RJ Mitte: ‘My goal is to show people how normal disability is’

The ‘Breaking Bad’ star talks to James Rampton about his new wrestling film, ‘Triumph’, and why, when 15 per cent of the world’s population has a disability, ‘just because you are different, it should not mean you are ostracised from your community’

Thursday 24 June 2021 09:59
<p>‘I wouldn’t have the media profile and the following that I have today without Walter White Jr. I would just be some kid who lives in Texas’</p>

‘I wouldn’t have the media profile and the following that I have today without Walter White Jr. I would just be some kid who lives in Texas’

RJ Mitte would be the first to admit that he had a really tough time when he appeared on Channel 4’s reality TV survival show Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls four years ago. Although only 25 at the time, the actor seemed the most mature person on the Pacific island and, exasperated by the disunity of the rudderless group of celebs, walked after eight days. “When you have limited resources, people start going a little feral and people start getting hurt,” he tells The Independent from his home in Brownsville, Texas.

What else did he learn from the show, then? “Don’t drink your own urine! That’s not the move, I’ll tell you that. I ain’t messing with that! I definitely did not do that on the island. We were very lucky that it rained!”

Mitte – who we’re just about to see in an inspiring new high-school wrestling movie, Triumph – acknowledges that he never would have got the chance to spurn urine-drinking on Celebrity Island if it weren’t for his ground-breaking role as Walter White Jr, or Flynn, as he insisted on being called, in Breaking Bad.

Running for 62 episodes and five seasons from 2008 and 2013, the acclaimed drama began as the story of a disillusioned chemistry teacher, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who, having been diagnosed with stage three lung cancer, decides to underwrite his family’s future by manufacturing and distributing crystal meth.

Twenty-eight-year-old Mitte, who has cerebral palsy after suffering brain damage during an emergency caesarean, acknowledges that “Breaking Bad put me on the map. You’re only talking to me today because of it. None of my projects would exist without that show and the opportunity it gave me. It really opened a lot of doors for me. I wouldn’t have the media profile and the following that I have today without Walter White Jr. I would just be some kid who lives in Texas.”

The impact of Walter Jr, who, unlike Mitte, uses crutches, means that the actor is recognised wherever he goes. He says, “that happens all the time. I really can’t go anywhere without at least one person calling out, ‘hey, dude, you’re from Breaking Bad, aren’t you? Yo, you can walk?’”

The actor, who has a frequent and generous laugh, does not mind the attention – in fact, quite the opposite. “I get some wild stuff, man. But you know, that’s part of this industry. That’s something that people strive for for years and never obtain.

“So I’m very lucky to be able to have that and utilise it in my daily life. When it comes to community outreach and helping people and wanting to inspire others, Breaking Bad just amplifies all of it.”

Mitte, who also credits Breaking Bad with helping him land the gig of co-hosting Channel 4’s coverage of the 2016 Paralympic Games, goes on to consider why, eight years after it ended, the show remains so iconic. “A lot of people can relate to Walter White. When it first came out in 2008, in real life we had the stock market crash, a lot of economic pitfalls and a huge depression in the housing market.

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“Walter was suffering the same type of depression. He was saying, ‘I’m dying, I’m a schoolteacher, I have no money, and I’m about to leave my family in debt.’ That was actually a very common thing at that time. So Walter says, ‘I’m going to do something about it.’”

RJ Mitte shot to fame alongside Bryan Cranston in ‘Breaking Bad’

Then, “he becomes this mogul – yes, the wrong kind of mogul, but a mogul nonetheless. And that was something that people really enjoyed watching. People love to watch train wrecks. This was just a very slow train wreck.”

For Mitte, the latest fruit of Breaking Bad is Triumph. In the film, which is released on digital platforms on 28 June, he plays Mike, a bright and tenacious teen who has mild cerebral palsy. Defying the bullying and bigotry of his fellow pupils, he is determined to become a wrestler on his high school team.

In this movie written by Michael D Coffey, who based the story on his own life, Mike is taught to overcome adversity by his tough-nut wrestling trainer, Coach Cutting (Terrence Howard, who won an Oscar nomination for Hustle and Flow.)

Through the power of the pen, through the power of cinema, through the power of television, we can immortalise history. To me, that is the ultimate power of the media.

In the run-up to the Paralympics in August, this is a very topical piece. Triumph -–whose producers have teamed up with Cerebral Palsy Sport, a charity encouraging young people with the condition to enjoy sport – is a film about wrestling and wrestling prejudice.

Also an executive producer on Triumph, Mitte was eager to be involved because of the film’s strong message. “All of us – not just people with cerebral palsy – face challenges.

“We all have moments in our life where people are not really with us. But you still want to accomplish your goals, no matter how stupid they are or how unattainable they seem to other people. To me that is something that people need to hear more often. It doesn’t matter what everyone else says – it’s your life. You can define it however you see fit.”

RJ Mitte (right) hopes ‘Triumph’ will overturn many common misapprehensions about cerebral palsy

That theme certainly chimed with the actor. “Everything about this film resonated with me. It really made sense to me. Even today, I get told, ‘that’s not going to work.’ And then I go, ‘I’m going to make it work. I’m going to achieve my goal come hell or high water.’ Does it always work out? No. But I won’t know unless I try.”

The other issue to emerge very clearly from Triumph is the fact that, however much abuse he is subjected to, Mike refuses to be a victim. That also struck a chord with Mitte. “You can choose to have the victim mentality – that is a decision you can take. Everything that has happened to me could have made me a victim. But instead, I didn’t allow that overpowering force to take away who I am.

“I’ve been robbed, I’ve been assaulted. The thieves may have stolen material value from me, but they didn’t steal who I am as an individual. It’s all about that mentality. It’s all about how you see yourself and not letting the views of others define you. That’s so important.”

Triumph is all the more powerful because it’s a true story. In Mitte’s view, “it was one of those scripts where you read it and think, ‘this person’s story needs to be told.’ This is the life Michael D. Coffey wanted for himself.

“Being able to bring that dream to reality – that is my favourite part of this job. Through the power of the pen, through the power of cinema, through the power of television, we can immortalise history. To me, that is the ultimate power of the media.”

RJ Mitte appeared on ‘Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls' in 2017

Mitte goes on to underline his belief that art can help shift people’s opinions. “It can change perceptions, and it will outlive us. The overall goal of media is to change people’s perspectives and show people a different way of thinking.”

Above all, the actor hopes that Triumph can help overturn many of the common misapprehensions about cerebral palsy. “I can only hope people get a new view of cerebral palsy from this movie. There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to disability in general.

“My overall goal is to show people how normal disability is. Who’s to say what normal is? Who’s to say what your worth is? Disability isn’t some one in a billion condition – 15 per cent of the world’s population has a disability. We don’t need to live in a world where we have these stigmas. Just because you are different, it should not mean you are ostracised from your community. Through the media, we can change that mentality.”

I hope people get a new view of cerebral palsy from this movie – there are a lot of misconceptions

RJ Mitte

Hitting his stride now, Mitte continues, “just because you have a disability does not make you disabled. You can still accomplish your goals. If you’re a young child and you say, ‘I can’t reach the top shelf’, eventually you’re going to grow into reaching it or you’ll get a ladder!

“You can get that top shelf. It’s not always going to be how everyone else does it. It’s not going to be the cookie-cutter, easy route. Sometimes it will take a little more exercise and a little more training and a little more ingenuity to get the things you want. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The human body is so strong and so resilient and so capable of repairing itself.”

‘Triumph’ trailer, where Mitte’s character wrestles with bullying

Thanks to his tremendous work, many regard Mitte as a role model, but that is not a label he has ever sought for himself. “I don’t see myself as a role model. I’m just trying to live my life as best I can. I’m just trying to keep the lights on!”

A man with so many strings to his bow that he may now be losing count of them, Mitte has also been a model for Gap and Vivienne Westwood. Does he fancy returning to the catwalk? “I’ve gained a little weight, so I’m not quite model size at the moment. But I’ll do anything and everything.”

Except perhaps drink his own urine?

“You got me there,” he concludes, laughing. “I’ll do anything except drink my own urine! What sucks is that this comment is going to come back to bite me in years to come!”

And that infectious laugh echoes down the line from Brownsville once again.

Triumph is released on digital platforms on 28 June. Further information about Cerebral Palsy Sport can be found here.

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