Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Meeting Edward Snowden and Learning to Walk a Tightrope

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Joseph Gordon Levitt in The Walk. Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures

And the Oscar for Actor Most Likely to Be Detained by Airport Security goes to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays two real-life anarchist-heroes this fall: In Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, which opens the New York Film Festival on September 26, he stars as Philippe Petit, the French daredevil who walked a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. And in Oliver Stone’s Snowden, out on December 25, Gordon-Levitt will play the exiled NSA whistle-blower. If all that wasn’t enough to get him on a watch list, he’ll also reteam with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who produced last year’s The Interview, for The Night Before, about three best friends (Rogen, Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie) who spend a wild Christmas Eve in New York. 

Did you really learn to walk on a wire for The Walk?
Some of it is me, and some is a double. But I did learn how to walk on a wire — it was actually Philippe himself who taught me. He set up this elaborate eight-day workshop and he said, “By the end, you will be able to walk on a wire.” It sounded ambitious, but he was right.

You shot the World Trade Center scenes on a soundstage. How high up were you?
We were 12 feet up in the air, which sounds measly next to 110 stories. But it still feels high. I had a safety line, and, just to clarify — this is my pride kicking in — it doesn’t help you balance. It just catches you if you fall. Luckily, I never had to get caught. But it doesn’t matter that it’s only 12 feet. Your body is like, Oh, fuck! All your muscles tighten up and your heart starts racing.

Did meeting Philippe help you play him?
The thing that really speaks to what Philippe is like was, when he was teaching me how to walk on the wire, he had this bell, called the victory bell. Whenever he would spot a little bit of progress, he’d say, “That was a victory! Go ring the bell!” You’d have to run across the room and ring the bell in victory. It seemed ridiculous, but it’s about focusing on the positives, and that’s right at the core of who Philippe is and why he was able to accomplish such great things.

You’re also playing Edward Snowden. Did you meet him?
Yes. Um. Let’s talk about that another time.

Are you trying to re-create his mannerisms in Snowden?
For sure, but I never wanted it to feel like an impression. I’m not really a great impersonator. It would be distracting if I went all the way into an impersonation with Philippe Petit or Edward Snowden. But I still did want to look and sound like them. I wanted to have the basic air of who they are.

What are your own feelings about Snowden?
I really didn’t know anything about Snowden when Oliver Stone called me, because I just had not been up on the news. But I believe what he did was done very sincerely out of his love for the United States. He has a strong belief in the system and wants it to work. He showed that the government was lying, breaking the law, and violating the Constitution. It’s debatable whether mass surveillance is an effective method of counterterrorism. But his point is not that it is or it isn’t; it’s that we have a democracy, with a government of, by, and for the people. Whether you think he’s right or he’s wrong, he’s certainly got a lot of balls.

Rian Johnson, your frequent collaborator, is directing Star Wars VIII, and there are rumors you’ll have a role. Do you hope that they’re true?
That’s the best way to say it: I hope that they’re true.

*This article appears in the August 24, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.