“I’m always looking for bigger risks”The American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the most legendary tightrope walker of all time – and learns valuable life lessons in the process
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way since he became a household name in US sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. He’s starred in box-office hits like 10 Things I Hate About You, indie favourites such as (500) Days of Summer and enjoyed a range of mainstream successes from Looper to Lincoln. He even wrote, directed and starred in his own big-screen offering Don Jon which saw him getting up close and personal with Scarlett Johansson (being the scriptwriter clearly has its advantages). But in latest film The Walk, Gordon-Levitt reaches new heights.
THE RED BULLETIN: Philippe Petit was 414m above ground when he performed his tightrope stunt between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. Have you wondered what that felt like?
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: I can imagine. I was at the top of the World Trade Center in July 2001. It wasn’t like being in a building, it was like being on board a plane.
Did you have any reservations about the role? Are you scared of heights?
Remember, I wasn’t doing it 100 storeys up. I don’t have a particular fear of heights, but my dad does. When he saw the movie he was crying out in terror throughout.
Can you imagine what it takes to perform a stunt like that?
Philippe is a huge control freak, but that’s also where his strength lies. He’s so well organised in what he does and that goes part of the way to explaining why he’s achieved everything he has. And it’s also a sort of concentration game. When he taught me to walk on the tightrope he said, “You find a point to focus on straight in front of you. Only look at that and don’t think of anything else. You don’t look anywhere else. You don’t think of anything else. As soon as you lose your focus, you lose your balance, too. There’s a very deep connection between your body and mind.”
Would you want to do what Philippe Petit does?
I’m not the daredevil type who likes to jeopardise his physical wellbeing. That’s not how I get my kicks. I started at 60cm and when I was good enough, I moved up to 4m, which was the height I shot my scenes at. But even though I’m not particularly scared of heights, my body cramped up with fear because my instincts kicked in. I only really got used to it by the end of filming. But the way I see it, Philippe’s walk is more of a metaphor. You can achieve courageous things if you set your mind to it.
That’s a lot easier said than done…
Of course not everyone is cut out for it in the same way. Some people find certain things easier than others, because we know that life on Earth isn’t fair. But it would be even easier to say, “I don’t care about anything. I can’t achieve anything. I can’t be the person I’d like to be.” That’s a cowardly attitude.
You’ve clearly realised your full potential. You’re one of the most heralded actors of your generation and you founded an innovative media website called hitRECord. Why did things work out in your favour?
I have a lot to be grateful to my parents for. They gave me self-confidence and taught me to always listen to myself instead of others telling me what I should be or think.
Have you ever tried anything that seemed impossible, like Philippe Petit?
Acting comes with its fair share of risks. And I’m hooked on them. I look for how I can take ever greater risks and then I try and overcome them. In that sense, The Walk is probably the greatest challenge of my career.
And was it simply courage that got you through?
It’s also a case of manipulating your mind. Philippe told me I shouldn’t say ‘fall’. Instead I would ‘decide when to step off’. So he was setting up a vocabulary of positive thinking. That’s hugely important. I believe people who complain a lot have more bad things happen, whereas it tends to be other way around when you have a positive attitude.