Feature | Paralympic

Breaking Bad star RJ Mitte says Hollywood has a lot to learn from the Paralympics

The actor, who played Walt Jr. on the hit show Breaking Bad, talks life with cerebral palsy, the power of sport, and changing the game in Hollywood.

By Ken Browne ·

Actor, model, athlete, all life is a stage for RJ Mitte, and he's using his to promote diversity and help people see the 'ability' in disability.

Mitte found fame when he played Walter "Flynn" White Jr. in the multi award-winning tv show Breaking Bad, and talked to Paralympics' 'A Winning Mindset' Podcast with Andy Stevenson about growing up with cerebral palsy, bullying, sport, his ground-breaking character, and changing attitudes.

And all with an infectious laugh and a great sense of humour.

Mitte is also an ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy and covered the Rio 2016 Paralympics with Britain's Channel 4 TV, calling the Paralympics "the pinnacle of human capability".

"I think the Olympics, the Paralympics are really a great example of how able we all are and not disabled." - RJ Mitte

The star calls his gig at the Paralympics "probably one of the best working experiences I've had, next to Breaking Bad, in my life," and says Hollywood has a lot to learn.

"Sport was a big part of my life" - RJ Mitte

"So for listeners who don't know cerebral palsy," Mitte tells Stevenson, "it's commonly caused at child birth, from lack of oxygen to the brain, which can affect numerous different things.

"But for me, it affects fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, speech. It's kind of like my whole body is a rubber band retracting, so because of that, I wore braces and casts and may or may not have talked a little funny, but that was just because I was from the South!"

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1992, sport was important to a young RJ, but he had to deal with bullying too.

"You know, I was very lucky that I grew up with a disabled grandfather. So for me, disability was quite normal."

"But when it came to general public school or maybe places that weren't so well-versed with people with disabilities, you know, you will get looks. You will get questions... But I never let that really taper who I was as an individual."

"I dealt with bullies. You know, people saw my cast or braces on my legs and that's an easy mark, you know?" - RJ Mitte

"At the same time, I was very athletic," he continues, "I played soccer – football."

"I was in martial arts, I was in all kinds of things. So sport was a big part of my life. And it helped me gain control of my disability; that I could utilise it and grow from it.

"So for me, when you're in a team sport, it's a family and you grow as a unit because you need to rely on each other to lift you up. And for me, that was a big part of my community growing up."

"We learn how to win by losing"

Sport and community are big themes for him.

"Anyone growing up should be in a team sport or sport, because it doesn't just give you social skills, it challenges you to strive for greatness, to strive to win and to learn how to lose and accept your loss.

"I think sometimes we don't learn from winning, but we learn how to win by losing."

The struggle to be seen as athletes, or actors, or just normal people is real, and Mitte felt it growing up.

"In my school, they really isolated the people with disabilities to one room. And that was kind of a thing that I had to fight for, was to be in a 'normal' classroom."

"We didn't really see people like ourselves on the soccer fields and the basketball courts and in martial arts. And it was something for me, having those opportunities. People even questioned why I was there at times, like, 'Aren't you disabled?'"

"Certain disabilities actually make you harder." - RJ Mitte

"When I was in martial arts, like, [other kids said] 'I don't want to hit a disabled kid,' and my Sensei was like, 'No, hit him hard!'"

"So it's kind of that mindset of like, no, I am not fragile. I'm an athlete; I'm a human. I can do these things, I can push forward. We have this misconception of being disabled, [that it] makes you a fragile person.

"Certain disabilities actually make you harder. They make your bones stronger, they make your muscles tighter. They may make your body work harder to get to that next level. "

Paralympics: "The pinnacle of athleticism"

Sport was ever-present in RJ's life, acting as an enabler for him.

"Growing up, I watched the Olympics, but I also watched the Paralympics. I hung around to the end and it was always amazing to see feats that so many people believed were impossible that are actually possible."

Actually going to the Paralympics in Rio had a big influence on him too.

"It really actually changed my life when it came to perspective. And just meeting all these athletes and seeing this true strength of valour and determination in everyone.

"I didn't see disability, you know, it just felt like we were at this pinnacle-of-athleticism event, you know, it wasn't like, oh, this is a disabled event, with a bunch of disabled people."

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Breaking Bad: Becoming Walt Jr.

There's no doubt that playing the son of one of the most iconic characters in TV history was a life-changing experience for Mitte.

He started acting when he was around 12 or 13 because of his sister, Lacianne Carriere, and when an agent saw her as perfect for a Lucille Ball campaign with her bright red hair, he met RJ too and signed them both.

"That got us into LA," says Mitte, "15 years later here we are."

"I started working on shows like Hannah Montana, Everybody Hates Chris, Weeds, Seventh Heaven, Drillbit Taylor as an extra. And then shortly after working on those, I booked Breaking Bad, I'm 13, turning 14, and I finished Breaking Bad when I was about 21."

The creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, wrote Walt Junior based on a friend he had in college who had cerebral palsy, and has since passed away.

"I guess I embodied the character the most from from his memory of his friend," says Mitte.

The character portrayed disability in a new and fresh way, and Mitte had no idea of he impact the character would have.

"I didn't understand what Junior meant to so many people," he continues.

"And, you know, looking back, I did see people with disabilities on television, but it was a different way of showing disability, you have Seinfeld, you have Danny Woodburn and Robert David Hall, and now Michael J. Fox.

"Diversity isn't a fad. It's a lifestyle. It's in all of us." - RJ Mitte

"I'm very honoured that now we have a Walt Junior to look at and to not just be a disabled person, but a pivotal part of a family, a protector, a doer, not just someone that sick or dying or or a side character, but an actual individual.

"I definitely am very happy that Walt Junior set a tone for what we strive for when it comes to diversity in the arts and media."

Apart from acting, Mitte has worked as model for Vivienne Westwood, and the clothing brand Gap, breaking down barriers for disabled people in the world of fashion too.

Anne Hathaway and The Witches controversy

He's not afraid of speaking his mind on controversial issues either, when Warner's film 'The Witches' based on Roald Dahl's classic starring Anne Hathaway caused a lot of hurt for people with limb impairments, including a number of Paralympians.

The Witches were all able-bodied actors whose hands had missing fingers in the film through CGI editing, and the portrayal drew much criticism from people who suffer stigma due to limb differences.

A campaign with the hashtag #NotAWitch spread wide on social media, and Anne Hathaway later apologised in full on her Instagram account.

"I think there's many issues with that film, let alone the six fingers, no toes, bald head, demon smile grins," Mitte says.

"But it's got more notoriety now than it ever has in. I think this is an opportunity to take a film like this, which is like so many other films that have stigma about disability, and start the conversation, this is a conversation starter.

"What could we have done better? what could we have done differently? Who could we have hired to make this a better film? And for me, I look at films like this as a positive step for change, not a negative, but positive."

LA 2028: "Excited"

Los Angeles will host the LA 2028 Olympic Games, another opportunity for Olympians and Paralympians to be the superheroes they are.

"I'm very excited to have the Paralympics in my own country," says RJ.

"You know how the Olympics kind of started, right, it was a community. It was to bring the world together. This isn't just some sport game. This is a unity event.

"And for me, that's something that I feel very passionate about. And I feel it's so important... to have this global unity of athleticism, and in growth, and different diversities that all come together. And I'm so excited that the United States is hosting this event."

When Andy suggests that he could open the Paralympics by flying in on "some sort of jetpack or futuristic thing, lighting the flame somehow in L.A. in 2028," RJ is all in.

"Maybe I could parachute down from a drone!"

His contribution to diversity and the cause of people with disabilities probably puts him on the list for an honour like that.

Connect with the world’s best athletes like never before. Sign up at http://airbnb.com/festival to interact directly with your favourite Olympic and Paralympic athlete. Do you wish you had more motivation? Is the fear of failure holding you back? How about learning more about positive thinking with a Paralympic hero? Check out this amazing experience with Stephen Miller, a six-time Paralympic athlete for Great Britain.