He’s mad, he’s an animal, and he’s cool


Philippe Petit, just shy of his 60th birthday, still has a twinkle in his eye, still trains three hours a day, and — remarkably — is still wire-walking. Unlike every other interviewer who’s met Petit, I did not ask him if he was scared when he did the WTC walk, on the assumption that a scared person wouldn’t do it in the first place. I did, however, plan to ask Petit to assess his sanity; he beat me to it, though, boldly declaring: “I am a madman.”

OK, so it’s a week, a month, maybe a year after the WTC walk; was there a point where you thought, “Oh God. What do I do next?”

No, no. If I were a different man, someone who wanted to run and scream “I did it! I’m the greatest! I want to make money, be famous!” then after the WTC I would have killed myself because there was nothing bigger! But I am the opposite of this person. I don’t care about the greatest, the biggest; I don’t care about money. What interests me is to try and do something beautiful. I have done giant things, but it is wrong to think I collect “gigantism.” I’ve done some very small performances that to me are the equal of this in artistic quality.

Name one.

In the staircase of the Paris Opera, which is beautiful, made of marble, where I had a diva singing while I walked; it was completely improvised. It was the smallest wire-walk in the world and only nine minutes, but it was one of the best performances of my life.

Do you plan your movements on the wire ahead of time?

No, because I don’t have any classical training. I learned it by myself . . . so I use my intuition in my own choreography, and I spend my entire life trying to perfect movements. And I am still amazed today that, in the middle of my practice I might do a gesture that I’ve done for the past 30 years and suddenly I make a giant discovery. . . . I embellish, or add a little something, but it changes everything. I am always ready to have new discoveries, and they don’t come from the head; it’s not intelligence, it’s animal. I surprise myself, I try stupid things.

But with the danger involved, you have to be quite controlled, no?

No, I don’t have to be quite controlled, I have to be absolutely, perfectly controlled. If you are 1 millimeter off on the wire, you lose your life. So like I said, I improvise, but the cost of that improvisation is thousands and thousands of hours of training.

So where is your concentration when you’re on the wire

My concentration is that the whole world doesn’t exist, nothing, what exists is me on this cable. Me, I don’t even exist — only the cable. But the other part is to be completely open to the world, but open in a certain way; for my own safety on the wire, I need to smell, touch, hear, feel, much more than on the ground. When I walk on the wire I can see out to here (indicates about 270 degrees of vision), I can hear things on the street below . . . my senses are like a wild animal, which is normal, to save my life.

What do you feel? Is there a rush of adrenaline or a perfect calm?

I hate this expression “rush of adrenaline” — all those stupid activities like bungee-jumping, “extreme sports.” I don’t care about a rush of adrenaline, I care about a beautiful theater performance, a work of art. To do things just to get your heart pulsating faster, that is not my cup of tea. What happens in the body doesn’t interest me. What interests me is what happens in your mind or your heart, and then the body will follow. Of course I feel something very special when I’m on the wire. I feel the universe so intensely, and there’s a rush of something coming, but it’s a rush of contemplation.

It must be strange to have such a private sensation in such a public way . . .

But I am not trying to do the most public way. It did happen that (the WTC walk) was immense and very public, but that was not my goal. My goal was to have a secret conversation with the negative space of the Twin Towers. When you have two towers, at some point the towers don’t even interest me. What interests me is the nothing in between them.