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Teaching Will Smith how to pick-pocket: Interview with Focus con artists, Ava Do and Apollo Robbins

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"I once pick-pocketed Jimmy Carter's secret agent!"

New heist rom-com Focus, from Crazy, Stupid, Love directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and starring Academy-Award nominee Will Smith and BAFTA Rising Star Award nominee Margot Robbie, has just premiered in London.

Ahead of its release later this month, we caught up with Ava Do and Apollo Robbins - the con artists who taught Will and Margot everything you'll see on screen.

The film’s behind-the-scenes stars, ‘technical adviser’ duo Ava and Apollo, taught the on-screen stars the ways of the pick-pocket and the con-artist. Their success is clear: Will and Margot’s characters are talented and cunning pickpockets and demonstrate exceptional skills.

‘The Gentleman Thief’, Apollo Robbins, is famous for successfully pick-pocketing former United States President Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service agents.

He says: “I was in a show in Vegas and Jimmy Carter came through the show and he had a team of Secret Service Agents guarding him, and I ended up taking their credentials, their keys to the motorcade and a bunch of other stuff.”

Apollo described his background in the ‘con’ business: “I’m a ‘theatrical thief’ I grew up in an environment where I grew up around some cons, my half-brothers did cons when I was a kid… I’ve been around the game, not in the game.”

Along with his associate Ava, another ‘deceptionist’ and ‘con artist’ who performs sleight-of-hand magic and cons, he set up “consulting” company Whizmob Inc in 2006. Apollo says: “We would bring different types of hackers, cat-burglars and thieves, into one space and we would talk to them about what they do.”

Ava adds: “We also sent them out to do shows, we team them up with a few other partners who were security officers, security consultants or former police chiefs and they would go out. One of them, his name was DI - he was a ‘cannon’ for 15/16 years, we teamed him up with the police officer who had been chasing him for five years and they do talks for companies and security organisations about what his [DI’s] expertise is and what his vulnerabilities might be.”

“The problem is, they go back to what they do so often, it’s really a hard business to keep employees,” Apollo explains. “A lot of times Ava and I ended up teaching instead of the thieves, because these folks are intuitive and know the skill that they have, but they don’t know how to express why it works. That’s interesting for us; we teamed up with neuroscientists and social psychologists to study the principles and then we see how that applies to other industries too.”

Apollo mentions some of his previous acquaintances and how the rationale of people within the worlds he employs people from differs: “There was this pick-pocket called DI; if there was an old man pushing his wife in a wheelchair he’d consider that an opportunity, yet there’s this other guy who was a bus-stop dealer for the Mafia; he would cheat casinos, as, for him it was against the institution - not the individual.

“He had arthritis, but if you dropped your wallet he’d go after you and hop to give you your wallet back, he just had a pure-heart in that way… it’s interesting because they’re both thieves, but they rationalise it differently.”

The pair explain the meaning behind the industry term ‘Whizmob’ and how it is interesting trying to make different types of thieves and con-artists work together: “When you try to bring these guys together and get them to work together, it’s an interesting juggle, and that’s what you see happening in this film, the idea of a Whizmob - a collection of thieves that cross-trained as bus-stop dealers, card-cheats, hustlers - different worlds coming together and running a con simultaneously.”

Ava goes on to explain more about working behind-the-scenes on Focus and the technicalities of training Margot and Will in pick-pocketing, sleight-of-hand tricks and the art of ‘misdirection’: “It was really fun for us to work on this film, because Will and Margot are very different from each other, Will was really focussed on wanting to get his character, so we spent a lot of time with him, probably about three or four days just sort of telling him about the real thieves that we know, that we work with.

“When Will came to Vegas to spend some time with us, he really wanted to meet these people (the former thieves at Whizmob Inc.) and kind of get to know what their lifestyle’s like as well as get to know how they might be able to compartmentalise the crimes that they’re involved in.

“Margot, was really interested in the actual ‘steal’ so she was really relentless in practising those until she got them right, so, as you saw, she was very quick-steady, and she did a lot of the steals and she picked them up in a very short amount of time, which was really impressive.”

Focus is released in UK cinemas on 27th February.

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