ED ROBERTS AWARD, 2020
At the age of 16, RJ Mitte rose to international acclaim for his role as Walter “Flynn” White Jr. in AMC’s Breaking Bad. As one of the most popular television shows of the last decade, "Breaking Bad" reached audiences beyond its expected scope -- while primarily urban adult audiences were watching premium television at that time, this show - taking place in Albuquerque, New Mexico - found popularity with rural crowds, young people, and viewers outside of the United States. RJ’s role as Walt Jr. was remarkable, one reason being that he truthfully portrays a teenager’s life with cerebral palsy, which RJ himself has. With a platform this large, RJ embraced an opportunity for public advocacy, viewing it as a personal responsibility.
“With a show like Breaking Bad, you’re able to affect people and open the door to provide more opportunities. It’s a privilege and honor to make that happen, and it’s a responsibility bigger than yourself. Your actions alone don’t dictate your life, but they can make the lives of those around you better.”
RJ grew up in Louisiana and Texas where he was surrounded by a supportive family who nurtured in him a will to achieve. He credits his grandparents for teaching him at a young age to remove “I can’t” from his vocabulary. “Whether you can or can’t achieve your goals is a conscious decision. It’s not that you can or you can’t. It’s that you won’t,” RJ proposed.
This mindset mirrors one of the independent living’s animating principles, which is that people with disabilities’ should forget about what we can’t do and focus on what we want to do, and then determine how to make it happen.
RJ agreed, “I think that’s the most practical approach possible - make your goals, figure out how to achieve them, and face it head-on.”
Championing this attitude, RJ has experience in various arenas - film and television, fashion, sports - but was most determined to be an actor. He recognizes that a strong will does not negate the obstacles that must be overcome; the nature of the film industry is one where you have to keep pushing forward, and if you don’t have thick skin, you better grow it. “It literally takes everything from you to make the dream happen,” he shared.
RJ has certainly given acting all he’s got. He mentioned that he deliberately chooses roles that are close to his heart and that will push him to see different aspects of who he is, both as a person and as a performer. RJ said, “I prefer roles that stand out and that you don’t usually see -- the awkward, quirky, almost avant-garde-ish things. If it’s a good part and well-written, I’m down.”
For the last four years, RJ has poured himself into the making of Triumph, a film he stars in and executive-produced. It follows a teenager with cerebral palsy and his journey towards becoming a wrestler.
With all the stylistic flair of a John Hughes flick, the film is currently in post-production and refining its soundtrack of 80s hits. Purchasing the rights to many of these songs can be quite expensive, and definitely out of the price range for a low-budget indie film. So, RJ and the film’s crew avoided this obstacle with a creative solution: instead of buying the rights, they are planning to hire a crew of artists with disabilities to sing, play, and remaster the music.
Creating opportunities like this is exactly the kind of vision RJ described when discussing fostering vibrant communities. “Having a healthy community and the ability to provide opportunities where we can move forward is something that’s really freeing, alongside being a lot of responsibility. I don’t want people to forget that they have power.”
RJ is now pursuing and promoting opportunities outside of just acting, laughing that “there’s always something going on with me.” He likes trying new things and taking on new responsibilities, and recently assumed the role of President at his family’s foundation, the Mitte Foundation. The foundation provides scholarships and grants to organizations in central and rural Texas and focuses on education, disability services, aging, and youth development. RJ was excited to announce that this year, all of the high school students to whom the foundation recently pledged college scholarships will be graduating from secondary school.
Across the different spaces he occupies as an actor, producer, and foundation president, RJ emphasized that the biggest takeaway from his work is seeing that you can actually make a difference. “It comes in various capacities, but it’s great to see that what you’ve done has an effect on people. And it’s great to see results. Even if they’re positive or negative, seeing results matters. Something happened, and that’s more than you can say for most.” Thinking like this comprises RJ’s rejection of an “I can’t” mentality - whether you win or lose, “you come back and do it again. You say, ‘thank you, sir, may I have another?’ And then you keep going.”