Friday, December 2, 2022

Interview: Justin Johnson Cortez on ‘Walker: Independence’: Representation, Calian’s Story, and More [EXCLUSIVE]

INTERVIEWSInterview: Justin Johnson Cortez on 'Walker: Independence': Representation, Calian's Story, and...

Walker: Independence, the prequel to The CW’s Walker starring Jared Padalecki, is set to premiere this Thursday, October 6. The series is a western that follows Abigail Walker in the 1800s as she arrives in Independence, Texas. Justin Johnson Cortez plays Calian, who is part of an Apache tribe, and finds Abigail as she arrives at the town after a horrible tragedy.

We got the chance to talk to Justin Johnson Cortez about the show, representation, Calian’s story, and more.

Editors note: this interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Nerds and Beyond: So, to start, how did the role of Calian come up for you? What was the audition process like? Was everything virtual because of COVID?

Justin Johnson Cortez: Everything was virtual. I didn’t meet anybody in person before or during the audition process. It’s kind of crazy when that happens. It’s been a big change from what we were used to before the pandemic. It came through my wonderful agents, and they sent it over, and they were very excited about it. But, I tell people when I first got the script, I was a bit nervous. It was a period piece, Native Americans … traditionally, Indians in Westerns haven’t been portrayed in the best light. So there was a part of me that was like, “Oh, I don’t know how I feel about this,” and I actually wrestled with that audition quite a bit. I read it, and I’d come vent to [my wife] about my ideas about what I think they’re trying to go for … but at the same time, there could be something in this, and I was excited. You work for a long time, and you work really hard at trying to break into this industry, and there’s some that feel right, and they feel like, “Oh, this seems like it could really work and could be something I could do good at,” and I definitely felt like I could do something special with this.

So, eventually, you put it on tape, the audition, and you just record it, and my wife reads every audition with me, and I love her for that. My agents … they always give me great feedback on that as well. I sent it in, but the biggest thing was in the slate. A slate is something you say to kind of introduce yourself to the producers, and in that, I expressed that I didn’t speak my native language. I just asked them to have compassion for not just me but other Native actors out there who weren’t passed their native language. They didn’t get their native language passed down to them, and that’s the case with many Native actors out there. A lot of my friends who are acting didn’t learn their language. And in fact, they’ll learn other languages for shows. They’re like, “I speak this language more than I do my own tribe’s.” So, I just asked them, “Hey, be patient,” [and] just have that consideration because, in the audition, they asked us to speak our native language. And that was one of my first things … I was like, they don’t understand what it’s like to be Indian in 2020.

Another thing as a Native actor, a lot of times producers will expect you to know all [languages], like all languages are the same. Like, “Oh, you can speak Cherokee or Navajo,” and I can’t speak that or I’m Yaqui, I don’t speak any of them. So, yeah, the process was interesting. And then, after I met the producers on Zoom, we did another meeting and kind of went through the scenes, but it was more just like getting to know each other. And they all said that hearing me say that kind of opened their eyes a bit, and that means a lot to me to hear that back from them, that they received that and there are people out there who are willing to hear that because you’re nervous. You don’t know what they watch or how far they see your tape, or if they even watch them all; there’s a big disconnect. So that was the process, and it went really fast. And then when you finally do meet these people in person, it’s crazy, like, “Oh, we’re making the show together now, and we’ve only met over the computer.” It’s really weird. It’s been a learning curve for sure.

Richard Foreman, Jr. /The CW
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Nerds and Beyond: Touching a bit on what you said — how closely did you work with everyone behind the camera to ensure that Calian was portrayed in an authentic way without resorting to stereotypes that are common in that era?

JJC: So after I sent the tape, they’re like, “Hey, they want to meet you.” In that conversation, it came up immediately. Larry Teng was the director for the first [three episodes]. He’s also a producer of the show, and immediately he addressed my concerns, and he’s like, “Hey, we want to make sure we’re telling accurate stories. We want to portray you. We want Calian to be portrayed accurately, and we want him to feel like he’s part of the show, not just there to support these other characters.” And that meant a lot to me because, again, that was my fear going in. It’s like, I’m just gonna be there. You never want to be expendable, or kind of leftover, and just support the leads or whoever … but we dove into that immediately. And then after we got out to Santa Fe, [and] just start shooting … they call it cowboy camp. We’re not all cowboys here, but it’s where we go to train on the horses.

I met Seamus [Kevin Fahey], the showrunner, and I was like, “Hey, are you gonna have a Native writer in the room?” He’s like, “Yes, we’re gonna get a Native writer in the room.” They just kind of were reassuring along the way. Even now, as scripts come out. And they’re really open to hearing my thoughts on the character, and we kind of fine-tune it along the way if that makes sense. Just to kind of make sure that we’re staying accurate and true and … TV moves so fast, it’s not always going to be perfect. Seamus and I had a conversation, and he’s like, “We’re not always going to get these right.” And, I’m not Apache, so even I won’t get these right, but we have a translator who’s there to help us, we have a Native American consultant … we have these resources so we could do our best and at the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do.

We’re trying to do our best. I’m trying to do my best. And I just want to give people something that we haven’t seen before in this type of character. And especially for the younger Native generation, I want them to be able to look up to this character. And, I tell people when I watched westerns growing up, I always wanted to be the cowboy because they had all the fun. They got all the good action. For me, it was like the girl always liked them. I want Calian to have some of that cowboy energy. I think we’re doing a good job with that. So I’m really excited for people to see it.

Nerds and Beyond: I know you mentioned this in a previous interview, and you just mentioned it as well, that you want kids to be able to want to be your character. What part of Calian do you think is going to resonate with kids that see themselves in you? Or what aspects do you hope resonate with everyone?

JJC: I just really wanted his humanity to come out. I want him to be complex in that dimension and then for all different types of people to see themselves in him. We all experience similar things in life. People go through more or less certain things, but at the end of the day, we all share similar emotions. And I just want people to be able to see his humanity and see his struggles for what they are for him. Humans aren’t perfect, and I don’t want Calian to be perfect. You know, a lot of times, Native Americans are portrayed as stoic people on screen. There’s something I love about that, being a person of few words, and when you do speak, it means a lot. But at the same time, it could be boring, for lack of a better term, or you want this person to have something to them.

I think with Calian he definitely has a stoicism, and he’s gonna be a man of few words, just because, accurately, English wouldn’t be his first language, but Calian has been around it, and he speaks great English. But when you come from a culture and you’re getting mixed into a different culture, you’re always going to have a hesitancy … so he’s naturally not going to be as vocal as other people. But then when we do see him, we get glimpses inside of him. I just want people to be able to see his heart, his soul, and what he fights for, what he loves and what he’s scared of.

For the kids … we get to have some fun, the bow comes out, and we get to get [into] some action, and I love that. I think that’s when I was a kid watching these shows or movies, that’s what I loved about them. Riding horses and just kind of the adventure of it all, and Calian definitely gets into the adventure, so I can’t give you too much. I hope when people watch that, those kids get drawn in by that. But, I hope that the other people stay for the heart and what he’s fighting for.

Anna Kooris/The CW

Nerds and Beyond: You kind of touched on this before, but how do you think Calian will help change the stereotype of indigenous people in television?

JJC: Yeah, that’s a hard one. We’re trying our best, and I hope we can.

Nerds and Beyond: I think even just saying what you said, just showing him as more than a one-dimensional character.

JJC: Exactly. That’s what it is for me. The Native narrative, like the story, I think a lot of people are imagining it has to be a ceremony, or prayer, or drums, or a teepee. That is an aspect that people were kind of drawn to with the Native American way of life at this time. But showing Calian having a friend, and showing his experience that may be different from that … So even showing his friendship with another character is a true Native experience for Calian, and that’s because that was his experience. And as long as we can get into what he’s feeling, what he’s thinking, what is his perspective on everything … as long as we show the audience that, then I feel really good because I think in the past, we never know what the Native characters are feeling or thinking, it’s just them acting or reacting or assisting other people.

So I think if we just make sure that we’re trying to show his perspective, then we’re doing a good job because it gives people a glimpse into, “Oh, maybe that’s how somebody may have felt.” We can’t go to someone and talk about it. It’s such an interesting time. We have books, and we have photographs, and we have stories. But there’s not any one person who we could go to and be like, “Hey, what was it really like?” It’s so fascinating to me, and then because of that, we’ll never get it 100% accurate. You know what I mean? We’re working off of recorded history. And a lot of times, recorded history isn’t completely accurate as well. Everyone is kind of figuring that out. So we got a cool opportunity to do our best and to stay in that path, but also, at the end of the day, we’re making television, and I want to kind of rewrite some of that stuff. And I want to be able to show things that maybe people didn’t think they would expect from this character. So we’ll see what happens.

Nerds and Beyond: Walker has an established audience already. Were you a little nervous coming into something that had an established audience, or do you think it’s more exciting?

JJC: Oh, no, I think it’s totally exciting. I think it’s great. I love that we’re linked in with Walker, and I love that they had such a great audience and such great fans, and I hope that we’re able to win them over as well. I really want to be able to put something out there that they’re excited to watch as well. But it’s a completely different show. It’s set 100-plus years back, and it’s like we’re tied to Walker, but at the end of the day, you kind of have all this space to play with. It’s exciting … And then it’s going to be exciting to see how the two tie in and how they’re connected. I think it’s great. It’s more fun for me, as an audience member, as somebody who enjoys television and movies … it’s just more to play with. It’s more for me to get excited about. The world is bigger.

Anna Kooris / The CW

Nerds and Beyond: What’s your favorite trait of Calian’s, or what’s something you love most about him?

JJC: I love that … I’m trying to be careful here because I’m trying to think of what I can say and if it’s going to be too revealing [laughs]. I love that Calian commits to things. People make choices, and sometimes they’re not the right choices. Sometimes they’re completely wrong choices, but what I love is when people really commit to their choices, and they’re not here or there, they’re in the middle, and I feel like Calian, and when he decides to do something, he does it, whatever the reasons may be. So, I love that he commits, and he really put his heart into what he’s doing.

Nerds and Beyond: Augustus and Calian clearly have history. I know you can’t spoil anything, but is that something that is going to be explored more in the plot? Are we going to find out why you’re more reluctant to come into town?

JJC: Yeah, just historically, it’s very accurate for a lot of people at this time … like Calian’s landscape was changing dramatically, his way of life is changing. Everyone’s way of life was changing. And Apaches weren’t exactly loved by everybody. A lot of people that were settling wanted them put on reservations, if not dead. They just wanted them not in their lives because they’re afraid of them and for good reasons at times, but also, it’s complex; you have the clashing of worlds. So just in a basic level, it would make so much sense that Calian would be hesitant to come to town.

I love Augustus’ and Calian’s relationship. I love the history there, and we’re gonna get into that, and people are gonna see that. It’s one of those things that’s going to take a little time, but when we do, it’s just so special. I love working with Philly [Philemon Chambers]. And when we get to do these scenes together, the history is there. I love being an actor and getting to work with those types of relationships, which mean so much to me. And you know, we are going to learn what the hesitancy is. Again, it’s going to take a few episodes, so everyone’s gotta stick around, but we will [find out], and it’s beautifully written. I really, really love it. I can’t really say much more than that. But when we do find out about Calian’s relationship with the town, it is one of my favorite things I’ve read so far. And when we get to see Augustus and Calian … we get to learn a bit more about where they came from and what their past is; it’s great. It’s great stuff, and I’m really excited for people to see that as well.

Nerds and Beyond: You’ve shared that Calian has worked as a scout for the US Cavalry. Is that going to come with any conflict either within his tribe or within himself, and are we gonna see any part of that?

JJC: What I do love about Calian is he’s kind of balanced. He’s trying to navigate through the changing landscape in these two worlds, right? So his tribe, his people, and this town, and I can really connect with that personally. With my life, sometimes I feel like I have a foot in two worlds. When I first got into acting … my last name, Justin Johnson Cortez. Here, Johnson, they’re like, what is that? You know what I mean? When I first got into acting, and I’d go out for these roles, and if I was in a room and, you know, being mixed, it’s like I’m not quite white enough to be in the white room, but I’m not quite brown enough in the brown room. I always felt kind of torn between two spaces. And so that’s something I can really connect to with Calian.

He’s trying to figure out his space in this changing landscape and where he fits in. He could kind of see the advantage to becoming familiar with this town and the people in it because it’s going to catch up with him. Eventually, it’s going to catch up with his tribe. I think he’s trying to find the balance between resisting it and accepting it too much. And that’s very interesting to me and exciting. We are going to see some conflict with the tribe because that’s just a natural progression, and I hope we get to really dive into that. I want to tell you so much [laughs]. I love that we come out weekly, but there’s a part of me that wishes people could just binge it, and we could talk about it all [laughs].

Anna Kooris/The CW

Nerds and Beyond: So what has the training been like? I know you ride horses a lot. But also, with Calian speaking Apache, have you been diving into that more?

JJC: I love riding horses. I’m not the greatest, but I’m not bad, either. But I love being on the animal. When you’re next to these stunt guys, you’re like, “Oh, well, these guys are really great riders.” I just continue to want to push and get better and better. I pushed to be able to do all my own riding. Sometimes timewise, they’ve got to get a shot of doubles riding down the road or whatever it may be, but I’m always like, “I could do it!” They’ve listened to me a lot of times [and] they let me get away with it. But it’s so much fun, and it’s beautiful out here. Riding in an arena or on a ranch and being kind of in this space is one thing and then getting out on set … we’re riding on these hills, and we’re riding through the desert … It’s like a dream to me. I could do it all day. I was on the horse for like 12 hours the other day. I didn’t mind one bit. I was like, “I could live here.”

Calian has a bow, so immediately when I got out here, I found someone who teaches archery. I don’t know how many times I’ll have to shoot it, but I want to know it. I’ve never done it before, so it’s one of these things where I just want to make sure it’s believable. But the thing about me is I fall in love with these things; I want to do it all the time. I want to go shoot bows all the time now. My wife and my kids and family are here, so you don’t have the time to do it all, then you go to set, and you’re working. But I would just like [to] dive into this stuff completely, and just do it daily, [it’s] just a time management issue.

I learned a lot, but when you start to learn something, you realize how much more you need to learn about it. You’re like, “Oh, I’ve learned a lot about riding horses,” and also, I could do this for 10 more years and still be learning how to do stuff on a horse. So it’s one of those things [where] I just try to enjoy it. I want to be good at everything that I do, especially when it’s fun. So the training has been amazing. And yeah, there’s gonna be some fun action stuff. I think people are gonna really, really dig it. When they see the actors doing it, I think that’s gonna be really cool as well because a lot of times you’ll watch things and it’s not the actors doing it. But I’ve been really fortunate to be able to do my own stunts, but it doesn’t feel like a stunt; it just feels like a lot of fun.

And the language … the language is tough. If it’s written, I can’t read it. I have to learn the sound, [and] how to do it, and the translator is amazing. He’s become a really good friend of mine. I talk to him weekly even when we don’t have any language in the script. He has a family who is amazing. They met my family, and he loves my kids, and you know, it’s just been a real gift to be able to get his blessing to speak his language. He’s full-blooded Apache, and he’s been a great teacher, but it’s been difficult. It’s challenging; he lives a few hours away and doesn’t have great service. He lives on the res, and so we’re trying to navigate the best system to make sure we can do it efficiently. It’s been difficult, we’re sending videos back and forth, and they’re not coming through all the way because there’s no service, and I started to panic a little bit. We’re working on the best way to do it. I’m actually going to drive up to him in a couple of days, and I’m going to be with him just for more translations.

He’s teaching me lots of stuff. He’s teaching me a lot of language, and just like anything else, if you don’t stick with it, it goes away. So I’m trying to keep a notebook with all these phrases and words I’ve learned. But again, if I can’t hear it, and you were just to write it, I wouldn’t know what to say because there’s accent marks, there’s all these different things. It’s a beautiful language, and when it’s written, it looks incredible. But it’s, again, one of the things like the more you learn about it, the more you realize you know nothing; you’re an infant in the language of Apache. So I just hope I’m doing it justice. That’s one of the things I don’t want it to be like, “Oh, this is too hard. Let’s just do that.” No, we’re gonna make it happen. We’re gonna put the time in, and we’re going to do the language. I just think it’s beautiful that we get to speak that, and people are going to hear it all across the country or around the world. I think that’s amazing. It’s very special. I feel honored when I get to speak these words.

Walker: Independence premieres Thursday, October 6, right after Walker on The CW at 9 p.m. EST.

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