Life has been a whirlwind for Mat Franco since becoming the first magician to win NBC’s America’s Got Talent last September. In addition to gearing up for his Las Vegas residency, Magic Reinvented Nightly, at the Linq, Franco is filming two one-hour specials for NBC titled Mat Franco’s Got Magic. He spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Ken Miller about his favorite illusion, his inspirations and the importance of connecting with an audience.

You were the first magician to win America’s Got Talent. What did that feel like?

It’s really surreal. It was in September when the finale happened. So much has happened since then, but at the same time it feels like yesterday. Because life has just been a complete whirlwind since then. It’s really incredible. It feels like a dream.

Can you tell us anything about your show? What we can expect?

What I’m doing is creating a whole new show, so that the folks who pushed me to the top of America’s Got Talent can get a chance to see some of those signature routines I did in person, and I’m also working on a huge array of new stuff, new magic, that I’m going to infuse into it as well. And I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be interactive. I’m going to engage with the audience. Bring everyone into it to make it as interactive as possible. To give it that intimate feeling, but also elements of scale that a Vegas show needs as well.

You made it a point to do a lot of close-up magic on AGT. Will that be a significant part of your show?

Yeah, I think it’s important for magic to connect with people, and sometimes making it feel a little more intimate is part of what can sort of help do that. That element is certainly a part of the show, and also those elements that make it feel bigger, whether it’s using fire or a human deck of cards, or whatever it is. It’s the marriage of those two things together that makes the show what it is.

What gives you more satisfaction: Fooling an audience or connecting with them?

(Laughs) This is going to sound really weird coming from a magician, but I really get no satisfaction out of fooling an audience. For me, yes connecting with them is definitely more important, but also just making them happy. Seeing people smile and have a good time. I hope for the show to be a lot of fun. The whole point of it is to have a good time. So yes, fooling the audience, it’s weird. People tend to think the point of magic is to be deceptive, but I don’t see it that way. If you watch a movie, you’re not thinking about being deceived and fooled. You’re just enjoying the storyline. So I like magic to have more meaning behind it as well, not just the tricks. That doesn’t mean it needs to be cheesy or emotional. Sometime it’s just humor that sort of carries it from Point A to Point B. But I think it’s just important that it does have more to it, and it’s not just, “Hey, watch this little trick.” For me, I like there to be at least another layer there.

You are performing at the Linq, part of which is the High Roller observation wheel. Any chance we’ll see at least one illusion involving the High Roller?

During the live show? I don’t anticipate bringing the whole audience out to the big wheel every night, although that is a crazy idea. But I will say I am working on a really crazy idea that does involve the High Roller for a pretty cool stunt. Not sure if I can pull it off, but I do have something kinda crazy in mind.

It sounds like you are constantly challenging yourself.

Well, yeah, I think that’s how I get through every day, to be honest with you. It’s just kind of what my personality wants and needs. I love sort of the nature of not knowing what each challenge is going to be every day. If I have to give you an average day in the life of what I do, I don’t really have an answer for that, because every day is different. I think that’s what I love about it. I enjoy new challenges and pushing the envelope and seeing what else can be done.

You grew up in Rhode Island. How familiar are you with Las Vegas?

This is going to sound like a joke, but I’ve loved Vegas since I was a little kid. It’s a true story that I told my parents instead of going to Disneyworld like most little kids ask to do, I just wanted to go to Las Vegas. I’ve loved it since before I could gamble, before I could go out and all of that. I’ve been there a good handful of times over the years. I’ve made a point to visit there on many occasions. And I just love it. I love the vibe there. I can’t wait to call that place home. I’m really excited about it.

One of the places I realized you performed at was the Riviera, which is being torn down.

Yeah, it’s sad to see it go. I was a teenager, and it was a convention called the Society of American Magicians. It was the coolest thing in the world to have that opportunity. It’s sad to see it go, but at the same time, it’s really cool to have my very first headlining residency in Las Vegas. It’s like I said, it doesn’t feel real.

Who have been some of your role models in magic?

I grew up in the ‘90s watching magic on TV. And at that time, it wasn’t street magic. It was live on stage specials, all of which happened to take place in Vegas. Lance Burton had his specials, one at Caesars Palace, and then his theater at the Monte Carlo. There was a special called World’s Greatest Magic, also filmed at Caesars, and I saw that back in 1994. Those were my bibles growing up. I really learned magic from watching it, not so much from having a personal instructor or anything like that growing up in Rhode Island. For me it was all the magicians I watched on all those shows. So, Lance Burton, Jeff McBride, Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, the guys who are in Las Vegas right now. I can quote all of the shows because I videotaped them and watched them over and over and put them in slow motion on the old VHS player to figure out how to do magic.

How does it feel to know you’ll be performing in the same neighborhood as all these people you grew up with?

It really is an honor. It’s weird to have you even ask me that question. It’s like, to me, that’s not even really going to happen, but I guess it is. We’re opening June 24. This thing is for real. We’re developing a show and working crazy hard and everything, so this is really happening. At the same time, I have to slap myself in the face to really believe it. Until it comes to fruition, I’m not sure I’ll really even buy it. Even with AGT, I never thought I had a chance to win that show. People always ask, “Well, when was the moment you knew you were going to win?” And my answer is always the same—it’s not like American Idol where in the final episode it’s just two people. In the final episode it’s six of us, and then they eliminate them one at a time. And it wasn’t really until that final moment when it was just me and one other act that I thought, “Wait a minute: I have a 50 percent shot at this thing.” Even then, it didn’t feel real. It’s the same thing with the crazy Las Vegas opportunity. It’s just a dream come true. It’s hard to believe that you and I are actually talking about it. It’s strange that I’m on the phone with Las Vegas Magazine talking to you about this. It’s amazing.

What illusion on AGT were you most proud of?

My absolute favorite, not the one that’s most talked about, was my audition, where I told my story using the deck of cards. There’s something about the simplicity of it, the personal element of it. It was all sort of customized for the show, the judges, the host, and I thought it was a cool way to share my story with the world in 90 seconds. It’s based on an old trick called “Sam the Bellhop.” The original was “Sam and Moe.” It was popularized by a guy called Bill Malone. Amazing close-up magician out of Chicago. Saw him for the first time in 1994. I had done that version for years, and I thought, “I’ve been doing this routine since I was a kid. It’s about time. Why don’t I customize it and make my own version?” So I finally did, and I wrote my own card story. It had nothing to do with AGT, and I sent it to the producers of the show, and said, “If you like this concept, I’ll write one about your show.” And they called my bluff and said, “Okay, that sounds great. Go ahead and do it.” And that’s what ended up what we all saw. That was my debut into the TV magic world. And that one has a special place for me.

Everyone talks about Mel B’s cellphone in the cushion. That was a nightmare to pull off, but that came out well too, but I just love the simplicity of being able to entertain a whole giant room of people with just a deck of cards and a story.

It seems like that trick defines you—it’s magic, but also you connecting with the audience in a very personal way.

Yeah, it’s one of those things where it’s relying heavily on the delivery. And I like that. It’s part of what I like about. And it’s got another layer to it. You’re not really watching it, asking, “How do you do that?” I mean, there’s no trick. There’s nothing to expose. You can’t go on YouTube comments and try to expose it, because it’s simply a shuffled deck of cards and being able to find the cards you need at the right time in the right order. It’s more of a display of skill, but really what it is is 98 percent delivery, and that’s what I love about it too.

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