Apollo Robbins, the gentleman thief
Focus, in theaters on Friday, stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie as con artists who fall in love. But the film has another star, one who never appears onscreen. His name is Apollo Robbins, and he’s credited as “con artist adviser/pickpocket design.” In other words, he staged all of the crimes that take place in Focus. So who is this man who taught Will Smith the art of the steal?
Watch Smith pick Robbie’s pocket repeatedly in a ‘Focus’ scene:
Robbins, who calls himself “the gentleman thief,” is a magician and expert pickpocket. For years, he performed his skills in Las Vegas casinos, stealing watches and wallets right under guests’ noses. It wasn’t really stealing, of course, because he returned the items, albeit in jaw-dropping ways. For one of his tricks, described in a 2013 New Yorker profile, Robbins made man’s driver’s license disappear from his wallet and show up in a sealed bag of M&Ms in his wife’s purse. (The profile also recounts a famous story in which Robbins picked the pockets of former president Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service team in 2001.)
It’s hard to conceive of a thief so talented that he can tell a person “I’m going to steal your watch,” then steal it a minute later without them noticing. But that’s exactly what he does to New Yorker writer Adam Green in the video below, which was made to accompany Green’s article and has been viewed over a million times.
Over the past several years, Robbins’ fame has grown, thanks to his popular TED talk on “the art of misdirection” and his appearances on the NatGeo reality series Brain Games (on which he’s a producer). Somewhere along the line, actor Ryan Gosling became a fan. Robbins believes it was Gosling, who was attached to Focus prior to Will Smith, who suggested that the magician work on the film. “From what I understand, [Gosling] mentioned the idea of, besides just a thief, what if he was a little bit more cerebral and was kind of like a psychological thief that was interested in neuroscience and these other things.” Robbins told the Las Vegas Review Journal.
Gosling dropped out of the film, but Robbins stayed aboard, and was soon teaching Will Smith how to think like a criminal. “Will defaults to being a super nice guy, that’s who he really is. And he really feels compelled to make people happy,” Robbins told the Review Journal. “And I needed him to understand and be able to feel comfortable with making people squirm and feel uncomfortable.” Smith says that Robbins even urged him to shoplift for real, which he declined to do. (Hear him talk about it in the interview clip below, via EURnews.)
While Smith focused on the psychology of pickpockets, his costar Margot Robbie wanted to learn all the tricks. Thanks to Robbins’ lessons and extensive practice, the Australian actress was able to pick pockets like a pro for a scene set on a crowded New Orleans street. “It’s incredible that she pulled that off,” said Robbins. “The stuff that’s in there is really hard, I can attest to that.” (Read more in the full Las Vegas Review Journal interview here.)
‘Focus’ star Margot Robbie, producer Denise Di Novi, and Apollo Robbins
Overall, Robbins worked on around 40 “bits” in the film, along with his wife, fellow magician and deception artist Ava Do. Getting the couple involved in Focus seems to have been a smart decision: A review in The Hollywood Reporter praised the film’s “almost continuous display of Mr. Robbins’s tricks of the trade… the virtual raison d’etre of this how-to manual of criminal deception.”
Photo credits: @Getty Images, @Everett Collection