[i.e., people with disabilities on the street] they didn’t pay attention to. It’s like when you have a new car, now you see your car all over the road. If you buy a Mustang, everywhere you go, someone is driving a Mustang.”
‘I speak three languages.’
Chill is, if anything, an expert in how to maneuver in foreign territory and be consciously aware of, and practiced in, the art of winning people over. “I speak three languages,” he says. “I speak Ebonics,” or street language. “I speak Caucasian,” or mainstream English. “And I speak Disabled,” the language with which people with disabilities, and fellow travelers, speak with each other.
You wouldn’t speak French to a room full of Germans, right? Then why speak Ebonics or Disabled to a room full of casting agents and producers who only care about finding the perfect actor for the part. These are by and large white, nondisabled men and women who are way more interested in their success while using you than in your success while using them. Speaking different languages to different audiences is not devious. It’s smart.
By the way, Chill is a minority outreach spokesperson for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, among other such efforts. He also created the Daryl Mitchell Foundation to help minorities find their way after an SCI. Black people, he notes, are rarely included in discussions about disabilities.
‘Be kind to people, be respectful.’
Chill definitely had a leg up in show business after his accident. He’d already been an actor for 15 years, had a very savvy manager of long standing, Jenny Delaney, and had some famous friends to go to bat for him. He says he feels guilty about this sometimes, as if his past has given him an unfair advantage and thus, to the nondisabled, makes life in a chair look like a breeze. Then he thinks: “Wait, I earned that past. And I’ve used it. I took a social handicap, being black, and transferred that fight to a physical disability. But this time I got ammunition!”
“Respect” is a big part of that arsenal. You may hate the script, but respect the scriptwriters. Doing so, they may just listen to your ideas. Any form of disrespect will register with anyone you work with, or more important, you work for. It sounds simple, but isn’t. Especially in a place like Hollywood where people will trash someone if they think it earns them points with someone else, or just feeds their bottomless ego, being respectful to all is a learned response. And it’s also why many doors were opened for Chill after his injury.
‘I don’t care what you believe in, you better believe in something.’
Something deeper than Chill’s genuine kindness or his bag of tricks helps him keep moving forward. Growing up in New York, his father drove a bus and his mother, who worked in a civil service job, was a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Without proselytizing or reiterating a rehearsed spiel, Chill is steeped in religion but passes no judgments. He simply says, ”I don’t care what you believe in, you better believe in something.”
Chill’s Facebook and Twitter posts give glimpses of his warm connection with friends and family.
With Chill, that’s prayer and meditation. He remembers when he first hit it big in Hollywood — fancy car, big house, the works — he still felt like he needed “to come home.” “Home,” in this sense, meant both returning to some kind of spiritual foundation and also back to the home he shares with his wife and his three almost-adult children in Sugar Hill, Georgia. He bought the home there 19 years ago because he wanted to be near the burgeoning Atlanta hip-hop scene. Doing TV series, he has spent a good deal of his time in Los Angeles. In his words, “We rolled like gypsies in my children’s youth so they are well-adjusted to the rhythm.” One of Chill’s sons is autistic, goes to a university in Florida studying video game design, lives alone, and according to his dad, “manages quite well.”
Chill fell in love with northern Georgia and now spends much more time there. NCIS: New Orleans is a double blessing. It’s both a great job and a five-hour car ride from home.
In his spiritual leanings, he never questions God. “I know why I’m still here. He gave me the strength to endure. He gave me a place to go and sit quietly and focus.” And the results, he says, are powerful.
“I can now focus on the promise and stop focusing on the pain. I see better days ahead.”
Finally, how does Chill Mitchell deal with the inevitable sadness and depression that comes with paralysis?
“I won’t allow myself to get down. I won’t allow those things to creep into my brain. Uh-uh, I ain’t going there. That may be denial, but the way I see it, I got plenty of time to cry later on.”
“Right now, I got to go to war!”
Catch up on seasons 1 and 2 of NCIS: New Orleans here.