The Inverse Interview

How Mrs. Davis' Resident Magician Taught a Nun New Tricks

The quieter half of Penn and Teller reveals how he helped the Peacock series design its tricks — and the one trick Betty Gilpin actually learned.

Originally Published: 
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 804 -- Pictured: Magician Raymond Teller of Penn & Teller ...
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Peacock’s sci-fi series Mrs. Davis takes on a lot of lofty subjects, mainly artificial intelligence and religion. But from the moment we meet Sister Simone, she has one nemesis she hates more than all: magicians.

In order to show this clever and secretive group and their art correctly, co-showrunner Tara Hernandez went right to the expert: Raymond Teller, of the magic duo Penn and Teller. Famous for being completely silent on stage, Teller made the rare exception to speak to Inverse about any and all magic questions — including the show’s greatest magic trick, star Betty Gilpin.

“Has there ever been a better actor on TV?” Teller gushes, before comparing Gilpin’s grounded performance to Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.

When he eventually asked to be reminded of the question, he reveals the one trick he asked her to learn. “I said, ‘I think you should really learn how to do a card production,’” Teller tells Inverse, holding up his hand and making a card appear out of thin air, like Scott Lang in Ant-Man. “We taught her that. That's what she does when she's in the backseat of the car. It’s not an easy sleight, but because she's one of those actors who will go to any degree to do the thing.”

Jake McDorman as Wiley and Betty Gilpin as Sister Simone in Mrs. Davis Episode 6.


It’s almost a shame we never see Teller speak because listening to him talk about magic is enrapturing. His knowledge is so deep, and his passion so obvious, that it’s no wonder why Mrs. Davis paints an image of magicians that is equally loving and satirical. His work as magic consultant provides the element of realism that grounds the illusions.

Episode 6 of the series, now streaming on Peacock, follows Simone as she attempts to figure out what happened to her father after he attempted “The Lazarus Shroud,” his most dangerous trick yet. This quest leads her to a heist of her mother’s new company, which brings her to twist after twist.

Teller spoke to Inverse about the complexity of Mrs. Davis, the one movie that gets the magician experience right, and why AI couldn’t hope to recreate the year’s wackiest sci-fi show.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and/or brevity.

What exactly does a magic consultant do?

First of all, not every movie or TV show will bring on a magic consultant. They'll just say, "Well, if we do the special effect, we'll call it a magic trick, and that'll be that."

So when the time came to do this show and they realized that what they had was a show whose central metaphor ... [was] a cheesy magic act, it was very important to them that the cheesy magic act should seem real. It should not seem like a make-believe magic act that somebody could do in a movie, but couldn't do it on stage.

To me, magic is this uncomfortable form in which you don't know what's going on. You see something that looks like it's impossible, you know it can't be. So you're pushed and pulled constantly by a magic act. You're always going, "Wow, that's amazing. She couldn't have really done that? No, she must have done this." You're back and forth in that, which is exactly what they're doing with this show. As you watch each episode, each scene even, you don't know what the hell is going on because the reality behind it keeps shifting.

The idea that Simone starts off as a compliant child and ends up as a magic-resentful adult is very interesting. But to make that work, it couldn't be TV magic. It had to look like something that could be done by stage magic. Now that doesn't mean they actually had to do it by stage magic, but we had to make their movie magic look a little less good so that it would look a little more real like stage magic.

Elizabeth Marvel as Celeste and David Arquette as Monty in Mrs. Davis.


And David Arquette is the perfect cheesy magician. I can't tell you how much he absolutely nails that overbearing, overly friendly, trying to be seductive but not being able to, it's wonderful.

So what they wanted was something that would be convincingly stage magic. Every time they had a question, they brought it to me and they said, “How would you really do this?" And then that led to questions of, "How far away are we from shooting this? Would you like me to try to get you a real prop for that, or figure out how can we dress what we have there to look like something that could do the trick?" That happened several times and so far as I can see, the work is very good.

“Magic is at its strongest when you're sitting at a card table with somebody who's doing something amazing with cards”

For example, if Celeste is going to appear in a big glass booth, you don't just have her appear in a big glass booth because that's not possible, especially not in a booth that shape. You have to do something like fill it with smoke. So my big contribution was saying "Fill it with smoke before she appears and then we'll believe it."

I don't believe you could do that on that family's actual budget, but I think you might need a little David Copperfield budget to do that. But it now became plausible.

In Episode 6, we see Celeste explain the Lazarus Shroud trick, which “goes wrong” on purpose, much like Penn and Teller’s sawing in half trick. Is the Lazarus Shroud a trick that you would attempt? How would you do it differently?

I would probably do it a little more cheaply than she's describing, but what she's describing is okay. We're postulating that she's a super engineer who can work within a budget. With the sawing in half trick, boy, it took a David Copperfield budget to get that to work. There are also some psychological things we did there too.

This show deals so much with AI and how that affects the magic industry in the world. Do you think that AI could ruin magic in reality?

No. I think magic is a live art form, and I don't think there's ever going to be a way that digital technology is going to be able to supersede that. Magic is at its strongest when you're sitting at a card table with somebody who's doing something amazing with cards, if you bring in AI what could it do?

Now that said, Piff the Magic Dragon, who's a very good friend of ours, asked one of the AI services for an idea for tricks with [his chihuahua] Mr. Piffles. And he got back like six replies that are all pretty good. They're not necessarily possible, but they're all pretty good.

I think AI will like be any other thing that contributes to the arts. It'll be another resource. Penn and I asked for a Penn and Teller bit from one of the AI things, and it sent us back something that was quite good. It was all based on stuff that we had done before, so it's not going to quite come to something that's completely new, but that's where it is right now. Who knows where it's going to be tomorrow afternoon?

Penn and Teller performing in 2018.

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Now, I know that AI is in the news right now because of the writers strike, and they're wondering if AI would replace writing. Do you think that AI could write Mrs. Davis?

I don't think anybody but Tara and David and their team could write Mrs. Davis. I think you have to be way, way, way off the deep end to get there. This show combines elements that are so disparate, you wouldn't ever see them together. What other show has somebody suddenly say, "Jesus," to somebody that you've gone, "Wait a minute, his name is Jay. That's Jesus?!?." I would venture that no AI function, including Mrs. Davis, could come up with that line.

Are there any other TV shows or movies that deal with magic in a way that you consider good and informative and entertaining?

There is a film called The Great Buck Howard, which I think is a very wonderful depiction of the poignancy of magic, where you're striving for this feeling of the supernatural, but it also means that you have to arrive for the women's club function and you find hotdogs in your dressing room. It's a very, very fine movie. It's maybe a little too flattering to the magician at the end, but along the way, it's just my life story.

As you’ve said before, this show deals with AI and religion and magic kind of an equal measure. When you read the script, what was your reaction to that?

Well, after going, "What the fuck? I've never seen anything like this on television before." I just loved it. I just loved it. The boldness with which they're dealing with religion takes my breath away and the whimsy — it turns on a dime. There'll be this highly dramatic thing, and then Simone will have this little smart-ass remark. It’s essentially the remark of the producer in the show. It is, I think, my favorite thing that I've ever seen in terms of coming up with something new for television.

Mrs. Davis Episodes 1-6 are now streaming on Peacock.

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