'Blindspot' Consultant Spills Secrets Behind Tattoos and Art of TV Deception

BLINDSPOT -Episode 117 -Jaimie Alexander and Sullivan Stapleton -H 2016
Courtesy of Jeff Neumann/NBC

When it comes to solving many of the tattoos on Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander)'s body, the FBI team on Blindspot largely relies on smarty-pants Patterson (Ashley Johnson) to get the job done. In real life however, showrunner Martin Gero and company rely heavily on series consultant David Kwong, a Harvard graduate in the field of the history of magic, a magician, and a crossword puzzlemaker extraordinaire.

In Monday’s episode of the NBC series, crosswords and Patterson take center stage in an episode with close ties to Kwong. In it, Patterson picks up from the following week’s episode, in which she realized that her ex, David (Joe Dinicol), had left clues for her regarding one of the tattoos in an issue of the New York Times before his death. (The Times released a special crossword penned by Kwong on April 4 to commemorate the event.) The episode also marks the return of Dinicol as David, who was fashioned after Kwong and shares his name.

To find out what's involved in consulting on the show’s many tattoos, what crosswords and magic have in common and what it’s like to have a character based on you, THR caught up with Kwon.

Have you ever come across another magician/crossword consultant before?

I’m the only one. I kind of put those two together, but that’s because I think they’re the same thing. All magic tricks are puzzles, and they have a lot in common. Both try to misdirect you and fool you. The only difference is that at the end of a puzzle, you get to find out how it worked. I’ve had those two passions for a long time, and then I realized I could cross-pollinate them and come up with a fun new experience for people.

How did you make the official switch to consultant?

I worked in development for a while. I was living in L.A., and I was working for production companies, DreamWorks Animation and performing magic on the side. When Now You See Me came along, I was hired to consult on that. So that’s what kind of launched me — that was the kick out of the nest, so to speak. All of a sudden I found myself as a full-time magician and leaving behind the day job. But I retained my interest in Hollywood and storytelling, which is how I ended up working on a lot of projects involving illusion and deception and puzzles and secret codes. Blindspot has definitely been one of the most fun of those.

Do you find yourself judging films or shows you don’t work on now?

Oh sure, of course. First of all, there aren’t a ton of movies about magicians and magic and illusion. So I find myself most often judging whether or not the plot twist was concealed or the reveal was concealed. So I look at the mechanics of deception and illusion in storytelling and filmmaking as a whole, whether you can see the surprise ending coming or not.

Is there a balance you have to keep on a show like Blindspot, where viewers have to feel like they can come up with their own theories and not be completely stumped?

Any good show or movie will tease you a little bit with the mechanics and science behind what they’re putting together. A good puzzle allows the solver to feel smart while they’re doing it. And that’s sort of a mantra that comes from Will Shortz, the crossword editor of The New York Times, who was very involved with the stunt in this episode. Your audience wants to feel that they’ve figured stuff out. They want to feel smart, that they’ve arrived at the conclusion themselves. They’re coveting that “aha” moment.

A fun television show layers the puzzle, gives them just enough that they could figure it out if they were looking in the right place. But if it’s misdirected, they haven’t been looking yet. Blindspot does a great job of that, and those are the types of movies and television shows that I like to watch. There was a whodunit-type movie in the last five years where you didn’t stand a chance as an audience to figure out who had done it. They flashed back and they showed all these things, and you never had a chance. That’s not respecting the intelligence of your viewer.

What kind of specific consultation do you give on Blindspot?

It comes together in a lot of different ways. Sometimes they have an idea for a puzzle and they run it by me, and I try to augment it or clean it up. A few times it’s good to go, quite frankly. Other times they say, “In this week’s episode, the FBI needs to get to this location -- what’s a great way that we can hide this tattoo?” The Blindspot team has everything pretty mapped out; they have the big picture worked out and know where they want to go with it, so it’s kind of the finer details that I help out with.

Does that mean you have to know the larger game plan in advance too?

My stuff is mostly episodic.... When it comes to a specific crime each week, that’s the episodic. But then there is some bigger-picture stuff that we work on too. So it’s kind of two different assignments. I was involved very early on. These incredible artists made the tattoos following Martin’s vision of where he wanted to go. And then I was given those tattoos and weighed in just about how to change some things that could be great material or data for puzzles.

Monday’s episode has magic and puzzle-solving. What’s it like to watch your two worlds collide like that?

It’s incredibly exciting. I have one goal, and that’s to get as many people doing puzzles as possible. I think that’s why The New York Times was excited to get involved too, because we’re expanding the audience here. We’re bringing in a whole new batch of solvers to pick up the newspaper. It was really exciting for me to take something that I’m passionate about and give it a hip, pop culture voice. The crossword puzzle’s evolving. It’s been around over 100 years now, and my colleagues and I are finding new ways to keep it young and fresh and hip, so I was happy to do my part.

What’s it like to have the David character fashioned after you?

I know Martin has said that publicly, so that’s not fantasizing here. He’s a puzzlemaker and has a fondness for magic. You can see that David and Patterson were always playing games in their apartment and solving the crossword together, and that is all in my world…. I’m honored to have that character based on me. And then they killed him! 

Blindspot airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC.

Twitter: @amber_dowling