‘Breaking Bad’ and the Legacy of Disabled Representation in Peak TV

"There's always pressure, be it great or a bit small," RJ Mitte said of the aftermath of playing Walt Jr. for five years.
THIS CLOSE, RJ Mitte in 'Who We Are',  (Season 1, Episode 2, aired February 14, 2018), ph: Gunther Campine /  © Sundance Now / courtesy Everett Collection
RJ Mitte
©Sundance Film Series/Courtesy Everett C / Everett Collection

Breaking Bad” actor RJ Mitte remembers the first time he saw actors with a disabilities onscreen — it was Geri Jewell on “The Facts of Life” and “Seinfeld” actor Danny Woodburn. But Mitte didn’t immediately link their disability with difference: “I never had the correlation of ‘Oh, that person has a disability,'” Mitte told IndieWire. It’s ironic that, to a generation of viewers, Mitte himself became the first person with a disability they saw on television when he played Bryan Cranston’s son Walt Jr. on the series from 2008 to its conclusion in 2013.

That pressure of being the first isn’t one Mitte necessarily feels, because he chooses to channel it away from being a disabled performer, to a performer in general. “There’s always pressure, be it great or a bit small,” he said. “The more pressure you put on me the better. I will have more reason to do more. Now, is that sustainable? No.” For him, he looks at the success in a grander place. “Breaking Bad” became a series that transformed the landscape of what we now know as “peak TV,” and was a step in the transformation of television into a cinematic art form. On that level, the pressure for him is now high because of how the series itself is revered.

Mitte is humble about his presence on the show, saying he didn’t necessarily think of the part as breaking any ground. “It was a part,” he said. And yet, Mitte is also well aware of his status as a trailblazer and advocate for greater disability inclusion. He views himself as one of a continuum: “When it comes to the pressure of wanting to be a positive advocate and be willing to have that ability to inspire…I’m one of many that carry this,” he said. “If you have the ability to be in the spotlight, if you have the ability to make a difference [then] you have that weight on your shoulders.”

And Mitte has certainly made a difference in the world of disabled representation. Despite 20 percent of the United States having a disability, disabled actors don’t even make up 1 percent of the landscape. Mitte’s prominent role on an award-winning series showed that actors with disabilities could be on television — it was just up to showrunners to give them the opportunity.

Mitte, who auditioned five times for the part of Walt Jr., said that playing a drug kingpin’s son gave him the chance to employ cerebral palsy in a character that wasn’t like him but had relatable elements. When it came to appearing on-set, Mitte said there were areas he could bring in his life experiences. “When it comes to mannerisms and posturing, how I hold myself, how I hold my crutches….it’s finding where I could put subtleties in that and highlight [my performance,]” he said.

When it comes to accessibility concerns on set then and now, Mitte said it’s a conversation that everyone should focus on as it helps the entire production. “It’s not so much a conversation I have to have,” he said. “But it’s a conversation I like to have for every actor.” He said he’s always aware of how a set is accessible or not, but understands it’s not always possible to make the area completely hospitable to every performer — but that’s not to say that there shouldn’t be a good-faith effort to make the set work. “It’s a joint effort, and this is not just for people with disabilities who are actors or performers,” he said. “This is for every performer.”

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