Interviewing Three of the World’s Top Illusionists

By Rawan Abdel Latif


The art of magic and illusions has been around since the 1800s with legends like David Copperfield and Harry Houdini setting the bar extremely high for the next generations of performers. Creating decades of escape artists, manipulators and entertainers, this field bred many courageous individuals, leaving the audience in shock and with many questions that they know will go unanswered.

For the first time in Egypt, the “World’s Greatest Illusions (Live)” organized by Event House at The Marquee took place on the weekend before Halloween, and featured some of the biggest names in the industry today: the charismatic Jay Mattioli, the daring stunt performer Jonathan Goodwin, the inventor of the “Operation” illusion Kevin James and the manipulator Yu Ho Jin.

Before the show, we had the opportunity to talk to Mattioli, Goodwin and James to get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

Jay Mattioli

What motivated you all to become illusionists? For some of you, it was at a very young age, and so when did it turn from a hobby to a career?

 James: I think it is the same story for most of us. I saw a magician when I was very young and fell in love immediately with the art. The popular Doug Henning then came along and he sealed the deal, as at that moment, I knew there was nothing else for me.

However, it takes a long time at the beginning to get to where you are good enough to earn a living out of it.

Mattioli: For me it was when David Copperfield came along in the eighties. He had me interested in magic as we got to see on national television this “cool guy” perform in front of thousands of people who until this day is known as one of the best magicians in the world.

I also had a gravitation to many things in the entertainment industry at a young age. I used to study Michael Jackson, dancing and music, and I was a big fan of comic books, and it is all somehow related. Even in comic books, those individuals were entertainers. It is this vision of people who look ordinary doing unordinary things and making people happy, and for whatever reason as a little kid I gravitated towards that. As I got to my teenage years I realized that I needed a job, so the idea at that time was how to make this my career.

Goodwin: My story may differ as I am not a magician, but rather a stunt performer, and so when I was growing up in south Wales, I spent my childhood climbing the roof of my parents’ house and doing terribly dangerous things. I was then lucky enough to fashion that and learn skills and put them on the stage.

There was a period of time when I wanted to become an actor, and then I decided this was far more fun.

Jonathan Goodwin

How would you describe your experiences on America’s Got Talent and how did it affect your exposure?

James: Of course it was a lot of exposure. I had one particular segment that went viral and I still get work from that and that was eight to nine years ago, so it was really good for me. However, it was pretty stressful.

Mattioli: Same exact thing. If you have ninety seconds that goes really well and all of a sudden it is viral and on the cover of Google, then it is definitely beneficial. The world of live television however is very stressful, as plans can change at any point.

We all do wear it as a badge of honor because it means that we can get through any curveball that comes during the show, as it is usually not as stressful as other situations we have been through.

How do you deal with unexpected situations, whether on stage or right before your performance?

Goodwin: This is sort of what I do – I deal with stressful situations on stage. I have been hanged, buried alive and locked in a box surrounded by 200,000 bees. I do an escape act from a jacket where I am completely on fire, and that is specifically why I do not get stage fright because concentrating on my act is far more intense than worrying about the thousands of people that are there to watch.

When I did the guest spot on America’s Got Talent, I did that gag in Radio City Music Hall in front of six thousand people live, and all of the New York City fire department came down to watch me do it. In the rehearsal, I had to perform it to get a permit to do it, and so they were all watching me, and that was the one time I did not get out and I had to get rescued, which was a little embarrassing.

Thankfully, I knew the producer of the show who believed we should not go through with it, but I told her it would be fine and it indeed was a great segment. You just have to rise above it and concentrate on what you are actually doing.

I am not a fan of heights, but I get past it. One of my acts is to be hanged from my teeth five meters high, which is not what I love to do but the audience loves it.

Mr. James, how did you come up with your “Operation” illusion and how long did it take to master it?

 James: It is still work in progress. I am still changing things all the time, but I was inspired by the classic cutting a lady in half, which was invented in 1921, and it has had so many different incarnations. A friend of mine, who is a historian, showed me this really interesting technique that was done in the 1930s but was not used, and that is when I tried to modernize it and it became what it did.

What you will see in this event was the result of a lot of work and trials to find the cleanest and most shocking way to do it.

Kevin James

Mr. Mattioli, you are known for your big personality on stage. How important would you say incorporating likeability into your performance is?

 Mattioli: I believe it is just as important. When you come to a live event like this, it is really essential because sometimes when you are watching something on the Internet, you are only watching parts of it. However, when people buy the ticket and come in they are looking for the full experience, so I think all the little bits of likeability is what is going to make the audience in the end feel like it was enjoyable and worth it.

Of course we need to have magic, danger and excitement but it is important for the audience, no matter what the culture is, to feel some kind of connection with you.

Jay Mattioli

Mr. Goodwin, many people refer to you as the “Modern Day Superhero”. How did you react to receiving such a title?

Goodwin: I honestly laughed at it as I do not consider myself that at all. I just enjoy learning new skills and practicing different things.

I guess it was because a lot of the things I do are not really magic tricks, but rather I am really shooting a crossbow and hanging from my teeth. Because I do lots of these diverse acts, people try and put you into a box and say this is what you are.

Mr. Goodwin, because you do so many daring acts, what would you say was your most memorable moment on stage?

 Goodwin: I do a stunt where I put a live scorpion in my mouth and a lady comes up from the audience who does not know it is, and her job is to slap me in the face while I am escaping from a pair of handcuffs. The moment when I escape and spit the scorpion out onto a tray she is holding, and she freaks out – that is my favorite thing.

For all of you, how is it performing on an international stage of a country that perhaps does not speak the same language compared to yours in your home country?

 James: I have been to ninety countries so far, and so it is a lot of fun seeing how the different audiences around the world react, but people are people and what we do is a universal language and they appreciate it no matter what country they are from.

 Mattioli: I make it more of a challenge in my head because typically I have segments in my performance where I speak a lot, and I realize that sometimes you have to slow down and that some cultural references don’t make sense in different places.

A lot of my magic is choreographed to music that might not be popular in certain places, and so I refer to that as “losing some of the jelly” sometimes, and so I have to modify my acts. Every time though, there is an experience that makes me a stronger performer and it is another little challenge to figure out how to still make it work and to keep it entertaining. That is something that always stresses me a little beforehand, and then once we get through it, I see that people still enjoy it and it is one of those badges of honor that I can wear.

Goodwin: Danger is certainly a universal language. Houdini said, “people will come to see you die”, and I don’t think people have changed very much in the hundred years since he said that. Magic is very visual, comedy is very universal and danger is the third part of that, as it is something people can relate to no matter what.

Yu Ho Jin