breaking bad’s rj mitte is changing hollywood’s perception of disability
The 22-year-old actor behind breakfast fan Walt Jr. opens up about his boundary-breaking work in television.
There were two unlikely heartthrobs in the crystal meth brewing, drug empire building, addictive series Breaking Bad. The first was Jesse "Yo Bitch" Pinkman whose cocksure attitude didn't quite match his babyface, and the second was the tall, dark and handsome son of Walter White - Walt Jr, who uses crutches and has cerebral palsy. It's not often you hear a disabled person called a heartthrob, but that's exactly what RJ Mitte, who plays Walter White, is. And why shouldn't he be? Like his character, RJ also suffers from Cerebral Palsy. Born by emergency cesarean, he was put up for adoption after his parents learned that he had suffered permanent brain damage, and his surrogate parents were told of his condition when he was three years old. Unlike his character, however, RJ threw himself into football, playing in his leg braces and building up muscle strength until he could move around easily. Determined to change people's perception of disability and provide kids like him with characters to identify with other than Forrest Gump, RJ has been working with UK charity Scope to spread the word that having a disability is not a liability.
Tell me a bit about your work with Scope...
I do a lot of work in the States on changing the mindset of how people perceive disability, and I feel like me and Scope have very similar ideas on that. People regard disability as a disability. I know that's weird to say, but a disability is not what people perceive as a disability. It's knowledge, it's growth, it's a way to challenge who you are and what you stand for. The thing about disability which most people don't realize, is that everyone is disabled, everyone - I don't care who you are - you included. You have challenges, and challenges are a disability; you have something affecting who you are and what you're trying to do. That is a disability, people just don't want to be labelled as disabled. It's the same for people with a "disability". We need to change that way of thinking. Disability doesn't care who you are, what colour you are, where you're from, who you represent or what you stand for. Everyone in one way or another is affected by a disability. We need to remind people how normal and how human it is.
Have you come up against any prejudice in the entertainment industry?
I find that people expect me to come in on crutches and that's not the case. They look at disability as a liability. But it's changing, more and more people are seeing it as knowledge.
Do you want to see more people with disabilities on TV?
I do, but not just because I want to be represented, I want to see real characters; real people - disabled or not disabled. I don't want to see these facades of empty shells. We need more accurate and honest television. We need to be represented.
How is your work with Scope going to help change that?
For me, it's just continuing to work, to audition, to bring a new aspect into this media platform, showing people how truly normal a disability is. A lot of the time people with disabilities aren't given the opportunity to advance who they are and grow. I think the trick is to just keep working. If I continue to work and show honest and accurate characters, hopefully that will change.
Fashion has taken a big step forward in diversity recently...
Jamie Brewer! She's an actress with Down Syndrome who walked at New York Fashion Week. She was in American Horror Story and quite a few other films. That girl works, man. That's the thing, people get it, they see the potential, they see what she brings to a set, what she brings to the media, what she brings to someone's way of life - and not just the person who they're giving the opportunity to, but the people who are watching. It's amazing to see how far we've come in the last couple of years and the fashion industry usually gets on board first with taking risks.
Do you think there's a fine line between something being a publicity stunt and being a step forward for diversity?
That's the hard part. When is it adding diversity and when is it being exploitative? I've seen both sides of it and it's a little bit of both. People are slowly realizing how lucrative disability is. At the same time, Jillian Mercado's Diesel campaign and Jamie Brewer's runway show are great publicity in the sense that no one's really stepped out of that box before. Yes it could be a stunt, but they're still doing it, and they're not asking for sympathy, they're doing it to be like, "Look at this person, look at who she is and what she represents."
Have you always wanted to be an actor?
No, I haven't actually, this job kind of picked me. I wanted to be in the military. I wanted to be a marine, like my grandfather. But I got this opportunity and it changed everything. Breaking Bad was my first speaking role ever.
How did you get that part?
I auditioned. When I was a kid my sister got a role in Los Angeles. An agent saw her and wanted to use her for a campaign, and we were like, sure, why not, what's the worst thing that could happen? And the worst thing was that we turned it into a career! An agent saw her and was like, "she's great," and they wanted me too, and I said "yeah, sure." Because if you don't go to school, you don't join a gang and you don't act, you're not going to do anything in Los Angeles whatsoever, you're not going to meet anyone, you're not going to make friends. So I started working and acting and it slowly turned into a career.
Do you think you're going to be an actor for the rest of your life?
I can only hope. I do a number of things, I don't just act. I direct, I produce, I write.
Would you pursue any of those things?
I want to do whatever keeps the lights on. If the bills are paid, I'm happy! I DJ a little bit, I act, I model, I'm all over the place.
I saw you in the GAP ad…
I was! They actually lasted longer than they were supposed to.
You look good!
Thank you - good photographer!
What are you working on at the moment?
I shot two movies last year, Dixieland and Who's Driving Doug. Hopefully that will be coming out this year. I'm doing modelling, I'm working, I'm auditioning, auditioning, auditioning, I'm trying to get more work in London, I'm trying to do some theater productions here.
Text Felicity Kinsella
Photography Paul Phung