Casting Joseph Gordon-Levitt – And Learning To Walk The Wire
Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes the lead as Philippe Petit. It’s a role that few other actors could play as memorably. “This was one of those roles that felt so particularly tailored to my desires and individual talents,” says the actor.
“When I first met Joe, I felt that he completely understood the heart and soul of this character,” says Zemeckis. “If you look at Joe’s body of work, he’s very much the consummate showman.”
Indeed, The Walk would make full use of Gordon-Levitt’s physical capabilities (as he has put on display multiple times, from a memorable song-and-dance routine, incorporating multiple backflips, in his hosting duties on “Saturday Night Live,” to spending weeks on a bicycle to film the lead role in the well-regarded thriller Premium Rush), melded with his abilities as an entertainer, as seen in his hosting duties on his television program, “HitRECord on TV,” combined with his interest in acting in thrillers, such as Inception, Looper, and The Dark Knight Rises.
In fact, Gordon-Levitt embraced the challenge of walking on the wire. “It was a serious challenge, but I like a challenge,” he says. “I love doing stuff with my body – incorporating physicality into a performance. There’s nothing like a close-up in a movie, but what you can convey to the audience with your body is also part of what makes the whole thing fun.”
“What is wire walking?” asks Robert Zemeckis. “You could say it’s a stunt because it’s risky. It’s dangerous, that sort of stunt — you’re on a wire hanging, in the case of the World Trade Center towers, over 1300 feet in the air — but it’s also dance. It’s also gymnastics. It’s also ballet. It’s a whole physical performance, it’s not just the stunt—it’s an art form unto itself. It’s really interesting in that regard. In movie terms, it’s stunt work, but in reality it’s really probably ballet.”
So, Gordon-Levitt learned to walk on the wire. He couldn’t have asked for a better teacher: Philippe Petit himself. “I spent eight days straight with Philippe in a one-on-one workshop with him,” he says. “He was really generous with his time with me; we spent quite a bit of time together. He was teaching me how to walk on a wire, but what he was really teaching me was much broader than that. For Philippe, that balance on the wire is a metaphor for his whole life and creativity.”
Gordon-Levitt says that Petit also shared his advice and wisdom for high-wire walking. “Before I met him, when I had just read his books and seen his interviews, I heard him say, ‘I never fall,’ and I’ll admit, at first, I misinterpreted it. I thought, ‘Well, that’s arrogant; he could fall.’ But then when we were together, he taught me what he meant by that. He said, ‘I jump, because it’s a decision.’ You never want to keep fighting the balance to the point that you lose control. If you are having a problem, you make a decision before it’s too late, and you deal with it. Either you jump to the mat, or, if you’re on the high wire, you kneel down. You do something about it, you don’t just fall.”
“I was able to teach him how to walk on the wire,” says Petit. “I did a private, one-on-one workshop, excruciatingly tiring, nine AM to five PM every day. Breaks of only thirty seconds – that’s how I was. I wouldn’t let him go. We started with the line on the floor, and by the end of our time, he was seven feet high on a thirty feet long wire.”
But Petit says that learning to walk the wire isn’t a matter of learning how to balance on a thin piece of rope; it’s about artistry. “I taught him my wire, not the high wire,” he says. “I taught him that there is no balance unless your body and your soul, or your heart or your mind, is in unison with your feet and with a balancing pole being held in your arms. And that to me is the secret of balance. Without passion, without soul, you’ll have a dumb acrobat on a rope.”
Ultimately, for Gordon-Levitt, wire-walking is a lot like acting. “The first step is very difficult, because you’re confronted with doubts,” he explains. “But then the challenge was to put the doubts aside and just focus on the joy, the enjoyment – I can do this, this is not hard. It reminds me of acting. You can get up in your head and think, ‘Oh my God, they’re rolling film, all these people are watching, I can’t mess this up’ – and you’re screwed. You can’t think that way. You have to be able to set all of those thoughts aside and focus. I felt a very parallel experience walking on the wire.”
“Actors are always studying something to prepare for their roles, but Joe took it to another level,” says Steve Starkey. “He not only wanted to prepare emotionally and learn technique so he could act properly – he took it beyond that, and, in fact, was able to walk by himself. He was able to make it across our entire stage by himself on a real wire — his training went that far. He got a huge ovation from the crew because they were so excited to see their actor do the performance by himself.”
Beyond learning to wire walk, Gordon-Levitt also found inspiration in playing the role of Petit. “Philippe – what a character!” he says. “I’m lucky that I got to know and make friends with him. Getting to know his fierce determination and focus and, at the same time, this whimsical and exceedingly gentle, positive, magic person-to-person connection that he has – it’s really quite a combination.”
To play the role – a real person – the actor says that it was more important to capture the nature of the man than to do an impersonation. “The best way for me, as an actor, to honor a real person is to take them into my own self. Rather than slavishly imitate, I absorbed what I loved and admired about Philippe, and played my version of that. The most important thing was to tell the overall story that Philippe was telling by walking on this wire: you can do anything you imagine. You can create the impossible. That’s what magic is; that’s what art is.”
Part of playing Petit required Gordon-Levitt to master lines in French, and then many more lines in English with Philippe Petit’s pronounced Parisian accent. “The funny thing about Philippe is that he still has a thick French accent, and he will openly admit that he keeps his French accent on purpose – I think he likes it because it distinguishes him. It’s his character,” says Gordon-Levitt. “At the time of the walk, in 1974, he was obsessed with speaking English, because he became obsessed with the United States and American culture. He made his whole crew speak English while they were there. Now, he doesn’t speak French very often. I would try to speak French with him, and he would respond in French, but very shortly thereafter he would slip back into English. He’s just more accustomed to speaking English.
Gordon-Levitt worked with language and dialect coaches to master speaking his French lines and English with the French accent, but in addition to the experts, he had his French-speaking co-stars – Clément Sibony, César Domboy, and the French-Canadian Charlotte Le Bon – to guide him. “We helped him a little bit but he was really good,” says Charlotte Le Bon. “He already had solid French skills before the movie. He really likes French culture. He knows so much about French poetry—more than me actually.”
Petit himself says that during his one-on-one training sessions with Gordon-Levitt, the actor was learning so much more than how to walk on a wire. “Bob Zemeckis later told me, ‘I have a secret to tell you. Besides learning from you how to walk on the wire, you know what Joe was doing day and night in that workshop? He was learning you. Your mannerism, your accent, your madness… and you can see that in the movie.’ And I can! I have nothing but compliments to say about this movie.”
ABOUT THE SUPPORTING CAST
Surrounding Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a group of acclaimed and up-and-coming actors who embraced the story of pulling off Petit’s caper.
Leading the way is Oscar® winner Ben Kingsley, who plays Papa Rudy, the man and mentor who taught Petit how to walk on the wire. “The Omankowsky Troupe were a remarkable troupe,” says Kingsley. “They were a family – a father and mother. Omankowsky’s wife was a beautiful trapeze artist and very accomplished in other fields as well, and his sons were high-wire walkers.”
“He ran his troupe, some say, with an iron fist,” says Zemeckis about Papa Rudy. “Sir Ben brings that to the part. He is a force of nature when it comes to performing and when it comes to acting, but he also has a real sense of the character and relished in playing the role. The character is a strange guy – we believe he was Czech, but was in Paris and spoke many different languages – and an amazing character, and Sir Ben was able to bring all of that to life.”
Kingsley notes that Papa Rudy is a fascinating character because he’s not just an expert performer. “The important thing to know and to understand about any person who is extremely skilled at one particular craft is that often that person is a wise, extraordinary person,” he says. “I’ve known great actors, great artists, great musicians, great painters, great chess players, great filmmakers, great drivers – you meet these people who are extremely good at what they do and there is always something else. You can’t have that genius in isolation – it’s held in a context of what I can only call intelligence.”
French-Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon takes the role of Annie, Philippe’s girlfriend. “She’s Philippe’s first accomplice,” she explains. “He shares his dream with her for the first time. She falls in love with his dream, and with Philippe as well. She was very important for him, because she was an anchor for him. He needed her when he was feeling more vulnerable. He couldn’t show that to his friends, but he could show it to her.”
Naturally, Le Bon was excited by the opportunity of working with Robert Zemeckis. “Working with Robert Zemeckis is the most comforting acting experience I have ever had,” says Le Bon. “Coming from France, where French directors are always looking and searching inside themselves, they’re never sure about exactly what they’re doing. Zemeckis knows exactly what he wants and exactly what your character is supposed to do in that sequence. It’s so comforting. He has the movie in his head – you can tell he’s been working on it for years. We were in such good hands that he could ask us to do anything.”
“Charlotte has been on television and making movies in France for many years,” says Zemeckis. “She’s a magnificent actress who was perfect for the part and also extremely helpful in making sure our French was done perfectly – after all, that’s her first language. She’s beautiful, talented, the camera loves her – she’s an incredible actress.”
James Badge Dale rounds out the lead cast as Jean-Pierre, the salesman who provides a key link to fill out the team that will make the coup a reality. “We first worked with James Badge Dale on Flight – he was the cancer victim who did a very surreal scene, his only scene in the movie, but he stole it,” says Starkey.
“The way we looked at the character, he’s a fast-talking New Yorker,” says Dale. “If he can communicate with Philippe’s team, he can be of assistance. At this point, Philippe and his buddies are looking for people in New York to bring in so they can get into the buildings and attempt their coup.”
The supporting roles include Clément Sibony as Jean-Louis and César Domboy as Jean-Francois (a/k/a Jeff), two coup co-conspirators who come over from France to help Petit pull off his audacious act.
“Jean-Louis became a close friend of Philippe’s over five or six years,” says Sibony. “That’s why he’s the only one who can speak to Philippe the way that he does. Philippe has an ego, and he’s slightly crazy, and he has a natural authority; Jean-Louis is not that crazy. He’s very responsible and he thinks. He tries to bring Philippe back to Earth – but he’s also an engineer of the coup and he wants to help make it happen.”
Domboy says that where Jean-Louis is assertive, Jeff is more easygoing. “Bob told me that what was important for Jeff’s character was that he was really innocent, not cynical and never skeptical about whether the coup is possible,” says Domboy. “Jean-Louis is always asking, ‘How are we going to do this,’ but Jeff just thinks it’s going to be possible. It’s 1974 – he’s not doing this for money, he’s just an open-minded, free-spirited, hippie person, who wants to build something big and poetic.”
Crossing the ocean, Petit finds the final three members of the crew: Ben Schwartz as Albert, Benedict Samuel as David, and Steve Valentine as Barry Greenhouse, the “inside man.”
David and Albert are introduced together, and Samuel says that there’s a mutual lack of trust – but Petit and his crew have nowhere else to turn. “They’re introduced in such a way that you think that it may not be the best idea to have these two guys, David and Albert, in a crew trying to break into the World Trade Center towers.”
“Shooting this movie was an interesting experience, because Joe, Jamie Badge, and I were the only three Americans in it. Everybody else was from France or England or Montreal,” notes Schwartz. “I’ve never in my life been on a movie set like that, where there were so few Americans in it. I found that very exciting – it made for such a cool energy.”
“Barry is a great character to play,” says Valentine. “With his ’stache and his beard, he was a man in his own time zone, even back in the 1970s. He’s very individual, an anarchist in a suit.”