He performs less than once a year on average, but David Blaine's is the most harrowing of jobs. The master magician-cum-"endurance specialist" has earned worldwide renown by pushing the limits of the human body. He's buried himself alive for a week, been frozen in ice and, on Wednesday, set a world record by holding his breath for more than 17 minutes. TIME interviewed the Guinness Book of Records' newest entrant about the genesis of his death-defying feats, what it feels like when your body starts eating itself for sustenance, and what stunts are next on his slate.
You got your start by burying yourself alive in a translucent coffin
in 1999. How'd you come up with the idea?
David: I'd always wanted to do these types of things pieces of magic I could put out not as illusions, but really doing it. Which is really in the tradition of Houdini, who was an escape artist but who was really doing things: training hard, keeping a serious regimen. For the coffin, I read about an Indian fakir who was buried alive for a month. I thought instead of burying myself under dirt, I'd bury myself under water so everybody could see that you're there. I got a coffin in Brooklyn and I started practicing sleeping in it. I stayed in it for four days on my first shot with just short bathroom breaks. For the full seven days, I needed to fast so as not to use the bathroom. I started to fast eleven days before I went into the coffin.
How do you get your ideas?
I do a lot of research on what people have done in the past. I started to become interested in ascetics, the great monks, San Simeon. Reading "Siddhartha" as a kid got me interested in fasting. [Standing atop a pillar in New York City] came to me early on. I looked at a huge telephone pole and thought, standing on that would be pretty amazing. Trafalgar Square gave me the London idea. For [being trapped in]ice, I was flying back to New York and just started thinking about an icicle with a fly trapped inside it. Then I started thinking about a block of ice with a person inside. So we thought about how it might be done, we shipped a glacier from Alaska, and we did it.
Which of your feats has been your favorite?
The most pleasurable one was London. There was just a whole heightened sense of everything: taking everything away like that really sharpens colors, tastes, senses, smells, hearing. Even though the taste is you digesting your own muscle tissues and fats, you still taste this sweet pear-drop in your mouth. Every time you taste water, it's so sweet at least for the first 28 days, until you shift to digesting your organ walls, and then it begins to taste like sulphur and becomes horrific. I got liver and kidney failure from that one.
Was that the most difficult?
The hardest one was definitely the ice. The reason wasn't just that the ice was continually dripping onto my head and shoulders for the entire three days and three nights. I didn't get any sleep, and the sleep deprivation starts to tweak your brain. So I went into an altered mental state and then went into hallucinations, and it really became very, very difficult. That was one I know I could never do again. Towards the middle of it, I knew it was going to be unbearable. [In comparison] the coffin was like a vacation. That one was the easiest one for me.
What about your performance on Oprah?
That was really hard. It was overwhelmingly intense. I felt my heart suffering, my lungs suffering. The urge to breathe was overwhelming. I'm lucky I did all the training. I trained for five months, pretty hard-core. Every morning I would do CO2 exercises. I'd breathe for 48 minutes, then hold my breath for 12 minutes each hour. I'd do that about three mornings a week. I was able to beat the time I got on Oprah. But that was in a controlled environment, [with] doctors, in a swimming pool, with my body laying horizontal as opposed to upright, which makes it easier to put more air into your lungs.
How do you train your body to do these things?
I think anybody can do any of these if they train. I don't recommend it, but anybody could do it if there was a need. That's what's interesting to me how adaptable the human organism is. I train intensively. I built the pillar in the desert in California a year before I actually did it, and I spent months on end climbing up the pillar every day, standing up there, hanging out up there and getting comfortable and jumping down into cardboard boxes and airbags and getting used to jumping down 100 feet continuously and getting used to being up at that height.
Do you ever get scared before you attempt a new feat?
No, because I think of all these as being something that I can do. I get excited.
What do you consider yourself? I've heard the term "endurance
I like that. I like endurance artist as well. I love that word.
Is that how you conceive of yourself? As an artist? As a performer?
Both, hopefully. When I do these, I try figure out how to make them look as interesting as possible, so it's not just about the actual challenge but also about the image. So I guess you could consider that sort of using magic as an art, and using endurance as an art by creating an image around it. I like to think about these things as if each one is its own chapter.
How do you hope people will view your body of work when you're through?
I hope people remember me as a guy who brought magic to the people. You know, pushed the boundaries of wonder. And by magic, I don't think there is a clear definition. I don't think you can say something is or isn't magic. That's what was cool about Houdini, because he was a magician who had a magic show, but he was also an escape artist, and they kind of, over time, blended together. They both kind of enhance each other, I think.
What major performances do you have planned?
There's still a lot that I want to do with magic. I still want to make an amazing show that people can come see every night. That's something I've been working on for over 15 years now. It would be the most intense and poetic magic show that I could ever put together.
You've mentioned that your next performance will involve sleep
That is the next one, in September. I want to use Central Park. I'm going to go 11.57 days without sleep, which is 1 million seconds, or 16,666 minutes. Everyone can help keep me awake.
Sort of a collaborative effort? Can people bring you stimulants?
No, I won't use stimulants. I think that defeats the whole point. I think it's more dangerous when you do that. I think if your body has to give out and you're using enhancements, you will permanently damage your brain. If it's something your body can't handle and you're doing it naturally, your body will give out before your brain does and that's proven by history. The guy who did it in 1964 11 days recovered fully and the guy who did 1959 for 8 days never returned to sanity.
Why sleep deprivation?
I look into what's most intriguing to me. I have so many of these I want to do that I think are just beautiful. I once woke up from a dream with the most amazing image in my mind. It's really scary and very challenging. I don't want to say what it is, but there will be a day that I do this dream. To do it will take unbelievable skill and endurance.
You've got us so curious. How about a sneak preview?
I can't. I'll talk it away.