Midway through Season 1, the charismatic model-turned-actor chats about the rewards and challenges of playing the Apache scout Calian.
The last time I had the pleasure of Justin Johnson Cortez’s company, he and Walker: Independence co-star Matt Barr were at the ATX Festival in Austin to promote their new TV Western. Trouble is, they didn’t know much about what was in store for them or their characters on the Walker prequel series because, at that point in June 2022, they had only filmed the first episode.
Already, however, Cortez was facing one of his first challenges while playing the role of Calian, an Apache tracker who becomes an invaluable ally for protagonist Abby Walker (Katherine McNamara). “Every time I go and ride a horse in my real life,” the charismatic model-turned-actor said, “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.”
Of even concern to Cortez, who is of Yaqui ancestry: Emphasizing accuracy and humanity while portraying Calian, a man who often finds himself caught between two worlds.
“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,” Coretz said. “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.”
Cortez and I recently reconnected during the week that The CW aired the midseason finale of Walker: Independence. (The series will return Jan. 12, 2023; all episode aired so far can be binged for free on the CW website, or with the CW app.) By that time, viewers had seen a lot of Calian, liked what they saw, and therefore were greatly relieved when Abby — with a little help from the rowdy Hoyt Rawlins (Matt Barr) and, of all people, the nefarious Sheriff Tom Davidson (Greg Hovanessian) — conspired to keep him from being executed for a murder he didn’t commit. Just as important, we were intrigued and affected by Calian’s visions of his long-lost sister Nascha, played by Cortez’s young daughter Olivia Johnson Cortez.
Justin Johnson Cortez and I had a great conversation in the C&I Studio. And he was a great sport when asked about a different sort of challenge — how to remain buff for his acting career and his modeling career. So far, judging from photos like these, he’s more than equal to the task.