The two actors join Katherine McNamara in the new Western series premiering October 6 on The CW.
After Abby Walker (Katherine McNamara) sees her husband murdered before her eyes while they’re on their way to the Wild West town of Independence, she needs all the friends she can get. Fortunately, she crosses the paths of two formidable men who are in the right place at the right time to give assistance before she can prove she’s not just your stereotypical distressed damsel.
Hoyt Rawlins (Matt Barr of Hatfields & McCoys and Blood & Treasure), a lovable rogue who’s quick with a quip and even quicker on the trigger, becomes her kinda-sorta guide and advisor — when he’s not busy robbing banks, or up to other mischief. And Calian (Justin Johnson Cortez) is an Apache tribesman who ensures she makes it to Independence in the first place, and keeps a protective eye out for her even at the risk of, ahem, upsetting any of the more unenlightened folks in town.
These three characters are central to Walker: Independence, the new Western series premiering Thursday, Oct. 6, on the CW. The show is a prequel to Walker, the popular action drama about a modern-day Texas Ranger played by Jared Padalecki (who serves as an executive producer for Independence). And it aims to offer a fresh new take on classical Western conventions.
We spoke with Matt Barr and Justin Johnson Cortez about Walker: Independence last spring at the ATX Festival Austin. Here are some highlights from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Cowboys & Indians: So are you two guys going to be, like, two points in a romantic triangle with Abby Walker?
Justin Johnson Cortez: [Laughs] We’re not a hundred percent sure about that yet.
Matt Barr: We don't know, but I’ve heard that as a strong possibility. Yeah.
Justin: It kind of feels that way. Doesn’t it?
C&I: We’ve gone back and checked, and it looks like Walker: Independence will be the first period Western series aired on broadcast TV — not on cable, not on a streaming service, but on broadcast TV — in about 20 years. How do you think contemporary audiences will respond to this show?
Matt: I just think we’re all still kind of fighting and dying for the same things, especially after the pandemic — our land and our honor and our families and what’s precious to us. So I think that’s all still consistent. Even in 2022. We don’t have the cellphones and smartphones back in 1871, but our priorities are exactly the same. So I think the human beings haven’t changed that much.
Justin: Yeah. I think the West captures a big part of the American spirit, right? And that’s in us, even today in 2022. It’s in all the people that are still dreaming and working towards something that they want, right? And whether it’s for their family or their career, whatever it might be, it’s in our blood to defend things and to fight for things — and to kind of travel new ground with a new set of people. That’s what we’re doing in the show. But also this Western is on the CW, so it’s going to be a little bit of a remix, as our showrunner said. It has some great music. And I think the energy of it is a good way to sort of transition people back to that world.
C&I: Of course, you’ve recently had series that could qualify as modern-day Westerns, like Yellowstone and Walker. So maybe people are ready to sample the real deal.
Matt: I say that often. Actually, I was talking to Kevin Costner about this recently, and discussed how Yellowstone, like you said, sort of whet the appetite again. That’s a great way to put it — sort of help people transition back to that. It’s kind of refreshing to live vicariously through these characters that took care of justice. I believe there’s an appetite for that now.
Justin: Also, I spent some time last summer kind of traveling through the Southwest. And it’s not just the Southwest — I’m from California and you see it over there too: The imagery and the kind of the lure of the West, it’s everywhere. It’s around us. I’m here in Austin right now and it's definitely around us. It’s in the paintings, it’s in the sculptures, it’s in the architecture, it’s something that I think we’re all familiar with, whether we realize it or not. And so I don't think [Walker: Independence] is going to have this jarring effect. In fact, I think it’s just something that people are going to be able to relate to, even when maybe they didn’t think they could.
C&I: Justin, you’re of Yacqui ancestry, but you’re playing an Apache character. Was it difficult to handle the Apache dialogue?
Justin: It definitely was a challenge. When I first auditioned for this part, they asked if I spoke my native language — and unfortunately I didn’t grow up with my native language. In fact, my ancestors were kind of pushed to leave that part of themselves behind and assimilate. And so it is something that I took as a great responsibility, to be able to speak the language and to be given permission by the translators — who are amazing. They offered me a gift, which meant a lot to me, and I wanted to honor it. For me personally, there was more at stake than to get it right. As much fun as we’re going to have on this show, there’s a whole other aspect of it. I just really want to make sure I'm honoring my ancestors and the ancestors of other native people.
C&I: Matt, you mentioned Kevin Costner. Back in Silverado, he played a pretty rowdy cowboy — not unlike your Hoyt Rawlins. But when we talked about that Western, he told me that in one scene, where he shoots two bad guys at once, the director wanted him to smile afterwards. And Costner said no, that he should definitely not smile, to get across the idea that, beneath the rowdiness, this guy can be a killer. Do you find yourself handling a similar balancing act while playing Hoyt?
Matt: I think you just hit on what I would say is the most challenging part of playing Hoyt. He can have all that levity — and I hope he does — but you also have to earn that gravity, to show this guy is a killer and that he is dangerous. So I think you have to walk that tightrope so that the audience buys both. Can he live in both those spaces? If things start to become gimmicky, or sort of like novelty character choices, then you won’t buy him as a post-Civil War soldier-slash-killer. So that’s something that the writers and I worked on a lot, to make sure that we ground both of those worlds that Hoyt kind of plays in. But it’s funny that you mentioned Silverado, because there’s a lot of that DNA from Kevin’s character in this. I like the tone of that movie. And I think that’s maybe one of his best characters. Which is funny, because it came so early in his career. He’s so great.
C&I: What would you say have the biggest physical challenge you’ve faced while working on the series? The horseback riding?
Matt: We went to cowboy camp together. And Justin has a pretty good, very good foundation for it, I guess. He rides really well. But you're right. It’s not an easy thing to do. It kind of looks easy, but you kind of have to find your seat.
Justin: Well, here’s one thing I didn't anticipate. Every time I go and ride a horse in my real life, I’m wearing jeans and cowboy boots and a shirt and my hat. Now, we got to wardrobe on [Walker: Independence], and this jacket I'm wearing is 30 pounds. I got a rifle and a bow and quiver with arrows on my back. And so it changes the game a bit. But I think even bigger than that is, now I’m wearing moccasins, which have no heel. So that makes it a bit more difficult to communicate with the horse that way.
C&I: Finally, are we working in a multiverse thing here? You played a character named Hoyt Rawlins in the first season of Walker — but he died. Yet now you’re another Hoyt Rawlins in the Wild West?
Matt: I think it was meant to be pretty transparent that he’s the great-, great-, great- — well, whatever it is, five generations or whatever, he is an ancestor of the Hoyt Rawlins in Walker. They definitely share that DNA. When we were going to kill Hoyt in Walker, we were talking about ways to, like, bring him back to life. As a ghost? Or is he an apparition that just comes back and talks? Because, hey, in TV, you never know.
Justin: So then they just invented a new show?
Matt: [Laughs] Yeah, what about a prequel idea? That’s even better. Yeah, we all want to make Westerns. It's like your...
Justin: It's a childhood dream.
Matt: I think we felt like we were nine-year-olds filming this. It was that special. So, like I said, with Kevin doing Yellowstone...
Justin: They definitely paved the way, right? They paved the way a little bit for this new generation. I think whether the younger generation watches that show or not, they’ve heard about it. So they kind of understand the world a little bit. And that's what I’m excited. I think Walker: Independence is going to be the first taste that some of these younger people get of the Western — and we’re going to make it fun. It’s going to be entertaining. And if we pull them into this world a bit, then hopefully we’ll make new fans of Westerns.
Photos: Geraldine Agoncillo, Joe Leydon