In casting The Walk (2015), director Robert Zemeckis’s top (and only) choice for the role of Parisian high-wire artist Philippe Petit was Angeleno actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Considering Gordon-Levitt’s background and filmography, this decision raised a few eyebrows and questions as to whether the American actor could convincingly pull off a French accent. Since the film’s premiere at the 2015 New York Film Festival, critics and audiences have focused more on his overall performance than the accent itself. But a number have criticized Gordon-Levitt’s speech and been distracted by whether the accent is believable, one critic describing the affectation as “not-quite-Le-Pew.” Still, an audience member said in this reaction video from The Guardian, “It’s about his heart, not his accent.”
In the film, Gordon-Levitt speaks both English and French in a Parisian accent and was adamant with Zemeckis that he had to be perfect. To the benefit of his performance, Gordon-Levitt is a proud Francophile, speaking French fluently and having studied French poetry at Columbia University. Gordon-Levitt also spent 8 days in intensive wire-walking training with the real-life Petit and was able to get, as Zemeckis said, “the essence of Philippe and made it into his own Philippe as all good actors always do.” In an interview with USA Today, Gordon-Levitt admitted that Petit’s accent was trickier than the Bruce Willis one in Looper.
When asked why he didn’t look at any French actors for the role, Zemeckis elaborated that “Joe being a Francophile and speaking perfect French, I consider him like a French actor. He fit the bill, and he had all that going for him, but he’s also a magnificent actor and has a real, deep appreciation for the circus arts and for performance art. And, you know, he fit the bill for me perfectly.” While French-Canadian actress Charlotte le Bon, The Walk’s leading lady, commended Gordon-Levitt’s Parisian accent at the film’s NYFF press conference, adding that it received approval from her and other “very honest” French actors on set. Gordon-Levitt responded both humbly and smirkingly that “I don’t know if I fooled French people, but I fooled Americans.” On Good Morning America, Gordon-Levitt revealed that since the premiere Petit called him and said, “It was really important to me that you represented my art, my work, so well, and I wanted to tell you.” Gordon-Levitt explained that Petit would most likely not have called if the film and Gordon-Levitt’s performance had not been up to his standards.
Considering that this is the first role in which Gordon-Levitt does a non-American accent on the big screen (unless you count his French “tutoring” in 10 Things I Hate About You), it is tough to call whether the generally negative reaction to his accent is due more to the audience’s expectations of Gordon-Levitt or any actual technical inaccuracy. He has a wealth of knowledge of the French language and research on the Parisian accent as well as the support of The Walk’s creative team. In my opinion, Gordon-Levitt’s peppy speaking style added to the surreal storytelling of this very real event from the life of an extraordinary man. The film itself is bookended with Gordon-Levitt’s Petit delivering fourth-wall-breaking monologues from the top of the Statue of Liberty. So if your disbelief can withstand that and other moments bordering on narrative whimsy, Gordon-Levitt’s debatable accent is a good, if not great, embellishment on this story of a 24 year-old French daredevil-artiste walking a clandestinely-placed wire between the two yet-to-be-finished towers of the World Trade Center in the August of 1974.