RJ Mitte – Walt Jr to legions of Breaking Bad fans – soon stars in his first major film role. Between visits to the offices of Skope UK and STORM models, he gives Wonderland a lesson in Real Talk.
Amazingly, my first hour with Roy Frank “RJ” Mitte was spent talking through ways to hunt and kill zombies. “You come out of it completely covered in bruises. If they find you, they slam you,” the actor and activist says of the fantasy combat game he’d play the next day, in a remote field just outside London. Isn’t he scared of internal bleeding or something? “Nah, you get pads.”
I’m not surprised Mitte isn’t intimidated by a circus of undead meat heads – he’s spent his life tackling tougher obstacles. The first came before he was even born: baby Mitte was cut from the womb because he wasn’t breathing. His Louisianan parents put him up for adoption just weeks after it was determined the incident had caused permanent brain damage. At three, his surrogate carers were told he had Cerebral Palsy, a disorder that affects the joints and speech.
Instead of having his Achilles tendon sliced – a standard procedure for CP sufferers, which helps loosen seized ligaments – Mitte threw himself into sports. At nearly six foot, the 22 year old is well-built and unlike his part as Walter Jr in AMC’s life-changing drama Breaking Bad, he’s so agile he no longer has to walk with a crutch.
We’re sitting here, surrounded by builders in a Bethnal Green greasy spoon, because Mitte has more to talk about than his problems. He’s in the UK to advise handicapped children about their career options at nearby charity Scope. Mitte – who has recently been signed to Elite Model Management and last year modelled a spring campaign for GAP – has become a shining light for youngers stricken by disability. “It’s really about learning to take the responsibility that most [disabled] people wouldn’t take on,” he says, sipping a bad coffee. “To have so much responsibility at such a young age, when most people would try to relinquish responsibility… I was not fond of relinquishing mine. I didn’t back down.” His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, he’s currently the Screen Actors Guild’s spokesperson for disabilities. “I want to show people that yes, I speak for myself. Turning a disability into an ability… Yes I was bullied at school, but can speak about a lot of topics.”
The Lafayette-born Leo’s first major film role is in forthcoming drama Who’s Driving Doug. He plays reclusive, wheelchair-bound protagonist Doug, who hires a driver (played by Ray William Johnson of YouTube series Equals Three fame) to take him on the road trip of a lifetime. “It’s a real story, not just a happy story,” Mitte says. “I feel it can go both ways, I feel that it rings true for a lot of people. It talks to a lot of people in the disabled community and a lot of people not in the disabled community.”
Filmed over the course of three weeks, though it sounds like it was a hoot of a shoot – drugs, violence and general mania drive the storyline – isn’t Mitte tired of being typecast? In Switched At Birth, the TV show he starred in after Breaking Bad, he played Campbell, a young man dealing with paralysis and slurred speech after a recent accident. “My role on Birth is nothing like mine in Driving Doug,” he says sharply, explaining that in Birth, the character’s previously healthy social life is ripped away from him. “I’m very lucky to have a diverse work aspect. Yes, some of my characters have quirks to them, but that doesn’t define who they are. Actors should be able to take roles and make you look past the disability; to put their own spin on it.”
Mitte’s passion for ethically-driven projects saw him on the production panel for an as-yet unreleased documentary called Vanished: The Tara Calico Story. The film follows the disappearance of the University of Mexico student back in 1988 near Belen, New Mexico. Melinda Esquibel, the film’s director, claims that parents of the boys who supposedly kidnapped and murdered Calico had conspired to cover their sons’ tracks. “This is the kind of story that needs to be told because in Mexico, if you don’t have a body, you don’t have a crime,” says Mitte, who, after a chance meeting with Calico’s niece, was introduced to Esquibel.
“I was like, ‘Well, I can bring in radio stations and try to stir things back up again’, and that’s exactly what we did,” he continues. “People are talking about it again now, which is what we want. People disappear everyday. There are hundreds of people locked in a locker.” At this point, the cafe’s builder clan start frowning and looking round at us. “Many will never never be solved and the people are long gone.”
Mitte would be the first to admit that he got into the entertainment business through the back door. His family relocated to LA when he was 14 to support Mitte’s older sister’s acting career. Linking up with talent agent Addison K. Witt, Mitte started auditioning for commercials and shows like Grey’s Anatomy, landing a few, small cameo parts in Hannah Montana (he played a school jock in a scene with Miley Cyrus) and Everybody Hates Chris. “I spent almost every day with Addison, he taught me everything. We went to acting and directing classes, he taught me to try a bit of everything.” In two or three months, Mitte popped up in 13 different shows. Addison and Mitte would spend days searching for the next move. It came.
By the end of the fifth series, his character in Breaking Bad – the son of a nihilistic, terminally ill drugs baron – is the one you trust the most. The show’s creator Vince Gilligan claims it was based on a close friend of his who has CP. Did the actor get to meet him? “I would have loved to! To be able to take away something real from him… I feel that I was able to reproduce certain aspects of him, I talked to Vince about him a lot.” Mitte went in hard trying to mirror the friend’s conditions, which are more severe than his. Staying up late practicing slurred speech and cancelling therapy sessions, for a while Mitte’s CP worsened. “I had to learn how to use crutches so it didn’t look like I’m fake-walking,” he said in 2008. “It was hard to regress.”
This year, he hopes, is progress over regress. He plans to develop his DJing skills, despite a recent burglary (“They raided my place and stole my kit and my truck. It’s OK though, I know who did it”), and stars in Hank Bedford’s crime drama Dixieland. “The film takes place over quite a few years,” he says. “People have gone up in the world and people have gone down in the world. It’s interesting to see the rise and fall of people’s lives.”
Normally when I interview an actor, I learn nothing I hadn’t heard on talk show clips or IMDB profiles the night before. This one felt different. RJ Mitte isn’t concerned with paparazzo fuckery or red carpet glamour (“I had a two pound burger before my GAP shoot, it’s why I’m standing funny in it,” he admits). He wants to help the unfortunate out there realise that, however faint, there’s a light at the end of everyone’s tunnel.
Black suede cardigan, black cotton vest and black cotton trousers all by HERMES
Photographer: Harry Carr.
Fashion Editor: Matthew Josephs.
Words: Jack Mill.