In Highlight Reel, we ask the people who make movies and TV about their favorite individual scenes from their careers.
The actor: Walter White Jr. wasn’t just a breakout role for RJ Mitte—it was his first major onscreen credit, secured shortly after Mitte enrolled in acting classes in Los Angeles. With the show entering its final eight episodes, Mitte’s character is the one Breaking Bad regular who’s still entirely in the dark about his father’s criminal behavior, his opinions of Walt Sr. made increasingly poignant and/or ironic by the fact that they remain uninformed by the activities of the Heisenberg organization. Like Junior, Mitte has a mild case of cerebral palsy, a detail that informs the performance and writing of the character, yet never makes him an object of pity. Following the end of Breaking Bad, Mitte will be seen in the crime drama film The Devil’s Ink.
The scene: In the series’ pilot, a family shopping trip takes some unexpected turns when a group of teenagers harass Walt Jr., revealing a previously unseen side of his father’s personality.
RJ Mitte: That was one of my very first days and it was one of my biggest scenes for Breaking Bad. I actually got to improv a little in that scene, one of the very few times anyone got to improv in Breaking Bad. I remember that day so clearly—that’s one of the days that I knew I wanted to become an actor. This show is the only reason I’m an actor. I would have never had the knowledge and know-how that I have now without Breaking Bad.
The A.V. Club: What parts of the scene were improvised?
RJM: Anna [Gunn] said, “This is what all the skaters are wearing,” and I said, [sarcastically] “Do I look like a skater?” and that was not in the script whatsoever. It was cool—it was definitely the first day that I held my own, you know?
AVC: Did you have any idea how intimidating Bryan Cranston could be before you shot that scene?
RJM: Even without that scene, Bryan can be intimidating. He’s such an awesome guy, but he has this presence when he walks in the room—it’s a unique presence and it’s awesome that he can command that when he comes in a room. You definitely can learn a lot from watching men like him.
AVC: That’s such a pivotal scene in the pilot. It says so much about Walt and his relationship with Walt Jr.
RJM: It does. So much happens—and that’s one of the first times you see Heisenberg. He wasn’t doing anything like that before, he was not a bad guy, but he was pushed so far. Anyone is capable of anything and Breaking Bad just proves that point even more.
AVC: From the first time you read the script to the shooting day to seeing the final cut, how did your impression of the scene change?
RJM: It changes a lot when you’ve read it—and now that I read scripts, I can see how they’ll play out, I can see in my mind how it’s going to happen. But when I started, I had no idea. I was just there and excited for the job, you know?
AVC: What about that day and that scene made you realize you wanted to be an actor?
RJM: Everything was coming together, everything was working. I’d been on sets before that, but nothing as a main character, no real substance in any of the scenes I was doing. When you’re on a show like this and you get to work with people like this, what you see is real: These are real emotions, these are real people. The best part is what Bryan and Anna and everyone else can bring, and it makes me want to bring it and top it and keep up with them and be able to see their example and inspire emotion in other people—and that is why I wanted to become an actor. You can say hundreds of thousands of lines, but if you can make someone respond without saying one word, that’s what really matters. We have very quiet scenes, but so much happens that it puts people in awe—and we don’t even say anything.
AVC: What was it like to play the emotions of that scene? Total strangers are making fun of Walt Jr. within earshot, and it’s a sad moment for him—until his dad takes action.
RJM: It’s obviously sad, and I grew up dealing with stuff like that. Not so much the pants issue—but I went through casting, I went through braces, but they stopped laughing after I started playing soccer. [Other players] would go and kick my leg and there’d be an inch thick of casting or there’d be a brace and a couple of centimeters of good solid plastic—so that stopped the laughing. When I started doing Breaking Bad, those sorts of scenes made me remember everything I’ve accomplished or everything I had to deal with. I really forgot about it. And as I was doing those scenes and seeing it happen to Junior, I was just remembering everything I went through as a kid and dealing with people who really had no clue what it was like to have a disability or need aid. Nobody ever realizes that until they break something and they’re like, “Oh my God.”
AVC: Can a scene like this serve the same function?
RJM: I definitely feel that’s a great example. When Bryan comes up and stomps on the kid’s leg and is like, “This is what it’s like not to be able to walk”—it’s like no one ever thinks about that. No one ever thinks about how hard it is to be able to pick up a glass of water and take a drink. When you have people making fun of you for that, it’s hard not just on you but on your soul. There’s this overwhelming feeling that you get when someone stands up for you.
AVC: Were you surprised that Vince Gilligan was able to capture that sense in the scene?
RJM: Vince is amazing. Everything he captures in his scripts, I’m not surprised. He brings some real experiences in what he’s seen and what he’s grown up with and that’s what a good writer brings. Everything he’s seen and been around, he incorporates into his story and his storytelling. It’s really amazing to see the balance of real life and fantasy and how much fantasy is actually real life. Yes, it’s on TV and it’s scripted, but it’s based on real events. It had to happen to someone.
AVC: What do you think that scene says about the Whites as a family?
RJM: The scene shows you where everybody stands and it shows you where everybody is going to be. That pilot episode was ground zero and, after that, it flourished and it just set the tone for every single character. After that, it was just wildfire. Without the scenes that we have, without the dialogue that came into place in the pilot, we wouldn’t have the same Walter, we wouldn’t have the same Skyler, we wouldn’t have the same me. Nothing else would be the same if the script was changed in any way; the way it was written is beautiful. When you read the pilot script, when you read any of the scripts, it has the engrossing feeling like you can see it play out.
AVC: Moving on to other projects after Breaking Bad, are you worried that other scripts might not give you the same feeling?
RJM: I am and I’m not. I’m very picky about what I do. I’m able to say “no” and “yes,” which is nice. But, for the most part, the people I work with, I’m not worried about their scripts. If I have faith in them and I believe in them, it’s not about the script. It’s about what you’re creating with the other person, it’s about what’s on the screen. What I’ve been working with and the people I surround myself with, I’m not worried about horrible scripts. Yeah, I might read one that’s horrible, but come on! It could be funny as hell! As long as people laugh, as long as people are smiling or shaking their head and laughing, I’m okay with that. It’s when someone turns it off that I’m concerned and, until that happens, I’m not worried.
AVC: You’re just happy to cause a reaction?
RJM: I’m just happy to cause a reaction to something. I honestly don’t care what it is as long as I get something out of it, as long as there’s some sort of emotion felt, even if it is disgust.