Presto! How David Copperfield Found a New Career in Film

Barry Wetcher/Summit Entertainment
David Copperfield on the set of 'Now You See Me'

The famed illusionist scored a co-producer credit on 'Now You See Me 2' as he describes his quiet entree into Hollywood movies: "All I wanted was to be good in cinema."

What's up David Copperfield's sleeve? A burgeoning side career as Hollywood's go-to guy when movies meet magic. The famed illusionist quietly has been consulting on major films including Christopher Nolan's The Prestige and Martin Scorsese's Hugo. His next project, Now You See Me 2, arrives June 10.

Fans might wonder why Copperfield — with an empire worth an estimated $850 million, 38 Emmy nominations, 11 Guinness World Records and a successful Las Vegas residency — would need a part-time consulting gig. The reason: "Cinema is where I began — that's what inspired me," says Copperfield, who became the youngest member of the Society of American Magicians when he joined at 12 years old. "People in my business say Harry Houdini was their idol, or [Harry] Kellar or [John-Eugene] Robert-Houdin. My idols were Victor Fleming and Walt Disney and Orson Welles. I was really good at magic, but all I wanted was to be good in cinema."

His first foray into movies wasn't exactly spellbinding. Copperfield made his onscreen debut in 1980's Terror Train, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, playing a character called (unironically) the Magician. He says the film was so bad that, while on the road with his magic act, he would visit local video stores and rent the VHS tape, "then I wouldn't return it."

“I don’t think I’m very good in it,” admits Copperfield. "So as I traveled the country, I kept renting and not returning the VHS, trying to get all my performances vanished piece by piece.”

But with a little hocus-pocus, things picked up. Copperfield, 59, has advised on the Paranormal Activity films, brainstorming scares based on magic he had seen or done, and worked on New Line's The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, teaching star Steve Carell how to move and act onstage.

He's also invited notable filmmakers to visit his International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts, the Vegas warehouse he owns that contains more than 80,000 magic memorabilia items. It’s not open to the public, but Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola are among the few who’ve been invited to walk through the hallowed space, which includes Houdini’s water torture cabinet and the journals of French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin among its most treasured items.

Copperfield worked closely with director Louis Leterrier on the first Now You See Me. One of the film's most memorable stunts, a teleporting bank robbery, was inspired specifically by one of Copperfield's main acts. The movie's stars, Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco and Woody Harrelson, also attended Copperfield's shows and learned how to perform magic from the illusionist. "When they walked out of my show, they seemed changed," says Copperfield. "Just the way you hold yourself — confidence and slight cockiness balanced with the insecurity that exists in people like me — it makes you endearing."

As Now You See Me 2 came together at Lionsgate, director Jon M. Chu again hired Copperfield to consult (with other magicians including Keith Barry, Blake Vogt and Andrei Jikh), and this time he's getting his first co-producer credit. He spent about four weeks helping writer Ed Solomon come up with ideas for the script and advising on how the magic would be performed. "David helped us with the overall picture and, most importantly, helped us to stay in the mind of a world-class magician so that it felt real," says Solomon.

Copperfield's next step in Hollywood might be making his own movies. He launched the production company Red Safe in 2013 but has yet to announce a project.

"I like to really make sure all my ducks are in a row before I start doing some film," says Copperfield, who splits time among Las Vegas, New York and his Caribbean island, Musha Cay. "My background is just lots of preparation, lots of getting it right before I can show anything. To get things right can take a long, long time."

A version of this story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.