Joseph Gordon-Levitt Got A Crash Course In Wire Walking For The Walk

Photo: Jim Smeal/BEImages.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt was apparently a quicker study than even he thought he would be when it came to learning how to walk on a wire. The actor learned to do so in eight days for his role as Philippe Petit in The Walk, which tells the story of Petit’s real-life wire walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Gordon-Levitt did this because it's what Petit himself told him he would do.

“Philippe actually insisted that he be the first one to teach me to walk on the wire. He doesn’t do anything halfway, this guy, so he orchestrated this really elaborate workshop. It was just me and him, all day long for eight days straight,” Gordon-Levitt said at a press conference following a screening at the New York Film Festival. “He said, 'By the end of these eight days, you’ll walk on the wire by yourself.' I thought that sounded ambitious, but he’s such a positive thinker. He believed that I would; and because he believed that I would, I started to believe that I would. When you believe that you can do something, that’s when you can do it. And he was right."

Of course, Gordon-Levitt said that he continued to practice his wire work as he shot The Walk, which was directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back To The Future, Forrest Gump). It wasn't all Gordon-Levitt, though. He added that there are shots with a double.

If there’s a reason to see The Walk it’s, well, to see the walk. Zemeckis’ film can at times feel a bit silly, especially compared with the Oscar-winning documentary that tackles the same subject, Man On Wire. In The Walk, Gordon-Levitt's Petit narrates the story like a circus ringmaster while perched atop the Statue of Liberty, a shot of the towers in the background. An early segment is in black and white for no apparent reason, save for whimsy. At one point, it seems like a bird is going to start talking to Petit. (Thankfully, it doesn’t.)

And yet, Zemeckis convincingly puts the audience alongside Petit, a vertiginous 1,350 feet above ground, in 3-D. History tells you that Petit did not tumble to his death, but your gut is still in your throat. In my case, I felt like holding onto the edge of my chair at times. I’m not that great with heights, so anyone with a serious phobia should probably stay away.

The walk itself, Gordon-Levitt said at the conference, was filmed on a soundstage. “They built a beautiful set of the top two stories of the tower and then surrounded that with green and then hung the wire off the top of the set and out into a green abyss that was anchored on a pole, and that wire was about 12 feet in the air,” he explained. “When I walked out, I had to walk backwards to get back.”

Zemeckis said that to shoot this portion, he “ended up using every special technique that [he] used in [his] career, except for maybe cartoon animation.”

The film only implicitly references the fate of the towers on 9/11. After cast members and Zemeckis were asked whether they ever visited the buildings when they stood, Gordon-Levitt said that he went to the top in the summer of 2001. More recently, Gordon-Levitt recreated the walk at the 9/11 Memorial. “Those two pools are the footprints of the old towers; and I stood at the north corner of the south tower and walked from there to the south corner of the north tower, just to see what it was like,” he said. “It’s a long walk.”

As for actual wire-walking, Gordon-Levitt enjoys the activity. “I love it,” he said. “It’s actually really fun, if painful.”

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