New York-based magician and mind reader Vinny DePonto, 27, recently ran a sold-out series of shows called “Charlatan” at Ars Nova theater in New York City. The show — which features a wide variety of mind-bending telepathy–type feats, all delivered with charm, humor, and genuine suspense — earned rave reviews from the likes of the New York Times, Time Out New York, and also from BuzzFeed staff members Katie Heaney and Arianna Rebolini, who saw the show a few weeks ago and could not stop talking about it. This is neither here nor there, but he is also very cute.
BuzzFeed invited DePonto to the New York office for an interview, a few spectacular tricks, and some pointers for deciding whether or not someone is lying to you.
Vinny DePonto: I will say before we start that I will answer every one of your questions truthfully, except for one. I can’t tell you which.
BuzzFeed, collectively: [Ooohs and aaahs]
Katie Heaney: What got you interested in magic in the first place?
DePonto: My father had this shoebox that was my grandfather’s — my late grandfather, I never met him — but he was interested in magic, and he’d learned magic as a hobby to show his friends during the war. He was stationed in India, and he had these old, like, old novelties, and old gags and jokes. It was like a flip-book of a girl taking off her clothes, and, you know, like the shock ring, and all these magic tricks, and it was just a collection of them in a shoebox along with old ephemera and some instructions and photographs. So I just played around with some stuff, and I would just do magic for my family, and it just stuck, really.
KH: Did you ever pull out any tricks in school?
DePonto: Of course! Yeah, yeah, it was a great thing. [Laughs.] It was a great device, a social device to have during school. I had to probably show my friends something every week, you know, like, “What are you working on?”
KH: Did you ever get in trouble?
DePonto: Did I ever get in trouble … with doing magic?
KH: [laughs] Specifically with magic.
Jessica Misener: Magic-related detention.
Arianna Rebolini: Were the teachers into it? Were they cool with it?
DePonto: They were really cool with it! I’ve pretty much flown through life just using magic as a crutch. [laughs] You know, I did all my projects on it, in college I even attempted to major in it.
AR: How does one attempt to major in magic? What did that involve?
DePonto: So the school I went to, Manhattanville, allowed you to design your own major, which was why I chose it. So I took all the classes that I wanted to take, psychology, theater, and that sort of thing, and I tried to design a major around those focuses, but with “magic” as the title. They didn’t accept it, so I just named “Psychology of Performance Art” to make it sound more impressive, and they approved it!
KH: So then, if you haven’t gotten in trouble, have you used your magic for evil?
DePonto: [laughs] Ah, the Dark Arts. No I don’t think so. Ah, this is so uninteresting! I don’t think I have! Maybe to, you know, maybe I’ve shoplifted a few times when I was a kid? A friend and myself would go, and he would leave his bag open, and we would be in the store and I’d just take a candy bar, and he would turn his bag, and I would sort of just drop it in his bag. The store owner caught us eventually, after probably 20 times of doing it, and it was a very frightening moment. He said he was gonna call the cops, and we’re 11 or 12 years old, freaking out. So not really magic, but I guess straight-up shoplifting. [laughs]
KH: What about using it to get dates?
DePonto: Yeah, yeah, it was very, uh … [laughs] a very good thing to have during college.
JM: So it worked? You were like, “Come back to my room, and I’ll do a trick for you.”
DePonto: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.
KH: Did you ever pull anyone’s phone number from behind their ear?
DePonto: [laughs] Yes. I don’t know, it was definitely a great thing. Still a great thing, really.
KH: You talk about signs you use to tell what someone is thinking, whether they’re lying to you or not — do you feel like being able to tell what other people are thinking or whether they’re lying to you is a good thing or a bad thing?
DePonto: It’s both. It’s a good thing because you get to size up people’s intentions fairly quickly. I mean, we all do it. We all do it instinctually. So, you sort of know, you have a gut feeling, and you can size up someone very quickly. But some of us ignore these signs, and that’s sort of the lying to ourselves, the distraction bit that I talk about in the show.
JM: So is that magic or body language?
DePonto: I like to mix in a lot of psychology, sociology, science into what I do. It sort of blurs the line between what’s real and what’s fiction.
KH: Are you going to do another run of the show [Charlatan]?
DePonto: Yeah, we’re talking to investors at the moment, trying to remount it.
KH: It seems like it did really well!
DePonto: Yeah! It did really well, technically a sold-out run. Yeah, it was really fun.
JM: So magic must be a lucrative career.
DePonto: It’s pretty lucrative.
JM: For some people, right?
DePonto: Yeah. It’s, I mean, this is all I do. I really love live shows, I really love performing on stage, so I really have to find different venues. [Charlatan] is kind of this immersive show. It’s not just a “trick to trick”–type show. Immersive theater is sort of the buzz word that goes around now, and that’s sort of what we tried. You have to change, and you have to adapt, and evolve, to stand out.
AR: Your website mentions work with HBO and Discovery Channel as clients. What kind of stuff do you do with them?
DePonto: I consult for other magicians as well. I come up with tricks and narrative and stories for other magicians, some I can’t list, but some I can. Discovery Channel has a show called Breaking Magic, which I worked on, with Wayne Houchin. And I’ve also consulted for HBO on several different commercials, when actors had to learn certain sleights. Sometimes when there’s not a big graphics budget they want to do magic to sort of accomplish the same effect.
KH: It seems to me that, with being able to trick people, there’s a base level that you either were born with or you’re not, because I feel like I could never … I don’t know, I don’t have a poker face.
DePonto: Yeah, I mean, we all do it when we’re younger. We all try to hide something. It was really just refining that. And again, it’s, you know, magic is so universally acceptable, it’s a universal language, it’s one of those things that people hear and they go [whispers], “Ooooh, magic,” you know? So immediately, you’ve captured people when you say that. So it’s not as hard as you may think.
KH: Are there any tips you’ve learned, whether in schooling or through doing the show, for how to know whether someone is lying to you or not?
DePonto: Paul Ekman, for instance, is a man who has created a system for facial tells. And these facial tells are used by poker players, and they’re also used specifically by Mr. Ekman to basically define and catch liars in certain situations, and specifically there are facial tells — like a real smile, for instance, and a fake smile. A fake smile won’t engage the eye muscles.
KH: Yeah, no “smizing,” as Tyra Banks would say.
DePonto: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, exactly! A real smile will engage the eye muscles, so there are certain things you can notice. And of course when someone is more reserved, and when you know they have their hands crossed, or in front of them, they’re trying to hide something. That’s stuff that I discovered about you [Katie].”
BF: [self-conscious laughter]
DePonto: And, specifically, let’s see … what can i give away … So like, when Bill Clinton said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” he said the “Did. Not.” If we were telling the truth we’d say, you know, [shrugs] “I didn’t sleep with her.” We tend to be very — I mean, of course he was doing a formal speech — but [when we’re lying] we tend to use separated words, “I did not have…”
KH: Like overly emphasized?
DePonto: Yeah, overly emphasized words, really trying to sell something.
KH: OK, file that away.
KH: A lot of your tricks involve reading people’s minds, or telling them something about themselves. Has there ever been a time — and maybe you won’t admit this — has there ever been a time in a show when you’ve gotten something completely wrong?
DePonto: Uhh, yes! But the beautiful thing about magic is that the surprise isn’t told upfront, right? So, something went wrong [the night you came to the show], actually, when you were there, I remember specifically … ah, I can’t tell you what it is, but anyway—
DePonto: See, the great thing about it though is that you don’t know what it is. You couldn’t know what it is because you didn’t see the show before. If you came and saw the show, and maybe picked up on a little thing that was off, you might have noticed it, but I don’t think you would have. That’s the great thing about magic is I could change a miss into a hit. [In the show] we talked about Margaret M’Avoy, who claimed that she was able to see with her fingertips, which was absolutely bizarre. But people believed her! And she would turn misses into hits, basically, and what that means is, she would guess, and we would remember the times she was right. It’s selective memory. We wouldn’t remember the times she was wrong, because we wanted to believe. Same with psychics — you know, John Edwards has that same kind of thing. He throws out these vague statements — we call them Barnum statements — and he will get people to believe in what he does. Which is just such a sham. So I’m at least honest about my lying. [laughs]
JM: If a child asked you, “Is magic real?” what would you say?
DePonto: Oh, man, that’s a tough question. [Laughs.] I probably would keep it open-ended, like I do in my show. I never say the word magic once in my show, or magician, it’s for very good reason, because I don’t … I want you to forget that what we’re doing is tricks or any of the cliches that go along with it. So I would maybe show them something. I would make something disappear and say, you decide. [laughs] Because that’s the fun part about magic, is having that experience. It’s not just about having a definite answer.
KH: What’s the craziest reaction you’ve ever had from someone in audience?
DePonto: Oh my gosh…
KH: Or most memorable?
DePonto: So I also do private events, walk around events, and I was at, I think, the New York Academy of Arts, and I was doing magic, and I met Parker Posey, who also came to the show. And we had a very long conversation about magic and paranormal things, and all that fun stuff, and she had, I think, the craziest reaction I’ve ever … She’s so sweet and amazing, but she freaked out to the point where she tackled me. [laughs]
DePonto: Yeah, it was really really awesome, and she recently came to the show, I think closing night or a couple nights before. She led the standing ovation for the show, which was so sweet, so she’s really nice.
KH: Who’s your favorite magician, whether real or fictional?
DePonto: Probably Derren Brown. He’s an English magician, and he’s a friend of mine, and I really respect his work and what he does. I really think he pushes magic forward, pushes the envelope.
KH: And what about your favorite act that you’ve seen?
DePonto: My favorite act would be Teller, of Penn & Teller. He does this beautiful rose trick where he has a rose on a table, and he has an easel, and he takes a knife and he cuts — and there’s a light in front of the rose, so you see the shadow of the rose on the easel — and he cuts the flowers off the rose’s shadow, and the petals fall on the actual rose. And it’s just this really beautiful, simple, haunting, romantic take on magic. It’s really nice.