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How Joseph Gordon-Levitt Followed Impossible Footsteps in The Walk

When Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis prepared for their performances in the 2010 psychological thriller Black Swan, they trained intensely to take on the dual roles of battling ballerinas. Every movement during their performances had to be meticulously choreographed. One misstep could’ve ruined their entire routine.

The same could be said for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s latest performance, which he too had to meticulously prepare his body for. The thirty-four year old actor — most famous for his work on television comedies like 3rd Rock from the Sun and cinematic dramas like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises — wasn’t trying to duplicate the performance of a dancer though. He was trying to emulate the actions of a man who, in 1974, walked from the roof of one of the World Trade Centers to the other on a tight rope.

In the new film The Walk, Gordon-Levitt plays French performance artist Philippe Petit, who famously shocked the world when he travelled between the two buildings on a rope that lay one hundred and two stories above ground level in the middle of New York City. Onlookers watched in utter amazement that morning as Petit performed this incredible stunt. As Grace Lichtenstein of the New York Times reported at the time, “Combining the cunning of a second-story man with the nerve of an Evel Knievel, a French high-wire artist sneaked past guards at the World Trade Center, ran a cable between the tops of its twin towers and tightrope-walked across it yesterday morning.”

It’s no surprise that even — over forty years later — Petit’s actions have become legendary and made their way to the big screen. In 2008, the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire recounted Petit’s journey. Now, Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis has adapted the story into a 3D film, using the new technology to try to bring viewers on Petit’s incredible journey with him. The drama — adapted from Petit’s memoir To Reach the Clouds — culminates in its intense depiction of Petit’s famous walk.

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) surveys the gap between the Twin Towers, 102 flights up. Courtesy Sony Pictures.

To prepare for the arduous role of playing the main character, Gordon-Levitt took on an intense physical training schedule, despite the fact that some on the crew said the training was unnecessary. According to BusinessInsider.com, “Gordon-Levitt noted that many people on the film told him not to worry that much about doing the high-wire walks himself because it would all be done by ‘movie magic.’”

But movie magic wasn’t enough for the young actor, who is known for researching and diligently preparing for his roles.

According to Reuters.com, Gordon-Levitt actually learned how to walk on a tight rope for this performance and Petit — the man himself —insisted on training Gordon-Levitt personally. As the actor said, “[Petit] insisted that he be the one to teach me to walk on the wire first…he convinced me that I was able to do it and once I believed that I could, then I did.”

Petit prepared an elaborate training program for the actor to overcome his initial fears and take on the challenge. The Los Angeles Times reported on the training noting that over the span of the eight day program, “each lesson [was] broken down into 10-minute blocks (everything from juggling to how to put on shoes — which would be standing, never sitting)… [The actor] learned about engaging his core and arm muscles to stay tight while walking and discovered why Petit would recline during a performance (theater, yes, but also because that pole gets heavy).” The results of the grueling training schedule were clear. According to Entertainment Weekly, after the training was complete, “Gordon-Levitt could walk on a wire 10 feet in the air — and director Robert Zemeckis ended up using actual footage of Gordon-Levitt on the wire in the film.”

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) needs to rest due to the pole's weight. It's also impeccable theater. Courtesy Sony Pictures.

The training with Petit wasn’t the only training that Gordon-Levitt took on for the film though. According to the New York Daily News, the actor trained under the tutelage of celebrity personal trainer Arin Babaian to get into the physical shape necessary to be a tightrope walker. As Babaian told the Daily News, “[the actor] trained like a big-top performer to get camera-ready.” The article added that Gordon-Levitt had to learn how to physically move the way that Petit once did, noting that “Petit was always light on his feet — so Gordon-Levitt needed to learn it, too. By the end of his training, he was even riding a unicyle.”

The training and the powerful dedication that Joseph Gordon-Levitt brought to the role seemed to pay off onscreen.

The film — which expands into theaters nationwide this week, after opening on a limited number of IMAX screens — has earned an 86% percent approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com with critics, including Petit himself, hailing Zemeckis’ vision and Gordon-Levitt’s stellar lead performance.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt may not have replicated the Petit’s famous walk but in this new film, he — like Petit did over four decades ago — has soared to new heights as an artist.

Featured image: Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in TriStar Pictures' THE WALK. Courtesy Sony Pictures. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Hanlon

John Hanlon is a freelance film and television critic. He has written for The Week, CNN.com, and USAToday.com. He also manages his own website at JohnHanlonReviews.com and can be found on Twitter @johnhanlon.