Justin Johnson Cortez
Justin Johnson Cortez as Calian and Matt Barr as Hoyt Rawlins in Walker Independence
Justin Johnson Cortez as Calian in Walker Independence
Justin Johnson Cortez as Calian
When Justin Johnson Cortez watched TV Westerns as a kid, he yearned to be the cowboy. "They got all the action. The stories were always about them, and they always got the girl of their dreams. Everybody melted over the cowboy," says Johnson Cortez, a Latino-Indigenous actor who is a descendent of the Yaqui tribal community.
That was then. Now, Johnson Cortez is happy to play an Indigenous character who stands out in his own right — not as a one-dimensional plot point for the white leads. The actor is costarring in The CW's Walker Independence as Calian — an Apache Native in late-1800s Texas. "I really wanted people to see a full spectrum with Calian," he says of the character, who may appear circumspect at first, but gradually unspools over the course of the series.
The thirteen-episode Walker prequel — available to stream now on The CW app — follows the turbulent lives of the early settlers of Independence, Texas, where Calian works as a scout. A stand-up guy with good intentions, Calian finds himself sandwiched between the worlds of the white settlers and his Apache community.
That struck home for the actor, whose mixed ancestry — which includes Mexican and Irish heritage — has sometimes left him feeling like he didn't fit into any one ethnic group. And because Johnson Cortez didn't grow up on a reservation or learn the Yaqui language, he was terrified of making a mistake when he was asked to speak Apache for the role of Calian.
"I had no idea how to get my mouth to make those sounds," he says, noting that Westerns have typically utilized the language of the Navajo nation rather than Apache. So he gladly accepted the help of two Apache dialect coaches and resolved to conquer his fears. Now he feels grateful for a rare opportunity. "I always give thanks that I get to say these words," he says, adding that he and his coaches sometimes offer tobacco and prayers to the land, per Native tradition.
The demands of the role also required him to handle a bow and arrow, and ride a horse with confidence. "I was immediately excited," he says, recalling "cowboy camp," where, during his training with the other actors, he was asked more than once to slow down. His favorite days on set, though, were when he performed his own stunts. In a knock-down, drag-out fight scene in the third episode, he wrestled another character to the floor before being hit over the head with a bottle. After which, he divulges, his stunt double stepped in to take the blow from a chair that came next.
Johnson Cortez hadn't considered acting until his wife suggested he try modeling. He landed a Samsung commercial and by the end of the session, he was hooked. "I went home and Googled 'How to become an actor,'" he recalls. He has since appeared on 9-1-1: Lone Star and Lucifer. Next, he'll star in the indie film Gift of Fear, about the real-life epidemic of missing and exploited Indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada.
Meanwhile, his thoughtful depiction of Calian may be having a ripple effect. He says that after a friend showed her son the trailer for Walker Independence, the young boy retrieved his toy bow and arrow and started posing with it. "He said, 'Look at me! I look like Calian.'"
Walker Independence is executive produced by Seamus Kevin Fahey, Anna Fricke, Jared Padalecki, Dan Lin, Lindsey Liberatore, Laura Terry and Larry Teng. The series is produced by CBS Studios in association with Rideback Entertainment and Pursued by a Bear.
The thirteen-episode season of Walker Independence will be released in two parts: The last episode of part one will air on 11/17/2022, and the first episode of part two will air on 01/12/2023. Every aired episode of Walker Independence is available to stream on The CW App and CWTV.com the day after broadcast, for free and without a subscription.