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Interview: Alexis Conran

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Alexis Conran, actor, writer, and stage magician, is now starring in his own show on Channel 5, Hustling America. His role in BBC3's The Real Hustle transformed him into a household name. We caught up with "the man who hates to lose" as he discusses the "country that loves to bet."

Alexis ConranHustling America follows the journey of confidence trickster Alexis Conran as he travels across America in the footsteps of some of history’s greatest hustlers. This is a personal journey for Alexis, and he puts his skills in deception and magic to the test, attempting to pull off the hardest cons of all – proposition bets. These wagers, which appear ridiculous unless you know the cunning secret, were originally used to con unsuspecting people out of their cash. Conran is on a mission to measure himself against the best.

What inspired you to make Hustling America?

It kind of started with my fascination with these proposition bets. There are several books about Titanic Thompson that I’ve read, but there was one in particular, written by a man called Kevin Cook, which I read about a year and a half ago. I was just coming back from a meeting I had with a production company in Bristol, and I wondered if I could do any of this stuff. First of all, I wondered if any of it was true. Titanic Thompson was apparently a man who was able to throw a key into a lock, and I didn’t understand how that was possible. I tried to figure out all these versions in my head, and being a magician as well, and having done The Real Hustle for so long, you become very good at finding out secrets, and finding out how to scam stuff. I just thought that this cannot be, and so I wondered if there was a TV programme in trying to do the bets that Titanic Thompson, and Amarillo Slim, and all these people used to do. Can I learn the skills, can I do them, can I pull them off, and can I find people who are willing to fall for them? And that was kind of how it all it how began. We sort of put the proposal together and Channel 5 were kind enough to let us go out and make three one-hour shows.

It sounds to be quite like The Real Hustle’s proposition bets on a much larger scale?

 Yes, it was an upscaling of what I’ve been doing already, but this is a completely different world. In the second episode on Monday, which is also my favourite episode, you meet the modern day proposition gambler. I meet a guy named Brian Zembic, and he very famously had breast implants put in and kept them for a year. This was a bet that he took for $100,000. There are still people out there, like Titanic, who do crazy stuff.

I get the impression that this is a very personal journey. Who would you describe as your “hero”?

I’ve been trying to use that word sparingly. Whilst Titanic was definitely a hero of mine, I realised, whilst going on this journey, that people like Titanic weren’t the nicest of people, despite being very talented and very clever people. They hung out with some very dangerous people and I don’t think there was much human sympathy there.

There’s a saying amongst hustlers: “A sucker and his money were lucky enough to get together in the first place.” And there’s another saying: “In every bet there’s a fool and a thief”. If these people could trace you they would, they have no moral compass. Personally, I’m the kind of guy who will do a prop bet for a drink, but then the next round is on me.

I do admire Titanic and Amarillo Slim. Whilst on this journey, I found out that these guys were incredibly clever and tremendously dedicated. The dedication he had, to be able to throw 52 cards in that hat, is similar to that of an Olympic athlete. It’s very easy to mistake hustlers and con-men for people who are layabouts that sit around gambling. They are far from it; they are incredibly hard-working, smart guys.

Are there any differences between hustling in the UK and USA?

Hustling America is more of a historical documentary, whereas The Real Hustle was factual entertainment purely concentrated on scams. I genuinely believe that gambling is something that is inherent in one’s personality; I think it’s something that you inherit from your culture, your background, both biologically and socially. If you think about it, most Americans will find someone in their family tree who decided to pack it all up in Europe, get on a boat, make a gamble, and go to a brand new continent. That means that somewhere along their family line, they have got a risk-taker. As far as I’m concerned, they all descended from gamblers or risk-takers, so they have that inherent gene. You can walk into a bar in America, offer a proposition bet, and I guarantee that you will get some action. Not just from the guy you’re asking, but the people around him too. So in a sense, America was really the only place we could do this.

Was it strange working without Paul and Jess?

Not really, because I’ve always done a few things without them anyway. I did a documentary about gambling addiction for BBC3 straight after I finished The Real Hustle. It’s nice to be able to do your own thing, and it’s a bit more liberating. Trying to accommodate three people, and what they want to do, is harder.

Do you have any plans for future shows?

Well, I’m currently working on a show for the Discovery Channel, which is all to do with persuasion and psychology. Ideally, what I would like to do is go and do more Hustling America. There’s so many more bets that I can go do, there’s so many more cities that we can visit, and there’s so many more people I’d like to take bets with in the States.

The next episode follows Alexis in Las Vegas where he attempts to outrun a horse on foot, and bets on flies landing on sugar cubes. The third episode will see Alexis in New York, where he visits a former prohibition-era speakeasy, and chats to Kevin Cooke, an expert on the notorious Titanic Thompson. He will go head-to-head with a ping-pong expert in an attempt to win club membership, and he will undertake a mammoth seafood challenge at the Port Royal Pub and Grille on Long Island.

Naturally, the cunning quick-witted hustler will always come out on top.

Hustling America, Channel 5, Mondays at 7pm.




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