RJ Mitte points out that with “Who’s Driving Doug” he’s technically another imposter. There’s been a move away from casting actors for ethnicities or sexualities or disabilities that they are not; when “The Danish Girl” was coming out, there was furor that the cisgender Eddie Redmayne was playing one of the first trans people. Meanwhile Mitte, now 23, thinks everyone assumes that, since he has a mild case of cerebral palsy, he’s right to play the lead in “Doug”: a young man with muscular dystrophy.
“I’m in the exact same boat. I don’t know anything about muscular dystrophy,” Mitte tells us. “I play a character with a disability; it just happens to not be my disability. No one ever thinks about it like that. They assume all disabilities are the same. They think they all go through the same things. They don’t. [Each disability] is unique in their own way. That’s something we have to evolve from.”
Mitte is most famous for playing Walt Jr., the son of Bryan Cranston’s chemistry teacher-turned-meth lord on “Breaking Bad.” For that show Mitte had to remember what it was like when his cerebral palsy was more intense. Even before filming he had learned to walk without crutches, and today he only sees doctors for check-ups.
“These days CP doesn’t hinder or affect my life, other than I just have to exercise,” the actor explains. “But that’s just part of getting older. I feel like I have the body of a 50-year-old man, pretty much. I’m just falling apart slowly but surely.”
For “Who’s Driving Doug” he had to play someone whose condition confines him to a wheelchair and makes speaking, even eating cumbersome. “With CP I know what that’s like. I live with it every day. Muscular dystrophy, that’s nothing like having cerebral palsy. It’s a completely different disorder,” Mitte says. “I’m all for actors without disabilities playing disabled characters. But if you’re going to do it, do it where it’s accurate and honest and truthful, not just to the [disability] but to the character. You have a lot of actors who only play to the [disability]; they don’t play to the character.”
The film made him think about how we’re all consumed by objects. “A lot of the time we allow things to rule our world,” he says. “When you’re in a chair, that chair is going to define your life — whether you’re going to go out and party with your friends or stay home and sit in your chair all day. Same thing with crutches, same thing with cellphones. This story to a degree is about not letting objects in your life control you and about living your life independently.”
When he broke through on “Breaking Bad,” Mitte found he wasn’t only getting parts for characters with disabilities. “I had a weird, weird, weird selection of roles that people sent to me for auditioning — everything from films like ‘Who’s Driving Doug’ to crime to drama to comedy to horror,” he says. “It ranges so much. I’m lucky that people see me in that range of characters.”
His dream type role, though? “I’m hoping for action roles,” explains Mitte. “I’m hoping for some shoot-outs and fight scenes and good old fashioned fun. That’s what I like.”
One of his first roles had nothing to do with cerebral palsy: When he was 13 he spent a season as an extra on “Hannah Montana,” playing one of Miley Cyrus’ fellow students. Even playing an extra was instructional in learning how to act on screen, which is never easy.
“Acting class will teach you lots of things, but they won’t teach you how to behave on set, how to be part of a crew,” Mitte says. “They won’t teach you how to be on a crackdown time, when you’ve got to get the shot. If an extra is out of place, if someone’s messing up in the background, it throws off filming. You’ve got to be on game. And then they pay you and feed you. What more can you ask for?”
When asked an inevitable question about “Breaking Bad,” Mitte tries to keep one foot forward and the other in the past.
“When it was done I was ready to move onto the next one, keep pushing forward,” says Mitte. “But Walt Jr. will never be done. People will always recognize me for that role, people will always come back to it, or people are just tuning in. He’s still alive in so many ways. But I need to keep putting stuff out there. I need to create a new avenue of work.”