RJ Mitte opened eyes to disabilities in pop culture
April 17, 2014
Mitte was in the right place at the right time when he began to pursue his career in acting. His younger sister got her start when she was discovered by a casting director at a Houston water park. The Louisiana natives moved to Los Angeles to support her career, but Mitte was soon approached about the possibility of acting as well.
“We thought, ‘Sure, why not?’ And it took off from there,” Mitte said about his decision to start auditioning for roles. After appearing in background parts in shows such as “Hannah Montana” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” he was given the chance to audition for the character of Walter Jr. on “Breaking Bad,” which ultimately brought him success.
His lucky break in Hollywood was an unexpected success.
“No one expected that I would have this opportunity,” Mitte said. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP) at the age of three and had to overcome physical limitations just to control his limbs. Individuals with CP often experience difficulties in movement, since this disorder involves the brain and the nervous system functions. Mitte spent his childhood at the Shriners hospital working to confront the limitations associated with his diagnosis.
“I grew up learning more about my disability every day,” he said. Luckily for Mitte, the character of Walter Jr. has CP as well, so he was able to apply the experiences from his own life to the role. According to the actor, using crutches to portray Walter Jr. was a reminder of the challenges he had to overcome as a child.
“It was a nice eye opener. I got to see everything I could be and what people expected me to be,” Mitte explained.
Representing individuals with disabilities in the media was one of the many reasons Mitte was drawn to the role of Walter Jr. as well.
“There are only two percent of actors on television and in film and the number’s growing every day. There are so many amazing movements, so many amazing organizations that I work with that are pushing to have more honest and more real characters on television” he said. Mitte is a board member for I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People with Disabilities), a Screen Actors Guild campaign which advocates for equal rights for actors with disabilities.
However, Mitte isn’t just concerned about ending the stigma associated with disability in Hollywood. He uses his newfound fame as an opportunity to talk about being an agent of change, standing up to bullying, and accepting any challenge that may appear in life.
He told the story of an experience he had in Los Angeles when he witnessed an elderly woman slip and fall in a crowded area. He watched as other individuals turned away from the woman or changed their paths to avoid giving her assistance. It was Mitte who took the first step to help the woman, and soon others followed suit.
He said, “setting the example is the most important thing you can do. Everyone is always watching. You can do so much with it when everyone is watching.”
Mitte also addressed the issue surrounding social media. He emphasized the importance of using sites like Twitter and Instagram to make a positive difference in the world rather than putting negative or harmful information in posts. With the ability to share on a wide-spread scale at such a quick speed, he acknowledged that emotional bullying on social media can be equally has harmful as physical bullying.
“You’re here to make this world a stronger and better place and you don’t want something you post to ruin that,” Mitte said, reminding the audience that words online don’t disappear just because they have been deleted.
Everyone has challenges to overcome, whether they are disabled or able-bodied, Mitte explained. His broad definition of ‘disabled’ includes anyone who has challenges to face in life. Having a disability provides individuals with greater knowledge, and being able to overcome adversity is a choice, said Mitte. He developed his willingness to speak to groups about rising above discrimination and facing challenges with the hope to inspire others. “Which way do you want your strength to grow?”
Looking towards the future, Mitte will return to his role as Campbell, a pre-med college student paralyzed by a snowboarding accident on the ABC Family show “Switched at Birth.” Overall, he continues to audition and move forward to different roles and diverse forms of media, including an upcoming documentary. Mitte has used the role of Walter Jr. as a way to launch his career and hopes to continue making an impact in film and television.
“In this business, it’s about what makes you happy…it’s always the little things.”