In his new movie The Walk, Gordon Levitt stars as the famous French high-wire artist Philippe Petit, who rose to international fame for his (illegal) high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.
He spoke about his experience training with Petit with Tatum in the October issue of Gotham magazine, as well as clowns, New York, his production hitRECord and more.
Here are 10 things we learned:
1. Life is made up of moments where we either choose to take a risk, or not.
Tatum asked, “What is your best metaphor for wire walking? What does it take to do it?” And this is how Gordon Levitt responded:
In the early stages of this movie, I said to Bob Zemeckis, “Okay, I know the story of Philippe Petit, who walked on the high wire. And I get that the movie is going to look incredible and be fun to watch, but what is it about?” His answer was, “Those moments where it’s time to put your balls on the windowsill.” He was talking about taking risks. Life is made up of a series of these moments where we have to decide are we going to put ourselves out there? Or are we going to take the path of least resistance and let life pass by? When you have a dream [like the one] Philippe had and become obsessed with it—that’s when it’s scary. Because if you don’t do it, you will never accomplish the dream.
2. Speaking of risks, Gordon Levitt, 34, admits he’s never risked his life like Petit, who walked across that high-wire at the young age of 24.
When asked if genius and madness go hand in hand, he explained:
I would like to think you can do great things without being a little insane. But the evidence indicates otherwise, right? So many brilliant feats and creations have been done by people who are a little, shall we say, off-kilter. I consider myself a pretty grounded person and like to think I can do great things, but certainly I have never risked my life for anything.
3. Gordon Levitt wants to live until he’s 100 – or longer.
On what’s to come in the next third of his life, Gordon Levitt told Tatum, “Let’s call it a quarter or maybe a fifth, because you never know. With the future and modern medicine, I definitely plan to cross 100. Knock on wood.”
4. JGL loves clowns:
Clowns hold up a bizarre, dream-like mirror to real life. They remind you of people in a very abstract way. My favorite thing to do in New York is walk. More than [going to] any particular theater, restaurant, bar, hotel, or any famous anything, the best thing to do in New York City is just walk out your door and go, and check out all the people. Because you will see clowns in New York City, whether it’s the aggressive businessman or the drunk on the street who talks to himself; if you stop and listen, you might hear something beautiful or you might hear utter nonsense. I talked to Philippe about these clowns because they were influential in my portrayal of him. Philippe is a clown in a certain way. He doesn’t only perform on the high wire, he also does street performances demonstrating feats of technical skill, like juggling or the unicycle. Sometimes he is just working the crowd, just being funny. He is just being a clown.
5. He’s passionate about his production company, hitRECord, which he started after college:
I was like, “I cannot wait around for a movie producer or director to give me an acting job. I have to be able to make things and have an outlet.”
HitRECord is a little metaphor to push the button, the round red rec button, because on set, when I’m acting, someone else rolls the camera. My brother helped me set it up as a website, and very slowly it evolved into this community of people. Rather than just talk about stuff that I’m making, people on the site want to make things together, and that is cool. Eventually I started working with some partners to say, “Okay, how could we do grander-scale productions?” That’s when we launched it as a production company and figured out the legality of the intellectual property laws, and how to pay contributing artists when we made money. Since we started we have paid $1.6 million to artists. We won an Emmy, ta-da, for the show [HitRECord on TV with Joseph Gordon-Levitt].
6. He thinks the media is as isolating as it is connective for people, and references “that Beyoncé moment”:
Tatum explains that there’s a video online of Queen Bey singing to someone in the front row at her concert, but instead of watching her and living in the moment, he’s recording her on his phone. “She is like, ‘I am right here, baby, right in front of you and you are missing it.’ And then she moved on because he never looked up from the phone,” Tatum explains. “It’s poignant—it’s all happening now, and you can be a part of it, or you can just be a spectator.”
7. Gordon Levitt once told Tatum that getting into the shoes of his character sometimes helps him “find” who that person is.
He explained that with Petit, it was a little different:
Philippe taught me to walk on the wire. He insisted he be the one to teach me. We did this eight-day workshop, just me and him. By the end of the eight days, I was able to walk on the wire using the pole and keep my balance. But one of the very first things he taught me—because he was not only teaching me to walk on the wire, he was teaching me to embody him—was how I treated my shoes.
There is a very particular kind of shoe you wear when you are on the wire. They’re like ballet slippers. With wire-walking shoes, if there is a tiny piece of gravel or a little smudge of oil, it can be a huge deal. So you are really careful with how you treat your shoes—you wear slippers on top of them. You only take the slippers off right before you step on the wire. Another thing was how you put on the shoes. “I never want to see you in this movie sitting down putting on your shoes or hopping around as you put them on. None of that,” he said. “You are a wire walker, you can keep your balance.”
8. Balancing on a wire is a spiritual action, with balance of the mind being prime importance.
[Petit] does not consider the wire just a physical skill. He would never call it a sport, a stunt, or a trick. He does not like being called a daredevil. For him, it’s a very spiritual thing. By the way, he still walks on the actual wire he walked on for the World Trade Center every day. He has it at his house in upstate New York. It is sort of his religion, and that is where he finds his balance. It’s how he meditates.
I got a little experience of what it’s like to walk on the wire, and you really have to be unilaterally focused in order to keep your balance. Not just physically, your mind, too. If you start thinking about other things, what else you have to do that day, or Oh, I might fall, or This is pretty high up, or any of that, you are going to fall. You just have to be focused on this one straight line. And there is something really healthy about that practice.
9. Tatum and Gordon Levitt have an interesting New York incident.
You mean the time you climbed up the space of my apartment, broke into my house, and surprised me when I was sleeping in order to prove that I should probably take better care to protect myself because if you were ill intentioned you could have murdered me? That time?
10. He decided to make hitRECord for-profit rather than non-profit in order to fully connect with their community:
We considered making HitRECord a nonprofit back when we transitioned it from this informal hobby to a production company. I think the most impactful organizations are for-profits, [and for us] the most effective way to contribute is moving the media to where it is more about community and connection and less about isolation and idol-worship. I hope there are going to be for-profit organizations [run by individuals] who are not only motivated by profit but also by the impact they have on the world.