“I don’t dwell on the morbidity of it”: inside the mind of a high-wire walker

No ropes, no harness, no safety net: Jade Kindar-Martin – high-wire artist and stunt double in The Walk – on how it feels to step out into the sky.

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“I got handcuffed and thrown in the back of a truck, taken down to central and put in a holding tank with everybody else.” The high-wire artist Jade Kindar-Martin is reminiscing about his first night in a cell, under arrest for a clandestine skywalk between the two towers of Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica.

“I had put on my costume!” he chuckles. “It’s pants held up by suspenders. They took my suspenders away, so I was shuffling around in shoes without laces in them and pants without suspenders, holding my pants up, for 36 hours until I got bailed out.”

As if regularly walking hundreds of feet above the ground with no safety net, rope or harness isn’t risky enough, high-wire artists often find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Rigging and walking across high-wires in public, often iconic, locations is as tempting as it is dangerous for the world’s handful of tightrope-toeing daredevils.

Kindar-Martin, now 41, was banned from being within 300 metres of the Basilica’s base for three years. Fifteen years later, he found himself returning to the scene of the crime. This time, to film a street scene for The Walk, a movie directed by Robert Zemeckis – director of Forrest Gump and Cast Away – based on the world-renowned French high-wire artist Philippe Petit's walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 (he was arrested too).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Walk. Photos: The Walk stills

Released at the end of last year, and now out on DVD and Blu-ray, The Walk stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. He was trained by both Petit and Kindar-Martin in wire-walking skills for the role. “Wire theory 101,” is how Kindar-Martin describes their workshops, speaking on the phone to me from his house in a valley in the Cévennes region of France. He has a 250-foot wire over the valley, set up five feet from his door.

Kindar-Martin was also a circus skills and stunt double for the actor – a job that brought him closer to his high-wire hero, Petit. He juggled the same fire torches he had seen Petit use in a photo he had looked at “a thousand times” growing up, inspired by an out-of-print book, called On the High Wire, written by Petit, which his mother bought him when he had first discovered wire-walking as a teenager. He also wore one of Petit’s original outfits in the film.

“It was one of the most pinch-yourself moments, the first day of filming when I walked out of the costume trailer in his first costume that he had way back when he started,” says Kindar-Martin. “It was a mind-blowing experience to walk out onto a unicycle – it was like a living picture.”

Petit, 65, is best known for walking back and forth eight times between the World Trade Centre towers in an unauthorised walk when he was 24. His “punishment” after his arrest was to perform on a tightrope in Central Park for children.

Philippe Petit walking between the Twin Towers. Photos: YouTube screengrabs

Kindar-Martin may be in awe of Petit, but he has also accomplished some bloodcurdling aerial feats in his time as a high-wire walker. His most famous performance, and the one that stands out to him in his career so far, was what he called his first “marathon walk” – a double skywalk across the Thames in 1997. Performing alongside his walking partner, Didier Pasquette, he traversed 1,200ft between the South Bank’s Oxo Tower and HMS Wellington, moored on the Victoria Embankment. The pair were 150ft above the ground, and crossed four London boroughs.

Jade Kindar-Martin walking above the Thames. Photo: highwirewalker.com

“It was just a great walk in all of the senses,” he reminisces. “It was one of the last, big city-wide walks like that.”

Kindar-Martin remembers tourists waving at him as he dangled upside down from the wire, just three hours before the performance, fixing ropes that had been cut by the propellers of boats on the Thames. Ahead of the walk, Pasquette told the press: “If we fall, we die.”

It is difficult to separate this art from the stomach-churning risk of death that comes with each performance. Simply looking down from such heights would have the average person shot to pieces with adrenaline, let alone striding out into the sky.

“I definitely don’t stick on the morbidity of it,” muses Kindar-Martin. “It doesn’t scare me as much as it impresses me, just because I understand it and I know what happens if my foot slips – I know that I have to do this, this and this. Before I actually fall, there are 100 technical instances that are going through my mind. For somebody who’s never done high-wire before, their foot slips and it’s mortal. It’s the end.”

Breaking the world record on a 1km wire in Seoul. Photo: Pinterest/Karine Mauffrey

He adds: “I’m definitely respectful of the height; I don’t screw around up there. I go up there and I do my job. It’s what I love to do, and it’s art. Every time I move my finger, or walk, or kneel down, or lay down, for me it’s painting. And then the next day, I take my painting away – boom, and it’s back to normal life! It’s a piece of art in mid-air. That’s what I’m thinking about much more.

“But then again, height is height, and it definitely catches your breath when you’re 100ft up in the air, walking out onto a thin rope.”

Even the Guinness World Record-setting triumph that was the Thames walk didn’t go without a hitch. Kindar-Martin remembers what he describes jokily as a “DUN DUN DUUUUUN” moment when he just missed the wire with his foot, and had to regain his balance by planting his leading foot sideways instead of frontwards.

“To me it was huge!” he gasps. “When I went back and tried to look at it, I could barely notice it, nobody else noticed it of course, but for me it was this big thing. I’ve had some pretty close calls.”

Photo: highwirewalker.com

During another aerial performance, he rolled off the edge of a platform on a bicycle because he mistakenly thought the wheel was on the wire. He saved the situation, and says, “it all comes back to general life lessons. As well as on the high-wire, it’s applicable in life. Don’t go too far out on a limb without being able to come out”.

While walking, Kindar-Martin homes in on the detail, instead of becoming overwhelmed by the danger. “I’m looking at every screw on the wire, and how each wire is braided, and each piece of tape,” he says. “And as I’m walking past, I’m counting . . . You can get a lot of information immediately through your feet – you can feel something slipping, you can feel something catching. But it actually occupies my mind more than if I was like ‘OH MY GOD, THIS IS SOOO HIIIGH’.”

Crossing the Maine river in France. Photo: Pinterest/Karine Mauffrey

His mother, however, has had “a lot of sleepless nights” waiting for her son to call her after a high-wire performance. Kindar-Martin quips that “I don’t think she knew what she was getting into” when she supported him as he first started out at a youth circus school in Vermont called Circus Smirkus in his early teens.

“There was nothing else I was really good at,” he says. “I was one of the bigger kids, and so I was doing a lot of basing on pyramids, and I couldn’t juggle. I had a pretty basic degree of gymnastic skills. And then the wire-walking teacher showed up.”

All the other children only managed to walk a couple of feet along an old hemp rope the teacher strung up between two poles. But Kindar-Martin was able to walk back and forth across without falling, holding an umbrella as a pole. And so began his death-defying career.

His mentor Rudy Junior is the son of Petit’s mentor, Papa Rudy, who is depicted in The Walk. Indeed, the hundreds of pictures shown in Papa Rudy’s study in the film were supplied by Kindar-Martin.

Kindar-Martin and Mauffrey's high-wire ceremony. Photo: highwirewalker.com

So wedded is he to his art that he even got married on a high-wire. He laughs about the photograph of him and his wife, the stunt woman Karine Mauffrey, in full wedding gear high above the ground.

“My wife is not a high-wire walker – that was her first time with no safety net,” he says. “She’s a superwoman, she does everything, she’s been a gymnast for 17 years. But she had a pretty tight hold on my collar. The picture of her lightly placing her hands on my shoulders was actually her sticking her thumbs into my collar, winding herself up in my shirt, going ‘if I’m falling, you’re coming with me’. So it looks very graceful, but actually it’s the signing of the agreement!”

Photos used with the permission of Jade Kindar-Martin. See more, and find out more about him on his website. The Walk is available on DVD, Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray from Monday 1 February.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.