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Disability can’t disguise talent

  • February 26, 2008
  • Bruce Bromley

Teen with cerebral palsy is new star
BY GARY STRAUSS • USA TODAY • February 23, 2008

RJ Mitte has cerebral palsy like the character he plays
on AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” but he had to learn to use
crutches for the role

RJ Mitte provides a unique authenticity to the disabled character he plays on AMC’s edgy new series “Breaking Bad” (10 p.m. Sundays). \

Walter White Jr. has cerebral palsy. So does Mitte, 16.
But the lanky, dark-haired teen had to adjust to the role. He has a mild case of the neurologic disorder, and therapy helped overcome some of its more pronounced symptoms. His character uses crutches and has a different speech pattern.

“Getting used to (Walter’s) crutches was really hard because I’d never used them,” Mitte says. “I had to learn where to put my feet and how to use my weight, and speak with more of a slur.”

“Bad” centers on terminally ill high school chemistry professor Walter White (Bryan Cranston, “Malcolm in the Middle”). Diagnosed with inoperable cancer, White decides to build a slush fund for his family, using his science background to concoct a prized version of the street drug crystal meth.

So far, the conflicted White has kept his illicit activities to himself. But he has a loving relationship with his son, Walter Jr., who’s a bit of a smart-aleck at heart, a good kid who doesn’t pity himself. “He just wants to be treated like everybody else,” Mitte says.

That’s precisely how RJ wants to be viewed, says his mother, Dyna. “We never wanted him to think he couldn’t accomplish what he wanted in life. He just hopes other people with disabilities set their goals high. He’s a role model. I’m very proud of him.”

Still, Mitte is a rarity in a Hollywood focused on brawn and beauty. “Sometimes, if there’s a choice between someone disabled who has never acted and a talented, able-bodied actor who’s had acting jobs, the decision is to go with someone who has the experience,” says “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan. “The shame of it is that there’s wonderfully talented, untapped talent that doesn’t get a chance to work.”

“Breaking Bad” is Mitte’s first major role. Though he has fun on the set and enjoys his cast mates, he’s still adjusting to being in front of the camera. “It’s cool and it’s scary at the same time,” he says.

Cranston, however, says Mitte is a natural. “He brings a sensibility to the work. There was an ad-libbed scene in the pilot where he threw out a line. I was nicely surprised. He’s got very good instincts.”

Gilligan, 41, wrote the part of Walter Jr. to honor a friend, now deceased, from his college days at New York University. “What I love about RJ is he’s like his character: He doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He’s a teenager who just happens to have cerebral palsy.”

He also has become something of a babe magnet around “Bad’s” Albuquerque set. “Women find him to be catnip; they’re dreamy,” Gilligan says. “I think he’ll have a big career ahead of him.”

Mitte never figured he’d be an actor. The Louisiana native moved to Hollywood after his sister, Lacianne, now 4, was spotted by a talent agent in late 2005. Talent manager Addison Witt then suggested RJ might be actor material.

“We saw qualities in him right away — he’s extremely photogenic and has charisma — he’s got a witty, somewhat snarky sense of humor,” Witt says.

Typically, casting directors can’t distinguish him from able-bodied actors. “At first, we didn’t tell them. So it would be a shock when they found out,” Mitte says. “Some act a tiny bit weird. I just make them laugh, and they’re fine.”