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The Walk: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Tightrope Walking and His Upcoming Role as Edward Snowden

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A life dream can be discovered in the most unlikely places. For daredevil tightrope walker Philippe Petit, his dream emerged after a visit to the dentist. The Frenchman was reading a magazine in the waiting room when he saw an advertisement for the construction of the World Trade Center in New York City. Right then, at the age of 17, he conceived his most outrageous stunt: a tight-rope walk between the two towers.

After years of planning, Petit ventured from Paris to New York City to perform an act of art that only one person has -- and will ever -- perform. In 1974, the high-wire artist snuck onto the roof of the World Trade Center -- before it was completed -- and placed a custom-made, 26-foot long cable tight-rope on both ends of the towers. Then, he walked from one ledge to the other along the thin wire, 1,350 feet above the ground. Petit became an instant sensation, as he sauntered across the cable, taunting the authorities who were trying to apprehend him. After 45 minutes on the wire, he turned himself in. In a 1974 New York Times article, Petit revealed his motives: "If I see three oranges, I have to juggle. And if I see two towers, I have to walk."

His antics were captured in the 2008 documentary "Man On Wire" and director Robert Zemeckis' newly released biopic, "The Walk," highlights not only the act that brought the artist into the limelight, but gives us a glimpse into the mind, method, and madness of Petit. In the film, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt masters the character of Petit, and leads the audience on a terrifying, yet exhilarating adventure that not only retells the incredible story but also reflects memory of the World Trade Center.

Recently, KCET's Cinema Series hosted a screening and Q&A with host Pete Hammond and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, where they discussed how Gordon-Levitt learned to walk on a tight-rope with Petit as his mentor, his online collaborative production company hitRECord, and meeting Edward Snowden for his upcoming role in Oliver Stone's feature film "Snowden."

Check out the upcoming Cinema Series screenings here.

The following is a selection of their condensed and edited remarks.

On working with tightrope walker Philippe Petit

Philippe insisted to be the one to teach me how to walk on the wire. He doesn't do anything half way, this guy. So, he orchestrated this really elaborate eight-day workshop, and it was just me and him all day, and he said, "By the end of these eight days you will be able to walk on the wire by yourself." That sounded ambitious to me, but it turned out he was right and I think that actually speaks to the core quality of Philippe. He is an optimist, he's just such a positive thinker that even though everyone around, including Bob [Zemeckis] was saying, "You don't have to really learn to walk on the wire. You know this is going to be movie magic and you're going to have a double. And sure, go spend time with Philippe and learn what he's like, learn how to speak like him, get inside of his head, and his heart. And sure, you can practice on the wire... That's great, but don't worry." But Philippe was like, "No, no, no, you're going to learn to walk on the wire." And, he never even considered the notion that I wouldn't, and that kind of optimism is contagious. He was so convinced that I could do it that I became convinced that I could do it and I think that's really the first step of being able to do anything. It's believing that you can do it and by the end of the eight days I could, and I did. There's a double also, named Jade Martin, who is a great high wire walker but there's a lot of me, and a lot of him, and you know it's a tribute to the great filmmaking that you can't really tell who is who.

On the complexity of Philippe Petit

Just as valuable as learning to walk on the wire was just spending time with him as a person, because the thing that I loved about this job as much as I loved doing the wire, and I loved the challenge of playing French. What I really loved was the complexity of the human being. Often times, when you have a grand, visual, spectacular action movie, the story and the character can kind of go by the wayside, and it's rare opportunity to get to do something visual and spectacular like this, but also have a character that you can really sink your teeth into as an actor and have that complexity as well. On one hand, he's this brilliant, talented artist and on the other hand, he is losing his mind and that's part of what's going on in the story. And, he's just gradually going insane and that's a fascinating character to tackle.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt discusses "The Walk" with Pete Hammond at the KCET Cinema Series.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt discusses "The Walk" with Pete Hammond at the KCET Cinema Series.

On practicing on the wire

At the beginning, he just puts a piece of tape on the floor, and you walk on that because there's a lot to learn before you even start dealing with balance. There are particular ways to move your feet and shift your weight. You start off with all of the weight on your back foot and you sort of find the wire just with your toe without putting any weight on your front foot. This is how you can walk forward without looking down. You just find the wire with your toe, you don't even look, and then you can slowly slide your foot forward. When it's securely there only then do you shift your weight onto it. You need to be able to do that seamlessly. So we practiced that just on a piece of tape. Then he had a little metal pipe that was on the floor. You practice that way so you kind of get used to something strong and metal digging into your feet. Then he had that kind of pipe, but like a foot off the ground. Then he had one six feet off the ground, and when we shot the movie it was 12 feet off the ground. So 12 feet is obviously nothing compared to 1,300 feet off the ground -- which is where Philippe walked between the towers. But 12 feet is still high enough where if you lose your balance you can't step off. And I definitely felt that rush of adrenaline and I got all the signals saying you're not supposed to be up here and it's really only a matter of time. It is just practice and repetition that allowed me to get used to that fear and get over it.

Director Robert Zemeckis, Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in "The Walk." | Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Director Robert Zemeckis, Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in "The Walk." | Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

On director Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis is one of the great filmmakers of our time.

A hallmark of [Robert Zemeckis'] movies use technology to sort of push the boundaries of what you could do visually to create spectacle. One of my favorite things that Bob -- he goes by Bob -- Mr. Zemeckis said to me was, "My favorite special effect is the close up." I thought that was a really profound thing to say and I think it's emblematic of the strength of his movies because ultimately what he's saying is that you can have the most slick, impressive, and expensive visual effects as you want but if the audience doesn't care about the human beings in the story than those visual effects are really nothing more than visual effects. And his movies always really have a balance of the two. Yes, he's dazzling you with incredible visuals, but he's so good with the story and character that he sort of makes you care about those visuals.

[Philippe Petit] was on the wire for 45 minutes in real life. I love though that Zemeckis didn't shy away from the cinematic challenge of really making that into a substantial performance because I think that in a more typical Hollywood movie, it would of been a quick montage. But Zemeckis really figured out how to build it and figure out its own beginning, middle, and end. It's unlike any action scene -- it's weird to even call it an action sequence, but that is what it is. It's just that action sequences are almost always people shooting each other, or hitting each, or a car chase, or explosion, or whatever but it's so cool that he figured out how to turn this performance into a grand scale action sequence.

A still image from "The Walk." | Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
A still image from "The Walk." | Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

On why Robert Zemeckis took on this story

This is a passion project that he's been working on for 10 years, even years before "Man on Wire." Bob was working on this story and the origin of it for him was that he was looking for something where 3-D would be necessitated, where it would be baked into the DNA of the story. And, someone gave his kid this children's book -- there's this children's book of Philippe Petit's story called "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers." It's this beautiful hand painted, illustrated children's book and on the cover there's this image of Philippe's foot on the wire in the foreground and beyond that you see all of New York City. And when he saw that image he said, "That that is a story that just has to be told in 3-D" and it went from there.

On working primarily with green screen

I personally don't find green screen any more challenging than anything else because, one way or another, you have to suspend your disbelief. When you're acting there's a camera right here so you have to ignore that, and there's also a hundred people waiting to go home, and you have to ignore all of that too. It's really about focus. There's a real parallel between acting on a movie set and walking on a wire and I learned that and experienced it first hand. When you get up on that wire, if your mind wanders and you start thinking, "Oh wow, I'm kinda high up here. What if I fall? What if I'm not good enough at this?" And if you start thinking about any of that, you will fall. I experienced it. I've fallen off, I never fell off a high [wire], I fell off when we were practicing on a two-foot wire. But if you can clear your mind of all of those ancillary tangents and just focus on the wire itself, fix your eyes on where it meets it's end, that's how you keep your balance. And it's really a mental game, and the same thing goes for acting in my experience. If you're thinking about, "Here's the camera, look at all these people around here, boy these lights are hot," or "I wonder how this movie will be received by critics or commercially," if you start thinking about any of that your performance will suck. You just have to clear your mind of all of that and just be present in that moment, and embody what your character is in that moment and scene.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in "The Walk." | Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in "The Walk." | Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Charlotte Le Bon as Annie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in "The Walk." | Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Charlotte Le Bon as Annie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in "The Walk." | Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

On the film's 9/11 subtext

Anytime we see images of those two towers, that's where our mind immediately goes. And, I think that's appropriate. But also, my thought it is that with any tragic loss it's important to remember the good things and not only focus on the bad thing -- the tragedy. [We should] really celebrate the beautiful memories and images that you have of whatever it is that you've lost. And, that's what we wanted to do with this movie, with the towers, and as far as Philippe's perspective -- he's very respectful about it and for him it was devastating. He described his relationship with the towers as a love affair and he certainly felt a personal loss, but if I ever tried to talk about it with him, he's also deferential to those who actually lost loved ones who died that day. I think he's wise to not lament his own loss more than those. But again, I think it's all the more reason to tell his story again and again and celebrate it. Because this is something beautiful that happened with these towers. The very beginning of their life, right before they were born, before they were even done with construction.

On how Zemeckis was able to keep the audiences on their toes

I think this quote gets attributed to Hitchcock. Whether it's true or not, I'm not sure. But the difference between surprise and suspense is that surprise is when the audience doesn't know it's coming, but suspense is when the audience does know what's coming but the characters don't. And it actually just makes you even more involved as an audience member to kind of watch it unfold. That goes back to what I was saying earlier about Bob's movies, as great as he is with the visuals, he always prioritizes that the audience identifies with the characters.

hitRECord Promo. | Photo: Courtesy of hitRECord.
hitRECord Promo. | Photo: Courtesy of hitRECord.

On his online collaborative production company, hitRECord

hitRECord... it's exciting, it's a different way of making things. We use the Internet to open up our collaborative process to an online community that anyone can join. So rather than just collaborate with folks who are privileged enough to have a seat within this industry -- which let's face it, could be a sort of exclusive industry. There are so many great, talented artists out there, all over the world who don't have an agent, don't have the ability to move to Hollywood. It doesn't mean they're any less skilled or that they don't have a unique perspective and this is sort of a way to try and invite those perspectives in and try and collaborate with them to make short films, or music, or books. And, we want to make lots of more things in the future.

On playing and meeting Edward Snowden in director Oliver Stone's upcoming biopic

I went to Moscow in November, I think. We shot the movie from February to May and I went and I wanted to approach it as an actor, and try and get a sense of who he was. He makes a very strong impression in interviews and in the documentary, "Citizenfour." I wanted to sort of see for myself what kind of person is this. And to be perfectly honest, what I found was that he was entirely consistent with the person that he portrays. I found him just really warm, and open, and incredibly passionate about the wellbeing of the world, and our country. He is very much a patriot... in his mind and now of course, plenty of people would argue that what he did was not patriotic. And, I think that's really not for me to say who's right in that debate. Honestly, it's not even for him to say and that's one of the things he says, "Whether you agree with me or disagree with what I did. The point is that we should be talking about this." That's what a democracy is, it's where people have the information and are able to hold the government accountable and have an opinion on what their government does. Regardless of whether you feel it was right or wrong that you know these mass surveillance programs are in place. The point is that it's good were able to talk about it. So personally, I admire him very much and I am grateful for what he did. But, I also think the important thing is that anyone of us, any citizen is able to form their own opinion on that.
 

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