Breaking Bad actor RJ Mitte discusses life with a disability


COURTESY OF MANYU SHARMA The second MSE Symposium event of this year featured RJ Mitte, who played Walter White’s son on the AMC show Breaking Bad.

Thursday evening, award-winning actor RJ Mitte took to Shriver’s stage to discuss how he overcame fear in his life.  As the second speaker in the Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium, the 22-year-old actor is best known for his portrayal of Walter “Flynn” White Jr. in AMC’s popular TV show Breaking Bad.

Following the MSE Symposium’s theme of “The Generation Electric: Recharging the Promise of Tomorrow,” RJ Mitte connected the dots between the hurdles he faced in his personal life with the idea of living a life free of fear.

Like his character on Breaking Bad, Mitte suffers from cerebral palsy, a medical condition that impairs physical movement, communication ability and depth perception.  While Mitte’s cerebral palsy is much less pronounced than his character’s, Mitte’s movement was still impaired throughout his childhood.

The doctors in his hometown of Lafayette, Ind. initially had trouble diagnosing his cerebral palsy. Mitte talked about how, from a very young age, his parents would continuously bring him in to see specialists, only to have the specialists say that Mitte would outgrow the condition.

After his diagnosis at the age of three, Mitte spent the majority of his childhood in leg braces and crutches. Through extensive amounts of exercise, therapy and discipline, however, Mitte was able to overcome the majority of his physical disability by the age of 12.

“I learned to use what people said against me to fuel me,” Mitte said.  “I’m really stubborn. If you tell me I can’t do something, I won’t now… I’ll wait and learn and try until I can.”

Mitte’s life changed when his younger sister was recruited to play water polo. The family uprooted itself from its long-time home in Lafayette and moved to Los Angeles, setting the stage for Mitte’s acting career.

Los Angeles’s proximity to Hollywood piqued Mitte’s interest in film. When his sister was initially tested for a variety of roles, his sister’s agent asked if the studios could have a “two for one” deal with the Mitte family. Mitte, finding no reason to decline, accepted the challenge.

Mitte credits Hannah Montana as his first learning set, where he served as an extra and learned the niches and nuances of playing on screen. He also worked backstage and learned about what it meant to be on a set.

He later auditioned for his first major role as the paraplegic son of Walter White. Though he had to audition five times, he was eventually named to the role.

“[Auditioning five times] can sound discouraging, but it’s not — most people would give up at one or two, but I came back all five times,” Mitte said. “Most people are afraid to continue to fight, as they’ll just say ‘they’re calling because they have to’ or ‘they don’t really want me,’ but that just fills you with doubt.”

Since his experiences on the Breaking Bad set, he’s resolved to feel more powerful and less fearful.

“If I went into [those] auditions scared, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job. I wouldn’t be here, talking to you, working with these wonderful people,” Mitte said. “I do not let people interfere or put fear into who I am…It’s so simple to put fear and doubt into someone’s mind.”

Mitte credits dealing with his disability as forming the crux of his determination.

“People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” he said. “Something as simple as a cast or a brace… can put fear in them…  You just have to ignore them and go and decide right now ‘I want to change my life.’”

Mitte now splits his time between acting and working with a variety of organizations that raise awareness for equality and diversity of people with disabilities. Mitte is a spokesperson for the “I AM PWD [People with Disabilities]” campaign, which seeks to raise awareness for disabled artists and members of the media. He also serves as a Celebrity Youth Ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy, an organization that supports sufferers of the disease.

Mitte inspired the audience to be brave and challenge themselves.

“It’s not often you hear a story like [Mitte’s]. There are a lot of people that have crushingly negative attitudes about people with the sort of challenges he faces, and the unfortunate truth of it is that attitude takes its toll,” Connor Kenehan, MSE programming co-chair, said. “RJ has not only accomplished [overcoming his disability], he is defiant and stands in the face of anyone who thinks he can’t do it.”

“I found [Mitte’s] speech inspiring,” freshman Ronit Schwartz said.  “It was so great seeing somebody overcome such adversity, and plus, I’m a huge fan.”

In the upcoming weeks, MSE will host actor B.J. Novak from The Office, journalist Laura Ling, best known for her time spent trapped in North Korea when covering a story, and Thomas Donilon, former National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama.

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Copyright 2018