Edinburgh TV Fest: 'Breaking Bad’ Star R.J. Mitte Calls for More Chances for Disabled People Onscreen

RJ Mitte Headshot - P 2012
Evan Lane

RJ Mitte Headshot - P 2012

He tells the annual industry gathering that people with disabilities are still sometimes seen as "a liability factor."

Breaking Bad star R.J. Mitte in an appearance at the Edinburgh Television Festival on Wednesday called on the entertainment industry to give disabled talent more opportunities, and to boost the number of disabled people and characters shown on TV. 

Speaking on a panel entitled “London 2012 to Rio 2016: The Superhumans struggle for equality,” he called on writers, directors and casting folks to be more open to working with disabled actors and actresses. "We don't need to be fighting against letting people have options for the roles," he said. "If there is an able-bodied role, everyone should be allowed to audition for it. The character is a character in the story. It doesn't mean I will get it ... but we all have that right to audition."

Mitte portrayed Walter "Flynn" White Jr. on AMC hit show Breaking Bad. Like the character, he has mild cerebral palsy. He has also appeared in Switched at Birth. Earlier this summer, it was announced that he would be part of British broadcaster Channel 4's coverage of the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.

Only about 2 percent of people on TV programming worldwide are disabled, a figure that is “so tiny” when considering how many people have physical or mental disabilities, Mitte said.

“It’s not easy to break into this industry in general, let alone [when] having a disability,” he said. “It’s a rough business. There are a lot of people that will prey on you. Especially if you are in a vulnerable position, people a lot of times look at that as a weakness. The thing it is actually the opposite. When you have something like we do … it gives you power and it gives you an opportunity to grow and to accept this challenge to evolve.”

Asked about past comments he made about doubting that he would get hired as the lead actor for a show, he explained that he had referred to big Hollywood networks and studio productions. "The thing is they are fearful that, 'If we give them an 18- or 20-hour workload, shooting a six-month series ... we are going to kill them,'" he said in explaining the thinking. "I don't think it's just that, but there is a ... factor in there that they are like, 'We might kill this dude — literally.'"

He added that since entertainment companies are not just creative places, but also businesses, industry people still sometimes see disabled talent as "a liability factor." He added: "If you are putting someone as a lead ... they are like 'Can we get everything?'"

Mitte also said that often roles first go to big Hollywood agencies and are therefore not open to less experienced disabled actors who need to learn the craft further.

Mitte was joined on the panel by TV host Sophie Morgan, Dan Brooke, chief marketing and communications officer of Channel 4; Amanda Ariss, executive director of the Creative Diversity Network; and Alison Walsh, disability lead at the BBC. The panel looked at whether there has been a shift in the portrayal of disability onscreen and whether attitudes are changing towards disabled talent.