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Legendary magician Teller explains how he helped design Mrs. Davis’ magic tricks

The quieter half of Penn & Teller talked to Polygon about his role as the Peacock show’s magic consultant

2009 CineVegas Film Festival - Portraits - Day 4 Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for CineVegas

How do you escape from a vat of acid without getting wounded? You can’t, at least according to Teller. The famous magician, one half of the comedy magic duo Penn & Teller, was brought in to be the magic consultant on the Peacock show Mrs. Davis, and had to explain that: yeah, probably not.

“They had thought that maybe there was a way to drop somebody actually into a vat of acid and have that person go away without any injury,” Teller says. “As one who has done the bullet catch, I can tell you those life and death things are not things you mess with.”

As magic consultant on the show, Teller was asked to read the scripts for anything that was related to magic — that means correcting terminology, and making sure stage performances looked and felt right. It was Teller who pushed the show to do real sleight of hand, even when it was Young Simone revealing a card to the audience. “People who write about magic write as if magic is just special effects,” he says, bemoaning the impossible things he’s seen magic in TV and movies do.

But Mrs. Davis — with all its interrogation of reality and faith — needed to go further. “[The creators are] very conscious that they’re using a cheesy magic act that needs to feel real, as a sort of central metaphor, to tie all of these different themes of religion and stuff together. So it seemed to them — and I agree with them totally — important to take it as a level of reality that is not customarily taken in the cinema and television.”

Celeste (Elizabeth Marvel) poses in a cage while Montgomery (David Arquette) gestures widely and looks at her on stage in a still from Mrs Davis season 1
Simone’s parents performing on stage in episode 2 of Mrs. Davis season 1
Photo: Christina Belle/Peacock
TimesTalks Presents: An Evening With Penn And Teller
Penn and Teller (respectively) on stage
Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

And so Teller set about helping to design the world of magic that Simone dips in and out of as she grows up, finds God (literally), and wages a war against an AI that’s seemingly controlling the world. His vision was the magic performances would be the throughline that grounded the “highfalutin elements” of the show, even when it still pushed the boundaries of what you’d see on stage.

“I took the liberty of imagining our magic family has a very high budget — has a David Copperfield budget,” he laughs. “But once [that was] done, I worked with them to make sure what is being shown is something that could be done.”

Which means that the acid trick Simone’s father Montgomery (David Arquette) attempts in episode 6 comes with Teller’s seal of approval, complete with a lot of in-the-weeds details of how he would approach the act itself (“you’re going to have to lay a guy down on something table-like or couch-like… ” Teller notes, possibly fueling Simone’s mom’s conspiracy theory). Ultimately his hope is it all goes towards not only furthering Mrs. Davis’ plot lines with magical accuracy, but ensuring the audience is along for the ride — a key element to any magic performance he’s done.

“Magic is this, this very curious art form, right? It’s an art form in which it’s not really comfortable, in a way that this show is not exactly comfortable,” Teller says. “This is a show that keeps you constantly saying what’s really going on here?

“Which is exactly the central psychological element of magic. Because with magic, you see something that you know can’t be happening. And you say, how is it possible that I am given this impression?”

That being said: No, he does not have a vault as secure as the one Celeste (Elizabeth Marvel) has.

“I have a vault that makes her magic stuff look small,” he laughs about his entire basement full of 46 years of Penn and Teller props, complete with an “entire wall full of dove supplies” and no trash compactor-like entrance. “That’s something that’s too cool for us. [...] I’m not trying to keep the secrets of our stuff from Penn!”

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