Joseph Gordon-Levitt on training for The Walk

The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit.
PHOTO: Sony pictures

CANCUN, Mexico - At 7am on Aug 7, 1974, French street performer and high-wire artist Philippe Petit stepped out on a cable strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

He walked back and forth, danced, lay down and knelt on it, performing for the crowds that gathered 400m below.

Despite the New York Police Department threatening to remove him with a helicopter, the 24-year-old stayed up there for 45 minutes, descending only when it started to rain.

His feat, dubbed "the artistic crime of the century", was featured in the acclaimed 2008 documentary Man on Wire. Now there's a Hollywood biopic starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and directed by Robert Zemeckis.

Because of the clandestine nature of the stunt, there is no footage, just a few photographs.

But with Petit's help, the film-makers have recreated the event in 3-D to celebrate the death-defying feat.

Gordon-Levitt met M at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Cancun, Mexico, in June to talk about The Walk, which opens here tomorrow. It also stars Ben Kingsley and Charlotte Le Bon.

In person, the 34-year-old US actor looks hardly older than the alien teen he played in the 90s TV sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun. His sunny personality has probably stood him in good stead as he built a serious career from age six without making any headlines in the tabloids.

Gordon-Levitt, a Zemeckis fan, was excited about meeting the Hollywood veteran (Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Back To The Future trilogy) and was thrilled to accept the part of Petit because he was a gymnast in his youth and an avowed Francophile.

Philippe, now 66, trained you himself for The Walk. Tell us about that.

He insisted that he was the one to teach me how to walk on the wire because he has his own particular style.

Not everyone who is good at something is also good at teaching it. But Philippe is a fantastic teacher and I think it's because of his optimism. He is such a positive thinker and he really believed that I could do it. And because he believed that I could do it, I came to believe that I could do it.

So what was the training like?

He arranged this entire elaborate workshop in an old unused warehouse and set up a real high wire with a full steel cable, a practice high wire, a metal bar that was only a foot off the ground, and this little metal bar plus a piece of tape on the ground.

We did some unicycle stuff, worked with the hats and tied knots. Every single day, he had a plan of everything he wanted to teach me. He is that meticulous and would consult his plan. By the end of this eight-day-straight workshop, I was able to walk on the wire using the balancing pole. And then I practised more as shooting went on.

My wire-walking double, Jade Martin, did a fantastic job. And Robert (Zemeckis) did a fantastic job of blending our two performances so that it's really hard to tell which one is me and which is him.

How high did you go in the training?

I learnt on a two-foot wire so when you lose your balance, you can just step off.

To shoot, we were on a 12-foot (3.7m) wire, which obviously is not very high compared to 1,300 feet in the air. But you would be surprised, 12 feet is still very scary when you are up there, way too high for you to step off.

But it's really just a matter of time and acclimation and the fear dissipated.

Did you need to be in good physical shape?

To walk on the wire, you need to strengthen your body. Every muscle has to be tight because any looseness throws you off balance. So everything, your core, your legs, your chest and your neck, and your arms holding that heavy pole, is all tight.

Wire walkers are in excellent shape, so I had to get into as good shape as I could.

Do you think he was crazy to do it?

He would be the first to admit that one part of him is crazy, yes, but the other part of him is just a brilliantly driven, focused artist. When you think of someone crazy, you think of someone who is all over the place and he is not like that at all. He is very focused and very productive and a highly organised person. He is incredible in that way.

Did he ever talk about being afraid?

He very purposely doesn't and never does and never would. Again, he is such an optimist. He is constantly focusing his mind on forward movement and positivity. I think that's a big part of why he's able to accomplish such incredible feats... He still has the actual wire that he hung between the two towers and it's set up in his front yard and he walks on it every day.

Was there any hesitation in doing a story involving the World Trade Center?

The first thing you think of about those two towers is the tragedy. I was here in New York City on 9/11. I think with any tragic loss, it's also important to remember the good things and the beautiful, positive images you have in your head of whatever you have lost. And that's what this movie does.

This article was first published on Oct 21, 2015.
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