News, On Campus

“We Choose What We Can and Cannot Do”: RJ Mitte Highlights Capability

After being diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a young child, RJ Mitte learned to view his differences as a source of strength rather than a setback. 

“It’s transparency, communication, and believing in yourself,” Mitte said. “Believing in what you’re doing, believing in your actions, and not letting the judgments and other people define who you are, because you are capable of anything.”

The UGBC Council for Students with Disabilities hosted Mitte, best known for his role as Walter White Jr. on AMC’s award-winning television show Breaking Bad, in Robsham Theater on Wednesday night. 

Mitte said that throughout childhood, his perception of his diagnosis of cerebral palsy was positively influenced by the physical disability his grandfather lived with.

“I grew up seeing people like me—I grew up with my grandfather who was in a wheelchair from a stroke,” Mitte said. “I never viewed what I had as abnormal, as something that was different from anyone else, you know? I thought everyone is experiencing challenges, and we all do in our own way.”

An important lesson Mitte learned was that he could decide what he was and was not capable of doing in life, he said. 

“The one lesson that my grandfather on my mother’s side taught me—that echoes with me today, that I hope I can instill in your mentality—is that ‘can’t’ is a decision,” Mitte said. “We choose what we can and cannot do.”

Mitte said he learned from a young age to form his personal identity independently of others’ opinions.

“No matter what people view you, how they look at you, how they look down to you, what they think your abilities are—that is their perspective,” Mitte said. “That is not who you are.”

Mitte said when he started going to school, he faced bullying from other kids, but that he recognized it stemmed from their lack of understanding. 

“I never let those people get to me because I knew they did not see who I am and what I’m truly capable of,” Mitte said. “They only saw the braces, the facade, the outer layer. And so … the first two weeks, I always had a bully. By the end of the two weeks, I had a friend.”

Mitte said he learned that being open to communication with others helped reduce the misunderstandings and conflicts. 

“Communication is such a powerful tool,” Mitte said. “Being transparent and not letting ‘Oh, are they gonna misunderstand this? Are they gonna do this?’ [affect you]—being who you are will open a lot of doors.”

Mitte said he began his journey with Breaking Bad when he was only 13 years old, auditioning for his role five times over the course of six months.

“I go in one day, I audition in front of casting, and they say, ‘Oh, you were great, so we have a plane booked for you for tomorrow at 6:00 a.m. to fly to Albuquerque, New Mexico,’” Mitte said. “‘You’re going to do one final audition.’ And so I got on the plane, packed my backpack, left my mom, went to Albuquerque, and there is Vince Gilligan, Bryan [Cranston], and Anna [Gunn].”

According to Mitte, he and the Breaking Bad cast were unaware of how big the show would become when they began filming the first season. 

“We knew we had something special, but we didn’t know what,” Mitte said. “But we loved what we were doing, and the stories that were going on, along with the realities of truth we were able to tell through this journey.”

Mitte said being on Breaking Bad helped him gain a platform that he now uses to advocate for disability rights on and off the stage.

“I’m very lucky—I’ve traveled all over the country,” Mitte said. “I was just working in Romania with disability rights advocacy, different movements, seeing different walks of life and realizing we’re all facing the same challenges. We all have not the same issues, but similar issues.”

Mitte said his character provided a more holistic representation of someone living with disabilities.

“Now, we are very lucky that representation is a key component in society and especially in media, but in the beginning, with Breaking Bad, we didn’t really have a character that wasn’t just disabled,” Mitte said. “I didn’t see him as a disabled kid, I saw him as Walt Jr., I saw him as Flynn. I saw him as the young man that wants to make a life, that wants to have journeys.”

Mitte concluded the talk by encouraging the audience to learn what helps them better understand those around them.

“We all have something,” Mitte said. “Sometimes we don’t know what that something is, but learning to recognize it, learning to grow with it, learning to understand it will help you understand others, to learn from others.”

February 22, 2024