If you haven’t seen AMC’s Breaking Bad, you should. There is a reason it has garnered 5 Emmy nominations this year alone. The show follows Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher who lives in New Mexico with his wife (Anna Gunn) and teenage son (RJ Mitte) who has cerebral palsy. White is diagnosed with Stage III cancer and is told he has two years left to live. With a new sense of fearlessness based on his medical prognosis and the need to secure his family’s financial security, White chooses to experiment in drugs and crime. The series explores how a fatal diagnosis releases a typical man from the daily constraints of normal society and follows his transformation from mild family man to a kingpin of the drug trade.
The experiment gets out of control in the second season, which series critics are calling “bleak, heartbreaking, shocking and bitterly funny.” As danger and suspicion around him escalate, Walt continues to straddle two conflicting worlds: A ruthless swirl of drugs, murder and mayhem on one hand, and a complex and emotionally fraught domestic life on the other. In the no-holds-barred world of Walt White, the end justifies the extreme.
ABILITY Magazine’s Liz Angeles and Chet Cooper caught up to the youngest actor, RJ Mitte, of the hit show, along with his manager, Addison Witt, at an acting studio in Sherman Oaks, CA.
Angeles: So, RJ, how do you like working on the hit show, Breaking Bad?
Mitte: I love it. I get to work with some of the best actors in the business, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, who are both up for Emmy nominations. Our show is up for five Emmys and is one of the best I’ve worked on. We are a really tight cast, like family. We do a lot together. We film in Albuquerque, New Mexico, so when we’re off work, we have these little gatherings.
Angeles: The whole show is shot in Albuquerque?
Mitte: Yes. To get the full effect of everything, we like to film on location, more like a movie. We’re actually shooting twice as many days on location as we are onset because we film in the caverns and the desert. It brings more reality to the crystal meth-making.
Angeles: (laughs) How did you land that part?
Mitte: An audition. My manager Addison and I were looking for the right script for me. I have a very low case of cerebral palsy (CP). With CP, the responses to the brain are a little bit slower because at birth, the brain is damaged due to a lack of oxygen. Every type of brain damage is different. Mine affects my motor skills and the controlling of my muscles. Like, my arm jumps. While we were looking for the perfect part where I could use my disability to enlighten others, we were also looking for a good job. And when Breaking Bad came up, when I read the script, which was so well-written, I immediately thought, “I have to go for this.”
Witt: Vince Gilligan, the creator, was very close to an actor in college with much more advanced CP, who eventually died, but was so inspirational to him, he wanted to add that element into the film.
Mitte: I’m grateful to Vince’s friend, otherwise the character of Walt, Jr. would not exist. Vince told me, “When I first wrote Walt, Jr., I intended to have a person with the disability play this character. Not to cut anybody out, I sent it to everyone, but in my mind, I had already cast the part of Walt, Jr.”
Angeles: He knew you specifically?
Mitte: No, not at the time. He just had a vision of the actor for the character of Walt, Jr. I went on five auditions for this role, four here and one in Albuquerque. That was tiring. So Vince finally made up his mind and we are great friends now. He said to me, “I would not change the person I cast for this role for anything.”
Cooper: If they find a magic bullet that causes the symptoms of CP go away, will he fire you at that point?
Mitte: (laughs) Yeah, Vince would probably say, “Well, since you don’t have it, we’re going to have to kill you off.”
Cooper: Have you seen pictures of his college friend?
Mitte: No. We just talked about him and how much he meant to Vince.
Cooper: Did he use a power chair?
Mitte: No. Like my character, he was on crutches and had braces, too.
Cooper: So you never had to use braces?
Mitte: I did have braces. But I wanted to get out of those so badly, because after a while they’re a pain in the—
Angeles: You get sores?
Mitte: I used to get really bad blisters. I would have to do the casting process for a year and I’d get into my braces, but after a while, I couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted to get out of them and do other things. I’ve always wanted to play sports. What most helped me to get out of my braces was playing soccer. I always wanted to play football, which was my favorite sport, but because of my disability, my hand-eye coordination was off. I couldn’t do that. So I gradually started playing more and more soccer.
Cooper: It seems almost like a Forrest Gump thing.
Mitte: (laughs) Yeah, it really was. They used to tell me, “Run, Forrest, run!”
Angeles: (laughs) Is that what the braces looked like? The ones Forrest Gump had?
Mitte: Kind of. Now they take this plastic silicone model of your leg, and a strap goes across the front of your shin and a couple more straps hold your leg. It makes it completely flat, because with CP, it bends. You want to tip-toe. And I just couldn’t take having that and doing that every day.
Angeles: Do you use crutches in the show?
Mitte: I do in the show, but I don’t need them to walk.
Witt: Vince Gilligan initially did decline working with RJ because—
Mitte: I was not severe enough.
Witt: RJ auditioned on camera which we sent to Vince, and he said, “This kid doesn’t really have the kind of CP I’m looking for.”
Cooper: But a good hammer in the leg—
Mitte: (laughs) I charmed my way through it.
Angeles: Aside from having CP, what is the back story on your character?
Mitte: We have not revealed much about the character yet. We’re still setting up the show. We are going into our third season now. The most back story we have is a typical 16-year-old kid trying to get his life together, who happens to have CP. We’re trying to portray the reality of having the disability and the difficulties of learning to live with it, along with the other challenges like lung cancer and the destructiveness of crystal meth.
Angeles: Is your character addicted to crystal meth?
Mitte: He is not yet.
Angeles: But he’s going to be?
Cooper: Do you home school now?
Mitte: I work with teachers on set and through a school in Louisiana. They give me my workbooks and I fill them out, send them in, and they send me a test with everything that was in the book that I should know. I am actually two years ahead. I should have been a junior this year but I am a senior. I have five credits left before I’m on to college.
Cooper: What acting have you done prior to this?
Mitte: I had done a little background work. I’m not a seasoned actor. I’ve only been doing this for almost four years now.
Cooper: What made you think, “I want to go into acting”?
Mitte: Money! (laughs) No—
Mitte: (laughs) Oh, sure! No, actually it started with my little sister. An agent saw her and said, “We want you to do this. Just try it out and see how it works.” So we came out here, to Los Angeles.
Cooper: From where?
Mitte: I’m from Lafayette, Louisiana. We came out to get her an agent, and when I was in the agent’s office, she said, “What about you? You should try it.” She threw me a script and said, “Go for it. Read the script memorize it, and come back into my office.” I was like, “What?” She repeated it. “Read that, memorize it, and act it out. Let’s go.” So I did it and she said, “I like you, you’re cute, you’re fun and I’m going to get you an agent. First, you have to go get some training.”
Cooper: You knew the agent, then?
Witt: I did. I had sent his sister to this agent.
Cooper: So you knew his sister first?
Witt: Yes. His mother had called me and said that while they were at a theme park in Texas, someone stopped them and said, “You should get your daughter into the entertainment industry. Go to California and meet a man named Addison.”
Cooper: He’s the man.
Witt: When she called, I said, “I don’t work with children that young,” because she was two years old. But the more we talked, I learned that she had gone to college—
Cooper: At two years old she went to college?
Witt: (laughs) Their mother had gone to college in Tyler, Texas. And I’m also from Tyler, Texas. So I said, “Well, that’s a little bit of a coinkydink. Why don’t you come out and we’ll talk about it?” Once we established a relationship, then RJ came out with them and I sent them to the agent.
Cooper: Is she working now?
Mitte: Yes. She actually booked a movie.
Witt: It’s called Wildflower. She’s also done a commercial. She’s five now.
Cooper: Does she still get work at that age? She’s kind of over the hill now.
Mitte: (laughs) She doesn’t really work too much. Right now we’re busy with my stuff.
Cooper: It’s all about you now?
Mitte: Yes, with the traveling to Albuquerque, I need a parent around while I’m still a minor.
Angeles: How old are you?
Mitte: I’m 16. 17 on August 21st.
Cooper: Do you have a driver’s license?
Mitte: I do. I cut off most of my hair about a month ago. I looked like a lion because my hair grows really fast. So when I got my driver’s license I had this really bushy hair, and now it’s like this.
Angeles: Is it from California?
Mitte: No, Louisiana.
Angeles: When you drive, do you require any special equipment in the car?
Mitte: I don’t. I have enough control over my body to drive perfectly fine.
Cooper: Except that you’re 16.
Mitte: I’m actually a good driver—in these. [puts on his glasses] How do I look?
Mitte: Oh, that’s not good. I don’t need to be looking smarter. I’m already smart. (laughs)
Witt: When his mother talks about his CP and the work they did, it’s phenomenal. It took a while before he was even diagnosed. They thought it was all sorts of other things. I think he was about three when Shriner’s Hospital diagnosed him with CP and gave him a list of activities that his mother had to participate in, simple things like folding washcloths. He would fold a whole stack of them and his mother would knock them over and force him to start over.
Mitte: It was so nice. A lot of people with disabilities don’t have parents who push them. I really feel bad about that. I think it’s a parent’s job to push their kids to achieve their goals. They told me I was going to need a wheelchair because I couldn’t bend my legs. My mom stretched my legs and really pushed me to get to where I am today. Really, I owe my mom.
Angeles: When I Googled you, I found, “Babe magnet, RJ Mitte.” How’s your love life?
Mitte: Oh! (laughter) My love life?
Angeles: I’m sure the girls are dying to know.
Mitte: It’s all good but I’m always looking so if anyone’s interested, give me a call. Toll-free number! No, it’s good. It’s crazy with teenagers.
Angeles: And what are teenagers doing these days besides playing video games?
Mitte: All teens are different and like to do different things. I hang out with my friends. Actually, I watch a lot of movies. I am a workaholic. I love my job. I love my car.
Angeles: So where do you like to drive when you are in LA? Mitte: I like to go Huntington Beach, Long Beach, the mountains, Hollywood Hills. There are some great views up there. I take my dogs to this dog park right under the Hollywood sign.
Angeles: What kind of dogs do you have?
Mitte: I have two, a Scottie and a Havanese.
Cooper: What’s a Havanese?
Mitte: It’s a little white dog that looks like you can turn it into a football.
Witt: They look just like a Maltese. His sister got it for her fourth birthday.
Angeles: Talk about babe magnets!
Mitte: Yes, I lure them. My Scottie is definitely my chick magnet. Everyone says, “She’s so cute!”
Angeles: What else do you enjoy?
Mitte: From the time I was seven, I’ve always liked to work. Even before I was an actor, I did a lot of work with my grandpa’s Mitte Foundation.
Cooper: Give us the history of the Mitte Foundation.
Mitte: He started the foundation when he was young. It’s like a fairy tale story. My grandpa grew up poor in a small town where they had dirt floors. He worked his way through college on a basketball scholarship. He wanted his whole family to be happy and his kids to have what he did not. He owned a majority of the big insurance companies in the U.S. and created this foundation to give back, to do library charity events and fund college scholarships.
Cooper: So you were volunteering for the foundation?
Cooper: In what capacity?
Mitte: Building houses. The foundation donates libraries and also builds houses for Habitat for Humanity. Last year we took a group of kids overseas and built houses for the homeless there. I was in Austin a month ago doing a groundbreaking for a new library in Bircham, a small town outside of Austin, Texas, where my grandma grew up. When Katrina hit, I went to Louisiana. It was very hot. I did a lot of work there and helped rebuild church roofs.
Cooper: So you see the value in volunteering?
Mitte: Yes, it’s a great experience to help other people.
Cooper: So what would say to other teenagers?
Mitte: “Get to work! Don’t be lazy!”
Cooper: Maybe we can work together on the ABILITY Build program? We partner with non-profits that build homes, like Habitat for Humanity, and help them outreach to people with disabilities to volunteer in building homes.
Witt: Wow! We’d love to participate with you on that.
Mitte: Yeah, that’d be great. People with disabilities don’t realize what they can do unless they try it.
Cooper: And people need to give them the chance to try it.
Mitte: That’s a problem. Some people think because they have a disability, you have to do it for them. A disability is just a part of your personality. You may not be able to do some things, but some people can’t do some things that you can do.
Cooper: There’s the maternal or paternal nature of wanting to help, and that help sometimes hinders the independence of the individual. Without letting them try and even fail, they’ll never know if they can do it. So I’d love to do some work together in the future.
Mitte: That’d be great.
Witt: RJ just recently became one of the spokespersons for I AM PWD, (Inclusion in the Arts Media of People With Disabilities). It’s through the Screen Actors Guild.
Cooper: Along with Robert David Hall?
Mitte: Yes. They just asked me if I would like to volunteer my time and work with them, and I said, “Of course.”
Cooper: That’s an interesting initiative to increase awareness. Robert David Hall has been an advocate for so many years. Here’s a guy who’s actually made it, and he still continues his advocacy work. He’s a good guy.
Angeles: Do you surf?
Mitte: I’ve been wanting to learn. I like to snorkel. I do a lot of fishing. I try to do a lot of sports, but my job takes a lot of time.
Angeles: I was just surfing this morning. I know the best place for beginners.
Witt: Do tell. I’ve been wanting to start.
Angeles: On PCH near the Malibu Pier.
Mitte: I’ve been trying to find a good beginner’s spot. I know better than to mess up a career surfer’s wave.
Cooper: San Onofre has a spot called Old Man’s. It’s a perfect place to learn, because you don’t want a fast wave. You want to start on a long board on a slowmoving wave.
Mitte: I think once I get the chance to start practicing, I’ll be really good at it.
Witt: Yeah. You’ve got really big feet.
Mitte: I’m just trying to find the time.
Cooper: Do you ever do any motorcycle riding?
Mitte: I used to.
Cooper: What did you ride?
Mitte: 500cc dirt bike.
Angeles: How does your mom feel about that?
Mitte: If I can do it, I can do it. My mom won’t let me get a street bike. This is a dirt bike that only goes 70 mph.
Angeles: (laughs) So what are your long-range goals and what would you like to see happen in your future?
Mitte: I’d like to start my own agency and I want to produce and direct, but I still want to act. Acting is a business, and sometimes you can act forever, but sometimes you need a plan B. I’d also like to open a restaurant in Albuquerque.
Angeles: What kind of food?
Mitte: Anything, really. I can make some good Creole food. I think it would be cool to have a restaurant in the front, with a side entrance you would have to know about where you knock on the door, and it would open up to a little bar-lounge area. In Albuquerque, those are the big things. We like to go to places where the stars go and hang out.
Angeles: Of all the celebrities who inspire you, who would you most like to meet?
Mitte: I’ve met the majority of the people I wanted to meet.
Angeles: Who were you most excited about meeting?
Mitte: I’ve met Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
Cooper: So no big names.
Mitte: Yeah, just little people.
Angeles: (laughs) Who is your idol when it comes to acting?
Mitte: I grew up watching Will Smith, and I met his family but haven’t met him yet. But I don’t really have an idol. You can’t really focus on one design of acting or producing or directing. You can take ideas from people, but you want to make it your own and do your own thing. Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson are two very different actors, but you want to watch both of them to see what they’re going to come up with. I like to keep an open mind and think,”maybe I can do it this way” or throw a twist on it and become a different character in each role I portray.
Cooper: You want to say, “I want to get these goats off the trains?”
Mitte: Yes. (laughter) Where did that come from?
Cooper: Snakes on a Plane.
Mitte: Oh, I get it. I was trying to figure out where you got the goats from.
Angeles: As far as your long-term career, is it more about these other things you want to do and acting is just a stepping stone, or do you have an acting dream?
Mitte: I love acting. I love my job. It’s one of the best and most rewarding jobs I could do for my age. I would love to have my own company, but I’d still want to keep acting. If you truly love to act, you do it with all your heart and put everything into it. If you don’t, you slowly stray away and you start doing other things. It has become a real passion of mine. Four years ago, I would have said, “Acting? What? No, I’m good.” (laughs)
Angeles: What did you want to do before the idea of acting was presented to you?
Mitte: I always wanted to be a Marine. My grandpa was a Marine, so he inspired me. My friends and I discussed joining the Special Forces and becoming Rangers. They can’t have my disability in the military, but I think I can shoot better than half the people there. I also considered getting into the business of fishing. My uncle is a professional fisherman. He was in all the newspapers in the South because he would win all the tournaments. I really love to fish. That’s what happens when you grow up on a boat in Louisiana.
Angeles: What kind of fish?
Mitte: I love trout. It’s a good fight.
Cooper: You have a lot of business aspirations. Any thought of school?
Mitte: I’m going to UCLA. From working with the Foundation, I already have a lot of business aspirations in the works, so I want to get my master’s in business, and I’m going to minor in theatre studies. One problem with college is that I’m in Albuquerque six months out of the year. And I have another movie at the end of this year to film. It’s called Me. It’s a neo-Nazi movie.
Cooper: What is the movie about?
Mitte: My character actually has a very bad disability, so I’m in a wheelchair and I can’t move. I can just gurgle and my brother is a neo-Nazi. I’m in the hospital, and—well, I won’t give it away.
Cooper: So you’re not a skinhead?
Mitte: Next time you see me, I’m going to have my head shaved and I’ll have a big swastika tattooed on my forehead and I’ll be yelling in a pitcher, holding my arms out. “Yeah, this is RJ Mitte.” (laughs) No, I won’t have tattoos or anything like that.
Cooper: Give us your family background.
Mitte: My mom is from Lafayette, Louisiana, and my dad’s from Austin, Texas. I lived in Louisiana for a couple of years and then we moved to Austin to take care of my grandparents. We were there for four years taking care of my grandma, who had cancer. Then I came back to LA to work. My grandma, grandpa, my other grandpa, and my great-grandma all died within a couple of months.
Angeles: I’m so sorry to hear that. How did your parents meet?
Mitte: My mom was working for a hotel in Philadelphia. My dad owned the hotel and he was raising hell about something.
Cooper: She was the one causing the problem?
Mitte: (laughs) No, she was trying to solve the problem. She managed the hotel. My grandpa owned the whole company, actually, and my dad helped him by working there.
Cooper: The same grandpa that owned the insurance companies and started the Mitte Foundation?
Angeles: So your whole family is now in LA?
Mitte: Yes, my grandma, my mom, and my little sister are all out here. My uncle still lives in New Orleans. My dad lives in Austin.
Cooper: They separated?
Mitte: Yes, my parents divorced when I was two.
Cooper: Did you get to know your father?
Mitte: Oh sure, I see my dad all the time. He visits us in Albuquerque and comes to the set.
Angeles: How do you like the red carpet?
Mitte: I love it.
Angeles: Does your family love it too?
Mitte: I really go alone most of the time. Addison goes with me. My mom doesn’t really care much for the whole red carpet scene. She says, “Go have fun.”
Cooper: Is she working?
Mitte: Actually, she had a back injury six years ago from a car accident and has two herniated disks. She’s had three surgeries since the accident. Right now she’s in Louisiana and she’s not working because of her back.
Cooper: What kind of work was she doing?
Mitte: She worked for a different foundation, Angels of Mercy. It’s for elderly people who can’t help themselves. They bring food, help them with groceries, help them get around their house and spend time with them.
Witt: She also did interior design and real estate.
Angeles: Your sister’s with her?
Mitte: Yes, my grandma and my little sister are with her in Louisiana right now, because she’s having another surgery tomorrow.
Cooper: Are you going to go back and see her?
Mitte: I will stay here because I have a lot of work to do with the Emmys coming up. It’s just a day surgery. My mom will be back on the 27th.
Cooper: Do you have any issues with spasticity?
Mitte: I do. I take backlofen for it. It’s a muscle relaxer that calms the spasticity down and really helps relax my muscles.
Angeles: So if your character has more advanced CP than you, do you have to act like you have more severe spasticity?
Mitte: I do. Actually, my spasticity acts up if I sit in cars and I bend my legs certain ways. The muscles will start twisting and contracting. It depends what kind of CP you have. With certain CP, the muscles don’t tighten, they are too loose, so you can’t really move your body. With my CP, the muscles contract.
Angeles: AMC is American Movie Classics. I always thought they only played old movies.
Mitte: They still play old movies. They’re trying to get more modernized now. It’s such a new station to a lot of people that they can do almost anything they want with the show. For instance, in the pilot, this girl comes out topless with Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse—
Angeles: Is he the actor from HBO’s Big Love?
Mitte: Yes. He comes rolling out of the window while the DEA is breaking down his house to arrest him, and this girl comes out topless with these big breasts! AMC is really pushing the envelope. They’re not worried about losing people, because they have their fans who love it and will watch almost anything on AMC.
Angeles: Like HBO, they can make their own rules and include profanity and nudity?
Mitte: We cannot. We blur out nudity and bleep profanity, but on the DVD we let it rip.
Angeles: If someone wants to start watching the show from the beginning, how do they get the DVDs?
Mitte: Places like Best Buy or Circuit City, ask for AMC’s Breaking Bad.
Angeles: So how will your life change when you turn 18? Will you get an apartment?
Mitte: I will probably get my own space when I turn 18, just to call friends over and be loud.
Angeles: With your birthday right around the corner, what are you going to do to celebrate?
Mitte: I’m going to work. My 17th isn’t really a big deal for me. The 16th was fun because I could legally drive and wouldn’t get in trouble.
Cooper: What’s new for your character on the show?
Witt: For the first two seasons of Breaking Bad, it has really been about setting up the foundation of the show, developing Bryan Cranston’s character and the other main characters. The creator and writer-directors told me that in the third season we’re going to see a lot more of RJ. They’re just now beginning to cultivate his story line, and I’m hoping that they’re going to delve more specifically into the CP and how that is a part of their family dynamic. They told me we’re going to be very surprised. There’s going to be a lot more involvement. You’ll probably see him in a relationship, at school, a lot more things going on.