Monday 24 September 2018

Keith Barry's Hollywood moment

Keith Barry has progressed from childhood magic sets to blockbuster movies and in between dealt with heartbreak, trauma and unspeakable physical pain.

Keith Barry with wife Mairead Foley at the world premiere of the movie in New York.
Keith Barry with wife Mairead Foley at the world premiere of the movie in New York.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It's been said that Keith Barry has created a monster. Not Now You See Me 2 - the star-studded illusionist caper, which, despite some mixed reviews Stateside, is actually rollicking good fun - but rather Woody Harrelson, whom Barry skilled up on magic tricks for Harrelson's role in the movie. Barry's brand of illusion has apparently become such a part of Harrelson's going out shtick that he's now "doing it everywhere he goes, hypnotising people all the time", the Waterford-born illusionist tells me. Dave Franco, another cast member, was an even quicker study, Barry tells me. "I handed him a deck of cards and within a couple of days he was at the level of a semi-professional magician. He's now at the level of a professional. He can take a playing card and turn off the light switch by throwing it. I can't do that even, although it's not my speciality."

It may have been fun to give these Hollywood stars a flirty party piece but social showboating has never been Barry's purpose for magic. He's quick to separate it from other, seemingly related dark arts, such as picking up girls - he points out to me that he's been with the same woman for more than half his life - or psychic readings.

"I think it's associated with pickup artistry because it's an opener (an opening line). You see guys going up to girls in bars and saying, 'Oh, can I show you a trick'. It's a tool. I find it kind of sad, it breaks my heart a little bit. They should try to use their own personalities. It sort of smacks of using magic as a crutch, which is not what it should be. Psychics are a whole other thing. People tell me, 'Oh, I've been to one and there is no way they could have known all that without having psychic powers,' and I ask 'have you studied psychic techniques?' and they invariably say no. I have studied these techniques, I know how it's done."

There's a crucial difference, he adds, between allowing people to bask in the fun of not being able to believe their eyes and outright deceiving them. As an example, he cites his time working for a Swedish make-up manufacturer.

"I'd go over to Poland, where the make-up was manufactured and stand above a 4-tonne vat of the stuff and drop in a few drops of aloe vera, so that the marketing department could claim that was an ingredient in it. The cosmetics world and mentalism are both arenas of deception, but I suppose the difference is that mentalists and magicians are more honest about it. People tell me I have good skin and I tell them the magic secret is E45 cream; cheap, cheerful and very effective."

It's true he does look younger than his years - he'll be 40 later this year - although it's not for want of hard work and stress. He might be one of the few Irish celebrities whose career spans Ballymount to Beverly Hills. There's big American specials on the one hand, then stories of driving roadies to Galway at four in the morning on the other. He shuttles back and forth between a mid-Atlantic twang for an American audience and the soft Dublin-tinged accent he's speaking in on the day we meet. He needs to be all things to all people. He tells me he takes nothing for granted. "It's not paranoia about it all crashing down - it's work ethic," he tells me. "I remember hearing Will Smith, back when he was just a rapper, saying 'when all the other rap stars are in bed, I'm practicing my rapping'. I try to be like that. There is always something to improve."

Despite his distinctly MTV-tinged brand of illusion (mentalism, the other word he uses to describe his act, makes him sound like he has a screw loose), his childhood lust for magic was ignited by the homely figure of Paul Daniels, whose merchandise landed one Christmas morning in Waterford.

"I haven't looked at my own Wikipedia page in 10 years but it's all wrong. They say I got a magic book when I was 15, which I did, but it actually started when I, as a five-year-old, got a Paul Daniels magic set from Santa. That was what first got me interested."

There had never been a really successful Irish illusionist at that point and pulling a rabbit out of a hat seemed notably easier than visualising magic as a career path. He went on to train as a "cosmetic scientist".But his childhood obsession soon won over and it was while Keith was working in The Kitchen nightclub, owned by U2, in Dublin, that he was spotted and his career really began gaining traction. He toured his show with great success and was quickly picked up by multiple TV channels: Brainwashed for MTV, Close Encounters with Keith Barry for RTE and Keith Barry Extraordinary for CBS in the US. He even scored a part on CSI Miami, all the while selling out Vicar Street and other Irish venues, seemingly at will.

By then he was long since settled in his personal life. He met his wife Mairead while still in his teens - her brother asked him to "shift" her in a junior disco - and they have been together ever since. The couple have two young children, Breanna (7) and Braden (4) and, famously, Mairead gave birth to Braden using only Keith's hypnotism to cope with the pains of labour.

He reveals to me that this decision was partly down to the fact that Breanna had "a very bad, tough, birth."

"My daughter got stuck on the way out and had severed nerves in her arm. It's called Erb's Palsy. We were told 'she may be paralysed, maybe not', (but) she had physiotherapy for six months and she was fine then.

"For the second (birth) she (Mairead) said she didn't want an epidural. We talked about the possibility of using hypnosis for pain management and she decided to go through with a hypnobirth for the birth of our son. Every night, I would hypnotise her and teach her, basically, how to deal with pain on a subconscious level. I had never done it before, so she was the guinea pig. It was grounds for divorce if it didn't work. I was in the room for the birth. I didn't really ask the doctors if they were sceptical, they had seen it before, hypnobirths are a thing, I'm sure."

He's good at dealing with serious physical pain, he tells me, owing partly to his experience in 2007 when he was seriously injured on the way back from the funeral of promoter Jim Aiken. The then 30-year-old illusionist had to be cut from the wreckage after his Subaru Legacy collided with a car close to the Border. He endured multiple fractures to his leg, which was "pretty badly smashed up. There was a metal plate and 13 screws in there. I didn't black out, I remembered everything. It was pretty traumatic, but I recovered."

Much worse, on every level, was the loss of his grandfather, who was beaten in his own home in Waterford by a burglar in 2009. Paddy Barry never regained consciousness after the robbery and died at the Waterford Regional Hospital.

"He was 82 years old, having a can of Carling and watching telly and then he ended up dead. Nobody ever got charged with it. It was such an upsetting and painful experience. I was looking for somewhere to put my energy. I was looking for mandated sentencing for aggravated burglary but realistically that is never going to happen.

"We haven't heard from Waterford gardai in a long time. Even though technically it's an open case, I presume they have now moved on to other things. We've had to learn to live with it and let it go. I never went for counselling or anything like that. The law has now been clarified that you can protect yourself within your own home. It might not have helped him because he was old."

He seems so clean cut in every way it makes me wonder if there are debauched depths beneath the upstanding visage but he assures me that what you see is what you get.

"You hear celebrities saying this and then you learn the truth is very different but I am telling the truth; I've never tried drugs. I was having this conversation with Brian Ormond recently and I said, 'I just don't understand this whole cocaine culture', and he said 'me neither' and I said 'I've never had a line of cocaine in my life' and he said 'me neither!' I love a drink, however. Nothing too wild."

Has he ever used his powers for evil? He smiles wryly.

"It would be unprofessional of me to say but … theoretically hypnosis could be used to get out of a speeding ticket. Theoretically you could get a house for cheaper using conversational hypnosis and neuro linguistic programming techniques but whether it's possible …"

You probably don't need magic powers to hear the huge wink in these quotes.

Given his comments about the bunkum that is psychic powers, how did he feel about having self-proclaimed psychic and former best friend of Michael Jackson, Uri Geller, on his show a couple of years ago?

"Uri Geller, in recent times, has befriended himself to the magic community. I think the public have warmed to the fact that he's not, how should I put this, pushing himself on people as a psychic. He's now pushing himself as a mystifier. As far as I'm concerned he's an entertainer. He doesn't give health advice to people based on his abilities. I know people who will actually take health advice from a so-called psychic. You have to understand there are what we call shut-eyes, meaning psychics who actually believe in their own powers, but a lot know they are fake and do the whole act."

With the amount of time he has spent in LA, I imagine he has dealt with his share of sleazy agents and spurious offers and he confirms that there have been lots of offers that mysteriously fell through at the last minute.

"I've had people say 'we're going to handshake a deal where you do six nights a week in Vegas. We'll put six million into the advertising and when all's said and done you'll come out of it with 30 million after a few years.' And we're sitting there going 'he's lost me now.'

"It's not sleaziness, you have to understand, just a whole lot of bullshit. I've also had TV shows that were inked - signed and sealed - and then never materialised."

He will be 40 in October but says that far from dreading "the old age of youth" he relishes its approach.

"I don't give a shit about age. I work out super hard, body burning and so on. I'm actually looking forward to the day itself because I don't get to see my friends and family that much any more, so it will be great to have them all in one place for once."

Barry has a small cameo in Now You See Me 2 and is in pre-production - the writing phase - for Keith Barry, Hypnomagician for TV3.

"It'll be me back on the streets of Ireland. It will be hypnosis and straight magic, which I haven't done since my CBS special in 2006. So it'll be a challenge but I'm up to it. I'm excited for everything to come."

'Now You See Me 2' is in cinemas nationwide now

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