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Friday, March 7, 2014

‘Breaking Bad’ actor RJ Mitte: Cerebral palsy does not define me

RJ Mitte, who played Walt Jr. on AMC's Breaking Bad, gave a lecture at the Illini Union Tuesday night.

By Emma Weissmann | Assistant Features Editor | The Daily Illini
photo: Puja Patel | The Daily Illini

The student newspaper of the University of Illinois 

“If you don’t know who I am, I have no idea why you’re here,” joked RJ Mitte to the crowd that had gathered in the Illini Union I-Rooms on Tuesday night. Although you may not immediately know the name “RJ Mitte,” it’s doubtful you are unfamiliar with his character, Walt “Flynn” Jr., the son of chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-manufacturer Walter White on AMC’s Emmy-winning “Breaking Bad.” Mitte, who has a mild condition of cerebral palsy, gave a lecture, “Overcoming Adversity: Turning a Disadvantage into an Advantage,”as part of the Illini Union Board’s monthly lecture series.

The Daily Illini sat down with Mitte prior to his lecture.

The Daily Illini: We know you are here tonight to talk about your experiences living with a milder form of cerebral palsy and how that has molded you as an actor. What message do you specifically hope to relate to University students tonight?

RJ Mitte: Having a disability gives you knowledge. Having a disability gives you something that most people never understand unless they live it. Disabilities try to trap you in your own body, prevent you from doing what you want. And the thing about it is, this is your body, and this is your life. You need to take it for yourself. You need to overcome these challenges because they are put in front of you for a reason, and, if you can persevere, you can do extraordinary things. People forget that.

DI: Why did you decide to come to the University of Illinois?

Mitte: I come to college campuses because people here are already taking their own steps, they’re already growing, they’re already taking the knowledge that people are giving them and using it for the better. They’re using it to learn. People go to classes, but they forget the little things. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s something that’s so easily forgotten. I try to give a little bit of a reminder. What’s really nice is we don’t only get students, we get teachers, professors, educators. It resonates with a lot of people.

DI: How has CP affected your career as an actor overall? Specifically, do you feel limited to CP-related roles?

Mitte: I don’t feel limited to anything. I take what I can get, as any working actors should. I want to continue to work and move forward. Walt Jr. was the one CP role that I had. But now I’m working on a show called “Switched at Birth” on ABC Family, and I play a character named Campbell, and he happens to suffer from a spinal cord injury from a snowboarding accident. It’s nice to have these characters that are unique in their own way, and that each has their own defining moments. I don’t let people define me by a disability. People (without disabilities) do though. They will always define somebody by the way they sound, the way they look, the way they walk. It’s an inevitable outcome and a defense mechanism in the human body.

DI: What do you want students to know specifically about RJ (for those who know you only as Walt Jr. on “Breaking Bad”)?

Mitte: I love to travel; I love to work. I’m a bit of a workaholic. I’ve been acting for nine years now, and I spent seven of them on “Breaking Bad.” I started “Breaking Bad” when I was 14 and finished when I was 20. I put pieces of me in my characters. Everything I do with my characters is based on how I would act in that situation. Trying to bring a realism to my characters I find works the best. As long as they keep hiring me, as long as I’m able to keep living my life and able to come to these campuses and meet some amazing people, I’m happy. We’re good.

DI: What is the biggest misconception about CP? Does it ever empower you?

Mitte: A lot of people think it’s genetic. The biggest misconception about not just CP, but about all disabilities is that people think having a disability makes you disabled, that having a disability defines your life forever. And that’s not true. Having a disability does not define who you are, only you are defined by what you can do. By the end of the day, you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone, out of the normal and go into the abnormal. You can face your fears and step up. You can take your life for your own and not be a prisoner in your own body.

DI: In what ways do you connect with “Flynn” from Breaking Bad, and do any of his challenges apply to your life?

Mitte: I went through the exact same thing that Walt Jr. went through. I dealt with the crutches ... with all the therapy treatments: occupational therapy, speech therapy, the whole nine yards. I’ve been there. And Junior has too. I always find there are pieces of yourself that you put into your job: Even though you don’t realize it, they’re there.


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