The Rise of Justin Johnson Cortez

And How He is Changing Indigenous Representation in the Media

by Zara Rawoof

Whether it was Robert Redford or Clint Eastwood, there was nothing like a good old-fashioned cowboy in the movies. From kicking open the saloon doors to the suspense that builds as a classic walk down is about to ensue, Westerns have largely defined American cinema. But for as long as this genre has existed, harmful prejudice promoting negative clichés about Natives in these movies has remained. Now, Justin Johnson Cortez brings to life a character who reshapes the defining roles of Indigenous people in Westerns.


Set in the 1900s, “Walker: Independence” prequels its parent show, “Walker.” When Abby Walker (played by Katherine McNamara) watches the murder of her husband, she dedicates everything to avenge his death. This journey leads her to the small, dry town of Independence, Texas. Justin John Cortez plays Calian, an Apache tracker who helps Walker forge a new path. It premiered on the CW on October 6th, with new episodes every Thursday. Cortez predicts that the show will draw attention from more than one demographic because of its unique genre. “The show is great. It has that adventure and action, but it has drama as well and also a fun playfulness. It really has it all. There’s going to be a certain generation that’s going to kind of be interested in it because they grew up with Westerns, and that’s what they like to watch. But I feel like a younger generation is going to get an introduction to Westerns. Hopefully, it will be exciting enough that people will want to stay and watch it. So I think we can bridge the gap between a couple of generations with the show. I’m really excited about seeing who ends up following it and who it aligns with.”


Westerns have been around in film for over a century, but “Walker: Independence” brings the world alive in a new light never seen before. “Walking on set, you’re transported,” Cortez says but admits that turning a corner will lead you back to the trucks and catering of the 21st century television production world. “When you’re on a horse and wearing an amazing wardrobe, it makes it easier to get in the right mindset. I wouldn’t be able to walk in and do these scenes in my normal clothes. It wouldn’t click.” The visceral set isn’t the only thing setting the show apart. Cortez’s character finally represents the Indigenous community in a way that hasn’t been seen before in Westerns. With the stereotypical caricature of ruthless tribes antagonizing cowboys dominating the genre, Calian is portrayed in a dynamic light where his Apache culture is appreciated rather than ostracized. Cortez can look back on the role he developed now with pride, but the decision to take on this character wasn’t clear-cut. He remembers grappling with whether or not their role was right for him, reflecting, “Part of me felt I could do something here, and then the other part of me is like, ‘What if they make it this thing that it’s always been?’ I don’t want to do that. I was scared to make that initial choice, but I finally decided after meeting the showrunner, directors, and producers. They were great because immediately they said, ‘We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to do the same thing that has been done. We don’t want to make this character spendable; we don’t want to make this character a token that’s just there for the main white characters.’ It’s not their intention. Never was their intention. They want to tell these stories.”

Taking on the role was the right decision for Justin Johnson Cortez, but that doesn’t mean that playing Calian didn’t come with its fair share of challenges. Learning his lines in a language he was completely unfamiliar with, Cortez found himself in a unique position on set. “I’m honored to do it. It’s more hours. It’s more work. I just drove up yesterday to meet with our translator. I drove three hours to get there and three hours to get back. I have to listen to [the Apache language] after phonetically writing it out so I can get the sounds right. And then I have to go in and find the meaning. It’s truly an honor, but it takes a lot of time. It’s just an extra part of the job that it takes to play this character. I wouldn’t trade it now because you build relationships and learn a lot. It’s a beautiful experience. But I would be lying if I didn't say there’s pressure, and there are times when I’m like, ‘Can I do this? Am I gonna screw this one up? Am I gonna say this right? Am I gonna forget these lines because I don’t actually speak this language?’ But at the end of the day, I just try to be extremely grateful that I’ve been given the honor and permission to speak this language. That isn’t my culture. I’m Yaqui, but I play Apache on the show. So the fact that I get to speak a language that’s not mine is something I don’t take for granted.”


Cortez credits the onset crew of “Walker: Independence” for making his job of representing an entire community easier. “It’s always a little nerve-racking when you’re representing a culture or a certain group of people. You want to make sure you get it right. Our creators have been amazing about hearing our thoughts and being open to our perspectives on them. And I think that’s something that’s really valuable. It’s important to have a well-functioning group of people to make a show like this.” The actor is providing representation that he rarely saw growing up. Cortez remembers admiring Chavez in ‘Young Guns’ but found himself drawn to the cowboys. “Growing up, I saw white characters, and those are the ones I wanted to be. I hate that I wasn’t drawn so strongly to Latino characters,” he admits. “It’s just that all the movies I watched and all these awesome people were always blond and blue-eyed. They’re great actors. I still love these actors. They just don’t look like me.”


The Indigenous community has been underrepresented in almost everything, regardless of their roots running deeper than any other culture on American soil. The film industry has been no exception, but roles like Calian are steps in the right direction. Cortez understands the importance of diversity in film and representation, made perfectly clear by the lengths he goes to perfect his role as an Apache tracker. But Cortez also anticipates the day that people of color aren’t cast solely for a more diverse vein throughout a storyline. “I do hope it gets to a place where I’m going to do a show or movie and it doesn’t have to be because of the color of my skin or my culture. I love the responsibility and the blessing to be able to portray someone from my culture, but I want to be able to be on screen and for people not to question why this person is on screen.”


Cortez’s goals for how people of color are represented aren’t the only ones leaving him working hard to make a change in the industry. The actor himself plans to further develop as a director and producer, with a 2020 short film, “The Fall,” already under his belt. Many try their hand at filmmaking, but Cortez is proud to say he can walk away happily from what he created. He also looks forward to making many more in the future. Written and created entirely by him, Cortez used his own two daughters in “The Fall.” “Going into it, I had no idea what to expect because I was working with a three-year-old and a five-year-old. I went in with zero expectations. As I knew from being their father, kids aren’t predictable,” he says. “I tell people it was like making a painting for me. I didn’t try to hold on too tightly to the schedule or an idea, and I think the films reflect that. I truly enjoyed it all.” After waiting for the right resources to come his way before making a film, Cortez finally bit the bullet and called up a friend with a decent camera. The outcome was an intimate portrait of a father and husband raising two daughters while at the mercy of his wife’s addiction and unpredictable schedule. Cortez acknowledges that while preparation is usually essential to film development, he’s not sure how he was able to get away with the spontaneity that came with his debut movie.


Acting on “Walker: Independence” after trying his own hand at writing, producing, and directing, Cortez approached the project with a newfound understanding for the crew that manages a series at such a large production level. “I admire the process so much, and I’m in awe of the people who can bring this machine together. So when I show up, I’m hyper-aware of my role on set. I need to be ready to do my job. I’m also completely open because the writers and producers have a vision that I need to bring to life,” he explains. Cortez’s experience in all the different moving parts of a project motivated him to put his best foot forward while also inspiring him to create more passion projects later on.


Working his hardest took everything from Justin Johnson Cortez as he played Calian. The stereotypes and outdated social norms may be harder to find in this Western, but there is no shortage of action in “Walker: Independence.” In what many would call physically grueling, Cortez welcomed the challenge with open arms. Horseback riding is a staple of transportation in the setting, and it was an activity that the actor had pursued a few years before shooting. This allowed him to do most of his own stunts, only handing over the reins to a stunt double when the risk of hurting himself would affect his job. “I love the physicality of these types of characters and getting to do those things. I’m always outside and working with my hands or learning something new,” Cortez elaborates. “The adrenaline kicks in. It’s just like being on a horse or being on a motorcycle or any of those types of things. It feels so good. I feel like I should have more fear. Especially since I can’t really get hurt because it’s really important for the show that I don’t get hurt. But I do have a stunt double who’s amazing. And so they’re always there in case we need to do something that we can’t, but we’ve been fortunate enough now to pretty much do all our stuff.”


The intensity utilized by Cortez when tackling anything related to acting or creating in the industry makes it hard to believe that early on, he never fathomed this was a field people were really successful in. Acting wasn’t on his radar until he was “thrown into it,” as he puts it. Married early on, Cortez’s wife told him he should pursue modeling. After snapping some pictures of her husband, it wasn’t long until Cortez was signed with an agency. When auditioning for a commercial, Cortez first came in contact with the world of acting. “I had to pretend to be some sort of superhero. And I remember my heart was beating so fast because I was so nervous, but I had no choice,” Cortez recalls. “I’m pretty sure it was awful. For sure. I was terrible at it. But when I walked out, my heart was still pounding. I’ve always been a very cautious person. That fear and adrenaline hit me, and I wanted to do it again. I literally looked up on Google ‘how to become an actor.’ People said to audition for student films and get headshots and do all this stuff, and I just started checking them off the list. Eventually, I got an agent and somehow wound up here, which is crazy.” This wasn’t an easy road, with rejection at almost every corner. “You never know what people are thinking, and you never know when what you are doing is clicking,” he explains. He admits that the rejection and the criticisms weighed on his mental health but credited his family’s support as why he kept going. “I had a really great support group. My wife and my children were solid in my life. I can ground myself, and I’ll have them no matter what happens at the end of the day.” Cortez tries to come to work each day with as much joy as he can and works to the best of his abilities. He acknowledges what a learning process this had been but can reflect on how far he’s come.


Cortez’s most important advice to young creatives is what helped him excel in the industry: “Have a support group. Have people who lift you up and reciprocate that as well. Be there for them, too. You always need people who will tell you the truth when you won’t tell it to yourself.” Cortez feels he lacked the guidelines that other aspiring actors had of people who looked like them or had more useful resources in the industry. Regardless of what could have held him back, he pursued a career with the help of those around him. “In this field, it’s so interesting because for some people it happens one way, and for other people it happens in a completely different way. We can get lucky and have people in our lives who give us shortcuts or wisdom along the way. There have been acting coaches and fellow actors that have been there for me, so I’m hesitant to say I paved my own way, but I do feel like there were times when I was just grinding away.” Cortez admits to facing dark times when he was unsure of what to do, lacking a clear path toward success. But the actor focused on joy. “Don’t compromise yourself. You have to wake up every day and live that life. If it’s not joyful, it’s not worth it. Find joy in what you do. Push and explore yourself and travel deeper into your creativity, but explore the world around you.” Finding the balance between persevering through adversity while ensuring that the passion remains was a tricky line to toe, but Cortez has no regrets about what he learned as he navigated it all.


The joy that drove Justin Johnson Cortez to act led him to dedicated performances such as Calian and explore the world of independent filmmaking. As the landscape of media changes and projects continue to evolve in the way they approach diversity, actors like Cortez are essential to ensuring that the future of film and television stays driven by passion. Achieving career goals isn’t a linear path, with setbacks stalling timelines and changing the course of success that was planned for. Remaining fluid on set as an actor or any other job he steps into behind the camera, Cortez has achieved his accomplishments with an open mind to collaboration, complementing the drive that shapes his work ethic. Redefining classic Hollywood norms, Justin Johnson Cortez’s role as Calian holds influence past the television show. Regardless of Cortez’s initial uncertainty when considering the part, his dedication to representing the Indigenous community with integrity holds meaning on and off the screen. “The great thing about being an actor is you always have a point of view. You’ll always have somewhere to come from, and as long as I’m trying to check in with myself and make sure that I’m coming from a truthful place with this character, I can feel good about what I’m doing.”


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