RJ Mitte has had a front row seat at the Paralympic Games and Hollywood. Both have shown quite the contrast in displaying disability.
Famously known for his role as Walter White Jr. in the US television series 'Breaking Bad', Mitte joined British broadcaster Channel 4 as a presenter for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Speaking on the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) podcast 'A Winning Mindset: Lessons from the Paralympics', Mitte reflected on four years ago saying, he “didn't feel any air of disability.”
“I didn't see it in this. We were at this pinnacle of athleticism event,” the 28-year-old recalled.
He was only 13 when he began playing Breaking Bad’s Walter Jr., a character with cerebral palsy who develops to become the man and protector of his family after the father goes astray. At the time, Mitte did not realise what 'Walter White Jr.' meant for the disability community. He also came later to realise that there was not much of a positive display of disability in Hollywood.
“You had Seinfeld, Robert David Hall, Michael J Fox. The closest person I had to relate to was Forrest Gump. But he wasn't really disabled. But it didn't cross my mind,” Mitte explained. “I'm now very honoured we have a Walt Jr. to look at and to not just be a disabled person, but a pivotal part of a family. Not just someone sick or dying, an actual individual.
“As we're seeing more diversity growth now, you're seeing that a lot more. It's still very gimmicky, but I am very happy Walt Jr. set a tone for what we are striving for in the arts and media.”
At times, Mitte would see able-bodied actors playing characters with a disability. He would wonder why he did not know there was a casting call for that project. But that was another part of the issue.
“When it comes to people with disabilities and the lack of opportunity for individuals to audition, it isn't that they can't do the job. We just don't have the ability to really cast properly,” Mitte said. “You see a lot of the time, the same people getting hired for the same roles and the reason why isn't because of their great talent; it's because they're consistent. They know these people are consistent so they consistently hire them. And I think when it comes to people with disabilities and the lack of opportunity for individuals to audition, it isn't that they can't do the job; we just don't have the ability to really cast properly.”
Warner Bros.’ latest film ‘The Witches’ caused a stir for its negative portrayal of disability. #NotAWitch began trending on social media, leading to the film’s star Anne Hathaway and its producers to apologise, noting it was not their intention to offend anyone. Mitte hopes this leads to change and awareness in the industry.
“When it comes to showing people with disabilities as a hero, it's a case of look at that person overcoming adversity,” Mitte said. “The only time you see a disabled hero is when they're in a wheelchair and then walking.
“There's so many of those that we need to go away from and strive for better and have people that may have a disability, but that person is an everyday individual. Not a disabled person.”
The complete transcript with RJ Mitte can be found on the IPC website.