Q&A: Magician Xavier Mortimer
Xavier Mortimer created the disembodied hand character Sneaky for Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson ONE before being featured on America’s Got Talent and Penn & Teller: Fool Us, giving the French illusionist enough exposure to warrant headlining status at Planet Hollywood’s intimate Sin City Theater. Xavier Mortimer’s Magical Dream incorporates silhouette screens, video, a muse named Belle (Lauren Metter) and Mortimer’s sleight of hand skills into a cabaret-sized, family friendly comedy-magic show featuring a climactic levitation trick that can arguably be called a masterpiece.
So I thought I figured out how you do the jump rope levitation illusion that Penn & Teller appreciated on Fool Us …
(Laughs) Did you figure it out?
Well, then I realized I actually hadn’t figured it out. Is it true that Penn & Teller didn’t actually figure out what you were doing?
No, Penn Jillette was fooled. Teller figured out most of the trick. Teller got it, but Penn Jillette said I fooled him. Here is the story, and I asked Teller if I can use it. He said, “No, you can’t use it. You should use it,” so I’m going to tell you the whole story. I went on Fool Us, and I was definitely sure I would fool them, but you know, at the same time, fooling is a good thing but it really isn’t the aim of the show. It’s great to fool them, but my goal was more to entertain and show something. Anyway, I do my trick, and Penn Jillette stops to speak with me and says, “That’s amazing. We love that,” and at the end he said, “You fooled me.” He stops and he says, “But I don’t think you fooled Teller.” And Teller comes onstage and he draws something for me. I have to tell you, it’s the first time someone has figured out my system. Good magicians that are working, they couldn’t figure it out, and he draws something and it’s close. It’s not the actual system but it was very close. And you know what? I didn’t want to be nit-picking. I said, “Yes, that’s it. You got it.”
That was probably smart.
Yeah, I didn’t want to argue. I’m not here for that. When I came back home though, I had Teller’s contact information. Somehow we met briefly, like a long time ago. I didn’t really know Teller. He was not my friend. I didn’t know him but I had his email. I wrote him an email, I said, “Teller, you’re amazing. I fooled everyone in this town, in the world actually, with this trick and you’re the only person who figured it out. You’re a genius. And I have to tell you, the system was close but not exact because mechanically your system wouldn’t work on me but it’s close enough that I can say it’s how I did it.”
He figured it out.
He figured it out, so I write this down to him. And you know what? Teller answers me, and all he says in his email, he says, “Xavier, I was so happy to have you in the show, you’re trick was a masterpiece.” He says, “I’d love to have you back,” and he says to me—I have to frame this email one day—he says, “Your trick is a masterpiece.”
That’s not small praise. He’s one of the most intelligent people in entertainment.
Yes, he’s very smart. And later, about a month ago, he tweeted about me. There was a rerun of Fool Us or something, and my jump rope trick was on there, and he tweeted about it, like “Xavier did something amazing, something really cool.” And I said “Thanks, Teller,” and he said, “You should use that for your advertisement because this is really what I think. Your trick is a masterpiece and it’s amazing. It’s one of the best levitations I’ve ever seen.” I mean, basically he’s saying that to me, and … wow. (Laughs) I’m showing it to me friends and I’m like, “Teller said my trick is a masterpiece.”
You get a lot of high ratings on Yelp and the travel websites. They skew towards five stars.
Yeah, it’s good. I’m happy about that. I wouldn’t say so at the beginning. I have to tell you, when we opened the show it was a little bit like … we had to break it in, and we worked very hard for that, but today I feel the audiences leaves the show happy, and that’s what I want. We’ve been working very hard for that, and you know, it takes a while for a show to come together. We created the show for that room, and the room is so special that we had to adapt all the tricks and all the things for it.
When I saw “Jump Rope” on Penn & Teller, that’s a very particular kind of trick. It’s very fast and there’s not real theatrical build up to it, so I expected your show to be kind of enigmatic, but very quickly you see that there’s comedy involved in the magic as much as mystery. I was wondering if you had adapted you show to that space or if it was like a cabaret-sized show that moved in easily.
Yes, that was the main thing for the show. First we had to adapt to a stage that is quite small and fit my illusions, which require videos and things, a lot of props that we put in this small space. Mostly what happened is we had to build the show very fast. We have to put it together in 30 minutes and it has to be out in 50 minutes or so, so that was definitely a big, big thing. And also, Alex (Goude, Mortimer’s manager) was the one who wanted more theatrics and comedy. I’m the magician. I’m more about how I do the illusion and how I bring people into my world, so Alex added a little bit more story.
I understand Alex was a television personality in France. Did he have a hand in discovering you and bringing you to the U.S.?
No, I lived here. I was working with Cirque du Soleil. I was brought to Las Vegas in 2013 by Cirque du Soleil. I was one of the main characters in Michael Jackson ONE. I don’t know if you’ve seen that show.
Yeah, Sneaky. Of course.
So I had this character, and I was the guy with the bagpipes running around doing things with the glove, Michael Jackson’s glove, and Michael Jackson’s microphone. I stayed there for three years and I was very happy. It was great to be here, and the show is amazing. I was working on a one-man show because I was working for seven years before coming to Vegas, with a one-man show in Europe and actually in Asia a lot too. It was named the Shadow Orchestra, and it was more like you say, mysterious and a lot of magic and shadows. No talking. It was completely silent. Then I was working on a new show and Alex said, “You should bring your new show to Vegas.” And I was like, Yeah, I don’t know. I have a network in Europe.” And I kept going with that show, and Alex calls me in Europe and says, “Xavier, I’ve got a room for you.” He said, “Go check it out and see if we can fit the show in it. I came to see the room and it was actually small, but I was like, “Oh my God, someone offers me a room in Vegas? I can’t pass this opportunity.” So I called Alex and I said, “OK, Let’s do it.” And we worked on the show with Michael Goodeau. Michael was the opening act for Lance Burton. He also opened for Penn & Teller. He’s got a lot of things going on. He’s a great guy. So we’ve been working with Michael Goodeau and Alex on the show. All of the acts in my show that I had been touring with, we tried to find a thread for them. It was a big bet. I didn’t expect it to last more than two or three months, you know? But no, it’s still here.
How was your first show? Do you recall it pretty well or is it a blur now?
The first show? Oh, yeah. I recall it very well. And I know Criss Angel was here … a lot of big names that I’m very respectful of. And it was the first show. I wish they could come now. I’ve changed it. It’s much better. (Laughs)
I think that’s expected. Same with restaurants. I imagine your peers noticed you have a very physical approach. You were educated in the performing arts before you become a magician, correct?
Yes, I studied theater. Physical comedy and dance.
What led you to magic? Was it an interested you always had that you eventually focused on, or was it something you came to later that you felt you could apply what you learned as a performer?
I was a magician first and always will be a magician. That’s what I like. That’s what makes me go forward and want to do shows. I don’t … I just added my physical comedy part and music, because I write my own music. I try to tell the story of a guy who is stuck in that magical world where everything happens. He’ a bit of Charlie Chaplin, but at the same time he’s really a magician. He’s more like Harry Potter, but a Charlie Chaplin version.
You studied at the Music and Dance Conservatory of La Rochelle, the Desmond Jones School of Mime and Physical Theatre in London and the Jacques Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris, so you had an interest in magic then studied performing arts to inform your magical career?
Yeah, but in Paris there was no school for magic. When I started to go onstage I was quite young, so I started to film my performances. I was like “Oh, my God, this is really about acting.” (Laughs) You have to go to school at least to be onstage in front of an audience. And I loved it. I was happy doing that, and I was still gigging with my magic show at the time. I was 20. I like to always learn new things but everything … I have always been around magic, more than theater, music and dance. Anything I have learned (outside of magic) makes it a little more, maybe, different … and maybe interesting.
A lot of people bring up Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. I was thinking the Jacques Tati influence.
I subsequently saw an interview with you in French in which you mentioned Tati, and then you said (French silent-era filmmaker) Georges Méliès too. I was like “Of course.” I totally see George Méliès in your stage show. And he was a magician!
Oh, yes. I was a big George Méliès fan and I’ve watched every Jacques Tati film. Jacques Tati is dead now, but I met the guy who made the movies for Jacques Tati. He came to me show in Paris 10 years ago, and he loved it and we became great friends. I was like “Wow!” It’s a little bit like knowing David Copperfield. The people that inspire you when you meet them – I’ve met Penn & Teller, David Copperfield—for me it has no price. I’m doing this because of them, and when I meet them and have conversations with them, I’m like … how do you say? I’ve fulfilled what I’ve wanted.
You realized you’ve arrived. “Validation” is not exactly the word.
Yeah, it’s like, “You’re the guy that inspired me and you mean so much to me, that if you are interested in my work….” Like when Teller says, “Your trick is a great trick,” or when David Copperfield said to me, “Oh, yeah, your jump rope, it’s quite fooling,” I’m like “Wow, these words have no price.”
What’s the story behind the jump rope trick?
I was in bed and I was trying to fall asleep, and I saw that image. I saw an image of a guy playing with a jump rope, and I was like, “Wow, that’s kind of a cool image.” I really thought it was impossible. The day after I was with my girlfriend—she’s a magician too—and at dinner I asked her if she thought it was possible to do that. Then in the morning I was like, “Maybe we could do that this way or this way. I’m not sure.” And I explained to her my solution, and she’s like, “Wow the image is so cool. You have to try.” And I was working at Cirque du Soleil at the time, and I was talking to everyone in the rigging department and all these things: “Do you know if we could do that? Can we borrow that? Can I do that?” (Laughs) So I did a lot of research and one day I found the solution, and then when I found the solution I had to find the proper way to build it so it’s a trick, you know? That took me a year of research. I called every shop in the U.S. “Oh, yeah, this is the exact material I need.”
I thought I figured out the bubbles-into-crystal-balls trick as well, then I saw video of you performing it without sleeves and I realized I didn’t.
(Laughs) That’s funny.