Six years as a core cast member in one of the most critically acclaimed TV series of all time (Breaking Bad) will do wonders for anyone’s career, but for RJ Mitte it was a powerful platform both professionally and personally. Like his character, Walter White Jr., RJ has mild cerebral palsy, and his performance in the hit AMC drama can be considered to have played a major role in bringing issues of disability in the professional world the level of attention it receives today. This Wednesday, as the 2016 Paralympic Games get underway, RJ returns to our screens to help host Channel 4’s coverage of the events in Rio. The Metropolist caught up with the man himself during a brief visit to London, talking disability, dj-ing and de Janeiro:
The Metropolist: Before we get stuck in, we have to mention that it was your birthday this past Sunday! Happy 24th!
RJ Mitte: Thank you so much! It was a good birthday!
TM: Did you get a chance to celebrate before you flew over or are there plans for a London bash? Bit different from Louisiana!
RJ: I didn’t really do anything for my birthday, the past couple of months have been really busy for me, so that’s kind of been a birthday present in itself, I like working!
TM: So you’re helping host Channel 4’s Paralympics Coverage!
RJ: I fly to Rio on the 3rd (September)! I’m very excited to be a part of that, it’s going to be surreal!
TM: It’s interesting how since around 2008, the Paralympics have had a bit of a boost.
RJ: I think so, and I’ve definitely noticed that in the UK. After the 2012 games, they definitely got really enthralled with it and it’s been growing. The athletes have always been killing it, they’ve always had the strength and the determination, but this is the first time they’re being highlighted and I’m so honoured I can be a part of that. These athletes have been training their whole lives to get to where they are. That is a long time, a long time of eating healthy and exercising, I don’t know if I could do it! It really is incredible and I’m so happy that I’m able to be a part of it, and on the GB team as well, because they definitely have a good group of people there.
TM: Now according to The Last Leg host Adam Hills, ticket sales for the games are now surging as apparently the Brazilians tend to only buy late in the game, and only for events they think they’re likely to win. Have you any predictions for the games this year?
RJ: I don’t actually, I try not to predict sports, and I think there’s a lot of people that want it this year, to bring home gold for their countries, and I’m really excited to see that. I love the sport of ‘challenge’, and that’s what we have. We definitely have challengers this year.
TM: Certainly one to watch will be the USA’s own David Brown, born blind, who set world records in the 100m and 200m in 2014, one of many incredible stories. Are there any events you’re especially looking forward to?
RJ: There’s quite a few of them. definitely the 100m and 200m. I’m really looking forward to seeing some archery and fencing, and wheelchair rugby is awesome! I love watching that! I’m going to try and get to as many games as possible. I’m going to be going ninety-to-nothing! And the presenting team we have is such a good group of people. They’re real people. Everyone who’s a part of this at Channel 4, they’re all real people. They all love what they’re doing and to make it the best that they can do, and I think this is definitely going to be the best year for the Paralympic Games.
TM: Everything the Paralympics stands for has been resonating more than ever in the past few years, with conversations about disability seemingly growing in prominence. Why do you think we as a society suddenly appear to have taken a couple of progressive steps this way?
RJ: We want to see realism. There’s this hunger for realism which we don’t quite fully understand, but the Paralympics definitely brings it home. You see these Olympians, they’re all able-bodied, they’re all really strong and really fit and they look like gods. And you look at the Paralympians, and they have these internal things which we can see that affect them, so I think it helps put it on a grounded level that relates to everyone. ‘If they can do it, then I want to try and do it’. I think we really have that mentality of when you see someone like that, people who have the ability far beyond what most people in the world have, yet they’re in a position of having had things taken away, I think people can relate to that.
TM: The media tends to approach this issue one of two ways. One where the audience is encouraged to put themselves in the mindset of someone with a disability or a condition (e.g. Tyrion Lannister, Stephen Hawking), or one of normalization, where the impetus is not making a fuss at all. Do you think there’s a missing ingredient or a middle-ground yet to be established?
RJ: I think there’s a factor of, when you have Paralympians, and you see these people, they’re double amputees, and they’re beating times, they’re setting world records! They’re changing the face of what people see themselves as, and a lot of people view themselves as weak individuals. And the thing is, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and when you see these Olympians and Paralympians, people see the strength and the human resilience of what we are as a species, and I think that’s what we really want to strive for. They really represent us, and when you see that Olympian or Paralympian fighting for your country, I think that resonates with people as a whole, and allows people to be more invested. And it’s just going to continue to evolve.
TM: Last year you spoke at the Oxford Union about your work with SCOPE and your mutual motivation to reshape ideas of perfection. This is very much at the heart and soul of the Paralympics, but the entertainment business seems more focused on pursuing idealized perfection. How have your experiences influenced your outlook in this way?
RJ: They’ve definitely influenced my outlook, both positively and negatively. I think we have a long way to go when it comes down to changing the perception of what we are on a media platform, and in general as a society. But I think we’re growing, and I’m lucky enough to be part of this with Channel 4. They’re fighting for that, they’re changing the future of how people view each other and that’s something we need more of. I think a number of networks are trying to do it, but nothing compares to what Channel 4 is doing now.
TM: One of the biggest runaway successes of the last Paralympic Games was Channel 4’s The Last Leg. Nowadays it’s practically the UK’s equivalent to The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver!
RJ: In a way yes! It has that humour, it has the weight. Yes it has people with disabilities, but it’s not about that. It’s about the humour and the world and realism and truth, and I think that’s what’s really important to show. I think they’re definitely capturing that.
TM: Will you be popping up on a new series of The Last Leg again by any chance?
RJ: I don’t know, but all the guys are going to be down in Rio and I think I’ll be visiting the studio when I’m there so I’ll be causing some trouble with them!
TM: Is there anything else we can look forward to hearing about from you in the near future?
RJ: Right now just getting ready for the Paralympics. I just shot a movie up in Canada called The Recall, has a bunch of cool people, Wesley Snipes, Niko Pepaj, Jedidiah Goodacre. I’m not quite sure what it’s going to look like but that’ll probably come out in a year or two. I’m going to come up probably next year, next summer, with a new DJ-ing tour. I haven’t quite figured out how I want to present it. But I’m working everyday, getting DJ sets ready, been in the recording studio, just trying to create things! I’ve got a lot of stuff coming out and we’ll see what happens!
Catch RJ Mitte on Channel 4’s Paralympics Coverage from 7th September!