David Kwong has made a career out of his childhood hobbies. He writes crossword puzzles for the New York Times and works as a magic consultant for illusion-heavy television shows and films, including "Now You See Me" and "Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation."
Kwong, who studied the history of magic at Harvard, where he also co-founded the Harvard Magic Club, has also garnered much attention for his TED talk, in which he displayed the intersection of words and magic. He currently works on NBC's "Blindspot" — which centers around solving the many mystery tattoos on the show's Jane Doe, played by Jaimie Alexander — and spoke to NBC News about nerd culture, cerebral TV shows, and turning your childhood hobbies into a career.
Your work combines magic and crosswords. How did you become introduced to them, and what made you think to combine them in your act?
They were both childhood hobbies, and then they surprisingly came together about six years ago. I think the light bulb that turned on for me as realizing that all magic tricks are puzzles, and that everyone’s goal is to challenge audiences to figure out what is going on. I basically decided to make my whole magic show one giant puzzle.
How did you go from solving crosswords to creating them? What’s the most difficult part of coming up with a crossword puzzle?
[Creating crosswords] exercises a slightly different muscle. The creative process is a lot of fun and it’s challenging because there’s a different puzzle every day, 365 days a year. There’s a different twist and a different trick to each puzzle, so we as crossword puzzle creators are tasked with coming up with something new and innovative within the constraints of the crossword puzzle. It’s a fun exercise to figure out, oh you have a 15 by 15 grid, you have to use this many black squares, how many ways you can come up with a new puzzle.
It’s a real balance of knowing your pop culture, history, science, and trivia. The New York Times crossword evolves. It stays with what’s hip and what’s modern. The vernacular changes and you’re starting to see all sorts of new words in there, like “fo shizzle,” and this might anger the old crowd but it brings in a new one. The New York Times is very hip.
How did you continue to pursue your interest in puzzles in school? I read that you started the Harvard Magic Club as an undergrad.
I co-founded it with a guy named Adam Grant who is a really prominent author and Wharton Business School professor. You never know where people end up. I studied history at Harvard, focusing on the history of magicians.
I was interested at the time very much in Oriental impersonation. I was really fascinated by Chung Ling Soo. He was one of the most famous performers of his day and was revealed to the public after his death that he was an American pretending to be Chinese. His death was by misadventure. He died onstage while he was performing his signature trick: catching a bullet.
Orientalism was all the rage and the mysticism of the Far East — and near East — was fascinating Western audiences. They took that culture and they turned it into a magic show. There’s a great book on this magician called "The Glorious Deception" by Jim Steinmeyer.
How did you turn puzzles into your career?
Even though magic and puzzles have been these lifelong hobbies, I worked for a long time in Hollywood. My last standard “Hollywood” job was in DreamWorks Animation, working in the story development. So I’ve always been in the mix of storytelling and “Now You See Me” came along. They needed a magic consultant to devise a heist — the bank robbery for the film — and that was my first consultancy. It went from there to working on shows like “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” “The Imitation Game,” everything that involves deception and puzzles. “Blindspot” is a perfect fit because the entire show is one giant puzzle, one treasure map, so when the creator contacted me I jumped at the opportunity.
What is your role on “Blindspot”?
Certainly what I do affects things slightly and there’s a great team that works together on this. I have been around since the beginning, and there’s a larger enigma at play here. Martin [Gero, the showrunner] has mapped things out, and it’s exciting to watch these puzzles unfold. I was around to help shape the tattoos and those various puzzles, and along the way we’re brainstorming new ones.
I think it’s an important point to highlight that this is a large puzzle that from the very beginning, Martin had this vision, and he’s designed a very clever treasure map.
It’s easy to catch on. There are going to be a lot of brand new fun and engaging storylines for people to figure out, but of course we want everyone to go back and catch up on the first season. My job stays the same. As we get deeper and deeper down this rabbit hole, the puzzles get more complicated and more complex.
It feels like there’s been a rise of more cerebral movie or television show. Do you think audiences are demanding more challenging content?
I think that we’re in the middle of a golden age of nerd culture. It‘s very exciting for somebody like me. I’ve been waiting a long time for this. I think that people are smart and they like feeling smart and they like watching content that engages them and allows them to feels smart. I think a lot of shows and a lot of films are not just handing answers to people, and allowing their audiences to crack the code.
What’s your ultimate goal? What would be your dream gig?
I’m working on a stage show that is going to be one giant puzzle. I really love escape rooms, so I think as immersive theater progresses and smart people like to be engaged that it’s now a perfect time for me to create a stage show that is one giant puzzle. I do a lot of public speaking, a lot of lectures on the science of illusion and how your brain works and how your brain is fooled by illusion, and I’m really enjoying that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“Blindspot” premieres Sept. 14 at 10 p.m. on NBC and debuts in its regular time period Sept. 21 at 8 p.m.