Interview: RJ Mitte

Cinema Australia Original Content:

RJ Mitte and director Steve Vidler on the set of Standing up for Sunny.

Standing up for Sunny will be the fifth Australian feature film released this year featuring a disabled actor in a major role including Reflections in the Dust, Pulse, Kairos and Ride Like a Girl. While the other four films are heavy on drama, Standing up for Sunny reminds us to laugh more, even if it’s at ourselves. We caught up with the film’s leading man – charming American actor RJ Mitte who has cerebral palsy – to discuss his role in the very funny romantic comedy.

“Every film I do is therapeutic to me. I wont ever have to pay a quack.”


Interview by Matthew Eeles

Standing up for Sunny premiered at the Sydney Film Festival recently. What’s it like to sit with an audience who are watching your film for the first time?
It’s great. I love it, but I don’t watch my work. Everyone I met after the film told me they loved it. They really got it and they were really happy about it. Everyone seemed to get it. It’s amazing to see people coming out of your movie and laughing and then also thinking and realising there’s a lot to this film. Everyone took something different away from this movie which is what I wanted to achieve with this film.

Why don’t you watch yourself on screen?
Nails on a chalkboard, man. [Laughs]. I don’t even know how you watch me on screen. Apparently someone likes it. I have a hard time looking at my own reflection. It’s just one of those things. An hour and half of me going through a mental breakdown? I just have a hard time watching it. I’d rather not see it and appreciate it more than watch it and nit pick myself for an hour and a half.

Don’t lie. You knew there was an open bar outside the cinema, didn’t you?
Well, if we’re being honest. [Laughs]. People always get surprised that I didn’t watch the film. But don’t forget you’re talking to someone who read every page, sat through every scene and did ADR and a put a years worth of love and labour into this. I don’t make movies for me to enjoy them. I make movies for other people to enjoy them. Things I create aren’t because I want to see myself on screen. I make them because I want to create projects and I want to create art.

In Standing up for Sunny your character is diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age three, which is the same year you were diagnosed. I realise you would have been young, but can you tell us about the moment you realised that other people were different to you and what effect that had on you?
People are different from me? I don’t know about that. For me, I never dealt with the issues that Travis deals with in this film – The part about feeling different, or indifferent. I had this thing, and I walked this way, and I did this thing and that was just how I did them. It’s the exact same thing as you walking the way you walk and you talking the way you talk. You just do these things and you be these things. That’s life. That’s what we are. For me growing up with CP I did get bullied and I did get bullied for my braces or for the way I talked, but as a whole I never looked at it as an indifference, or that I had this thing and they didn’t because everyone was going through something. Everyone has these elements of life and mine just happens to be more physical and more mental. Those are what made me, me. And for the person who questions that, or doesn’t quite understand that, that’s what makes them, them. We have to discover these ideas and these views for ourselves and I think that’s what a testament Standing up for Sunny was because it’s a realisation for Travis. It all comes to fruition for him and he was able to then take that moment and go back to it and just be him. As long as he was ok about everything then that’s all that matters. For me that was my strongest connection to Travis. I had that at a very early age. It was something that was instilled in my development before I could even have a development.

RJ Mitte and Italia Hunt in Standing up for Sunny.

You started acting workshops in your early teens to meet others your age. How welcoming was that particular acting community?
Super! When I came to Los Angeles I got robbed within two weeks. I got my phone jacked, but I quickly made friends. When it came to acting it was all second nature to me. I just went into my groups and classes and really connected with everyone. Some people may have been standoffish, but a part of my early training and upbringing was that people were either in my life or they didn’t matter. I didn’t want to know who they were if they didn’t matter.

Were your parents open to you wanting to become an actor?
My mum was open to it. My sister got cast in something and that’s what brought us down to LA. Her work and her life blended everyone elses and set a tone. Some people thought I would fall on my face and others told me to go for it. What do you have to lose? At the time we really had nothing to lose.

Was everyone in your family creative?
No! I mean they were, but not industry creative. My grandfather was an oil worker, hunter, fisherman and invented the safety shutoff valve for oil rigs. My uncle was an airline mechanic and my family was in pharmaceuticals, sales, neurology, insurance, life insurance, health insurance. Everyone was either a teacher, an educator or in those fields. We had art like painting and stuff like that, but when it came down to play stuff I think the biggest thing was watching baby Jesus in church. That was the pinnacle of my family in the industry. Since I joined I had an uncle who realised he wanted to be an actor. [Laughs]. My Mum did modeling but nothing like we do now and what I do now. It’s a crazy world we live in.

All of the acting workshops obviously paid off because you nabbed a role in Breaking Bad, arguably one of the greatest TV shows of all time. How much did that show change your life?
Well I’m talking to you. [Laughs]. I’m in Australia making a movie. This would never have happened if it wasn’t for Breaking Bad. This changed everything for me. It allowed me to have a career. It gave me a platform to elevate a message. It gave me opportunities and knowledge. It changed everything. It changed television. It changed cinema and it changed movies. We brought movie quality to television. Breaking Bad really started that trend of movie-quality television.

More than a decade ago Crispin Glover described a lack of screen representation of people with disabilities as being a corporate restraint rather than a creative restraint. He said, “Anything that can possibly make an audience uncomfortable is excised from films or they will not be corporately funded or distributed.” Do you agree with his statement?
One hundred percent. I think that’s one aspect. I think it’s one of the biggest aspects that we face. If you do see something that potentially makes clients or customers uncomfortable, you want to remove it. Anything that reflects on our own humanity, of what we are being a fault, is very uncomfortable for people. So when you see someone with cerebral palsy and they walk funny, or they talk funny, or they have a twitch, or they have Down syndrome, these are all things that people can visibly see and they do make people uncomfortable. But it’s not because they’re uncomfortable, it’s because of their lack of understanding of what those things are. That’s part of our own psychosis and humanity and culture is that we don’t like to see sick things. Most of us think we don’t get sick and we all walk upright and we see clear and fluid. But that’s not true because we do get sick and we do get injured and we label these things as disabilities and we say that those people are no longer part of normal society and are no longer able, they are disabled. It’s a mentality and not everyone likes to see that, but we are who we are. Crispin is a person who looks at the bigger picture and he creates stories which allows his message to grow organically and I think that’s a testament to his ability as a filmmaker.

RJ Mitte and Philippa Northeast in Standing up for Sunny.

Standing up for Sunny is one of five Australian feature films released this year featuring actors with disabilities including Reflections in the DustPulse, Kairos and Ride Like a Girl. Diversity on Australian screens is thriving. Does it feel that way in the US.
Yes. Yes and No. I feel like there is a big driving force, but I feel like we need more community support. One thing about Australia is that there is a lot of support in the community for these kinds of films which we just don’t have in the US. In America it’s so generalised and they don’t match the same level of quality as you do in Australia, but they’re hitting the quantity. I see it’s changing but we have a long way to go.

So here you are with Standing up for Sunny. You obviously related to the character of Travis, but what else was it about Steven Vidler’s script that made you travel halfway around the world to make his film?
He’s a talent. He’s been working for quite some time and he’s a teacher and he’s an educator. He has a great vision and he’s an actor. We had this conversation and really hit it off over Skype. He told me what he wanted to do with this story and I said, “Let’s make this happen.” I believe in his ability as a director and that was it. He had me hooked.

I imagine he’s an actor’s director having worked as an actor for so many years.
He is an actor’s director. He has a vision. He knows what he wants and he can tell you in a way that I understand. Emotionally I get that. Director’s don’t always understand characters emotionally. Steve helped us create a path for our characters. Where would these characters get drawn to and how would they act in the moment during a particular scene. He was very open to interpretation and was very open to utilising the spaces we were in. He wanted to make a comedian’s movie which didn’t just involve the actors but he wanted to involve the locations too and the general public. We did live performances with general public and we did these intricate outdoor scenes which were emmersive of the Sydney culture. He had a vision and a lot of people don’t have a followthrough for their vision, but Steve did. It’s a shame that I haven’t been able to see everybody more this trip, but it’s a pleasure to be back and to be promoting this project with Steve.

How familiar were you with Australian culture prior to filming?
I was familiar. I’m a Steve Irwin fan. [Laughs]. I’m all about that. I grew up fishing and in the water and diving. It’s been a big dream of mine to come here and explore the reefs. I’ve always enjoyed that and all the animals here, even the deadly ones. My agent is based in Germany but he’s actually from Woolongong. I did some work with him training models for Next Top Model and international scholarships and stuff like that. I came down here about five years ago with him and I loved everything about the place. It’s a very small world. It doesn’t always feel like it, and it’s not always easy to navigate, but when you’re able to travel and you’re sociable you can meet and be a part of any culture and you realise how similar everyone is.

This is Philippa Northeast’s first feature film following a very successful run on local soap, Home and Away. How would you compare Philippa to other actors you’ve worked with?
Brilliant. Talented. There’s no comparison, man. She’s one of a kind. She’s smart and she plays into her characters very nicely and she’s very fun to work with. She’s a jewel. She’s in depth and she’s beautiful of course, but she has a certain way about her and the way she processes her character. It’s a really special thing that she has and I’m happy to see what she does with her career. I consider her to be a lifelong friend and we will always be a part of each other’s life as well as Steve and Italia Hunt.

RJ Mitte in Standing up for Sunny.

You’ve got to go to some dark places with this character who has some serious anger issues. Is that easy for you to go there as an actor, or does it take some effort?
I’m super angry. [Laughs]. All the time. Every day. [Laughs]. Everyone has something in them and we all get frustrated. I use jobs as therapy and I dump all of my anger on to them. I haven’t been mad since I shot this movie. It’s something that we all face. We all have challenges and we all face doubt and disbelief and we love things and we hate things and we harbour things. This movie is about releasing those things. It’s ok to carry that anger with you, as long as you have an understanding of what you’re carrying.

So the film was therapeutic for you?
Every film I do is therapeutic to me. I wont ever have to pay a quack.

You’ve achieved so much since your first role as a school jock in Hannah Montana twelve years ago. What do you hope for the next twelve years?
I was an extra for the whole first season of Hannah Montana. One scene they threw a jock jacket on me and in one scene I’m holding a baseball and the bully comes up to me a grabs the baseball and crushes it. That was my first 15 seconds of fame. Hannah Montana was a great show and I learned a lot working on that as an extra. As for the next twelve years, I just want to keep working on bigger and better projects. I want to just keep the lights on.

Would you come back to Australia to make another film.
Of course. In a heartbeat. This is a great country and the professionalism of the industry here is so high. You have to graduate school to work here. In America you have a lot of people that work in our industry who just influence and that’s it.

Standing up for Sunny will be released later in the year. 

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