Breaking Bad star RJ Mitte on surviving bullying, trolls and Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls
“If you don’t have disabled people on television, it tells the public they don’t exist”
RJ Mitte knows no limits. At 25, he has lived through more than most people twice his age.
Aged three, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, the neurological condition which affects movement and coordination.
Eleven years later, he had secured the role of Walter White Jr in Breaking Bad, often dubbed as “the best TV show of all time”.
He was the main breadwinner for his family at this point – his father was absent and his mother was paralysed after a truck ploughed into her car at 40mph.
Since then, he’s modelled for Vivienne Westwood and Gap and presented the Rio Paralympics for Channel 4.
Tonight, we’re set to see him “going feral” on the Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls.
And when we spoke, he’d just broken his heel because he landed on a rock when jumping into Lake Travis, Texas. But that didn’t stop him going jet-skiing straight afterwards.
Read our catch-up below with the unstoppable RJ Mitte, where he tells us about Breaking Bad fame, how life’s an adult playground and his adventures on the Island…
When was the moment you realised Breaking Bad had changed your life?
We went to a Comic Con in San Diego at the end of the last series and it was just insane. That’s when we were like, 'Oh my god. This is what this is. I can't believe it.'
We walked out on stage to seven thousand people, and it was just this rock star moment. A very surreal experience. It was literally a roar when we came out, like a Bon Jovi set. It was scary as well as exciting and emotional.
We didn't realise what we had ‘til it was gone and I was like, 'Well, I could have asked for more money!'
Four years later – following a whirlwind of modelling campaigns, movies and Paralympics – you’re on the Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls. What made you decide to do it?
I was always a big survival show fan – I used to watch a lot of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears. I love the outdoors and grew up fishing and hunting, I was always outside with go karts and dirt bikes and hiking… the whole nine yards.
When I got the invite I was like, 'Let's do this!' I started brushing up on indigenous plants straight away and learning about the environment and survival tactics.
What was the hardest thing about surviving in the wild?
The human factor, for sure. Tribe mentality is such a big part of this and it's something you either have or you don’t have… and I don’t necessarily have it.
My CP wasn’t too much of a factor in this, I was very lucky. Water was a big thing for me just because of my elasticity and muscle, but for the most part my CP didn’t really bother me too much when it came down to the everyday.
"I never backed down and I never let someone belittle me"
At school you were bullied because of your CP, is that something you still endure as an adult?
I dealt with my fair share of bullies in school – and I still deal with my fair share of bullies in life. I think we all have some people that bully us. But if you have a physical disability and you're wearing braces and a cast, people look at that as weakness, and at school they attack you for it. I got pushed and made fun of and I never backed down and I never let someone belittle me. I still don't. It made me who I am today.
My experience of this world is that we never get out of high school. No matter how old we are, no matter where we go, what we know, we never get out of high school. You have your cliques, you have your bullies… it's like an adult playground.
What do you think of social media and the whole trolling phenomenon?
I’m not a big social media fan. I think it's a great platform and a great tool, but it's completely abused. I have been trolled a little bit but luckily my trolls have trolls. I’ve got my own little army. There’s the random ignorant people and then those people who fight against that ignorance and call those people out.
"You can't really defend yourself on social media"
Do you read everything the trolls say?
I can read it. I have no problem reading it. It doesn’t really hurt my feelings – it's more hurtful to others. And there's nothing you can do... you can’t fight a troll because you can't really defend yourself on social media. You can’t really attack and if you do then you're no better than them.
Have you experienced prejudice or unfair treatment in the TV industry because of CP?
There's a lot of times I just don't get called in to work. It's not that I experience prejudice, because now everyone is so PC. I think sometimes business is business, but we need to be more accepting.
Often non-disabled actors are cast in disabled roles, the most famous example being Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, what do you think about that?
I think there are pros and cons to it… but there are more cons than pros when it comes down to the community that I'm in.
If you have a disability, and you see no one like you on television, what does that tell you? That tells a lot of people that they're alone. That there's no one like them on television and that's not entirely true. If you don't have disabled people on television it tells the public that they don’t exist. We need more.
At the same time though, as an actor, it is our job to play characters that are not us, and to try and learn from these roles. So I think it’s important for someone that doesn’t have a disability to experience and understand a disability as best they can.
But they'll never fully understand what it is to have it. So, in the end, it’s a double-edged sword.
Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls begins on Tuesday 29th August at 9.15pm on Channel 4