Find What Affects You: An Interview With RJ Mitte

RJ Mitte is perhaps best known for his breakout performance as Walter White’s breakfast-loving son in Breaking Bad, but that’s far from the only notable thing he’s been up to. The Texan actor has kept himself consistently busy since the show ended in 2013 — not only by working on numerous other film and television projects, but also through a range of philanthropic efforts that reveal his commitment to an ethos of ‘giving back’.

One of his most recent projects is the Australian rom-com Standing Up for Sunny (dir. Steven Vidler), in which Mitte plays Travis, a grumpy loner with cerebral palsy who falls for a comedian named Sunny (Philippa Northeast). Ahead of the film’s world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, Ivana Brehas spoke with RJ Mitte about mental health, the Australian film industry, and kung-fu movies.

Ivana Brehas: What have you been up to today?

RJ Mitte: I’m super busy. I’m down in Brownsville, Texas, doing some work with a community and cultural district down here in South Texas.

IB: What work are you doing?

RM: I have a foundation based in Austin, Texas. We focus on scholarships and grants; we work with foundations and philanthropic endeavours all across the world – I try to help communities out as much as possible; I’m a big community-first mentality guy. Without community, what do we have? All day I’ve been in meetings with architects and different entrepreneurships and seed programs, incubator programs, stuff like that. Developing that and working in communities on that basis. That’s been part of what I do for the past almost two decades now. I have a movie that I’m possibly in, but wrapping up here, gonna head to New York – I’m actually gonna go see Bryan Cranston in a play on Broadway this week. Then back to L.A., and off to the land of Oz!

IB: What do you think of the Australian film industry?

RM: I love it. Australia’s a great country. I’m a really big fan of Illawarra; I think it’s such an amazing environment — and I love Sydney and Wollongong. I’ve spent time in Adelaide, in Melbourne, in a few other places, and it’s really a great community. Working in the film industry there was a pleasure. I mean, Australian actors have been invading American cinema. (laughs) The level of professionalism in Australia is apparent, even from your students, and the quality of work that comes out is at such a high level. It really is remarkable to see, on the student aspect, the next ten to 20 years of industry coming out of Australia. And Steve [Vidler] has such a great demeanour with how he presents everything – it’s really special.

IB: I saw you give a talk at the Wheeler Centre four years ago, and I remember thinking, “I hope someone puts this guy in a rom-com.” I don’t know why. I just thought you had this ‘romantic lead’ vibe. So I was really excited when I heard about Standing Up for Sunny.

RM: Yeah, it was a special thing. When I first read the script, it had so much soul and so much life to it, and the proper tone that made it special.

IB: What really stood out to me was that there were multiple characters in the film that had a disability or mental illness – it wasn’t just your character, Travis. He wasn’t isolated in the film. I thought that was more realistic, that there was also Gordo, who’s blind, and Sunny, dealing with bulimia.

RM: It affects so much. People forget that everyone is facing an obstacle. Everyone has a hurdle to overcome. Some people don’t look at that as a disability. They go, “Oh, that’s just something that I do. That’s just the quirk that I have. That’s not being disabled”, because no-one likes to be labelled that. As a person that has a disability, by definition, I don’t view it as such. I think as a whole, the term just devalues what I have to explain. But I’m okay with that. I don’t want to explain the whole thing. I’m like, “I have a disability.” Done. But I find people aren’t willing to accept their own faults, weaknesses or illnesses. You forget that mental illness is such an important aspect of who we are. Travis is facing mental illness; Sunny is facing mental illness; Gordo — they’re all facing these inner things that make them them, and that by definition of disability, are disabling to them. And I think it did such a great job. Italia [Hunt] – I love Italia, man. He’s the best.

IB: He’s great.

RM: He’s such an amazing actor, and we were very lucky to have him — and Philippa [Northeast], and oh my God, Sam [Reid] as well. Steven got an amazing team together, from our cast to our crew. It really was a surreal experience as a whole. I was living the Australian dream, y’know? I was working in Newtown and living in Bondi – that’s the dream for an actor, isn’t it? To work in the hipster capital of Sydney and live by Bondi Beach.

IB: Yeah, that sounds beautiful.

RM: It was amazing. I was so happy that I got to experience that, and the friends and the relationships that I made still continue today. I had a blast.

IB: Your perspective on things – how you talk about things like fame, and work, and responsibility – it almost seems old-fashioned to me, in that you seem very sincere, optimistic and hard-working. I don’t feel like I see that very much these days. Where do you think that attitude came from?

RM: I think my views come from my grandparents – that’s probably why it sounds like an older mentality (laughs). It stems from them and what they instilled in me — and that was to work hard, and be aware, and do things for others, not just for yourself. The mentality of what we are and what we do, and how we present ourselves to each other — I find that more often than not, people are hiding who they are as individuals, and living behind a mask. And that’s a lot of work. And I think that’s where all the work goes. But if you look at everything that I post, and everything that I do, that’s me. That’s who I am; that’s what I am; that’s where I’m at. I’m not trying to make anything else other than what it is. I find a lot of people have that ‘take it and make it better’ mentality. It’s important to have that, but at the same time, not hiding who you are. Presenting yourself. Standing up for what you believe in, not what someone’s telling you to believe in. I have a very strong opinion of this world in many regards, but at the same time, I’m always adapting and learning. I’m just learning, and that is key.

IB: Does that affect the decisions you make in terms of who you collaborate with? Wanting to work with people who are also honest, and have that perspective?

RM: It’s kind of hard to find that. I’ve gotta pay rent, just like everybody else. I mean, rent comes due on the 1st, so on the whole, I’m more like a mercenary. (laughs) But for the most part, I only pick the projects that I wholeheartedly believe in, and that I feel that I can contribute to in any way. Standing Up for Sunny was one where I really believed in it. It was a short, sweet project – but luckily we had two weeks of prep. I’d never actually got to have a job where I prep. I was like, “What is this? This is amazing!” Normally, it would be like, “Alright, we’re shooting a whole movie and we’ve got 12 days and we’re starting today.”

IB: Can you tell me a bit about Now Apocalypse? I don’t have Stan, the streaming service it’s on in Australia, so I haven’t been able to see it yet…

RM: [mock-horror] What?!

IB: I know. I’m a traitor to my country. But what can you tell me about your character, and your experience on the show?

RM: I loved it. Gregg Araki is an amazing, creative, artistic man, and he created a very special story that transcends sexuality, that transcends Hollywood, and that is — like Standing Up for Sunny — very fun. Like, “Oh my God, what’s happening? What’s happening to these people?” And that’s what’s very special about the work that I’ve been able to do. I play this character that makes vases and plants and falls in love with the other main character, and it’s… you know what? The best way to sum it up: it’s far out, man. (laughs)

IB: Do you get into Method-type stuff? Did you start making vases?

RM: I mean, everything I do is based in reality. Everything is based on real emotion and real action. I do all my own stunts – I put that in my contract. So when I was getting my ass whooped in Standing Up for Sunny, I was getting my ass whooped. I really try to take my inner being, stretch it in my imagination as far as possible, let it go, and turn into the person that I will become for that time. But the difference is for me, as soon as I hear “Cut”, that person goes.

IB: You’re not someone who goes home and is like, “Oh, the character’s still with me”?

RM: It carries. Oh, it carries. When you are raising inner demons and inner emotions on a level that actually will resonate with an audience, you’re gonna feel it, and you’re gonna carry it with you. The difference is: you are in control of your emotions, not the other way around. And you maintain that, and you check that, and you don’t allow yourself to be caught up in your inner life. To sum up acting: it’s lying. You’re lying. You’re lying that you’re a different person. You’re telling someone something that is not technically true, and you dwell on that. And then eventually what happens with any lie is, you tell enough people, everyone believes that it’s a fact. And eventually, that’s what you have to tell yourself — this is a truth. That’s what my basis comes from: what is that truth?

IB: I guess that’s why it’s so important to make sure you’re being honest and you believe in the ‘lie’ that you’re telling.

RM: All these actors, and all these individuals that need to go off to rehab, or wellness camps, or whatever it may be, they allow their depression — or whatever it may be that helps them get to that emotional level — to control them.

IB: Do you feel like there are good support systems for that in the film industry? Do you feel supported as an actor, if something is difficult, or taking a toll on you?

RM: No, not at all. I think they prey on that. I think that’s an opportunity for – no offense – a journalist, or another actor, or another person, to utilise your weakness against you. I don’t believe there’s a support system in this industry. And that’s why a lot of people now are like, “Oh my God, the industry did this and that”, or “it’s so dirty” and “it’s so tainted”, and it’s like, “No, that’s been the business. That’s the business.” People now have more access to it, so they see it on the regular, and they hear about the bad guys. But I mean, as a whole, we’re dealing in bodies. “Hire that person, fire that person. What can they do? Oh, they’re trash. They gained weight.” But that’s called casting.

IB: Do you think there’s a need for change or improvement in the casting process?

RM: Yes and no. I think there needs to be more accessibility – or, not accessibility, but a mindset change. But as a whole, casting directors’ job is to segregate, to stereotype, to do all these things that people don’t like. Their job is to hire the person that you think that looks the most like a character.

IB: Some actors really don’t like auditions and the casting process at all. What’s it been like for you?

RM: Can’t stand it. But you know what? You’re not going to get a job if you don’t show up.

IB: You’ve also produced quite a few films: Triumph, Motionless, Escape from Paradise, and you’re producing a film starring your sister. Are you looking to get more into behind-the-camera, behind-the-scenes stuff?

RM: Yeah. I love creating art. That’s why I signed up for projects I signed up for — they were art pieces. And I love being a part of it. I love having the ability to sit back and watch it all unfold, and to be able to give my opinion. It’s like getting your cake and eating it too when you’re a producer or executive producer. You get the final say, sometimes you get a few points on the back end, and you get to watch some magic happen. As an investor, as a producer, that’s a win. That’s an amazing thing, if you’re into art.

IB: What’s it like working with your sister?

RM: I love my sister. She’s great. We’re in the middle of another project. I don’t give her any directions; I don’t tell her what to do — I let other people do that for me. But she’s sick. I love my sister. Everything in my industry, I’ve done for her. She started in this business when she was one and a half, and then I started working and I kind of took the spotlight for a while. Now she’s kind of like, “I’m ready to do stuff,” so I’m like, “Alright, come on, let’s go do it, girl.”

IB: You’re in a film called All the Little Things We Kill. It sounds really interesting; really powerful – can you tell me anything about that?

RM: I’m not going to go into too many details, but it’s a school shooting piece. It takes place around a teacher who experiences that type of trauma and kind of shares it with her class, and ensues this journey of “Why are you doing this?”/”Because I can” mentality. It’s very serious subject matter, but it has humour at the same time. It was a great film. I’m interested in what it turns into. You know, I’m a gun owner. I’m from Louisiana, Texas. We get rabid dogs and big pigs and big cats. There’s a lot of predators. I grew up with that. I think that with what’s happening around the world there’s a lot of misconceptions about firearms, and a lot of nasty individuals that highlight them, and I think this film is going to bring a lot of light to all of it, to raise awareness on gun violence, on mass shootings, and really start a conversation. Because you only hear about it when they’re happening. And then all you hear about is “legislation, legislation, no, yes, no, yes, no, yes,” or crying parents. And I hope with what we present, and what we filmed, that they do justice to the families, to the community, even the legal gun owners, the people that are law-abiding citizens on all sides. I think it covers all notions. So I hope with how it’s presented, it’s presented properly.

IB: You also star in Carol of the Bells as someone who tracks down his biological mother. What was it like playing that role, being adopted yourself?

RM: It was cool. I mean, for me, my adoption… I could care less. (laughs) I don’t have many thoughts on my biological parents or any of that. For me, that’s just whatever. I’m very close with my mom and my sister. If I ever met my biological parents, that’d be cool and all, but… blood is thicker than water, but blood don’t make family. I think this film is a testament to a lot of things about adoption. My character kind of has PTSD — he was in a car accident when he was five, which killed his adoptive parents, and he found out through their death that he was adopted. That sparked his interest, and then he finds out that his mother has severe Down syndrome, and has to deal with that. What’s amazing about this project is, it’s one of the first of its kind – we shot in 12 days, with a 70% disabled cast and crew. There’s been a lot of films with the majority of the cast and crew having a disability, but never of this magnitude. We’re hoping this shows the industry that individuals with physical and mental disabilities can work on such a level. That individuals with disabilities aren’t any less than your able-bodied actor. We shot this in 12 days, full feature, with these individuals that most people wouldn’t even give a second chance. And the ability to work was beyond what we could have hoped. We couldn’t have done it without a tight ship.

IB: So you’ve worked in the U.S., in Australia, in Mexico… are there other countries you want to work in? Dream places?

RM: I’ve never been to Asia. Like, anywhere in Asia. I worked for Channel 4 in the U.K. a couple of years ago, which I loved. They’re great. I’ve been to Germany, France… but I think my next is Asia, the Philippines… I’ve never been. I have a lot of fans over there, and a lot of friends that live over there, and I just want to experience it.

IB: Are there any Asian filmmakers that stand out to you, or is it more about just wanting to visit the places?

RM: I’m a big kung-fu guy. I watch a lot of Chinese cinema, and different Asian cinema, and they make such great products. And their editing… I love how far out and crazy some of the Japanese live-action is. When I was younger, I did a lot of karate, taekwondo and different martial arts, so I was always watching different types of shows like that. And that type of budgeting is astonishing to me.

IB: Oh, man. I hope you do a martial arts movie. That’d be so cool.

RM: I would love to do a martial arts movie. We’re working on a movie I did with Greco-style, Olympic-style wrestling, called Triumph, and we’re hoping to finish it this year. It’s all hard-core wrestling. But oh, I wanted to be on The Badlands so badly. You ever watch that show?

IB: No. Is that American?

RM: Yeah, it’s an American TV series. It’s an AMC show. It’s martial arts, swordplay… end-of-the-world apocalypse, everyone has factions, everyone survives in these factions. It’s pretty cool. But I’m just trying to pay rent, so I’m not always so picky.

IB: Of course. But you do your own stunts, you’ve done martial arts since childhood – it sounds meant to be.

RM: It is. It’s just one of those things that’s gonna happen, and then it’s done, and it’s forever there. But I’m very excited to be coming back to Australia. I love the country. I love my friends that are there. I’m so happy – I haven’t been back since I shot Standing up for Sunny, and I’ve really missed it.

IB: Aw. You’re basically an honorary Australian at this point — you’ve worked with [Neighbours actor] Caitlin Stasey as well, right? On Somebody Like You?

RM: Yeah! Oh man, I know all the Aussies.

IB: Finally, I must mention that you work with so many non-profits, and run so many foundations and things yourself – for people who don’t know that side of what you get up to, are there things that they should be checking out?

RM: I mean, there’s so many organisations and foundations that you can check out, and that you can read about and learn about, but my main thing is: find your community. Find what is nearest and dearest to your heart, that affects you directly, and then apply that into your philanthropic endeavours. Apply that to your life. Apply that to how you treat people, and how you engage with people. Because that’s what we need. We don’t need more people going out and being like, “I’m the next X” — no, we need you. We need you to have the ability, the motivation, the belief, and to have all of those things, you have to believe in that organisation wholeheartedly.

I can go and tell you, “Oh, I support this, and I support that, and this is my cause, and this is my thing,” and if you support it, thank you, but for me, I want to see what impacts you. I want to see what develops your community, and your local thing. You can go nationally, but does that help you directly? Does that help the community? So, the people reading this, or listening to it: find what affects you directly, and if it makes you feel emotional, or you’re like, “I have to do something,” then do it, because that is all I am doing. Nothing more and nothing less.

Standing Up for Sunny is playing at the Sydney Film Festival on Wed 12 June, Sat 15 June & Sun 16 June as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info. Now Apocalypse is currently streaming on Stan.

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Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.

Ivana Brehas

Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She is currently completing her MA in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.