The Real Magic Mike: An Interview with Actor/Illusionist Michael Carbonaro

Photo by David Szymanski
Photo by David Szymanski

Michael Carbonaro has made magic cool again. His wildly popular hidden camera show “The Carbonaro Effect,” which took illusion and tricks to a new level, established him on a global scale. Of course, it helps that he has movie star good looks that leave David Copperfield (remember him?) in the dust. Those looks also came in handy for his acting career. Carbonaro, an out actor, gave an award-winning performance in Todd Stephens’ 2006 wacky comedy “Another Gay Movie.” Presently, he is, once again, taking his act on the road to dazzle and delight audiences in a show titled “Carbonaro: Lies on Stage.” Michael was generous enough to make time in his schedule for an interview.

Gregg Shapiro: The title of your tour is “Carbonaro: Lies on Stage,” which is a clever play on “Live on Stage.” What does it mean to you to be able to return to live performance?

Michael Carbonaro: It’s everything to me. I had never been away from performance for that long since I was 13 years old. This was new territory, to not be doing what is really a kind of meditation for me and a love that I knew I had, but I didn’t know how important it really was for my soul. This is so wonderful to be able to get back out there and have extra appreciation for how important this is really part of my being now. Being up on a stage and being a conduit for joy. Transcending happiness through myself back from the audience, back from them to me, and seeing the smiles and feeling that love. I knew it was important, but I had no idea how much it was until I guess, like they say, you don’t know how much you appreciate something until it’s gone.

Photo by Stuart Pettican

GS: Did the forced time off during the pandemic, maybe more so than if you had been constantly touring, provide you with opportunities to come up with new illusions and tricks?

MC: 100%! In fact, I was lucky and excited for this speedball of a ride that “The Carbonaro Effect” was. I started “The Carbonaro Effect” and for seven years it was a rollercoaster that did not stop. It was so exciting, but at a certain point, you really do need to reconnect. I had no time off. It was wonderful, but I was going from writing to pre-production to production to editing to writing to pre-production to production to editing with zero time off in between. As awesome as that was, it does take something away from you. I was probably the only person in the world that was like, “Yay, a pandemic!” I kind of needed a break. At first, it was wonderful to be like, “Oh my gosh, I’m gardening at my house. I’m sticking my hand in the dirt and not talking to anybody for hours, maybe a day or two.” Maybe I’ll talk to my husband while we’re chilling out. But there isn’t this constant buzz all around me, which was wonderful. And then it got boring really quick [laughs]. Although I have to say, maybe for six months there were all these virtual opportunities. They asked, “Do you want to do virtual shows for corporate stuff?” And I was like, “No, not really. I’m just sort of chillin’.” Then I was like, “All right, let me try a few.” Then, after about six months, I was like, “OK, I need to make something. I’m not going back out there, and this isn’t ending, I need to make something creative.” While I was writing and coming up with other ideas I could do on stage and for television, I thought, “I want to make something special for the now time.” So, I made a virtual show which was called “Live from Space.” I did eight shows. I had 500 families a night tuning in. It was really cool. It was its own different kind of thing that afforded a different kind of creativity that I don’t do on television or on stage. It was more intimate. You were joining me in my messy office. We were playing. I’m digging through stuff. Wild things happened. A live chicken arrived from outer space in my office. I end up flying out the window at the end. We did some cool, awesome effects that could only exist in that genre. (It made me realize), “OK, I do need to be creative.” It was a fun thing to do, but still nothing like getting up on stage.

GS: Is your husband Peter (Stickles) your test audience when it comes to trying out new parts of your show?

MC: [Laughs] it’s funny you say that. No, and I probably should more because, boy, he’s got such a threshold to get through. We have this joke where I say something, and if he laughs out loud, we both kind of look at each other like, “You made me laugh, honey!” I’m always making jokes and he’s always like, “Uh huh.”  Every now and then when something gets through that threshold, it’s like, “Wow, still got it! OK!” No, I’m usually better off practicing in front of my cat and a live audience, versus Peter.

GS: What can your fans expect to experience in the Lies On Stage show?

MC: It’s a great show. I’m so excited! That was another thing, too. It was really hard; because I’m touring, I’m touring, I’m touring, I’m touring, and people want to keep seeing those shows, and there was no time to stop and put together an all-new tour. So, that was fun to get the time over the pandemic to be able to do that. This is an all-new tour show, brand new magic. Which is insanely difficult to put together. A lot of the routines in my first tour were spinoffs of things that I had been doing since I was 13 years old. I had all this audience-tested material that I adapted into the tour. Suddenly, I was starting from scratch. I popped up at a few clubs to workshop some stuff. We’re just having a ball. There’re mischievous gnomes in the tour that keep popping up and stealing items from me and the audience. There’re silly tricks; I teach the audience how to magically separate laundry. Lots of audience participation. Me going out in the crowd showing off some new “Carbonaro Effect” devices and bringing people up on stage to help. Every night, two people from the audience are brought on stage and made to disappear.

Photo by Matt Christine Photography

GS: Do you ever get the sense that some people come to the show as skeptics and that over the course of the evening you’ve won them over?

MC: I wonder if there are people who literally come in like Houdini used to do and call out spirit mediums. Like they’re going to stand up and shout, “Impostor!” I think that even if they’re fans, somewhere in their head they’re like, “I’ve seen this guy on TV. I don’t know how much I trust TV. Gosh, I hope this can happen in front of my eyes and that’s why I’m here and hope to fulfill that excitement.” There’s this electricity that happens when I start doing things right there, in front of them, for real. There’s this excited relief. Like it’s real. Not real, real. It’s real, fake real. It’s not camera tricks. It’s not actors. This is happening to me or it’s happening right in front of their own eyes. I think there is that excitement that comes from the relief that it’s not BS on TV.

GS: To commemorate the 15th anniversary of 2006’s “Another Gay Movie,” a director’s cut of the movie was released on DVD and VOD. Did you do anything special to mark the occasion?

MC: It’s so funny. Peter, my husband, who buys DVDs with CDs, and loves going to (record store) Amoeba (Music), took a picture the other day (and asked me), “Did you know this DVD 15th-anniversary cut was released?” I knew that they were releasing it and they did a screening. But I didn’t know that it was going to be a hard copy, going to be sold. I was so excited to see that it was out there. I have to go get a copy. I knew of the cut, and we did a little online reunion. We also went to the Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. They did a 15-year anniversary screening and the whole cast came, all four boys and the director. It was that moment in life where I was like, “This is the most special thing I’ve ever had.” It was so incredible to reconnect with this project 15 years later. All of us together, where we are in our lives now. It was an interesting story, and I don’t know how much you followed that. But one of the actors in “Another Gay Movie” (Jonathan Chase, who played jock Jarod), as soon as the movie was released in 2006, didn’t take part in any of the promotion for it. He had this crazy strong team who didn’t like the cut and he wasn’t going to promote it. He never went on any of the fun ride. That was really the whole thing about making that movie, aside from how fun it was to make. He didn’t go to the Castro or any of the film festivals. The Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival! The Tribeca Film Festival! That was the excitement of it, and he didn’t take part in any of that. So, this 15-year anniversary was the first time the four of us watched the film together. He really came around and supports it now wholeheartedly. He regrets not supporting it back at the time. We rented a little Airbnb, and we had a hot tub. I felt so lucky and blessed to have a moment like that and friends like that.

Photo by Wayne Herrschaft

GS: “AGM” writer/director Todd Stephens’ latest movie was 2021’s critically acclaimed “Swan Song.” Given the chance, do you think you’d ever work with Todd again on a film project?

MC: A million percent! Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to. I know he’s working on another TV thing that sounded so cool. All four of us, the boys, were like, “Todd, if we come in it’d be pretty cool to see one of the boys from that movie come in on your new TV show, even as a guest star.” I love Todd. He’s like a big brother, totally family. That was the greatest ride of my life. For all the things I’ve gotten to do in my life in “the showbiz,” that movie, shooting that film, and meeting those people and that ride just tops them all.

Michael Carbonaro
Sunday, November 12, 2023
Fitzgerald Theatre, Saint Paul, MN

5100 Eden Ave, Suite 107 • Edina, MN 55436
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