By Lexie Schapitl
An hour before the doors even opened, a line of excited UMD students and avid “Breaking Bad” fans began to gather outside the Adele H. Stamp Student Union grand ballroom. The line quickly snaked through Stamp as hundreds of people arrived to hear RJ Mitte, the 21-year-old actor of “Breaking Bad” fame, speak.
Despite his affiliation with the drama about a cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher turned meth king, Mitte shared his experiences with cerebral palsy last night in a presentation called “Overcoming Adversity: Turning a Disadvantage into an Advantage,” sponsored by Student Entertainment Events.
Mitte is one of the 764,000 children and adults in the United States who currently have cerebral palsy, a disorder that can affect one’s motor ability, muscle control, and coordination, according to cerebralpalsy.org.
“I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when I was three and I’ve been working my whole live to overcome that disability,” Mitte said.
Mitte moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career at the age of 13. He began taking acting classes and working as a background extra on “Hannah Montana” and “Everybody Hates Chris.” Mitte then got his big break playing Walter Jr. on AMC’s critically acclaimed drama.
“If you really want to do it, it’s one hell of a job,” Mitte said of his acting career.
“It’s really one of the best jobs you can have.”
While Mitte did talk about his experience with “Breaking Bad,” he focused on bullying, awareness, and his cerebral palsy, which he said “opened up a whole new world” for him.
“The things that I had to go through to get to walk, to talk, to move my hands, to pretty much fight for my independence, that is something that no one else can take away from me” he said. “That is something no one else can take and use against me. That’s what I did. I did this. I moved forward. I created this.”
In addition to this valuable knowledge and experience, Mitte’s disability has also given him the opportunity to work with and inspire others.
“I was always trying to branch out and to tell people that no matter what you have, no matter what someone has done, no matter what position that people are trying to put you in, that you can always change,” Mitte said.
“You can always grow, you can always take your life and elevate that into a new direction, into a new path by a very simple gesture.”
Mitte has worked with various organizations dedicated to acceptance and fighting bullying, including Pacer and I AM PWD: Inclusions in the Arts and Media of People with Disabilities, and Diversity. In his speech, he stressed that anyone can contribute to these causes.
“Everyone in this room is capable of making their world a better place and elevating someone else’s life. It’s really, really simple,” Mitte said.
“It’s all about getting active, getting out there, making that first step because you never know where that first step will lead you.”
Mitte also discussed how he managed to overcome the obstacles associated with the disorder, and said that even he couldn’t believe where his work would end up taking him.
Despite the hardships Mitte faced, he did not seem to see himself as “disabled,” but rather said that “everyone is disabled in their own way, and it’s about what are you willing to do with that disability: what are you willing to do to make your world better.”
Following Mitte’s lecture, select students had the opportunity to participate in a question and answer forum. In this discussion, Mitte shared acting advice, hugged two lucky girls, and shockingly revealed that he, unlike his character, almost never eats breakfast. After the Q & A was over, hundreds waited in line to meet and greet the actor.
“I think it’s an exciting event for students simply coming off the coattails of breaking bad,” said Shadia Weeks, a senior communications major and the public relations director of Student Entertainment Events. “I think that so many people were in love with that show, and considering that we now have an honors seminar devoted specifically to it coming up in the spring, I think it’s a very relevant entity and culture on our campus.”
A huge fan of “Breaking Bad” and an aspiring actress, freshman journalism major Summer Bedard said that the event “changed [her] life.”
“I thought it honestly inspired me so much more than anything I’ve ever encountered so far in my journey,” Bedard said. “I’m so happy to have met him. I’m so happy to have had this opportunity.”
Sophomore history major Alyssa Thompson also enjoyed the presentation, although she wished students had asked better questions during the question and answer portion of the event. She also added that Mitte looked “really handsome” in his gray Zara suit.
“I really liked what he had to say and I think he talked about good things,” Thompson said. “I think that he really thinks that having people with disabilities in TV is really, really important and it’s something he really believes in…”
During his talk, Mitte cited that about 40 percent of people worldwide have some sort of disability, while only two percent of people on television do. He hopes to see more disabled character on television to raise awareness and promote honesty and realism, added Mitte.
One thing that seemed to strike members of the audience was Mitte’s relatability.
“I don’t know if its because he’s so new to fame or because he’s a genuinely great person,” Bedard said, “but it really struck me how down to earth he was, how funny he was. It was remarkable; he sounds like a great human being.”
Thompson said that Mitte even seemed “surprised by his own fame.”
“He was a funny guy,” said freshman computer science major Benjamin Seto.
“He was very colloquial in his speaking, so you felt like you were part of what he was saying, which made his point stronger.”
Seto also said that Mitte’s point was “kind of cliché,” but still “very meaningful.” He also noted that the meet-and-greet procedure was somewhat chaotic and unorganized.
Despite these issues, Seto and the rest of the crowd, seemed to both enjoy the presentation and accept Mitte’s message.
“Whether or not he’s from TV, he’s an actor, he’s famous, anything like that, he’s also bringing a very important message to the campus. He’s talking about diversity and bullying and awareness and disabilities, and he’s bringing a different perspective to students,” Weeks said.
“They might be coming to see a famous TV star, someone that they followed for the past 5 years on AMC, and who they loved his character but they’re also going to meet a real person who’s bringing his own personal life experiences to light, and hopefully they’ll be able to learn something more than just being able to see a famous person.
“Mr. Mitte stepped out from behind the cameras tonight and took his act live,” freshman finance major Rob Munroe said. “No script, no breaks, no retakes. His true character was shown tonight, and it was well received.”