He’s risked blowing his brains out playing Russian Roulette live on TV, hypnotised somebody into assassinating Stephen Fry, and convinced an unsuspecting man that the world had ended and the UK was a zombie-filled husk. His last offering, 2016’s The Push, in which he coerced people into shoving a stranger off a high-rise building, even led to a frenzy of calls on Twitter for arrests to be brought for murder (despite the fact that nobody had died).
Now, mind-mangling mentalist Derren Brown is returning with a new audacious stunt. In the stateside Netflix special Sacrifice (think: Punk’d meets life-coaching) he wants to create a hero for our aggressively divided times. Can he convince a Florida-born father with dubious views on immigration to selflessly take a bullet for somebody he believes is an illegal Mexican immigrant?
NME caught up with the arch brain-pretzeler to discus the Derren Brown “survivors club”, turning down using his powers for Doritos-based evil, and whether Sacrifice will be like a red rag to the bull(shitters) at Fox News.
Sacrifice feels very timely. What inspired it?
“I was aware the Netflix audience was still new to who I am. I wanted to do something that wasn’t as dark as The Push and with an ultimately humanitarian message. But it’s also a show about stepping out of the narratives we live by. We go through life owned by the stories we tell ourselves which are often historic and charged narratives – things we’ve learnt since childhood that we don’t even consciously realise are going on. Even though the narratives in this are political or social in nature, the wider point is realising their limitations. When we step out of them, we have the capacity to become something more human and truthful. That’s the important thing to take with you in life.”
Can this work on anyone? Could you convince Nigel Farage to take a bullet for a refugee?
“(Laughs) I have no idea how suggestible Nigel Farage is! But I look for a natural suggestibility and I didn’t want a monster racist type because then the show would become a different thing. I wanted somebody we could relate to and follow his journey. So probably not everybody, let alone for a TV show. Luckily, I have the luxury of choosing that person from an audition of around 100 people.”
What’s it been like working in America? Fox News were outraged about The Push…
“I reminds me of how things used to be here. Out there, they just don’t know who I am. With The Push, the hook – not the show itself – of ‘can somebody be manipulated into murder and made to push someone off a building?’ was an outrageous idea, so the reaction in America reminded me of how these things look outside of the familiarity of knowing me – which softens the edge of that premise. I don’t know how this one will go down there! Also, I’m shy and avoid doing talk shows, but I have to be doing all that out there and answering those kind of questions, so that’s all a new challenge for me too.”
You’ve done this for over 20 years now. What’s been the most surreal offer you’ve turned down?
“I remember Doritos launched a new flavour and the question was whether I could use my skills – as they perceived them – to make people desire and want to try this new flavour. But I like to be in control of the things I do and feel proud of them. The Thorpe Park Ghost Train was probably the biggest step out of the familiar for me, but it was too tempting to turn down. Other than that, I turn lots down – let alone people saying ‘Can you help me with my mental health problems?’ or ‘Can you help me win the lottery as I have no money?’, which is tough and strange too.”
“I have no idea how suggestible Nigel Farage is!”
– Derren Brown
Have you stayed in touch with the participants from previous shows? Did the stunts genuinely change their lives?
“Yeah. There’s a handful of people that have been through those big stunts and they’ve all remained friends. They’ll tell you that – after getting married and having kids – it’s the most positive and transformative thing they’ve ever done. I brought Phil, who did Sacrifice, over from America recently so he could meet and become friends with the other guys – like Steven, who did Apocalypse, and Chris, who was in The Push, because I wanted him to have a network of people who’d shared a similar experience. It’s like a survivors’ club! When we’re watching them go through it for six months, we’re all in floods of tears so the hardest part is actually letting go (Laughs).”
Have you ever had an idea for a stunt which have proved too ambitious or batshit to achieve?
There’s only been one in all these years – it just wasn’t practical. I can’t say what it is because I want to return to it at some point. Normally, me and a couple of friends sit around thinking up ideas. Out of the frustration of getting caught up in tiny details, I’ll throw up my hands and go: ‘Oh, can’t we just end the world and fill it with zombies?’. The big, fun, ambitious ideas tend to come out of the frustration of talking for too long about the smaller, weaselly ones. The difficulty is realising an idea without it becoming too compromised. Originally, I wanted Apocalypse to happen in a suburban setting but in order to contain it, it had to happen in a military bunker.”
Is it easier for you recruit participants in the America because they’re less likely to know you and be unaware of what they might be getting into?
“No, it’s easier to recruit here because people know me and they’re up for it. If I tweet here, I know I’ll get 15,000 responses. They know they’re probably going to get into something quite twisted but they’re up for that. Whereas in America, I was just relying on people who know me from YouTube. There were enough, but there weren’t many. When I’m doing the stage shows and using a lot of suggestion across the audience, and getting them to behave in particular ways, it’s really helpful that – as the years have gone on – people bring more expectation and psychological readiness to the shows, which makes my job easier on stage.”
You’re banned from casinos. Are there any other places where people eye you up warily? Do people hover over you expectantly at the scratchcard counter or freak out if you change seats on a plane in case it’s a Final Destination-style omen?
“Not that I’m aware of it! I never think about it. I don’t walk around being that guy. It would be an exhausting way of living – not just for me but also those around me – if I was that kind of controlling. Obviously I take full responsibility for that perception, but that’s not how I live. In fact, I wrote a book on happiness a few years ago and the main thrust was the Stoic idea that you can only control your own thoughts and actions. Everything else – what other people do and think etc – you can’t control and you shouldn’t try. If you do, that’s when you become anxious and feel disturbed. The Stoics believe tranquility comes from not trying to control people and deciding all those other things are fine as they are. That’s a good way to live your life. If anything, I’m the opposite of the controlling figure.”
The Sacrifice feels like it could be politically incendiary. If Trump supporters are watching it, what would you want them to take away from it?
“I’ve tried to avoid anything overtly political in it. Obviously it resonates, but the show’s ultimately about kindness and stepping out of political narratives and the constraints of those. It’s going to be in the dialogue between both sides – left and right – where truth and humanity lies, as opposed to any side thinking they’ve got the full story. We’re living in times where people are quite tribalised. And extreme with their political views. There’s not a lot of centrism, or people left in the middle. We don’t just disagree with people on the other side anymore; we think they’re mad, bad or idiots. The thing I want anyone to take away from the show is we have to step out of that and discover things that are more human – like kindness.”
In July, the government announced plans to ban gay conversion therapy. What was your experience of it like?
“I was interested in it because a friend of mine was going through it. I read up on it and went to a conference. I’m very familiar with it, even though I didn’t undergo it myself. What they were trying to do was say your sexuality is built on how you respond to your relationship with your same sex parent – so a young boy is generally closer to his mother when he’s very young then becomes closer to his father during adolescence. If that doesn’t happen because the father’s not around or isn’t emotionally involved, there’s a gap that gets left for learning how to relate to the world of men and this is around the time things are getting eroticised and sexy – and that yearning gets caught up in that. At the time, it felt like they were at least trying to look physiologically at the situation rather than telling them it’s wrong or saying ‘Read your Bible!’. But ultimately, it just doesn’t work. It isn’t helpful and just increases levels of shame. Crucially, nobody was saying it actually works. Some – who weren’t convincing – stood up and said they weren’t gay anyone. But when you asked them about it, they said ‘It’s not that I don’t find my own sex attractive, it’s that the Lord has given me a fabulous wife and I know how to deal with those feels when they arise’. It was so transparently ineffective. Certainly, my friend who went through it didn’t get anything out of it other than more complications and confusion. In a weird way, I think it was well-meaning, but it was misjudged and unhelpful.”
You’ve hypnotised Robbie Williams and persuaded a member of the public to try and assassinate Stephen Fry. What’s been your most pinch-yourself celebrity encounter?
“I felt that with Stephen Fry who’d always been a real hero of mine growing up. And I still do pinch myself. I got a tweet from Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad fame saying ‘Oh, I’d love to see you when I’m in LA’. I find it extraordinary these people know me. Glenn Close is my favourite actress and she came to see the show in London once which was giddying. Woody Allen managed to sit in a pool of light which was disconcerting because I couldn’t not see him for the whole of the show. On the opening night of the New York show, I had Sarah Jessica Parker sat in the middle of a very small audience – I have to try and silence the voice in my head going ‘Wow’ because I become obsessed by seeing how they’re reacting (Laughs).”
Can you give us any hints as to what your next special will be?
“At the moment, all my concentration has been on this one. The next project is hopefully Broadway next year. We’ve just started talking about new TV projects, but only in the vaguest sense. We’re also starting to think about the next UK tour which will probably be in 2020.”
Derren Brown: Sacrifice is on Netflix from Friday 19th October