Daniel Nolan speaks to the subject of the documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

Ricky Jay has been one of the most successful performers in the magic industry in the modern era. He has also played a series of roles in films as high-profile as Boogie Nights, search Magnolia, viagra sale The Prestige and The Illusionist. He’s even achieved that ultimate hallmark of modern American celebrity and voiced himself in The Simpsons. Now, discount Molly Bernstein has released a documentary on the magician, Deceptive Practice, which featured in the Jameson Dublin Film Festival. The documentary is a fascinating insight into an innately unusual industry, as well as an intriguing and often oddly moving character study.

One of its most striking elements is the extent of the dedication required in order to thrive as a modern magician. The film includes photographs of Jay performing for an audience at age seven, and he remarks that, throughout his childhood, he would often spend the majority of his time practicing.

“I realised at that age that even when I didn’t have cards or coins in my hand, I was thinking about it, so it was taking up that much of my time. And it was for pleasure. It wasn’t the story of Grimaldi Senior putting his son, who becomes the greatest clown in the British Isles, through his paces. It really was something that I enjoyed doing.”

Magic, as a past-time and form of entertainment, has acquired an unfashionable image in recent times. It is most often associated with awkward young males, and the focus on secrecy often means it is aligned with antisocial tendencies. Jay remarks at one point during the documentary that it appeals “particularly to very lonely people.” Does he believe that this is a reasonable representation?

“I think it is, in the sense that it’s an art that’s often pursued by people- obviously these are vast generalisations- who are uncomfortable in their own skins. And that sets up a very bad scenario, unfortunately, where they perform magic as a way of saying “I know something that you don’t.” And I think that instils something in the audience where the reaction is “Just a minute, you haven’t fooled me, I do know, and the whole thing becomes about outdoing people as opposed to entertaining them. (Laughs) But I do think that people with severe social handicaps often find magic appealing. Maybe the same idea people had of those who in later ages have took to video games or something. It fits in with this whole ‘nerd’ concept. But in my youth, many years ago, almost every male child of American families, and I daresay many of the British magicians I know as well, would have had some interest or involvement with magic. They watched it on television and had a brief phase where they were intrigued by it and then they moved on to other things.”

For some, though, it lasts a lifetime. “I guess so. Personally, I’m no less interested in it now than I was then.”

The film makes this abundantly clear: as well as his performing, Jay is an avid collector of artefacts and knowledge relating to his art. Has retaining the joy and enthusiasm in his work ever been a challenge?

“That’s a great question and the answer is ‘yes.’ Show business is a very difficult pursuit- and that seems just as true for people who are good at it and bad at it. It’s really tough. There was a period of my life where I’d just had enough, and I was very frustrated. And at that time, amazingly enough, I was offered the opportunity to become the curator of one of the greatest and most extensive magic collections and the world. I did say to the owner that I would only accept the job if I could also go out and perform, occasionally, but for almost five years, there was no question that my focus was on this collection and the history of the art. I found that extremely reinvigorating. It’s one of the things I’m looking forward to about being in Dublin. I have appointments set up to do research at the National Library and the Science Centre- so none of that has changed, but I’m more comfortable with the idea of doing both and either. I’ve written many books on the topic at this point and still enjoy that aspect as much as ever.”

A scene in the documentary shows footage from a chat show in the ‘80s, where Jay’s friend, Steve Martin, in a presumably rehearsed skit, attempts to scupper one of Jay’s card tricks in typically laconic fashion. Martin is placed as the cool cynic to Jay’s showman. However, Jay has the last laugh over the comedian. Does he believe that magic can be a kind of antidote to the prevailing currents of skepticism?

“I suppose that that’s possible. I don’t know that that’s really the intent for me. But yeah, if that happens, it’s kind of a lovely thing. Certainly people do have very strong, kind of primitive reactions. I’ve had people through shot glasses at me, I’ve sent people running, screaming out of clubs because they’ve thought I’ve read their minds. The way people react to this is so varied and so unusual that I find it literally unpredictable.”

In all the decades of his involvement with the magic industry, Jay must surely have seen it evolve dramatically. “Honestly, not a lot. Of course, now with the internet, there a far more people interested in magic, and more people who have access to it and to its secrets. But I find that the percentage of people who do it really well is unchanged. Even with all that access and information, there are few really terrific younger guys. Most of them are not terrific. So it evolves but it doesn’t change all that much.”

One of the primary focuses of Deceptive Practice is the relationship between magicians and the way in which technique and knowledge is passed down. The guild-like aspect of professional magic seems to mark it out amongst modern art-forms. “The personal aspect is certainly important. The “sensei/student” relationship. For me, I had access to books all the time, but it was the fact that my Grandfather and his friends, who were great slight-of-hand artists, had that influence on me. There was a fellow called Jerry Andruss who lived in Albany, Oregon, didn’t know anyone, invented his own sleight of hand- he died a couple of years ago, in his nineties- who really came up with an individual, original style. And there are others like that. So it works both ways. But I would have to say that, from my own experience, spending time and working with these people was so inspiring.”

One particularly illuminating section of the film has a journalist detail an anecdote from her experiences writing an article on Jay as a BBC documentary was being made about him. She speaks of his frustration with the makers of that documentary’s insistence that he perform a particular trick in circumstances of their construction. As he continues to refuse their advances, during lunch with the journalist, Jay almost absent-mindedly produces a large block of ice from behind a menu, with no fanfare or explanation. The story seems indicative of Jay’s resentment of those who attempt to commoditise his art. “What was so annoying to me was their refusing to understand that by them setting up cameras and recording equipment and forcing something to happen, they were taking away from the possibility of the effect being magical.” So spontaneity is an essential ingredient? “Exactly. The spontaneity is what really excites people. And as you then hear this woman tell her story- it could never have had that remarkable effect on her had it been planned in advance. I thought the filmmakers were great in being able to capture that.”

In the past two decades, Jay has starred in films directed by the likes of David Mamet, Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan. How he has he found the transition between this mode of performance and the one which first made him famous?

“Initially, David Mamet gave me my first film-role, in a non-magical capacity. It was because he had brought me in to talk to his acting students at one point, realising the principals behind acting were very much like those behind magic. Hitting a mark, delivering material based on your inner knowledge of that material without necessarily having to share it with the audience to achieve what it is you want the audience to feel. But that was all being motivated in a very personal way. And that’s how it started- he had me doing demonstrations for his acting students. I told him “I know nothing about acting,” he said “You’ll be surprised.” Then he started casting me in films. And it actually was a fairly natural transition for me. I’m really grateful to him having the guts to do that.”

Deceptive Practice was an unexpected highlight of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, and should be enjoyed both by those with and without an interest in the industry on which it sheds so much light.