When asked at the end of a recent phone interview what he had for breakfast, RJ Mitte says he had leftover steak – and if you were a fan of “Breaking Bad,” you get the joke.
But there’s a whole lot more to the actor than those many scenes of him using crutches to amble to and from the breakfast table on the award-winning series, in which he played the son of a chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer during the show’s five-year run on AMC.
In fact, the cerebral palsy sufferer is quite serious about using his celebrity to promote a cause important to him: Shriners Hospitals for Children. Doctors there diagnosed his disorder at age 3 and treated him with therapies that greatly improved his speech and mobility over the years.
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Mitte, 21, is at uptown Charlotte’s Alive After Five on Thursday to hang with fans on behalf of the charity, then in Mooresville on Friday to work with drama students at Lake Norman High School. He spoke with the Observer about his disability, how it fits in Hollywood and why viewers are often surprised when they meet him in person.
Q. What were the biggest challenges you faced when you were growing up, and how did you overcome them?
A Lots of therapy. I did OT (occupational therapy), and I did PT (physical therapy). One of the things I didn’t like the most is I was in a cast for six months out of the year. I was a severe toe walker. So my feet did not bend naturally. They had to bind my feet and hold them in casts, and do this for weeks at a time until my feet would be straight. That was one of the most painful things. But I also went through stretching, I went through braces – anything and everything you can think of when it comes to a disability, and Shriners was great.
Q. I understand you also support anti-bullying campaigns. Were you bullied as a kid?
A Yeah, I dealt with bullying. I had my hand broken, I had people choke me out and throw me and pick on me and make fun of me. Bullying and disabilities, I hate to say, go hand in hand because people attack what they don’t understand. It’s really important for people with disabilities to take a stand. They need to be able to defend themselves.
Q. Did the presence of Walt Jr. on “Breaking Bad” help promote awareness of or sensitivity to people with disabilities?
A I think in a small way “Breaking Bad” definitely made a difference. Only 2 percent of characters on television and film actually have a disability. I’m part of a group (Performers with Disabilities, a national committee within the Screen Actors Guild) that is working toward having accurate and honest portrayals of characters with disability. ... “Breaking Bad” was revolutionary because there weren’t many honest characters with a disability that weren’t the bad guy or the victim. Walt Jr. was neither. He was someone that was living his life, living with his disability and being an important part of a family. More characters need to be like this. People don’t understand that having a disability, you live your normal life, you have normal friends.
Q. Now that “Breaking Bad” is over, what TV or movie projects are you busy with?
A I’m on a show called “Switched at Birth” on ABC Family. I play a paraplegic with a traumatic brain injury from a snowboarding accident. And I’m starring in a movie called “Who’s Driving Doug?” It’s about a guy with muscular dystrophy.
Q. I assume you get recognized a lot from “Breaking Bad”?
A I do, but I think I get recognized more for “Switched at Birth,” actually.
Q. Are fans surprised to learn that you’re not paraplegic, even though your character is on “Switched at Birth” – or that you don’t need crutches, like Walt Jr. did in “Breaking Bad”?
A Yeah, it’s funny. I can walk. I can run, actually. I’m not confined to anything. So many people will do a double-take. They’ll look at me, and they’ll say, “Where are the crutches?” “Where’s the chair?” I’m like, “I left that on the set.”