Marquette University Student Government kicked off its 2013-14 Speaker Series with Breaking Bad star RJ Mitte. Over 700 students came to the Varsity on Thursday night to hear Mitte’s thoughts on overcoming adversity, fighting for opportunities and, of course, Breaking Bad.
Before Mitte took the stage, he sat down and talked with MUSG.
MUSG: For people who aren’t familiar with cerebral palsy, can you briefly explain the disorder?
RJ: Cerebral palsy (CP) can be caused from a lot of things. It is most commonly caused from a lack of oxygen in the brain at birth. It damages the parts of the brain that control the fine and gross motor skills and it can be fixed over time. There are very rare cases where it is progressive, luckily mine is not progressive. It mostly affects my muscles and my fine and gross motor skills. It will affect a variety of different elements to the body. A lot of times my brain is constantly having blood flow move to different parts of the brain so there are certain parts of the day, the way I sleep, the way I perform, a lot of times I do not have blood on that part of the brain… I find it very interesting because CP is a very common diagnosis, but most people don't realize that they have it. You can get it from a head injury; you can get it from multiple things.
MUSG: How does your condition differ from that of your character on Breaking Bad?
RJ: My character on Breaking Bad... you know there's really not a big difference. The main difference is his speech and his walking ability. But when I was a kid, I had braces [and] leg mobilizers, which would pretty much straighten my tendons and the legs and make sure everything would not contract because with CP a lot of times your muscles don't work. With CP the muscles contract so it's like a “Charley horse” 24/7. So when I was a kid they would put me in casts and in binding because I was what they called a severe "toe walker". My tendons kept pulling out my leg so my toes would point down and that was a natural occurrence for my feet. So when I was a kid they would bend them back.
Walt Jr. hypothetically went through these exact same treatments. He's been through all of that; he's lived that life. At the time, when I got Jr., Jr. was older than me. He was 15 and I was 14. But now I have grown up older than him because it is a day-by-day show. So it's interesting because when I look back at the beginning of the role and I look back going through my character and when I was creating him, I was thinking that this guy has gone through the same thing that I had to go through when I was a kid and I just used my experience growing up with my disability for him.
MUSG: Throughout your career you’ve tried to educate viewers on living with a disability. What kind of progress do you feel you’ve made?
RJ: My biggest thing is when I talk or when I speak. When I talk about my disability… it's mostly about how no one will ever understand what having a disability is like until they have a disability, until they have something happen to them that puts [a] part of their body out of commission. Even though it's briefly, it's still a form of dealing with a disability and my biggest thing is to talk to people and tell them that no matter what you're going through on a daily basis someone else is going through this, plus more. Someone is always trying to better themselves; someone is always trying to learn more and to be able to control their own body. Most people don't have to fight for that right, but you're talking 11 million people all around the world are fighting to physically control their body.
MUSG: Last Sunday’s episode of Breaking Bad shocked viewers. What is the one plotline that surprised you even as you were reading it?
RJ: Every episode surprises me; every episode has these unique things, all the subtleties [and] all the things that play out. You read these episodes and you're surprised in every episode. It's not a particular moment or a particular episode that surprises you; you'll be surprised in every scene by what's happening. Vince [Gilligan] and the writers do such an amazing job.
Mitte also told MUSG that he is working as an executive producer on a new documentary, Vantage: The Tara Calico Story. The project will tell the story of 19-year-old Tara Calico who disappeared in her hometown of Belen, New Mexico in September 1988. All local efforts to find Calico had failed when, in June 1989, a Polaroid photo of a girl, who is theorized to be Calico, and a boy, identified as Michael Henley, both bound and gagged.
Calico’s disappearance remains unsolved and her body has yet to found, but a recent announcement by a county sheriff brought the case back into the public eye. Mitte says the documentary will focus on “[Tara] and the boys that committed the crime and the families that tried to cover it up.”
After his conversation with MUSG, Mitte went outside and greeted fans entering the Varsity. Then, speaking to a crowd of Breaking Bad fans and eager listeners, Mitte asked you listeners the tough questions. “What [do you do] when you someone is in distress? Are you willing to stand up for them?” Mitte asked.
Mitte’s overall message to students was to seize the opportunities in front of them and not forget the gifts they have. “Everything you put into the world comes back,” he told listeners.
His final words were met with applause from Marquette students and droves of listeners stayed to take photos with Mitte after the event, some even bringing him various breakfast foods as a tribute to Walt Jr.
Don’t miss MUSG’s next speaker, feminist writer and activist Jaclyn Friedman, on Thursday, Oct. 3.