TV

RJ Mitte: 'I’m astonished we were able to finish Breaking Bad'

Despite living with cerebral palsy, RJ Mitte was never prepared to stand on the sidelines. His latest role in wrestling film Triumph is such vital storytelling

RJ Mitte in Triumph

RJ Mitte tells jis story to Steven MacKenzie about his latest role. Image: Signature Entertainment

RJ Mitte hasn’t eaten breakfast yet. That’s a surprise. People have made Breaking Bad-inspired memes renaming the show Breaking Fast due to the number of scenes that take place around the breakfast table.

“Breakfast has always been a big part of my life, from Walt Jr to just in general,” Mitte says. Speaking to The Big Issue from Brownsville, on the Texas-Mexico border, it is pretty early in the day. “I woke up and just off to the races.”

Breaking Bad is one of the defining TV series of the 21st century. The rise, decline and fall of Walter White’s methamphetamine empire are a reflection of how everyone’s best intentions can become warped and end in self-inflicted catastrophe.

During lockdown, it’s been one to binge or re-binge. Though RJ Mitte, who played Walter’s teenage son Walt Jr – or Flynn, depending on how he’s feeling about his father – remembers that it wasn’t an instant hit.

“I’m astonished we were able to finish Breaking Bad,” Mitte explains. “Every year they pretty much told us we were cancelled. Every time we wrapped it, they’re like, don’t expect a second season, don’t expect a third season, don’t expect a fourth season.

“Luckily we had a cult following when it came to the critics. That’s what kept us on. Only in the last seasons, four and five and six, we really got the viewership. But by then it was already on the path of wrapping.”

What do you think Walt Jr/Flynn is doing now?

“I think Walter White Jr and Skyler are having a fairly rough existence. Even when you’re not a part of it, the DEA still monitor and control your existence when you have someone like Heisenberg as a father. There’s a lot of potential there when it comes to what could be happening. And it’s a sadder story than you think.”

Like his Breaking Bad character, Mitte lives with cerebral palsy. He is perhaps the only main character in a high-profile programme with a disability – even since Breaking Bad ended in 2013.

“There are a lot of actors with disabilities in leading roles, making movies, but you don’t see them because the productions are ultra-low budget and sadly don’t always make it,” Mitte says.

He feels a responsibility to play characters “you’re not going to normally see in film and television”, which is why he made Triumph, where Mitte plays Mike, a high schooler who wants to join the wrestling team. But his greatest triumph is not won on the mat.

“Mike’s biggest triumph in this movie is not accepting the perception of him,” Mitte says. “When you have a disability, there are these assumptions that you’re weaker, that you’re slower, that you’re fragile. You can’t live a normal life, or you can’t live the life that you want to choose.

“In this story, Mike makes his life the life he wants. He makes his life his. That’s something that is such an amazing triumph, that can echo past people with disabilities to so many people.”

The film is based on the life of writer Michael D Coffey and Mitte saw his own story reflected in it. “I recognise a lot of things I went through. Luckily I was able to not accept what people wanted for me. Luckily my family didn’t accept what people wanted for me.

“You know, a lot of times it’s hard having a child with a disability. You don’t know where to go, you don’t know what to do. You’re like, I have a sick kid who’s going to have this thing for the rest of his life, might die, might not live the life I wanted for him, what if, what if, what if…

“And a lot of times people don’t get the diagnosis they want to hear. ‘Oh, your son will never walk again, never talk again, will only ever do this, your daughter will never do that’. You’re going to hear these things. And a lot of times, they’re not true.

“The younger you’re able to start training your child on physical therapies and occupational therapies and speech therapies, they’re going to adapt, learn things, find their way in this world. It may not be how you get around this world but he or she will be able to live his or her life.

“But a lot of times people settle for ‘Oh, my kid will be in a chair for the rest of his life’. Well, if you don’t do anything or give them tools or training or treatment, yeah, they probably will!

“When I was a kid growing up with cerebral palsy,” Mitte continues, “there were a lot of times where I was told I would never walk properly or never talk properly, I would never have a normal life or career. And my family was like, no, he’s going to go do things.

“When I wanted to play sports, I played sports. I wasn’t always the fastest, I wasn’t always the quickest to the ball. But the thing is, I still caught the ball, I still played my part in the game. It made me stronger.”

A line in the film, and its central message is: “Don’t let other people put their limitations on you.” Mitte believes the pressure from people around us, intensified by social media, means we are overly concerned about other people’s opinions rather than focussing on ourselves.

“How many times have you thought, ‘Oh, I want to accomplish these goals’ and then everyone around you said: ‘That’s stupid. You’re stupid. Don’t do that.’ Discourage, discourage, discourage, right?

“That is so harmful, that we never get to live those lives out. If you try and fail you live with the mentality of, I tried it, but it wasn’t my thing. Or I succeeded, and it was great.

“Everyone thinks people just want things to get handed to them. But really what they want is just the opportunity to succeed or fail.”

Signature Entertainment presents Triumph, starring RJ Mitte, on digital platforms from June 28

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