‘Breaking Bad’ was one of the most ground-breaking television shows of recent times, and its influence is still being felt worldwide. Shane Hannon had a chat with one of the stars of the series, RJ Mitte, about life on the set, breakfast, music and attacking the stigma of living with a disability.
“I want real bacon, none of this fake crap!” The character of Walt Junior plays an integral role in the many intricate plots and subplots throughout the five seasons of the incredibly successful AMC show Breaking Bad, but his on/off relationship with the most important meal of the day is also not lost on viewers. RJ Mitte is keenly aware of that, and he sees the humorous side. “It’s pretty funny, people do connect me to breakfast a lot. What’s funny is I never cook breakfast ever, but right before this interview I was cooking eggs for my manager and a friend of mine. This is the one day I did!”
Mitte truly did perfectly fit the part of Walt Jr., otherwise known as ‘Flynn’ by friends. He was himself diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of three, and recalls that “[The character] pretty much described me. My character is based on a friend of Vince [Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad] from college. He wrote it in memory of him some time after he passed. He wrote the character the way you see him, I just tried to create what Vince put on the script and that was fairly easy.”
Growing up in Louisiana in the Deep South of the U.S., Mitte was certainly not always destined to be involved in the performing arts, only moving to Los Angeles in 2006 when his younger sister caught the acting bug. “I started acting when I was around 13 to meet kids my own age and then when I was going on 14 I auditioned for Breaking Bad. I auditioned five times; four in Los Angeles and once in New Mexico, and apparently they liked me because they hired me!”
Breaking Bad aired its final episode in late 2013 and it is now considered to be one of the greatest television series of all time, even entering the Guinness World Records the same year it concluded as the highest-rated show ever. Mitte and his fellow cast members could never have predicted the success the show would go on to have however. “We knew we had something special, we knew the scripts were amazing and everything that came into play was just perfect. But we couldn’t have imagined that it would continue to live on like it does and how it has.” And it has. All 62 episodes are available to watch on streaming media service Netflix, with more and more people still catching up on the show.
The theme of family and how far one is willing to go to provide are key elements of Breaking Bad, with Mitte’s on-screen father Walter White, the show’s main protagonist, often losing sight of why he does what he does. The world of Hollywood can be similarly deceiving and artificial, but Mitte is adamant that he will not be getting caught up in the hype. “There’s a lot that goes into this business and it’s not always a happy business. I don’t really want to be famous, I just want to enjoy what I’m doing and take care of my family. And a lot of people don’t want that, they want something that’s not real.” The 22-year-old’s modesty and maturity are immediately evident, and growing up with a marine grandfather can only have helped that development. “I was never allowed to say ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’ or ‘no’, it was always ‘yes’ or ‘I can’ or ‘I will.’ People need to remember they choose not to do something. Yes, a situation may be bad and you may feel weak and powerless, but you do have power and you do have strength. People choose not to see it in themselves.”
Mitte started out on the sets of television shows working as an extra, an experience he clearly enjoyed. “I was working on Hannah Montana, Everybody Hates Chris, Weeds, 7th Heaven, and quite a few other shows. And I was lucky to always find amazing people on those sets and I never really had trouble with any of them.” Being on set has been a learning curve that Mitte also remembers fondly from his time on Breaking Bad. “I really enjoyed working with the cast as a whole. Most of my scenes involved Anna [Gunn; Skyler White], Bryan [Cranston; Walter White], Betsy [Brandt; Marie Schrader] or Dean [Norris; Hank Schrader] and a lot of times they involved all four of them. I loved those scenes and we had so much fun doing them. It really did feel like a family.”
The legacy of Breaking Bad is one which, in Mitte’s opinion, will continue to be discussed at length for many years to come. “I think the show will stand up until the end of time because of the content and what the show is and the honesty of the show. I think people will see it for what it is and hopefully they’ll see what the show does really represent.” That Breaking Bad manages to juggle its unpredictability with its accuracy and true-to-life moments speaks volumes about why so many people have become engrossed with it. “You do have a man struggling to provide for his family who wants them to have a better life. He is progressing and seems to not be losing anything when suddenly he loses everything, and that is a testament to what people are and who they are, because that can happen more often than not.”
Breaking Bad is perhaps also going to go down in the television history books for balancing scenes of horrific violence and depravity with brief respites in the form of comic relief, and one such moment occurs when Walt Junior meets his billboard-hero Saul Goodman, Albuquerque’s resident criminal lawyer. “I have a bunch of friends that always do comic skits but I just haven’t really had the opportunity or the time per se. I definitely want to get into comedy but I just like to work and be part of a good group of people.” There is perhaps more comedy in the new Netflix series and Breaking Bad spinoff show Better Call Saul, based on the life and times of the aforementioned morally deficient lawyer. That show has just finished its first season of 10 episodes and was created by Breaking Bad veterans Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, and Mitte considers himself a fan. “It’s visually amazing and stunning. It has the look and feel of Breaking Bad but it stands alone, it does have its own energy and it’s really nice to see that.”
In terms of work since Breaking Bad Mitte has certainly kept himself busy, to say the least. He had a recurring role as Campbell in the ABC series Switched at Birth and has also finished filming for the title role in the American-made drama Who’s Driving Doug which he says is coming along nicely. “I think it’s going to do the film festival circuit. It’s about a guy who gets an opportunity to change his life and take a risk and he does and goes on an adventure and sees everything in front of him come together.” He also has another small part in a movie named Dixieland, starring Chris Zylka and Riley Keough, which will be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in Lower Manhattan. Recent trips to London have also served as excellent networking opportunities and he acknowledges “I know quite a few overseas directors that I’m trying to get a hold of that I’d love to work with.”
He has himself toyed with the idea of branching out into directing, even serving as Executive Producer for the 2011 documentary Vanished: The Tara Calico Story, which deals with the disappearance of then 19-year-old Calico from her home in New Mexico in 1988. He also says with regards future projects “I have a couple of things I’ve been working on and lining up. I’ve been doing some modelling over in London, I’ll possibly do some theatre work and I’m constantly auditioning. In this industry you’ve just got to keep moving forward and try not to stop for too long.”
Music is another passion for Mitte and he is an avid fan of L.A. based rap rock band Hollywood Undead, even appearing in the music video for their song ‘Dead Bite’ in 2013. “I love reggae, rock and rap and dub and trance and all of that. Music can evoke an emotional response almost instantly.” Intriguingly, he is currently embarking on a North American DJ tour of venues in Edmonton, Canada, New York City and Las Vegas to name but a few, with the performances, aptly dubbed ‘Breaking Beats’, including a distinct Breaking Bad theme. In terms of why he was ultimately drawn to experiencing the DJ scene, Mitte remarks that “I have not watched Breaking Bad through. I don’t really watch anything I do, which is funny. I like to create stuff but I don’t really like to watch what I do. That’s why I’m drawn to the DJ thing, because I don’t have to speak or watch myself. I just have to play good music!”
Cerebral palsy affects one in every 323 children in the United States and Mitte tours the country regularly, speaking at universities, high schools and colleges about the stigma of disabilities, as well as bullying. He himself was persistently bullied as a child, even having his hand broken during a P.E. class on one occasion. His success on Breaking Bad has undoubtedly served to educate people about disabilities, and it is a subject he feels should be discussed openly. “It has definitely brought attention to a subject that people don’t always look at. And not in a way where you look at someone and say ‘Hey, he has a disability’, or ‘he walks with crutches’, but ‘he is a person.’ At first you may look at the crutches and you may see them, but over time as you grow to love this character those crutches are gone and are pushed to the side. That’s not who he is and that’s what we need to portray in television. People first, disability way down the line.”
Mitte supports the work of I AM PWD, an organisation that fights for exactly what it stands for; Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People with Disabilities. He says people’s perceptions of what exactly a disability is can sometimes be warped. “Walt Sr. [in Breaking Bad] has cancer and that is in itself a disability. People look at cerebral palsy or autism or whatever when they think of someone who is disabled.” He goes on to say that “Everyone is disabled. A disability is something that is preventing you from being who you want to be and what you’re trying to be. That is not just a physical challenge; that is family, friends, certain parts of your life. Your job can be a disability!”
The Shriners Hospitals for Children in the U.S. have been promoting their #CutTheBull campaign to raise awareness about bullying, with children with disabilities twice as likely to be on the receiving end of verbal and physical harassment. Mitte has been supporting this campaign staunchly and notes that “To me the whole point of life is to be kind and to give back and be generous. It’s important to not let people manipulate you using fear and intimidation, that’s what is really important to me. Disabled or non-disabled, bullies do it to everyone and we can’t have that.” He goes on to stress that “Some people just can’t look past a disability and we need to change that mentality of thinking, because if we continue to go down this path we will not evolve as humans, because people can be so closed-minded.”
Mitte’s personal favourite episode of Breaking Bad was the very first, the pilot in Season One, and his career has come a long way since then. “I wouldn’t be in the industry I’m in if it wasn’t for the pilot and what the pilot gave me.” One quote from Heisenberg himself, Walter White, in the earlier stages of Breaking Bad, concerned fear, and the character overcoming a lifetime of it once he was diagnosed with lung cancer. His viewpoint was “So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that bastard as hard you can right in the teeth.” RJ Mitte has been doing just that, and he has no plans to stop anytime soon.
For more information on the #CutTheBull campaign and to sign the pledge against bullying, visit cutthebullnow.org.
Photoshoot Images Credit: Daniel Martinez Matallana