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By Brady Rhoades
You might do a double-take when actor RJ Mitte, most famous for his role in the acclaimed AMC drama, “Breaking Bad,” gives you his take on disabilities.
“The best thing about being human is that the ability to overcome is amazing,” said Mitte, 28, who was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at age 3. “There’s no trick in life. Whether you’re 19 or 45, you can still set out and do what you wanted to do at 19.”
Second best thing?
“I believe if you have a disability, you have an asset. You’re coming from a different human condition.”
Mitte became a TV fixture with the debut of “Breaking Bad” in 2008 (the show ran for five seasons). “Bad” won 16 prime time Emmys and two Golden Globe Awards, among a slew of other accolades.
Bryan Cranston portrayed a middle-aged chemistry teacher – Walter White – diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Driven by financial concerns and a shortage of time, he started cooking the purest crystal methamphetamine in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and making top dollar on his way to running an empire.
Mitte played Junior, White’s sweet, sarcastic and, ultimately, conflicted son.
For the role, Mitte had to exaggerate his Cerebral Palsy symptoms; unlike Junior, Mitte doesn’t use crutches or speak with a pronounced slur. However, the 28-year-old actor has faced many of the same medical and social challenges as his character.
“People with CP overcome hurdles every day,” Mitte told Brain&Life Magazine. “One thing I’ve learned from my disability is that when there is an obstacle, you adapt and grow. You can’t let that obstacle break you down and discourage you.”
When asked how Hollywood is faring when it comes to placing actors, directors and producers with disabilities in places of power and esteem, Mitte says he sees more opportunities than ever.
“You can’t make a movie now without the diversity talk, “he said. “You’ve got to say: ‘We need diversity.’”
And his view on what the industry’s doing as far as physical accommodations?
“Are the accommodations always there? No.” he said. “I try to make my own accommodations.”
But Mitte, who’s involved with SAG-AFTRA as a member of the union’s Performers With Disabilities Committee, says he’s seeing a change; a mutual effort.
“The key thing in everything is when both sides want it.”
Breaking into Stardom
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Mitte was adopted shortly after he was born by Ray Frank Mitte Jr. and his wife, Dyna. He was a happy child who walked on his toes as a toddler – something doctors told his parents they would fix by the age of 4 if he didn’t walk properly by then.
A friend of Mitte’s grandmother recognized the signs of CP when he was 3 and urged the family to have him evaluated. After he was diagnosed, Mitte was then fitted with leg braces to straighten his limbs and used crutches throughout most of his childhood.
However, over time, his body became stronger through sports and exercise and he no longer needed any walking devices by his teenage years.
In 2006, Mitte moved with his family to Los Angeles, where his youngest sister, Lacianne Carriere, received an offer for a role in a film project. He became interested in film and took acting lessons, which then led to appearances on SHOWTIME’s “Weeds,” NBC’s “Vegas,” CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris” and a co-star role on ABC Family’s hit show, “Switched at Birth,” before being cast in his life-changing role on “Breaking Bad.”
Mitte then reemerged on the big screen in “Dixieland” – his first non-handicapped leading role. Following that, he starred opposite Wesley Snipes in “The Recall” and was also seen in “Tiempo Compartido” (an official 2018 selection in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival).
In 2018, he starred alongside John Cusack and George Lopez in “River Runs Red,” and also guest starred on Starz’ coming-of-age television thriller, “Now Apocalypse,” which premiered in early 2019.
In 2020, he portrayed a disabled teen who seeks acceptance as a high school wrestler with Oscar winner Terrence Howard as his coach in “Triumph,” which was delayed because of the Coronavirus crisis. He also started shooting “Issaac,” a romantic thriller.
Most recently, Mitte turned to modeling as a celebrity face and model of GAP International’s “Lived in Spring” campaign, with his image appearing on mediums such as billboards, buses and life-sized posters in cities across the world from Tokyo to Dubai and across the U.S. He made his way to the catwalk, modeling in Men’s Fashion Week in Milan, Berlin and New York City for designers Vivienne Westwood, soPopular and Ovadia & Sons.
Cutting the Bullying
Aside from coping with his physical challenges, Mitte also faced his share of taunting and bullying as a child.
“I was verbally harassed, knocked down, and even had my hand broken,” Mitte told Brain&Life. “Having CP made me a target for bullies, and I learned that kids with disabilities are twice as likely to be bullied as other kids.”
To bring awareness to bullying and prejudice, Mitte has engaged in public speaking and serves as the official ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy and Shriners Hospitals for Children and partners with Shriners to spearhead its #CutTheBull campaign to advocate anti-bullying for children with disabilities.
Mitte has involved himself wholeheartedly in anti-bullying, through #cutthebull.
“Everyone bullies, not just kids,” he said. “I find with bullies that removing yourself from the situation is sometimes best… because a bully wants you to fight, they want an adversary.”
And if that doesn’t work?
“I always recommend to talk to your peers, talk to your allies.”
Mitte used every defense in his arsenal when he was bullied as a youth.
“Did it end the way I wanted it to end? Not always. I asked bullies straight out: ‘Why do you want to hurt me? Maybe you need help.’” And Mitte stresses that, often, you can’t go it alone, and to prioritize your own health and safety.
A Dream Sequel
Mitte has projects in the works, but one project — a dream, really — is never far from his thoughts.
He’d like to see a sequel to “Breaking Bad” in which Junior follows in his dad’s footsteps. You might call it Heisenberg 2.0. Better, more enriching, maybe, more evil. The kind of follow-in-pops’-footsteps that you don’t want to encourage in real life, but you might want to watch on TV.
And in true Mitte form, he’s pitched it more than once.
There are, of course, doubts. Could people see Junior in such a dark role? How do we make that happen? How can we keep the plot seamless and still make you a villain? There are a million moving parts.
At this point, here’s one more thing you must know about Mitte.
He’s not big on the word “can’t.”
“I grew up with can’t not being a choice,” he said. “You can’t what? No, you’re going to go do this.”
It’s what he tells people with disabilities who ask him about obstacles. “Before “can’t” can even get out of the starting gate, just start doing the thing you want to do.”
If “can’t,” as Mitte said, is a decision, then his dream-role is just a greenlight away from becoming reality. He wants it. He’s envisioned it. He’s never stopped pitching.
Walter White Junior, sweet and devoted son, breakfast connoisseur, as the baddest of bad guys? Drug lord? Killer?
You might do a double-take.
Look again, and imagine not what is impossible, but what is possible.
Whatever you do, don’t count