The actor: Ricky Jay has racked up an impressive résumé, appearing in cult TV shows like Deadwood and X-Files and movies like Tomorrow Never Dies, Mystery Men, Boogie Nights, and many of the films of his good friend and collaborator David Mamet. But acting is really just a sideline for Jay, who is perhaps the world’s greatest living illusionist, the author of several books, a popular live performer, and one of the brains behind Deceptive Practices, a which provides consulting expertise on a wide range of arcane matters. Jay is currently touring the country with Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery, a one-man show directed by David Mamet that makes extensive use of Jay’s world-class collection of memorabilia relating to the history of illusionists and sleight of hand. A Rogue’s Gallery will play The Royal George Theater in Chicago Dec. 1-6, and L.A.’s Geffen Dec. 29-Jan. 10, 2010.
Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery (Theatrical production, 2009-2010)
The A.V. Club: How will your new live show be different from previous ones?
Ricky Jay: God, it’s really hard to explain this. That’s the problem, whereas a film, I probably could explain. It’s an evening of conversation and performance. What makes it different than any of my other shows is that a lot of the material is generated by improvisationally chosen segments by the audience. In this, even the material varies, so I’m going to show, via some means, many pieces from my collection. Well, it just sounds incredibly arcane. So far nothing vaguely approaching a punchline. So let’s say there are images—and there are, so I don’t even have to preface it by “let’s say.” There are images of con men and ventriloquists, and there are various entertainers and pieces from my past. And if someone in the audience chooses one of those things, they will get to see, for instance, some wonderful broadside or poster or photograph, and that will lead me to either talk about it or perform. So that’s the idea.
So if someone chooses something on water-spouting, I might show a 19th-century engraving of someone spouting beautiful, free-flowing, graceful arcs of water from their mouth, and then tell you that, say, a person like Jean Royer would have done that in the 17th century—for as long as it took to recite the 71st Psalm, he would continue to spew this water. Or you might choose Daniel Wildman, whose act, about 100 years later, was to stand on the back of a horse circling a circus ring, with five swarms of bees surrounding his face, then on command, the bees would separate, allowing him to drink a glass of wine to toast the audience, or they would alight on the hat or cane of someone present at the show. So he was the world’s first, and I guess, I’m betting safely, the world’s only equestrian apiarist.
AVC: If you’re an equestrian apiarist, it’s probably easy to be the top man in your field.
RJ: Well, that’s the way I felt about card-throwing.
AVC: It sounds like you’ve devoted a lot of your life to building this incredible collection of artifacts relating to illusions.
RJ: I put this together in the years I spent on the road doing shows, usually. There’s a period of about 10 years where I opened for various musical acts, and our ritual would be, we’d go into a new city—in those days, when I was in my 20s, we’d often play 25 or 28 cities in 30 days—the ritual was to come to a town, I would go to the print shops and the bookstores and museums and libraries, then take a nap and do the show. The collection was put together that way, but it’s now well more than three decades that I’ve been doing that.
AVC: Would you describe that as an obsession?
RJ: Yeah. I mean, sure. I’d be reluctant to eliminate the word “obsession” from phases of my life. Sitting with a deck of cards in your hand all day is an obsession. Visiting print shops and bookstores and libraries is an obsession. And writing about this is an obsession. I think, in general, most collectors are obsessed. I think the only form of a rationalized greed is when you’re collecting something you are supposedly serious about.
AVC: By doing this show, you can share your collection with the world.
RJ: Yeah, I enjoy that very much. And it’s also why I like books in the field, and why I do shows at museums, but what I love here is the idea that this is live and changing each day, so that just makes an added element that I find exciting.
AVC: You’ve opened for a lot of rock bands. How were those audiences, generally?
RJ: They varied enormously. Opening for a David Grisman, the great jazz mandolinist, with Stephane Grappelli in his group, was very different from opening for the B-52’s.
AVC: How was it opening for the B-52’s?
RJ: It was pretty much awful. [Laughs.] I would have to say. But I also opened for Cheech & Chong for a really long time, and Emmylou Harris, a wide variety of jazz and rock acts. Yeah, the experience varied enormously. When Jerry Garcia was in David Grisman’s group, that was great fun, and really different. I look back on all of that with pleasure, even the bad ones.
AVC: When you’re opening for Cheech & Chong, it’s probably a little easier to blow the audience’s mind.
RJ: I see where you’re going. Although I do recall that one of the dates that we had on that tour, this is years ago, was playing Westbury Music Fair in New York, which had subscription ticket holders who went to shows like Alan King, the comedian, and… really staid, old-time acts as part of their subscription series. And I think Cheech & Chong frightened them. These people, even though the shows were sold out, it was one of the few gigs, I think, where people actually found it easier to relate to me. Of course, I had hair almost to my waist at that point, so it was pretty crazy. Tom Jones might have been in a series like that. I’m just trying to think of who of the incredibly funny old-guard folks were, headlining those shows that long ago.
AVC: A 1993 New Yorker profile mentioned that you could recite from memory the spiel you had to deliver when you were a carnival barker. Do you still remember that to this day?
RJ: Yeah. I mean, as one gets older, what you forget is something that happened 10 minutes ago, not that. I still do remember that quite well. And that’s exactly the kind of piece that might come up at one of the shows, it might not. Am I intuiting from this that you want me to give you a little bark?
AVC: That would be delightful.
RJ: “Showtime, circus time, see the magician that lights up the girl with the yellow elastic tissue, the Electrode Lady. Yes, the Electrode Lady, at the age of 7, she and her sister were struck by lightning. Her sister died, but she lived to tell the tale. 20,000 volts of electricity for the young girl’s body. The doctors said she lived because she was immune to the shock of electricity.” I could go on.
AVC: It seems like you had a bit of a W.C. Fields inflection.
RJ: I wasn’t trying for that. I mean, I was really trying to… the idea of carnival… by the way, they were never called “barkers,” they were called “outside talkers.” And I was, indeed, the outside talker at a carnival. They had very similar shows. For instance, part of it was, if I can recall another part, “See Adam and Eve, boy and girl, brother and sister, all in one. One of the world’s three living morphodites, which will expose itself not to be rude or vulgar, but to show you one of Mother Nature’s curious mistakes.”
And for whatever reason, the word “hermaphrodite” was always pronounced “morphodite” on the carnival lots. And it was one of the things that intrigues me, but I can’t actually tell you why. Although I suppose there was some percentage of people, particularly in the early days of the carnival, who might have actually been illiterate and so they never saw the word in print, and that was their word. Also, you’ll hear words mispronounced, like “curious” would be often called “coorious,” so there really were strange inflections. And I remember seeing this at carnival after carnival. It didn’t happen just in one place.
AVC: It almost seems like, because of the way information is passed down, that somebody’s error would be codified as slang after a certain point.
RJ: I’m sure. That’s one of the ways language evolved, by some very obscure form becoming common usage. And I must say that I’m very intrigued by use of language and slang, and criminal underground terms. And that’s one of the things that got me hooked up with David Mamet in the early years, the Chicago-based playwright who has been so helpful in my career, and who continues to be involved with shows like the new one.
AVC: How did you become an outside talker?
RJ: Well, I guess this happened while I was at school and went to visit the state fair very close to where I was at college, and somehow was with friends. There was a guy doing magic in the fair, and as friends often do, they were touting my expertise over his, something that genuinely horrified me. [Laughs.] Drunken college revelers are very different now than they were then. Anyway, this guy asked to see me after the show, I wouldn’t do anything in the middle of the show, and I showed him a few things, and he said that he might be interested in me joining his troupe, and a few weeks later, he actually called me. And I decided to do it.
AVC: And how did you enjoy your stint as an outside talker?
RJ: Oh, I’d say it’s probably the most sordid experience I ever had. But I did enjoy it enormously. The show was raided: a hermaphrodite was busted not long after I joined the show. [Laughs.] So there was some upheaval there. It was an experience like none other, and really great.
AVC: Your website touts a mysterious business of yours called Deceptive Practices. What exactly does Deceptive Practices do?
RJ: Well, I’d like to tell you, except for your use of the word “exactly.” We consult. My partner, Michael Weber, and I, who’s just wonderful, are both thinkers and practitioners in the peculiar arts. Well, did you see our motto? “Arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis.” So what that means is that we provide expertise, usually for film directors, but also for theater and television, and if someone needs to know how something works in order to make it work in their medium, we will tell them. But if they don’t, we’ll just provide whatever it is they’re looking for without an explanation.
AVC: On Forrest Gump, you’re credited as “illusion wheelchair designer.”
RJ: There’s another one I’m guessing we… If the category is narrow enough, we’re not going to have many other competitive illusion wheelchair designers. So yeah, we provided a wheelchair for Gary Sinise to look as though he had no legs, and we rehearsed him in it and did it. And that was interesting, because we had a director who was actually sophisticated enough—Bob Zemeckis, a wonderful director—to shoot things like that in a number of different ways. So he might have used ILM [George Lucas’ Industrial Light And Magic] for some of what he did, and then what we do is practical effects. It’s one of the reasons we’re called—I think what we do is much less expensive than CGI.
AVC: On Congo, you were a technical consultant.
RJ: Oh God, yeah. Well, actually, there, when working with producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, our main task was to have an extraordinarily expensive gorilla suit protected. The gorilla was drinking martinis, and we had to make it look like the gorilla in fact did this, while making sure that there was no risk to a suit that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I mean, it is fascinating on some level how varied and different what we’re asked to do might be.
We were creating, basically, a cocktail that drank itself, so there was no chance of anything spilling or gumming up the works. In other films, I remember one job we had was that when someone left a Fotomat booth, a Post-It had to adhere to their heel, then they had to take a specific number of steps forward, then they had to stop, but the Post-It had to come off their heel and then open up to face the camera so it could be read as they walked on. So it’s not just magic and con material that we’re asked to do. The thing that makes it fun is that it isn’t a very different kind of thought process than what I might use in my own performance. It’s really an exercise in problem-solving.
Saturday Night Live (1977)—Himself
RJ: Ruth Gordon and Chuck Berry, yeah, isn’t that… Yeah, I do pop up in the oddest places. Yeah, that was great. I remember it all quite well. I really do. I think probably what was most exciting was Ruth, although I already knew a number of the players, who were friends. Yeah, it was great fun.
AVC: When you’re performing as yourself, do you think of that as acting?
RJ: No, I don’t. It may be why the transition [to acting] was not as dramatic as it might have been, had I been a philologist or something. I don’t really think of it as acting, I think of it as acting when I’m doing a character. So I’m sure you’re on the right track, and I, of course, am confused.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Theatrical production, 1982)—“Philostrate”
RJ: It’s the first time I was acting in a play, and it was for the legendary Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival. And James Lapine, who went on to, I’m pretty sure, win a Pulitzer with Sunday In The Park With George, with Steven Sondheim. So I was dealing with Shakespeare for the first time, although I was an enormous reading fan of Shakespeare, and acting for the first time. And then in my part, I also had to juggle five balls and throw a card over the Delacorte Theater in a very crazy staged prologue to the play. But I will now tell you, since no one’s asked me this question in a very long time, what the hardest thing for me to do was in that production, without any question. And that was that for a long period, the set was a beautifully designed park within the park. This was done at the New York Shakespeare Festival, in Central Park. And our set was the park within the park. And for a long portion of one act, I had to sit alone under a tree while the lovers gave their lines and did their part downstage of me. And it was almost excruciatingly difficult for me to do that, because I’d been used to performing alone onstage my whole life, and so sitting and doing nothing was both physically and mentally painful. So that’s the major memory I have, actually, of that production.
AVC: When you’re performing illusions, you’re a one-man show, as a soloist, yet as an actor, you were nominated for five awards, and they were all for being part of an ensemble.
RJ: I’ve chosen, I think, pretty well. And maybe that’s the luxury of not having acting be my only profession. I can be more selective about what I choose to be in. I’ve been really lucky in terms of film projects with people, terrific actors and also writers and directors that I really respect.
Simon & Simon (1983)—“Bird”
RJ: [Laughs.] That was because a friend was writing the show, and Gerald McRaney and I had also become casual friends, so that was fun. I do have another crazy story to tell. I remember I played a Vietnam buddy of the Simons, and I was doing three-card monte—you know, the sidewalk card swindle three-card monte—in the show. They shot it in a way that made it look like I was acting, and they had brought someone in to double my hands because I couldn’t control the cards myself. The kind of work I used to do, go in and double an actor’s hands. They never shot a continuous shot of my hands and face. I remember thinking, “This is cosmically silly.”
House Of Games (1987)—“George/Vegas Man”
RJ: I would dare say that what gave me a career as an actor was that film. So Mamet, kind enough to do that. I was also a consultant on cons for that, and yeah, it was a great experience. Mamet and I had already met, and he had actually called me about writing a piece about cons, and then remembered he had this in the works, and it was just a very natural thing, having come out of our meeting before that, and continues on to this day.
Making the film was fun, too. We were up in Seattle doing it, and it really was an old club, an old pool hall that I’m quite sure is no longer in existence. And there were real poker games and real pool games that we engaged in on set during the film. I mean serious games. David and I played pool a lot, and then this whole group playing poker. Lots of money changed hands as well. I was lucky to be thrust into a situation with just such remarkably good people. I mean, think about having your first project be with Joey Mantegna and Mike Nussbaum, and these people were just great. And so I think that really helped me on that level.
AVC: That was David Mamet’s first film as a director, so you were beginning together.
RJ: I suppose, but the thing is that unlike directors that I worked with subsequently, he absolutely knew what he wanted in every situation. I think the toughest thing about being an actor in a film is to be with a director who doesn’t know what they want. And that can be really, really frustrating. Even though this was his first film, he absolutely knew what he wanted all the time, so it certainly made it easier for me to be there. And then to be with somebody that you trust.
Boogie Nights (1997)—“Kurt Longjohn”
RJ: [Laughs.] Even the name makes us laugh. I remember Paul [Thomas Anderson] calling up to announce that that was the name and being very, very pleased with that, as was I. And actually, Paul specifically came to me from the Mamet shows. There’s no question that that’s what made him want to be able to use me in that film, and I think Bill Macy as well. He had cast Bill already, and then asked to visit me and tell me about this project. And I must say, I was a little skeptical at first, but I’m very happy I chose to participate on it.
AVC: Why were you skeptical? Was it the subject matter?
RJ: Yeah. It was a little different than what you’d expect from a script crossing your deck, sure. Absolutely.
AVC: But you had been an outside talker. After that, the world of porn would not seem quite so strange.
RJ: Well, perhaps he was banking on that. I don’t know. But it was great fun, and it’s established a really great friendship with Paul, and running into people. I just did a New Yorker Festival last week in New York, and Luis Guzmán was also in the festival, it’s just… It’s funny, because Christine Baranski, who was in Midsummer with me, was also in the festival. I mean, that’s the really nice part about it. When you’ve been a solo act your whole life, and then you do these ensemble pieces, it really is fun.
AVC: It’s got to be flattering to be part of the repertory company of someone like Mamet.
RJ: Well, yeah, when they’re as good as PTA or David, it’s sensational, yeah.
Magnolia (1999)—“Burt Ramsey/Narrator”
RJ: The tough thing, the only tough thing, Nathan, about the way you’re asking this stuff, is if it’s stuff that I really liked, it starts to sound boring in a funny way. Because there’s no awful story to tell. It really was great. And I particularly liked narrating the open piece of that too, that really crazy coincidence section at the beginning of the film, and I liked Paul’s shower of frogs, and various other pieces that I was very much in tune with in terms of the kind of material that I write about and think about. So there was a connection on that level as well.
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)—“Henry Gupta”
RJ: Yeah, the father of techno-terrorism. A part that was originally cast for a 25-year-old Indian man, so I’m not quite sure how I convinced Roger Spottiswoode that that would be a good role for me, but I did somehow.
AVC: Did they change the part after you came onboard?
RJ: They did. At one point, they wanted me to throw cards as weapons to attack Bond, but the first time they asked me to do it in rehearsal, I was an enormously long distance away from Pierce Brosnan, and I warned them that the cards went very, very hard and fast, and they said no no, they had someone in front of it to block the shot, and I again said, “I don’t think you should do that,” they said, “No, no, it’ll be okay.” And Pierce seemed to be fine with it. So I whaled a card, I don’t know how, 50 or 75 feet away, and they said, “Just throw it at his face,” and I hit him right above the eye, and realized that I almost ruined the most lucrative franchise in the history of film. Suddenly that scene was no longer in the movie. [Laughs.] So in a way that was horribly disappointing, but the rest of it was fun.
Mystery Men (1999)—“Victor Weems”
RJ: God, yeah. I didn’t have much to do in that, but there are a lot of good characters around. My old buddy Macy, of course, and Tom Waits. My work was with Greg Kinnear in that. Ben Stiller was in it.
AVC: You were Greg Kinnear’s agent, right?
RJ: Indeed I was. The one inside joke in that film was, he wanted me to get him more work, and I said, “I’m an agent, not a magician.”
RJ: Yeah, exactly. It was that moment for three people who would actually get the joke. Years later, when I did the commercial for Bob Dylan’s Love And Theft album, Kinka Usher, who directed Mystery Men, directed that. So it does all come back in some kind of crazy way, some cyclically bizarre way.
AVC: I didn’t know you did a commercial for Love And Theft. How did that come about?
RJ: That was fun. I mean, they just asked me. I had known Dylan and Mamet, and at one point we were actually planning to do a film together. I’m pretty sure that’s on my website, so you could take a look at it. By far the most frightening thing on that was after they shot Bob, they came around on me… Also, my great friend Eddie Gorodetsky was in that, the two of us were at a card game, you’ll see it. At a card table with some strange women. But a grip went up to adjust a light, and dropped—a cardinal, this should never happen, law—a screwdriver fell from his tool belt, and he was eight or 10 feet in the air, and it landed on my hand. This is one of those projects I will never forget.
Deadwood (2004)—“Eddie Sawyer”
RJ: Well, maybe saving the craziest for last, huh? I hope you like the show. I just thought it was a remarkable show. But I will say that life offstage of Deadwood was as dangerous as it was onstage.
AVC: So it was all of a piece.
RJ: Yeah. And if I may leave it on that cryptic note, I’d be delighted.