High-wire walker Philippe Petit has his sights on another daring Sydney project

Aerialist Philippe Petit with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays him, on the set of The Walk. Photo: Takashi Selda Petit crosses between the pylons of the Harbour Bridge: a scene from the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit lies down on the wire during his crossing between the Twin Towers in The Walk.

As a Hollywood movie recreates his famous high-wire walk between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974, aerialist Philippe Petit still wants to take on a long-planned project in Sydney.

The French performer and author wants to do an inclined high-wire walk from the Sydney Opera House to the Harbour Bridge’s southern pylon.

“I did 10 trips to Australia considering this project many years ago,” Petit said in charmingly accented English from New York. “It’s an amazing proposal and it could be revived.

“On my side, the whole project ready to go it would would be beautiful to bring a magnificent celebration in Sydney.”

Before his spectacular illegal walk in New York, Petit stopped morning traffic on the Harbour Bridge for more than an hour with a daring high-wire walk between the two northern pylons in 1973. Having smuggled climbing gear into the pylon overnight, he crossed five times before being arrested and fined $200.

Already the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, his Twin Towers escapade has been dramatised in The Walk, which opens in cinemas this week.

Petit, who is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the movie, drew up plans for what he calls his Sydney Walk in the 1970s. He consulted engineers and representatives from the Maritime Services Board, the Bridge and Opera House but could not find a financial backer. His interest returned when he visited to launch Man on Wire in 2008.

“It would be great for Australia to do a giant performance in the sky and to be seen by the entire world,” he said. “But I’m not a millionaire artist who can send people ahead and start talking. It’s word of mouth.”

While getting all the required approvals and sponsors could be as daunting as the walk, Petit has performed an estimated 90 high-wire crossings in his career, often in front of vast crowds without a safety line or net.

After an early covert crossing between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, he has been commissioned to walk across the Seine to the Eiffel Tower, across Broadway in New York and between the Jewish and Arab quarters in Israel.

His most recent walks have been near his New York home – celebrating the 40th anniversary of his Twin Towers walk above a lake, using the same equipment, and at a cathedral where he has been artist in residence.

Petit said his Harbour Bridge walk in 1973 came on a whim.

“I had no money,” he said. “I didn’t speak much English; I didn’t know anybody in Australia.

“I was just finishing a strange one-month tour presenting my street performing, mostly at the festival in Nimbin. So it was something completely improvised but I really loved my adventure in Australia.”

As risky as the walks seem, Petit dislikes being referred to as a daredevil.

“I’m not trying to break records,” he said. “I’m not trying to be the first, the longest or the highest.

“I don’t want to cross and yell ‘I did it’ and try to be rich and famous. All those things that you see when people are not in the art of something.

“To me, it’s really theatre in the sky. People call me a high-wire artist and it’s really the art that I’m interested in.”

Petit is baffled that people take on dangerous challenges now so they can post photos on Facebook or Instagram.

“I’m very ignorant of this 21st century world that we live in,” he said. “I don’t really approach the computer except for finalising a book that I start writing with pen and paper.

“I’m not familiar with all the ‘tweet’ and the Facebook and all those things. I’m ignorant. It’s ridiculous because it’s a tool of our century and I should really get engaged.

“But maybe I don’t believe in the 21st century. I belong more in the 18th century.”

Petit’s special connection with the World Trade Center left him shattered when the towers collapsed in the terrorist attacks in 2001 but he is reluctant to talk about what he felt.

“I cannot really talk about the disappearance of two beautiful pieces of architecture when so many human lives disappeared that day,” he said.

Even as the subject of The Walk, Petit said he was swept up in the drama as he watched it for the first time.

“I was on the edge of my seat and I was really praying for the performer to be able to get to the other side,” he said. “Then I realised, oh, I’m the performer.”

Director Robert Zemeckis originally wanted Petit to narrate the movie and perform the high wire walks and street juggling on screen, with visual effects making him younger.

“After we shot a lot with me on the wire, the movie took a different turn,” he said. “It was wished by the powers that be that there would be a young actor playing me. So from that moment on, I became more of a consultant.”

That role included training Gordon-Levitt to walk on a high-wire.

Having taught himself engineering, Petit does not believe he is risking his life on the high wire.

“When I put that first step on the wire – at the World Trade Center even more so – I always put myself in a state of mind and body that I am not risking my life,” he said. “I’m doing something much more beautiful: I am carrying my life across.

“I carry in my heart the certainty that I will do the last step successfully. I don’t walk with fear. I walk with amazement, I walk with joy.”

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