RJ Mitte will always be remembered for his role on the beloved television drama, Breaking Bad. The iconic show made Mitte a star and his portrayal of Walter White, Jr. was an intricate aspect of Breaking Bad for its illustrious 5 season run.
The young actor has recently earned critical acclaim for his role in the new film, Who’s Driving Doug. The drama centers on a sheltered college student, Doug (played by Mitte), and how his life changes forever when he hires an underachieving driver. Mitte’s character in the film has muscular dystrophy and the actor has dedicated much of his time away from cameras to being an advocate for people with disabilities. Mitte has also been very vocal about the importance of ending bullying in our society—whether online or in our everyday lives. Mitte has cerebral palsy in real life and his understanding of the complexities that face people with disabilities comes from his own experiences.
I spoke with RJ Mitte about his new film, the challenges that come with playing a character with disabilities and the dangers of not confronting bullies in our society.
How did you get involved in the film, Who’s Driving Doug?
Michael Carnick loosely based the film on things he has seen in his life. He was looking for an actor to play himself. I don’t know why he thought I could do it—but he reached out to me and asked me to do it. When it came I was a little reluctant because of the type of role it would be.
Why were you reluctant at first to take on the role of Doug?
It made me nervous to play a character with muscular dystrophy. I wasn’t sure if I was right for that character or if I could be that character. I don’t have that disability and I don’t understand that disability. It’s not my personal affliction. I have personal afflictions but that’s not one I have. When it comes down to playing a character with disabilities—every disability is different.
What kind of research did you do to get to the point where you felt comfortable playing a character with muscular dystrophy?
I did my research. Michael Carnick has muscular dystrophy so I tried to learn a lot from him. I have a history with disabilities, and I have worked with kids with disabilities, so I had a general idea of what he goes through. I tried to base the role on how Michael sees himself and not drown the role in the fact that the character is disabled. I think I captured that and I hope the audience feels the same way. I don’t think you have to have a disability to play a character with a disability.
Does it bring an added pressure to your performance when you are portraying a character with a disability? Like you said, everyone with a disability is different but people with disabilities rarely get to see themselves in films. Did you think about any of that while making Who’s Driving Doug?
I accepted this role to tell a story about a community that isn’t represented often on film and in television. I think there is a lot of pressure to that—I have to present the character properly. I have to make sure people can relate to the character…and not just people with disabilities…but everyone. I think the whole crew came together and made a story everyone will enjoy—people with disabilities and without.
You have been a strong advocate against bullying and harassment online. Why is that such a passion of yours?
We don’t realize how much damage bullying is causing in our society. Social media is really affecting our lives outside that imaginary world. It’s changing our mindsets and behaviors. We can’t segregate ourselves from each other. We have to open up to each other and try to understand each other. We can’t just throw hate at people. We have to show people they can grow. We shouldn’t be in fear of people on a computer screen.
Do the bullies and people that are trying to place fear in others really understand what they are doing? Especially when it comes to social media and online harassment—does the disconnect that comes with the internet and social media make it hard for people to grasp the damage they are doing?
I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that the bullies are afraid too. Something makes them think bullying and pushing people out the way will get them somewhere. If you aren’t growing and learning with others you are lost. We all have fear and when people are afraid they have the tendency to attack things. They attack things they don’t understand or don’t want to understand.
How can we fix this problem? Is it just about rallying against the bullies and those who attack others? How can we fix the issue as a society, in your mind?
People see people that need help but they won’t help them. People see people being picked on and don’t help. A lot of times people stand around and record people that are being picked on. That needs to change. We need to remind people that they are leaders—we aren’t born to follow. We are all born to lead and not follow. We don’t have to be manipulated—we don’t have to follow someone’s manipulation. We are born to create our own lives and our own destinies.