens. It's more of a thing for stage than on TV because by the time the show's put together you can let a failure sit comfortably within a show but there's no way out of it on stage.

Derren and Microchip
Brown attempts to radically transform, through the use of covert psychological techniques, one man's prejudices in Netflix original special "Sacrifice." Netflix

Magicians always seem to be shrouded in secrecy. Is your public persona different from who you are in day-to-day life?

I'm probably a little shyer than people imagine. I'm not very sociable. If I get invited to a glamorous event I probably won't go. That world does not really appeal to me. I don't think I'm controlling [as magicians are usually stereotyped]. At least not with other people. I have a couple of dogs and I live with my partner. We just like to sit and read and I'm generally quite quiet.

In the last interview I did, the guy said "Oh, you're annoyingly balanced," which I don't think I am, but I can see what he meant, in terms of my views on things, I'm not terribly opinionated. I never presume I know the full story.

You've written a self-help book on happiness called Happy. But what makes you happy?

Creative engagement in a project. I get very lost and quite muddy when I haven't gotten something bigger than me that I'm involved in. So, writing a book in particular, that's probably the most rewarding out of the things that I do. Making a show like this, or a stage show, those are all things that keep me focused.

I also read, paint a lot and take photographs. I just had a book on street geography come out. Those are things I can lose myself in. Also taking the dogs for a walk.

After decades of performances and TV specials in the U.K., you're finally breaking into America. How have you found that experience?

I've been on TV in England for around 18 years. [Back home,] when I say in my show "someone's going to take a bullet for somebody" [the premise of Sacrifice], there's a sense of familiarity because these people know me and they have probably see me do things like this before. But that's not the case in America.

When The Push came out on Netflix there was outrage, not from the show itself but from the trailer and the hook of it. It was on Fox News. You guys don't really know who I am or what world I come from, or what my agenda is so that is new and it's refreshing.

We are trying to make sure that the components of these early U.S. shows build a profile of who I am because the [Broadway] stage shows that I do in England have a common ancestor with these TV specials. But I don't think it's immediately obvious, if you've only seen Sacrifice or The Push, that I would be somebody who will also put on an entertaining show on stage.

With these specials we're trying to say: This is me, this is what I do, but it's a broad remit and there's not really an easy title for it.

Sacrifice premieres October 19 on Netflix.

Derren Brown: Is America Ready for 'Sacrifice'? | Culture