RJ Mitte speaks on diversity, disability in television


Actor RJ Mitte spoke to students on Wednesday night about diversity in television. Evan Meng | Staff Photographer

By Zoe Pawliczek / Staff Writer

Standing onstage and laughing with the crowd Wednesday night, “Breaking Bad” star RJ Mitte boldly contrasted the image most associated with him — a coming-of-age teen sporting crutches and a speech impediment.

“I grew up not looking at disability as a disability. I thought it was very normal,” Mitte, now 24, said.

Mitte spoke to a crowd of more than 100 at the Pitt Program Council event Overcoming Adversity: Turning a Disadvantage to an Advantage, which took place in the WPU Assembly Room which started at 8:30 p.m. An actor and advocate for people with disabilities, Mitte regularly talks at high schools and universities about his experiences with cerebral palsy and opportunities in the film and philanthropic industries.

While best known for playing Walter Jr. on AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Mitte has starred in other TV shows, including “Switched at Birth” and “Vegas” as well as multiple movies such as “Dixieland” and “House of Last Things.”

Diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy — a movement disorder characterized by impaired reflexes, floppy or rigid limbs and abnormal posture — at age three, Mitte underwent physical therapy and speech therapy to improve his motor and communication skills. He had to wear braces on both legs until he was 16, although he says he didn’t grow up thinking of himself as disabled.

“Through all my physical therapy, through all my casting and braces, I still saw it as normal,” Mitte said. “It was still my everyday life. I thought everyone went to occupational therapy and physical therapy and did these exercises.”

When bullies at school started taking notice of his condition, even breaking his hands and one of his feet, Mitte initially retaliated by engaging in physical combat. But after telling his peers about cerebral palsy, he found they were able to accept it.

“I realized that people who are afraid of something, they attack because of a lack of knowledge. A lot of people are in a fear of asking,” Mitte said.

Although Mitte’s cerebral palsy is a milder form than what he portrayed on the show — requiring him to practice using crutches that he didn’t have as a child — he quickly adapted to the role, recognizing its importance to others with his condition.

“The side of television I see is very different from the side you see,” Mitte said. “We need more diversity, not the same cookie-cutter movies and TV shows. Seeing someone in the background with crutches or a wheelchair, it affects people.”

Emma Wolinsky, a first-year English literature major, said she attended the event because it would expose her to a different background.

“Events like these bring disability to the forefront — it’s part of diversity, part of intersectionality,” Wolinsky said.

Although his days of wearing leg braces and donning crutches for “Breaking Bad” are over, Mitte continues to spread awareness about his condition as a celebrity ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy, speaking at conferences and meeting with people who have the condition.

His work in other areas of philanthropy includes being a spokesperson for I AM PWD — an initiative to give a voice to entertainers with disabilities — and co-hosting the Rio 2016 Paralympics as a reporter and correspondent.

“I started doing advocacy work because there really is a need for it, there’s a hole. There’s this superficial generosity, a superficial kindness,” Mitte said. “I see a very vastly different world than what you see online, I see the politics behind it.”

During his lecture, Mitte also touched on anonymity of bullies on social media and how, as a public figure, he is a regular target of cyber hate.

“There is no boundary on social media, so protect what you do and protect what you say, because that will impact you,” Mitte said.

First-year Kwame Morris, a bioengineering major, said he was surprised by Mitte’s choices of topics for the event. A fan of “Breaking Bad,” he expected Mitte to speak more about his time on the show.

“I was kind of surprised, the speech was incredibly inspiring,” Morris said. “He was focused and got a specific message across about disabilities and acceptance.”

Mitte did not not leave the event without giving the audience — the majority of which were clear fans of the show — a chance to ask questions.

Many fans asked about his breakout role as Walt Jr., asking about co-stars and experiences on set, although other topics included eating habits, butt tattoos and Mitte’s future acting plans as well as his dream roles.

Mitte says he will eat just about anything, and that he has always wanted to act in a military movie.

“I just like to work,” Mitte said. “I like to do whatever I can. I like to create characters and really just see the world.”

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