How do you get into the mindset of 24-year-old high wire walker who dreams of strolling between the tops of the Twin Towers that rose 1,362 feet over downtown Manhattan? That was the dizzying challenge set before Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his new film The Walk.
The Robert Zemeckis-directed biopic played before an enraptured audience at the 53rd New York Film Festival’s opening night. And the following day, Gordon-Levitt sat down with us to discuss Philippe Petit, who not only inspired the film, but also taught its star how to walk the walk on the wire. And with a movie this ambitious, we of course talked its Oscar chances.
So, a lot of voice actors tend to have a keyword of phrase they use to get into a particular voice. Do you have one for getting into your French accent for the movie?
No, I don’t know if I did. I don’t think so. I’m trying to remember. Nope. Every day was a whole thing. Yeah, sorry…
No, no. That’s fine. You got to actually meet Phillipe and work with him exhaustively on learning to walk the wire. What was that like?
Yeah. Philippe insisted that he be the one to teach me how to walk on the wire. But, as you say, while he was teaching me to walk on the wire, I was listening to him talk all day long. That was really key. And, if anything, I just wanted to tone down his accent so that everyone could understand…the English speakers could understand everything I said.
But he’s such an optimist, is the thing about Philippe. Not everyone who is good at doing something is also good at teaching it. Because he’s such a positive thinker, he was convinced that I’d be able to get up on that wire and walk by myself. He ended up convincing me. Once I believed in myself, then I was able to do it.
Yeah. I heard you were able to go up to seven feet off the ground?
When we were shooting it was 12 feet, actually. At our workshop with Philippe it was 7 feet. When we were shooting, it was 12.
So was that a surprise to you, like, “No, no. 12 is better for the camera.”
It wasn’t a surprise because it was all pretty well planned out and I was practicing beforehand. And I know 12 feet certainly sounds like nothing compared to 1,300 feet, which is where Phillipe was when he was walking between the towers. But you’d be surprised. It feels pretty high when you are up there.
I did the virtual experience and that was enough for me. I don’t think I could handle 7 feet, much less 12. So, yeah, that’s intense. Did you also have to learn how to juggle and unicycle for this?
I could juggle a bit. The unicycling was above my paygrade. I focused more on the wire than the unicycle. So that’s movie magic.
OK. Fair enough. But in this movie, you convincingly, whether without the aid of stunts or whatever, you wire walk. You unicycle. You juggle. You speak in French, speak in a French accent. Is this your Oscar movie?
[Laughs] I don’t know, but I’m flattered you would ask. Thank you.
For you, what was the most challenging aspect of all these things?
The most challenging? Honestly, all those things were very technically challenging, but I think more than any of that was just being inside the mentality of a 24-year-old Philippe. It was very different than the Philippe that I got to know and make friends with. The 24-year-old Philippe is high intensity, high anxiety young man who, on the one hand, is brilliant and driven and, on the other hand, is losing his mind. That headspace is draining to spend all day in. I didn’t mind doing it because I love those kinds of characters in movies. Like, Mr. Zemeckis recommended that I watch Patton. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that movie…
George C. Scott plays Patton, or Amadeus. You know, these movies about individuals who are brilliant on the one hand and insane on the other hand and, yet, all the more kind of loveable for their insanity in a bizarre way. That’s what we were going for.
OK. Great. Thank you so much.
Twelve people have walked on the moon. Only one has ever, or will ever, walk in the immense void between the World Trade Center towers. Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), guided by his real-life mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), is aided by an unlikely band of international recruits, who overcome long odds, betrayals, dissension and countless close calls to conceive and execute their mad plan. Robert Zemeckis, the master director of such marvels as Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Back to the Future, Polar Express and Flight, again uses cutting edge technology in the service of an emotional, character-driven story.
The Walk is now playing in a limited IMAX-only release. It will expand nationwide on October 9, 2015.