Blaine: I have another decade before something goes wrong
OBSESSED: Modern day Houdini tells Cole Moreton how magic is an addiction – and a very dangerous one
The first time I meet David Blaine, he is weird. Zoned out, distracted or high on something. It's a private dinner in an upstairs room at a London hotel and he enters without small talk. Dressed all in black with a black baseball cap, the American illusionist is big, bulky and intimidating.
"I'm going to try something new," he says quietly, in a New York hipster drawl. "Would you like to see it?"
Of course. We expect to be astonished. So a card goes missing and is found under a wristwatch. Another is chosen at random and its suit and number appear written on the side of a pen. He makes a pack vanish from under our noses by riffling it in one hand.
"I am obsessed with magic," he says. And besides making him peerless at close-up tricks, this obsession has led him into danger in a series of death-defying stunts that would make his hero, Houdini, proud.
Getting buried alive for a week. Being encased in a block of ice. Going without food and hanging in a locked box over London for 44 days. Holding his breath underwater for 17 minutes, so long that brain damage should have been a certainty. This isn't just magic, it's a kind of madness.
"There is a very big idea that I am going to do in London for the first time ever," he says. "It's a very simple idea, but it will be the best thing I have ever done. The most exciting. I know that it will drive me and I will push myself in a way I never would if it was not in front of me."
This will happen in a football stadium in London in late 2016. Is it another stunt? "No, an event. It is different from anything I have ever done, but combines everything. It will make sense out of everything I have spent my career working towards. If it works."
He is also meeting young British performers – "some of the most creative minds in magic" – and working on a show to be held sooner, possibly at the London Coliseum, home of English National Opera.
"I would like to go up with the lions," he says to a member of the Coliseum staff, who says no, that isn't possible.
"Oh, I think we can work something out," says Blaine. And he disappears through a door marked "Private", goes on to the roof and climbs the tower at the top of the building. So now he is more than 100ft up, astride a stone lion under the great revolving globe that says Coliseum.
His hands are wide open and his coat is flapping in the wind. It is cold and wet. One slip and he's dead. He lets a pack of cards fall and there is a commotion on the street.
When he comes back down he is wet through and his hands are frozen into claws. Why did he do that? "I wanted to see it." And somebody told him he couldn't? "Heh-heh. That too."
David Blaine is 40 now and afraid of becoming complacent. "The hunger dies. That hunger, that curiosity, that desire that creates the ultimate passion to do something new," he says.
He is cross that Channel 4 threw away his most recent television special, Real Or Magic, by putting it up against the finale of Sherlock, of all things.
There is a particularly disturbing moment in that show when Ricky Gervais watches Blaine put a meat skewer through his bicep.
"This is mental," the comedian yelps. "Sorry, David, seriously. This isn't a trick, you're just sticking a needle through your arm. That's horrible. You're a maniac." He's got a point.
Perhaps his riskiest stunt is to swallow litres of water, then kerosene. He blows out the kerosene and starts a fire, regurgitates the water and puts the fire out. This is what killed Blaine's hero, Hadji Ali. "If the petroleum hydrocarbons are messing up my system and some of them are absorbed into my stomach there is going to be a high risk of cancer," he says.
"I am hoping that science is going to be ahead of me." How does he mean? "Ali died of pulmonary pneumonitis, where he got a little fragment in his lung and that was it. Now you have antibiotics for that, so if it happens to me I am not going to die on the spot as he did."
In other words, if he does get cancer, he hopes that by then there will be a cure. Again, he says this is for real. "The goal is that it looks like magic but it is not a trick."
After he went for 44 days without food in London, he was hospitalised with "minor organ failure".
That must have done some damage. Will it all catch up with him at 60? "I think way earlier than that. I think I have another decade."
"Before you just?" I ask. He makes a noise like a machine breaking. "Before something goes wrong."
This approach explains why Blaine is unimpressed by his rivals – he names Criss Angel, but Troy and Dynamo also come to mind – who use special effects, camera angles and hidden helpers to create tricks that look miraculous on television but are not in real life. "I hate it. I don't like the way that feels. I like things that feel authentic."
He thinks about magic all the time, whoever he is with. "It's what drives me. It's my favourite thing. It's my saving grace. Like a meditation. I don't even know what I would do without it."
This appears to be the lot of the illusionist – he can only keep going, taking it to further extremes. David Blaine is not complaining, he is still in love with what he does, but he knows enough about himself to name it.
"I get short breaks," he says, "but really it is a constant. Magic is all I have ever really thought about. It's my obsession, my compulsion. My addiction."