D&IFeaturesPeopleJustin Johnson Cortez: Indigenous actor striving for authenticity

Films often stereotype, sideline or box Native people into narrow roles.
Byonce TyusAugust 21, 2022211 min
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Justin Johnson Cortez is a director, writer and actor who is now set to star as a regular in CBS Studios’ Walker: Independence, a prequel to Walker which will begin Thursday, October 6. Johnson Cortez is best known for his roles in Fox’s Lucifer and 911: Fallen Star.

As a Latino-Indigenous actor, Johnson Cortez is conscientious about the projects and roles he accepts. In the new show, he plays Calian — a curious and cautious Apache living just outside of a Western town called Independence where he saves Abby, the main character, from death.

Born and raised in Santa Paula, Calif., Johnson Cortez is from the Yaqui tribe. Playing the role of an Indigenous character is challenging for him. Indigenous people have been stereotyped, firmly boxed-in, and used as vehicles for the main story focusing on the white character. Johnson Cortez has to work hard with producers to make sure Calian is distinctive.

“I want to do something different here,” he said. “I want to make sure that we’re feeling Calian, his own character, his complexities and the struggle he goes through on his own without having to directly relate to the white character.”

While he’s clear about his career path now, that wasn’t always the case. Many actors start from a young age in musicals and their school’s performing arts productions, but Johnson Cortez didn’t find his passion for acting until he was in his 20s. He signed a deal as a model, which led to an audition for a commercial that brought on his love for acting.

“The more I did it, the more opportunities I got to perform,” he said. “I just started to grow this passion for it.”

He got his start in short films and television about 20 years ago, according to his IMDB bio. When he first started, he would be sent to audition for roles as white characters. Johnson Cortez said he began avoiding the sun in fear of becoming too tan for the parts.

“As dark as I am now naturally, I was a lot more pale,” he said. “I was too afraid to get tanned. I didn’t want to ruin the opportunity of getting a job, and it took me a long time to overcome that. Once I started writing scripts for myself, that’s when I started to get more comfortable with the idea of being me.”

That was a big step for him.

“It’s sad that I fought that for so long, but I think it was important for me to go through that and come out on the other side because now I really feel strongly about representation, and being who you are,” he said. “There’s plenty of room for all these different stories.”

Making a conscious effort about roles that he took wasn’t an easy task. Johnson Cortez has to make sure that the character is accurate, positive and depicted in an honest way.

“It’s complex.” Johnson Cortez said. “There’s a lot of different hoops to jump through. So, just trying to keep your integrity is a challenge, but I am always up for it.”

For Johnson Cortez’s upcoming role as an Apache, he faces a more unique task – learning the tribe’s language.

“That’s a challenge, but it’s very fulfilling as well,” he said, “I feel very blessed to speak a language and to have the permission to do so. It’s something that connects me to my culture in a way, even though it’s not my tribe.”

Walker: Independence



He said the staff for this project are in tune with his objectives.

“The showrunner and producers are amazing.” Johnson Cortez said. “They’re cognizant of the fact that they don’t have the whole picture, so they’re open to hearing my thoughts on the character, and my thoughts on the culture. We have a consultant as well, so they’re doing their best to broaden the spectrum of this character. Sometimes, they might get it wrong and that’s OK. Sometimes, we get things wrong and that’s life. Luckily, we have the resources for this.”

Johnson Cortez said the team’s efforts to create an authentic Indigenous character and taking in his opinion on Calian is what pushed him toward the role. The show also has a Black character named Augustus, who’s the deputy sheriff of Independence, and a Chinese character named Kai who runs a laundromat.

The show’s conscious effort to have unseen characters heard, and to represent their cultures accurately is part of a broader change that Johnson Cortez sees the industry making, though there are setbacks.

“I think there’s still a long way to go, unfortunately,” he said. “You have these stories being told, and we think we’re moving forward, but then things happen. It’s like – we teach kids consideration all the time, right? But it’s hard to find, especially with money involved. At least with our show, I see an effort.”

Plenty of people in the entertainment industry are looking to have their voices heard, stories told and cultures represented. Having a support system and passion are key, Johnson Cortez said.

“There’s going to be days where you’re not feeling your best,” he said. “You’re not believing in yourself the way you did the day before, week before, or month before. That’s going to come. I feel like that’s inevitable. Having those people in your life who can hear you and speak truth to you in a loving way to get you through those moments is essential.”

As further advice to other actors, he said, “Remember why you love it. Life’s really short, so I think people should go for their dreams. Obviously, there’s certain circumstances that people live in where that may not be the case. For those people pursuing their dreams under difficult circumstances, my heart goes out to them because when you succeed, you’re giving hope to other people.”

Byonce Tyus

2 comments

  • Elizabeth

    August 22, 2022 at 10:12 am

    It’s great that you are having more of an opportunity to show more of yourself in the entertainment industry. Looking forward to seeing this on your new show.

    Reply

  • Jonn

    August 24, 2022 at 10:35 am

    Great write up and Justin deserves the attention!

    Reply

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