| January 11, 2016 | People
As an actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is as unstoppable and nimble as Philippe Petit, the Frenchman he portrayed in this fall’s highly acclaimed The Walk, the Robert Zemeckis film that told the story of Petit’s 1974 high-wire amble between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Gordon-Levitt will take on another challenging, real-life character when he plays Edward Snowden in the hotly anticipated Oliver Stone film set for release in the spring. But in between comes some comic relief as he stars in the holiday buddy movie The Night Before, opening November 20.
The comedy reunites Gordon-Levitt with actor Seth Rogen and director Jonathan Levine; the three worked together on 2011’s 50/50, a thoughtful comedy in which Gordon-Levitt portrayed a cancer patient who uses his diagnosis to woo dates. “This was just about the easiest job I’ve ever done—getting together with friends every day and making each other laugh,” says Gordon-Levitt of The Night Before. “The experience differed from 50/50 in a sort of obvious way, that I wasn’t focused on what it would be like to be potentially dying of cancer the whole time. So that made the whole thing a bit easier.”
In The Night Before, Gordon-Levitt, Rogen, and Anthony Mackie star as three friends who decide to end their 14-year holiday tradition of going out on Christmas Eve by embarking on a drug-fueled romp in search of the ultimate Christmas party in New York. With its premise and talented cast (Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling, Michael Shannon), it has all the makings of a new Christmas classic, albeit a raunchy one. Recently Gordon-Levitt sat down with best friend Channing Tatum to talk about his fall/winter projects, how to make art in the age of social media, and of course, his favorite holiday films.
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Channing Tatum: What is your best metaphor for wire walking? What does it take to do it?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: 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.
CT: How much do you think a dream has to do with a personal goal versus what you want to show people?
JGL: That’s something that gets addressed in the movie. How much is Philippe going on that wire just for himself? How much is he doing it for his audience? Philippe was incredibly self-driven. He wanted the world to know what he had done, but I think he needed to prove to himself he could do it.
CT: How old was he?
JGL: Twenty-four. He was a young, crazy man. I have gotten to know Philippe, and he is the first to admit that he was crazy. [What they did] was illegal. They had to sneak up there and rig the wire in this audacious way. They split into two teams—one team had a bow and arrow, and they shot the arrow with the fishing line attached to it. [The arrow, fishing line, and rope helped Petit get the 450-pound cable wire he walked on across the gap between the Towers.] He got on the wire without knowing whether it was going to hold him, but he did it anyway.
CT: Do you think that with genius there’s always a bit of madness?
JGL: 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.
CT: I would say you have probably risked your life. I might have been there a few times, but they were just for fun.... So he was 24. How old are you now?
JGL: I’m 34.
CT: So that is what, a third of your life? What is the next step? The next third?
JGL: 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.
CT: All right, deal. I will race you there.
JGL: When I think about big dreams and the deeper future, my mind goes to HitRECord. You were one of my earliest supporters. For those reading who do not know, HitRECord is a company I started with my brother a number of years ago that became my production company. It’s different than a typical Hollywood production company because we use the Internet to open our collaborative process to a community that anyone can join. And there are hundreds of thousands of people all over the world right now that are part of this community.
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CT: How much is HitRECord what you dreamed in the beginning? Where does it go from here?
JGL: At the beginning I didn’t conceive of what it’s become at all. I had been acting since I was a little kid, and at 19 I decided to go to college. When I wanted to start acting again, I couldn’t get a job, because I didn’t want to do another television or teen comedy. But you know Hollywood can be a very pigeonholing place. During that time 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.” 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].
CT: Do you think HitRECord has another evolution?
JGL: I want to grow it to become a company that’s really playing in the big leagues. I think the way the media works could be better—it isolates as much as it connects people. The technology now is allowing us to transcend that, but the culture lags behind.
CT: Yeah, like, take the moment and be a part of the conversation or the creation or whatever it is.
JGL: You’re talking about that Beyoncé moment.
CT: Yeah, it was crazy.
JGL: You have to tell the whole story.
CT: There was a video online that was Beyoncé at her concert singing to someone in the front row. He is looking at his phone the whole time. 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. It’s poignant—it’s all happening now, and you can be a part of it, or you can just be a spectator.
JGL: Media trains us to be spectators. Instead, if your expectation was not just to sit there and watch, but to sing along, dance, or voice your opinion and throw that into the mix with whatever device you use to connect to the media, knowing that this might work its way through the community and end up on the screen for others to see—that is a very different thing.
CT: You told me a long time ago that the shoes of your character sometimes [help you] find that person. Did you walk in shoes on the line?
JGL: 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.”
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CT: I don’t know if there are metaphors in the movie for balance and life or anything, but is there a mythology behind it? Or was it just the feat of being able to control your mind, body, and spirit to be able to do something that insane?
JGL: It’s cool you said balancing body, mind, and spirit because that is very much how Philippe approaches it. He 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 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.
CT: What charitable things do you find as valuable as creating?
JGL: 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. Elon Musk [the visionary entrepreneur who is CEO of Space X and Tesla Motors] is a good example. Jeff Skoll is another. [Skoll started Participant Media and television network Pivot TV, which aired Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord on TV]. Participant Media has something called the double bottom line, one for the company to be sustainable and lucrative; the other is a measurement of their productions’ social impact. That is the philosophy behind HitRECord being a for-profit company.
CT: My experience with you in New York has been uniquely interesting.
JGL: 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?
CT: Yes. That is exactly the one. And it reminded me of the opening in the teaser to your movie, just going straight up a building. Your latest movie, The Night Before, [is] very different. Did [it] give you a vehicle to let off some comedic steam?
JGL: Yes. While The Night Before was about as easy as any job had ever been, The Walk was about as challenging. [It] made for a nice contrast.
CT: Do you think The Night Before has all the makings of becoming a holiday favorite for years to come, albeit for adults? What’s your hands-down favorite holiday movie?
JGL: I love watching movies during the holidays, and sure, this one is custom-made for that. I think my favorite holiday movie would have to be The Nightmare Before Christmas—two holidays in one.
photography by JIM WRIGHT. Styling by Jenny Ricker at Starworks Artists. Tailoring by George Clinton Bespoke. Grooming by Cheri Keating at The Wall Group. Photo assistants: Jesse Hawk, Graham Dalton, and Matt Andris. Video by Nardeep Khurmi. Location by Image Locations Inc.; imagelocations.com