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After playing a supporting role for five seasons of Breaking Bad, RJ Mitte finally makes his leading man debut in director David Michael Conley’s Who’s Driving Doug.

Based loosely on the life of its screenwriter, Michael Carnick, the coming-of-age drama stars Mitte as Doug, a bright but shy college student with a physical disability that confines him to a wheelchair. Having surrendered to his insecurities, Doug lives a sheltered life that limits his interactions to his widowed mother (Daphne Zuniga), his crush Stephanie (Paloma Kwiatkowski), and his personal driver.

Doug’s mundane life of routine starts to change, however, after he meets and hires Scott (Ray William Johnson), an aimless young man, as his chaffeur; and it doesn’t take long before his new friend proposes a spontaneous road trip to Las Vegas. Doug, in spite of the disapproval from his overprotective mother, embarks with Scott and Stephanie to Sin City, allured by its promise of liberty and excess.

A story about hope, loss and regret, Who’s Driving Doug also gives Mitte, who in real life has cerebral palsy, the challenge of portraying a different physical disability: muscular dystrophy. And he succeeds.

I had the opportunity to interview the first-time leading man about how he took on this physically demanding role, representations of disability in cinema and television, the diversity issue at the Academy Awards, and more.

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ScreenPicks: Your character, Doug, has muscular dystrophy. And for some audiences this film may just be their introduction to that condition. How did you prepare for the challenge and pressure of having to portray that on screen?

Mitte: “It was interesting. It was definitely a new take on what I was doing and what I was presenting. I just went in and tried to create a character the best that I could and to live in that moment. The character that I was portraying in Who’s Driving Doug was actually based on a real person. So I did my best to just try to recreate that character’s life and who that character was.”

ScreenPicks: Although Doug is disabled, what I liked is that he isn’t really defined by his disability. So he still had this personality, and dreams, that I think people can relate to. What were the reasons that you wanted to play this role?

Mitte: “You know, in the beginning, I was actually very reluctant on playing this role, and I didn’t really think that I was necessarily right for the role. And they wanted me to be this character, and it was an interesting process — but after I realized what I could do with it, and what I needed to do from it, I just went in and hoped for the best. I liked to have given it an honest portrayal of what that character is and who that character is. Hopefully that went through.”

ScreenPicks: While Doug does have layers to his character, that’s not always the case when it comes to disabled characters — whether on film or television. And when you’re a young person growing up, it’s so important to see yourself reflected in movies and television. When you were growing up as child, did you see depictions of disabled characters that were authentic on screen? Or were they very limited portrayals?

Mitte: “When I was a kid, I didn’t see anyone that represented me on television, actually, when it came to physicality — mental was another story. I saw people that I could relate to and I could see myself as. When I was a kid, I never really saw myself as disabled; I never saw myself as that type of demographic. I don’t think kids necessarily do, and I think we have a tendency of thinking that more often than not.

“And we fill the market for things that don’t necessarily exist and are not real. So when it came down to creating this character, I tried to make my character as real as possible, give him life, and give him his own way, his own state, and hopefully that drives through.”

ScreenPicks: In the past, able-bodied actors in film have portrayed disabled characters. For instance, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, and, most recently, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything — and both of those were Oscar-winning roles. But your film is kind of an anomaly, because not only does it have a disabled actor playing a disabled character, but it was written by a disabled screenwriter. Since you’ve been in this industry since you were so young, did you see any changes in terms of opportunities for disabled filmmakers and actors to be able to tell their own stories?

Mitte: “Yeah, I’ve seen amazing changes — changes in so many different avenues of this industry. People are realizing that this market is a big market, and I think that they’re pioneering and shaping more towards it… What’s funny is, I don’t think you’ll ever see, in my lifetime, a disabled actor ever win an Oscar for playing a disability that is not his own. I just think it’s funny to see how people at the same time are still so close-minded with what this is. I mean, we have a lot of work to do when it comes down to being accurate in our characters, in how we perceive disability on television. I think that there’s definitely a tricky market to have, and I think we have a long way to go.”

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ScreenPicks: And speaking of the Oscars, as you know, a big topic right now is about diversity and the lack of it among this year’s nominees. And I actually read this article by filmmaker named Dominick Evans, and he pointed out something that I didn’t even notice before. It was the fact that disability hasn’t been in the conversation when it comes to diversity. The Academy actually revealed their mandate for diversity, and they listed “gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.” But nowhere in their mandate was the word “disability.” What changes do you think need to be made so that disabled filmmakers and actors aren’t left out of this important conversation that’s happening?

Mitte: “I think a lot of it is awareness… Disability is not something people want to talk about; it’s not something people want to bring to mind. And people don’t necessarily look kindly at disability. They look at it, a lot of the time, like a burden, or a sickness, or an illness that needs to be cured and overcome. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. The thing is, it’s a knowledge, it’s a power. I think more people need to understand that. I feel that there is awareness, and that needs to go, but I think there is another part of it where it’s the filmmakers with disabilities that need to put themselves out there and take more risks.”

ScreenPicks: His physical challenges aside, Doug also has a journey of personal growth. So when we first meet him, he’s very timid and sheltered, but throughout the film he slowly becomes more outspoken and adventurous. What do you hope audiences will take away from his journey?

Mitte: I think the main thing is stepping out of a realm of comfort, not allowing yourself to be confined by your space and how you’re living, to be able to be free and free to do what you want, when you want. I think there are a lot of people in this world that — objects rule their lives. You can’t necessarily have that. When you’re in this position, and you have to rely on a chair, or you have to rely on a crutch, the thing is, you can allow that object to rule you or you can make it yours and you rule it. I think a lot of people allow things to rule over them instead of them ruling over the thing that controls them.”

ScreenPicks: I’ve watched a lot of your interviews going into this one, and I got the impression that you’re someone who always wants to challenge himself whether it’s creatively or personally. On the creative level, you’ve been an actor, a model, a producer, and, most recently, a DJ. Are there any other creative goals you’d like to pursue?

Mitte: “Yeah, there’s plenty of goals that I want to pursue. Having the time and money to pursue them is another thing. But no, there’s plenty I want to pursue and I’ve just started. This is just the beginning.”

ScreenPicks: Would we see you as a director or screenwriter in the future?

Mitte: “You know, there is a very good possibility of both of those things happening in the next couple of years. I do write. I write, but I don’t really put that out there. Directing? I can definitely do that in the next year… Whatever keeps the lights on.”

Who’s Driving Doug will be released in select theaters and on VOD on Feb. 26.

(All photos are courtesy of Edel Malone/FilmBuff.)