An Interview with Derren Brown
As his Broadway show SECRET continues to pull in the crowds, Derren Brown takes time out to talk about his slapping match with Hollywood legend Glenn Close, dinner with the Clintons and writing his new novel without his ‘clubfoot’…
It’s fair to say that SECRET, your current Broadway show, has gone down very well with New York audiences. Given Broadway’s fearsome reputation, what were your thoughts embarking on this journey and how would you sum up your present feelings?
My main concern was finding a nice breakfast spot close to the apartment. That was taking up my time. Getting the mornings right is a big thing for me, and having a place to write. Beyond that, there were the expected grown-up production things about investment and ticket sales which I leave to others where I can. The show was already solid and felt fully in my blood, so I wasn’t worried about that.
Your last show in the UK, UNDERGROUND, was the inspiration for SECRET, which first enjoyed an award-winning run off-Broadway. Did you have to change much for the Cort Theatre production?
Underground was the UK cousin of the show - a different physical production of the same material. I started it in the UK in a small theatre to warm up for off-broadway, and ended up touring it as a ‘best of’ show in its own right. We’ve changed a few bits for the current version in NYC, and flipped a couple of big pieces in the second half, but it’s essentially the same show.
Given your shows all revolve around audience participation, how would you compare British audiences to their US counterparts?
Americans are far more relaxed and talkative on stage. There’s a bit when I ask a person on stage to tell us about a grandparent. Brits mumble something about them being nice and kind - here they take the mic, turn to the audience and give us a tight fifteen. As an audience, they are much more vocal, narrating their own experiences more. There’s a lot more ‘NOOOO!!’ And ‘FUUUUUUCK!!’s from the crowd. On the other hand, half of the audience here is classic Broadway, and noticeably older. At home I might spot two older couples in the audience, here about a quarter of the audience consists of pensioners. But the rest of them are young and vibrant and contain many fans that have, amazingly, flown in from around the world. So it’s a diverse group, and part of the fun is feeling them all come together as the show goes on. And lots of actors - famous and otherwise - come to see the show. That’s a real Broadway thing too.
What’s been the biggest challenge doing the show?
Personally nothing major, it’s been a joy. There’s a lot more PR I have to do, including performing on chat shows and the like - and those take writing and rehearsal time. I don’t really enjoy those sort of performances any more so I had to dig deep. It’s such an expensive affair here and obviously I wasn’t known at all to the general public, so I’ve had to do a lot to make the sure that the show is in the back of people’s minds.
The show’s themes have resonated strongly with the critics and public alike. Is it important for you to have an authentic connection with audiences, given that what you’re demonstrating through your skills, could be termed ‘unreal’?
Completely - I think that’s the whole point. Otherwise you’re just showing off. For me it only gets truly interesting once you step outside of the tricks. And a principal challenge of writing the show is to make the unreal and dishonest sit honestly and fairly in a world of truth.
How on earth did you end up having a ‘slapping match’ with Hollywood legend Glenn Close?
Ha - I have met her a few times via a mutual friend. She’s my absolute hero in that world, and as lovely as she is she’s still a little imposing, so I am still a little unsettled. She agreed to film a video amongst several we are doing to help promote the show, and I did a routine with her that involved her slapping me. Afterwards when the cameras were still rolling, her executive assistant Nancy suggested I slap Glenn. Everyone said that was great and looked at me, waiting for me to do it. No part of me was able to rise to it and slap Glenn Close across the face. So she suggested she slap me and I slap her back. I asked her how to fake a slap convincingly and she showed me, but when we did it I just slapped her hard. Not sure if that was my fault for forgetting technique or hers for not moving out the way. Either way we both hit each other. And she returned with another which was perfect. From my perspective I got a brilliant, furious, pure-Glenn-Close expression on that third slap which I won’t forget.
Here’s a clip of the two of them in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXgq1i16pw0
The Clintons attended a recent performance. When you know you have certain people in the audience does it affect your performance? Would you prefer not to know?
I love knowing because it helps keep me rooted in the here and now for that performance. If friends are in, or someone famous, or a Tony voter - anything, I want to know. It keeps things specific and vital, and stops me just repeating the show from the night before. However, the Clinton family was in a different league, and the whole audience felt it. There was a tension in the room at the start of the show I wonder if a First Family are ever spared. I start the show with everyone standing up, and I couldn’t bring myself to look across at them to see how their involvement was progressing. I snuck a peek at a moment I knew their gaze would be directed elsewhere. By all accounts they were really enjoying it, and bizarrely I was invited to dine with them afterwards in an Italian restaurant where they were utterly warm and lovely. But I couldn’t look during the show, it would have been too distracting, and a little so for the audience too, I imagine.
You’re famous for your love of coffee shops. Have you discovered any outstanding ones in New York?
Ha yes I have. But I’m staying Upper West where there’s much less of that going on than downtown. There are a couple of places a small walk away - Bluebottle Coffee and Bluestone Lane, and a great brasserie where I read and have breakfast in pretty much every day. I love a morning routine like that. To spend the day writing and reading somewhere tucked away, and then go out and be this well-rehearsed and charismatic version of myself on stage is a really wonderful routine.
Whilst in New York, you’re working on your next book. How is it going?
Early stages, but it’s a joy to be getting on with. In the summer I sat under the trees and write at the Lincoln Center every day I have free. As the days get colder I’ll need to find other spots. I’m relying on my Kindle much more than I would at home - usually on tour I bring what Nietzsche called his ‘clubfoot’ - a trunk of books with me for research. That wasn’t an option here so I’m trying to keep it all electronic. As for the content of the book, I guess we’ll announce it all soon, but I’m still finding out what it is.
When SHOWMAN embarks on its UK tour from March 2020, it will be your first brand new stage show in five years. Is your joy of touring still as strong as ever?
Yes, it’s been a while. I hope so - I’ve been spoilt with not having to work on a brand new show, which is certainly stressful for the first couple of weeks in previews. I’ll find out. I try to write shows with Andy (Nyman) and Andrew (O’Connor) that are going to be huge fun to do, so it’s a built-in reward for me each night. And I’ll get to have a new touring crew which is fun as well. I’m looking forward to it, though it’s a quick turnaround in between finishing this one, then writing and rehearsing SHOWMAN. Once I’m on the road though, writing in the days and visiting old haunts, it’ll be utterly wonderful.
Derren Brown: SECRET is currently playing at the Cort Theatre, New York, and DERREN BROWN: SHOWMAN will be at Cliffs Pavilion, Southend from May 12-16, 2020. Tickets: www.derrenbrown.co.uk