I spoke with R.J. CANTU about his role as a vampire in DEATH VALLEY on MTV, about being a magician, the horror film that he is shooting with Eric Roberts and so much more. It was a pleasure to be able to speak with such a talented artist and even his beautiful doves chimed in on a few questions. Don’t miss R.J.’s debut as Rico in DEATH VALLEY on Monday and if you are lucky enough to live in the area, check one of his shows out at The Magic Castle.
Lena: I just watched the second episode of Death Valley and next week we get to meet your character, Rico.
R.J. Cantu: Rico, finally, right.
Lena: What can you tell me about Rico?
R.J. Cantu: Well, it’s going to be kind of a different approach on a vampire than we are used to seeing. Rico allows us to go a little edgier with the character and with the series. I’m really curious of how people are going to take this style of vampire. You’ll have to wait and see. Did you like the episode?
Lena: It wasn’t bad but it’s not something that I would typically watch. (Of course, I am not missing Rico’s first episode on Monday.)
R.J. Cantu: Yeah, it definitely has that horror genre category and you have to like that but it seems different for sure, for some reason.
Lena: Yes, they do mix it up and have a bunch of everything in it like werewolves and vampires.
R.J. Cantu: And zombies, it’s a monster overload (laughing).
Lena: (Laughing) Yes and I guess if you are going with one you might as well just tackle them all.
R.J. Cantu: Right, you might as well, get them all in there (laughing).
Lena: How would you describe Death Valley?
R.J. Cantu: It is a mix between Shaun of the Dead meets Reno 911! It’s a horror comedy that follows the undead task force that goes in and tries to contain the monster outbreak that is now in the San Fernando Valley. I think our first episode was just the number one watched show in that time slot, so we were excited about that.
Lena: That’s good. MTV has become known for shows rather than staying true to their name, so maybe they will make a musical episode of Death Valley with singing zombies, werewolves and vampires.
R.J. Cantu: Yeah, but it’s interesting and it’s cool because for me, I feel like MTV always kind of sets themselves apart and they kind of started the whole reality genre with Real World, which I was a fan of. When I was growing up and watching the whole Real World series and then they took it off with Jackass, which kind of started that whole style with spoofs and now hopefully with the new scripted series. I’m curious of how people are going to take it. It seems like we are getting the viewers, so that’s nice.
Lena: Anything is better than Jersey Shore (laughing).
R.J. Cantu: Right. As an actor, I’m like, stay away from reality please, more scripted shows.
Lena: Yes! I don’t know if you watch it but in the second episode of the new season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia…
R.J. Cantu: I’ve seen like one or two episodes but it’s a really good show.
Lena: Last season (as a whole) was kind of blah but this season is so much better and they have a Jersey Shore episode where they visit the Jersey Shore and it is pretty funny. It’s coming on in a couple of weeks.
R.J. Cantu: I will have to check it out. Are they spoofing it in a sense?
Lena: In a sense and they actually go to the Jersey Shore in it and if you know anything about the characters it is so funny. Mac (Rob McElhenney) got fat this year and gained like 50 pounds. It’s classic.
R.J. Cantu: Are you serious (laughing)?
Lena: I guess they had to up the ante a little bit because everyone was disappointed with last season.
R.J. Cantu: That is legit (laughing).
Lena: Yes, it is pretty crazy.
Lena: Spider One (Powerman 5000) is the co-executive producer (and creator of the concept) of the series.
R.J. Cantu: Yes, he’s the co-executive producer and creator of the show.
Lena: How hands on is he?
R.J. Cantu: Oh, very hands on. I think he just recently moved to the Valley and he was like, wow, this is kind of different and strange. He liked it and he came up with this show and we can have zombies, vampires and werewolves and they are all in the Valley and the whole Beverly Hills vs. the Valley side so he kind of thought that it would be funny to play around with that whole take on that and the undead cast coming into the Valley to contain the monsters. On set he was very hands on. I think every time I was on set he was and he was very into his vision of what he wanted. It was great and he was great to work with.
Lena: Yes, I’ve met him a couple of times and he’s pretty (intense).
R.J. Cantu: He’s with the group Powerman 5000 so he brings the whole music genre to it too, so that is interesting.
Lena: Yes, (I’m a fan) do you know any of the guys from Powerman 5000? I’m friends with Dave Pino. He’s wacky. When I interviewed Spider One, years ago, I think half of the interview was busting on Dave. Dave Pino is just insane (laughing).
R.J. Cantu: Oh, that is so funny. I don’t know him personally but I know of him. (Laughing) He’s just insane, okay. He’s just a different kind of guy.
Lena: He’s fun though and he’s from Waltham (Massachusetts), so that explains it (laughing).
Lena: I’m happy they cast Bryan Callen in Death Valley.
R.J. Cantu: Yeah, Bryan Callen from The Hangover. Oh, he is the funniest guy, ever. We were trying to maintain in our takes and his goal was to get us to crack up.
Lena: I love him. He is so funny. Did you watch the episode when he reacts to the rat?
R.J. Cantu: Oh yeah, his dramatic overreaction. That was great. He’s just so awkward in the show and it’s that dry, awkward humor.
Lena: Did you get to film a lot of scenes with him?
R.J. Cantu: I did, we have some interaction later on in the episodes but I can’t reveal too much. Hopefully, people are going to like it but he’s great and was so much fun to work with and I learned a lot from him, just on the acting side because Bryan has been in the game for a while and just to work with him and to learn how he approached a lot of the scenes and how he worked to find all of the comedy in all of the scenes as well. I learned a lot from him.
Lena: He’s very diverse, too. He was just in In Plain Sight and he’s the father of Mary’s baby. I don’t know if you watch that show.
R.J. Cantu: Oh yeah, he’s so good and so funny.
Lena: Yes he is and I don’t know how anyone can keep a straight face with him on set.
Lena: You are definitely the perfect pick to play a vampire because you are very smooth and an excellent showman. I’ve watched a few of your magic videos online. You are definitely good at entertaining people.
R.J. Cantu: Oh, thank you for that.
Lena: When you think of a vampire, that’s what you think of, smooth, sexy and all that stuff.
R.J. Cantu: Yeah, we are trying. We are definitely trying to go with that approach with Rico and hopefully it reads that way. It’s just a fine balance because they are trying to throw that with a mix of comedy as well, so it’s just trying to find the right balance of how much to give from either side. Yeah, we want it edgy and sexy but at times we want it to be funny, so we did different takes to see. We never knew what was going to be the final take but we shot it different ways so they would have a lot to work with.
Lena: Let’s talk about your magic. I’ve never spoken to a magician before, so I am intrigued.
R.J. Cantu: Really, that’s awesome that you brought that up. I’ve done a couple of interviews and they have missed that but that’s okay and totally cool but yeah, my magic, I’ve been doing it for seventeen years now. I never thought I would be doing it this long. I came out here to California and they have The Magic Castle, out here which is kind of like an elite club for magicians, so to speak. We go in and we wear suits and ties and the girls have to wear cocktail dresses. It is very upscale and it is actually a castle and it’s crazy because doors will move and paintings will look at you. It’s all kind of Harry Potterish in the castle but yeah, I auditioned for the castle and I started doing shows and doing my acting on the side. Both of them just started catching on so I just jump back and forth.
Lena: The magic must help with your acting because it has helped you be a showman.
R.J. Cantu: Absolutely and for me as an entertainer, I believe that a magician is just an actor himself. You are playing the role of the magician. You’re taking that audience on that ride to believe what you are doing with manipulations and your show. A magician is an actor.
(Some adorable cooing is going on in the background of our phone conversation.)
R.J. Cantu: Those are my doves that you are probably hearing in the background.
Lena: That is so cute. What kind of doves do you have?
R.J. Cantu: I have two beautiful white doves that I have been working with for three years now. They are so good onstage. It’s funny because a lot of people ask when I use doves in my act if I harm them. No, when you throw a dove up and it comes back to you, you build that relationship for that dove to trust you enough to come back, that’s repetition and building a relationship with that dove. It’s actually the opposite when you work with doves onstage. You have to be so in tune with your animals.
Lena: That is beautiful. I love doves.
R.J. Cantu: There are so many other variables too, you have the audience involvement now and you don’t know how the doves are going to react to them onstage. You try to get them out a bit before so they can fill the room to let out a bit, but no they are great and they are great onstage.
Lena: Well, I have a bunny, so if you ever need a bunny.
R.J. Cantu: Seriously, what color is it?
R.J. Cantu: Black, that is perfect. He’s in the next show (laughing).
Lena: He’s a Lop though, so he has those big (floppy) ears.
R.J. Cantu: Is he pretty big?
Lena: Yeah, he’s pretty big and at least ten pounds.
R.J. Cantu: Oh, he’s a big boy.
Lena: Yeah, you are not fitting him in a hat.
R.J. Cantu: Right, it’s going to be this big bulge in the hat.
Lena: I know and it’s so sad because he has a really fluffy chin and it’s not flab, it’s just fur but it looks like he has like eight chins. It’s kind of sad but it’s cute.
R.J. Cantu: (Laughing) That’s cute.
Lena: I’m kind of bummed that this isn’t an in person interview because I would love to see one of your shows.
R.J. Cantu: You should come out to The Magic Castle.
Lena: I know your magic must be a hit with the ladies.
R.J. Cantu: Oh, I don’t know about that. It’s not the reason I got into magic at all (said very slyly). I think it helps. It’s like an ice breaker, for sure. We can meet up and it would be like, hey, you want to see something, you want to see some magic…no that is so cheesy (laughing). I would never use that line.
Lena: For some reason when I think about magicians, I think about what a first date would be like and that it would be really weird. You go in for a good night kiss and the next thing you know, you bra is in your purse for some odd reason.
R.J. Cantu: (Laughing) Yes, the girl is like, I am going to leave now and it would be like, what about your keys, I have them right here and you’re like, what?
Lena: (Laughing) It would be funny. I find it interesting.
R.J. Cantu: It’s fun. For me, that is what turned me on about the art, is that there are all these levels to it. There are so many levels to magic that you can never learn it all. You have misdirection, timing, showmanship, mathematics, gimmicks, all these levels to make it seem like nothing is happening. This disappeared and reappeared over there but there is a lot going on behind the scenes. That is what turned me on from the start, there is this whole psychological side to the art.
Lena: Did you see the episode of Supernatural, “Criss Angel is a Douchebag”?
R.J. Cantu: Yes, I have. It is just pretty funny.
Lena: He seems like he is a douchebag. I don’t know.
R.J. Cantu: That’s what I’ve heard but I’ve never personally met him.
Lena: Hopefully, if Supernatural makes an episode about you it has a better title.
R.J. Cantu: I hope so, too. Hopefully, it would be in a better light.
Lena: His popcorn commercial is so stupid.
R.J. Cantu: Yeah, they put the bag in the microwave and it turns into a bowl of popcorn, or something like that.
Lena: Yeah, it’s bad. It’s not even cool (laughing).
R.J. Cantu: Yeah, good times (laughing).
Lena: What is your favorite trick to do that you know will blow people’s minds?
R.J. Cantu: Oh, that’s a good question. Believe it or not, there is this one trick that I do onstage and I only do it in the club atmosphere. I just did Boulevard 3 out here, which is a club and we are doing a couple of them in Las Vegas, well there is this one where I make the dove, it doesn’t harm the bird, but it actually looks like the head of the dove is removed from one hand to another and then it magically disappears from the hand and appears back on the dove. The reactions to that are like, “WHAT!” That is kind of one of my favorites because of the reactions I get off of it.
Lena: What are some of the best and worst reactions to you have gotten from an audience?
R.J. Cantu: The dove has definitely been some of the best. When I debuted at The Magic Castle, that was a good showing and when I finished the set, I got a standing ovation. That just felt good because you put so much time into your act, hours and hours literally in front of a mirror trapped in your room, in a little cave and you are trying to perfect tricks and make them as smooth and natural as possible so getting those reactions is so good. Some of the worst, I remember when I was a kid I did a lot of birthday parties and I did this one trick and the trick is where you take this glass bottle and you cover it with tin foil and it is supposed to disappear and you smash the foil into a ball and it’s like oh, where is did the bottle go. When I was covering the glass bottle it slipped and shattered onstage and it got completely quiet. I was like, “Okay, the real magician will be here shortly.” Everyone laughed but there was just this point of oh no, all of that dead silence, not good. I told myself from that point on, “Dude, you have to be perfected with your work.” Accidents can happen and you just have to adjust.
Lena: So I take it things don’t go wrong now?
R.J. Cantu: Not as much, I mean things will go wrong that are out of your control. Now that my show is a little bigger I have to rely on a lighting guy and a sound guy and sometimes cues and stuff like that go wrong but it’s weird because when you do it over and over you know how to adjust. For me, I have a bag on the side full of four or five tricks in case a sound cue or something goes wrong. I can just go to the back and grab a trick as a filler. You learn things about how you can cover yourself in case something does go wrong and you can spontaneously cover and no one knows your set, so to them it is all fresh and new. You just cover it and move on.
Lena: It’s just like being a dancer because if you fall you just get back up and continue what you were doing.
R.J. Cantu: Yeah and for me I keep going and do a bigger trick and you forget about that one and move on.
Lena: Have you ever been heckled onstage?
R.J. Cantu: Never onstage but I did do a bar show in Santa Monica once and I got booked to do close up magic at a bar and after the big live show people were coming to the bar and they can stop and watch. That was probably one of my hardest shows that I ever had to do because everyone is drinking and everyone gets hammered and they start grabbing your props and they call you out on a lot of stuff. You have to be kind of smooth about it, yet kind of an asshole but not. That was one of the hardest shows for me.
Lena: Oh, a bit of come on magic man, let’s go? Drunk people, uh! I can only imagine.
R.J. Cantu: Yes (laughing).
Lena: You got to perform for Zach Galifianakis.
R.J. Cantu: Oh yeah, he’s also very good friends with Bryan Callen but Zach came out to The Magic Castle and he was enjoying his evening and we kind of met up and I showed him a couple of tricks and quote on quote he said, “That’s why I come here, you wizards blow my mind.” He’s so funny and he’s so cool. He’s definitely a fan of the magic.
Lena: He looks like he would be fun.
R.J. Cantu: Oh yeah, he’s so funny.
Lena: Who else have you performed for?
R.J. Cantu: I’ve been lucky enough to perform at the Playboy Mansion and different celebrities walked throughout the mansion. So many people run through The Castle and you just never know who you are going to run into. Other celebs like Corey Feldman and Shia LaBeouf was at The Castle once and I did a trick for him. You just never know who is going to come through.
Lena: That’s cool but how about Fred Dryer?
R.J. Cantu: No, not yet.
Lena: I have such a crush on Fred Dryer.
R.J. Cantu: I’ll have to send him your way if I ever run into him.
Lena: Oh yeah (laughing). He’s a bit older than I am but I loved Hunter. I know he used to hang out at the Playboy Mansion so that’s why I asked.
R.J. Cantu: Hey, whatever floats your boat (laughing).
Lena: Can you share any funny stories about performing?
R.J. Cantu: It’s so funny because I do this set in my show that is spontaneous. I tie these two handkerchiefs and I kind of put them on the side of a girl’s shirt and when I pull them the bra comes off.
Lena: See I knew it. (Bras are always involved with magicians.)
R.J. Cantu: The reaction is so funny and it’s not actually a person’s bra but it is set up to seem like it. You just never know how people are going to react and I just love having those moments where you don’t know what to expect, even from the entertainer, like my point of view. When this happens you don’t know how they are going to react, it’s very spontaneous.
Lena: I bet you don’t try that trick around girls with really big boyfriends.
R.J. Cantu: Nope, not at all. I stay very clear.
Lena: I’m sure that would get you punched.
R.J. Cantu: Probably and I’m no Houdini, I can’t take any man’s punch so I just pass. She’s cute but he’s a little bigger than me so I’ll pass right now.
Lena: When did you first decide that magic was for you?
R.J. Cantu: I got this little Garfield magic set from my aunt when I was eight years old and I remember opening it up and being like, “What is this and what am I going to do with it?” It wasn’t until I did my first trick on my grandmother and she thought she was so cool with the Three Card Monte and she turns it over and it’s Garfield. She thought it was the Queen. You should have seen her face, she was like, “Oh I got it, the Queen is right there.” From that moment on I was like wow, there is something here. Ever since then, I started going to the library and started going to magic shops and started getting obsessed with the art. I wanted to go see David Copperfield live, of course and when you do that you are just blown away. It’s a level of theatrical sense on stage but with magic involved and for me that was exciting. I wanted to do that.
Lena: Who has been your biggest inspiration?
R.J. Cantu: Definitely, David Copperfield. Seeing those magnitudes of shows that are just in your face, it was the music, the lighting, the timing and the chorography was just epic for me. It got me excited for the art. I still feel like the art has so much to offer and a lot of people are saying that magic is dying but no. Entertainment is the perfect thing to push it to the next level. It can be edgy and sexy and needs to be updated. That’s what I am trying to bring with doing a lot of shows in the club environment because that’s where I can explore and it can be more edgy and sexy and we can get more dancers and have this club feel but be more Cirque du Soleil club environment for the art and hopefully the shows will grow in Vegas, too and we will get more exposure and the show will grow.
Lena: You are filming a horror move with Eric Roberts?
R.J. Cantu: Yes, we are currently filming right now with director David DeCoteau and the film is called Snow White Deadly Summer. It’s starring Eric Roberts and it should be released next year or maybe the end of this year but I’m stoked. It’s been fun on set and hopefully the horror genre will add to the whole MTV and Rico and feed that in a sense.
Lena: Yes, I love Eric Roberts.
R.J. Cantu: He’s great and so sharp. He’s the busiest actor I know. He’s flown in from I don’t know where and he’s like, let’s shoot this film and then I have to go here. That’s awesome and he’s so good.
Lena: Can you give away anything about the movie and maybe your character?
R.J. Cantu: I play a cop in the movie and it’s not a big role but just to be part of the film with Eric Roberts was just such a blessing. It’s basically about this corrupted teenager that gets sent to this kind of boot camp. Her stepmother sent her out and things start to happen at this boot camp and it’s kind of a slasher film and people start to get slashed off. They are just trying to discover what is going on at this boot camp. I am one of the cops that are sent in to investigate what is going on. It’s a really good script. Definitely, check it out.
Lena: It sounds like a fun part for you. It doesn’t matter if your part is small because at least you are getting work and doing something that you love.
R.J. Cantu: Yeah, it was fun. It’s giving me that momentum.
Lena: What other projects do you have coming up?
R.J. Cantu: I am finishing up Snow White Deadly Summer and obviously, Rico’s debut (Monday) and I am just doing a couple of magic gigs here and there. I am going to the DVD release party for X-Men: First Class. I’m excited, with good TV finally getting its recognition and being on Death Valley, it should really help me out as an actor.
Lena: How many episodes of Death Valley did you film?
R.J. Cantu: I did five episodes out of the twelve and it’s throughout.
Lena: They had you featured in the preview clip on Monday promoting the next episode. I watched the whole episode last week and I was looking for you and then you were in the preview.
R.J. Cantu: Yeah, Rico is featured a lot (in the upcoming episode) and it is kind of his debut so I’m stoked.
Lena: Great! I still can’t believe that some people interviewed you and didn’t bring up your magic.
R.J. Cantu: I know, I was kind of shocked and I thought it would be one of the first two or three questions. They are just so into the show and most of the interviews have been about Death Valley, which is fine but I appreciate you bringing up magic because it doesn’t get the light that it should get. People think it’s a dying art but no, magic just needs to go to new levels of this art form.
Lena: I tried not to get too excited because I really wanted to talk about magic but I didn’t want to seem too (eager). I mean, how often do you get to talk to magicians? I’ve never done it before so…
R.J. Cantu: Yeah, it’s pretty balanced. I have seriously had people think that I can really make things float and it’s like no dude, it’s just magic.
Lena: That would be awesome if you could.
R.J. Cantu: I wish, right.
Lena: It’s been a pleasure and Monday (Death Valley).
R.J. Cantu: Monday at 10:30 and thank you so much for having me.