By: Edwin Pagán
The Actor’s Grind
It’s a muggy Sunday in July on the strip under the elevated trestle at West 134th Street in New York City’s Harlem, and actor J.W. Cortés is in the midst of a spec photo shoot. It’s not yet 10am, but a weather check has already triggered a swap in shooting locations due to pending thundershowers. The 134th exterior, originally planned as the second location is moved up, as the other location—a decommissioned railroad substation—somewhere in this vast metropolis, is in a “controlled space” and will keep.
For the last year, Cortés has reprised the role of Detective Carlos Alvarez on FOX’s hit TV show Gotham, a series based on the DC Comics serial Batman, currently shooting its second season. As his fan base has steadily grown, Cortés has been looking at maximizing his exposure while keeping the content he shares with his followers fresh and within the aesthetic scope of the show. He has a power publicist-Eva Synalovski-but prefers to remain personally engaged with the people who seek him out via social-media. It’s become part of his daily grind and he takes the task as seriously as he does his role on the show or his personal fitness.
The first leg of the shoot is straightforward and everyone is excited to wrap and head over to the promising substation. We arrive and enter via an innocuous side door, descend a few flights of metal stairs and are immediately transported back to another century. In short order, the air becomes heavy and unseen dust particles begin to pick at our nostrils as we venture deeper inside. There are thick stone columns that vanish into the craggy vaulted ceiling, rusted steel doors, and peeling paint galore. No art direction is required down here, as a 150-years of natural decay has distressed the improvised set better than any Academy award-winning production designer ever could. It’s clear everyone involved is feeling the location—jackpot!
Cortés and the shoot’s photographer, David Santiago, pull their smartphones and flip through a few references that approximate the tableaux they are looking to pull off in the next few hours. German expressionism, graphic novels, and comics are the motif of the day and it doesn’t take long to find everything needed for the shoot (and more) in this dungeon-like space. A moment later, a series of wireless flash strobes laced with colored gels are set up, and the second shoot kicks into high gear.
A Tale of Two Origins
Gotham is an action crime-drama developed by Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, Rome, Touching Evil). Unlike most American TV series or cable programs, Heller has opted to take a lead from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and populate his metropolis with a diverse cast of characters, which includes a broad mix of ethnic backgrounds, Latinos among them. The inverse is usually true. So much so that it almost makes one go into Casablanca mode whenever one appears onscreen: “I’m shocked, shocked, to find there is a Latino on this series!” The program can sometimes feel a bit overpopulated, with new characters being tossed into the stew after almost every commercial. On this front, however, I give it a pass, as I feel more-than-compensated during those times when a Latino cast member takes up solid resolution on the widescreen.
And here, there are, aplenty.
There’s drama series veteran David Zayas (Oz, Dexter) as gang-lord Salvatore Vincent “The Boss” Maroni, Victoria Cartagena as Major Crimes Unit detective Renee Montoya; Zabryna Guevara (X-Men: Days of Future Past) as Capt. Sarah Essen, Philip Hernandez as Gotham’s Medical Examiner, and a host of other Latin cameos including Luciana Faulhaber, Victor Cruz, Adrian Martinez, Mario D’Leon, Elliot Villar, and Flaco Navaja, among others. In this regard, the series’ showrunners and writers have managed to bypass the clichés associated with most police procedurals where all the Hispanics are merely forgettable background props or perps.
Gotham, which focuses on the metropolis’s heroes and evil zeros during their formative years, ended its first season with the following averages: 2.19 rating in the 18-49 demographic with 6.10 million total viewers tuning in (tvseriesfinale.com).
J.W. CORTÉS was born and raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, then a primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood on a street called “little Vietnam” by the NYPD, surrounded by Methadone addicts and gangs. At age 18, J.W. followed his father into military service. Cortés senior was drafted and served two tours in the U.S. Army (’67 and ’69) and saw combat overseas in the actual Vietnam with the 4th Infantry Division, while J.W. enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1993 and was deployed for a tour in the Middle East. On the day he arrived, a barrage of Iraqi Scud missiles greeted him as his unit reached the Line of Departure (LOP). During the assault, he was spared the enemy’s deadly munitions but was struck by an epiphany: ‘What would happen to his high school dreams of singing and acting if he perished in this foreign land so far from home?’ At that moment, he vowed to redouble his creative efforts after he served his country. After his stint, he returned to Brooklyn and joined the New York State Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTAPD). It would take two more years before he would take another stab at his creative vocations in earnest.
Eventually, the call to stretch his artistic muscles was too strong and he was back at it. Once, during an early career casting session for Sony BMG’s ‘Nueva Estrella Awards,’ Cortés arrived to find a line of actors that snaked around the block. Feeling deflated, he started back home to Brooklyn. At the urging of his wife, Francesca, he returned to the audition and landed a spot co-hosting the program. This became another seminal life-lesson he continues to point to in his development as an artist and professional actor. Over the years, he continued to ply his craft and began landing more roles in independent productions even as he remained a full-time active-duty Police officer in the MTAPD, where he is affectionately referred to as “Officer Hollywood” by his colleagues. On that front, Cortés is quick to share the bragging rights of his emerging success with his fellow officers, who have been avid supporters of his dream and occasionally exchange shifts to accommodate his impromptu casting calls. When the option is just not possible, he is more than happy to pull doubles covering Grand Central Terminal to “make it happen.”
“I only focus on the three minutes in the casting session, everything else is out of my control,” says Cortés. “You must trust your creative instincts because the rest is up to God.”
Cortés got the faithful call that he’d been cast as Detective Alvarez while on vacation in Puerto Rico with his family celebrating his 39th birthday in 2014. He’d just taken the ferry to Isla de Culebra (‘Snake Island’), an island-municipality 17 miles east of Puerto Rico, when he got the word from his manager: “It was such a humbling surprise to find out I’d landed the role while spending quality time with my loved ones back in the homeland,” he relates of his experience. “I had turned 39 and was trying to wind down from the ongoing hustle and BAM! Sometimes it all comes together when you least expect it.”
Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez is a life-long comic book collector/aficionado who recently teamed up with legendary rapper Darryl McDaniels (of Run-DMC fame) on their own comic book imprint, Darryl Makes Comics, LLC (as editor-in-chief and co-owner). He met Cortés while working as the art director at the now defunct New York International Latino Film Festival, where he personally witnessed his ‘true grit’ work ethic. “It’s been great to see J.W. Cortés go from a decorated Marine talking about his creative goals, to an indie filmmaker telling his own personal story, to being on a hot TV series in a recurring role — who’s a bona fide Latino!”
Miranda-Rodriguez also points out another worthy historical milestone: “J.W. is the first actor originating the role of Detective Alvarez outside the realm of paper comics and graphic novels,” he says. “It’s part and parcel of a 75-year old superhero canon known around the world — the Batman universe. How awesome is that, ¡Caramba!”
Gotham is exciting because it’s primarily an “origins” story of one of the best-known superheroes ever created. Batman was the brain trust of artist Bob Kane, and the Dark Knight made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939, and has been in some form of publication ever since. The only caveat is that now that Gotham is gaining traction, show runners will be tripping over each other to develop their own prelude series of some superhero storyline to pitch to the networks—God save the Queen!
In season two (watch the teaser), the show runners must take the series up not just one notch but several, and they know it. Even Gotham frontman Ben McKenzie (Gordon) recently provided a mea culpa calling it a “mistake” to introduce and resolve villains in such short order without the benefit of character arcs, acknowledging more was needed going forward to retain the savvy fanbase. But changes are indeed coming. Already, Michael Chiklis (The Shield, The Commish, Fantastic Four) has joined the ever-expanding cast as GCPD’s hard-nosed Captain Nathaniel Barnes, and the blogosphere is ablaze with critics and die-hards suggesting many more ‘enhancements.’ And, of course, we’d like to offer one, too, since sometimes the obvious gets lost under the brim of the nose: Detective Carlos Alvarez. Not only is he already part of the series (albeit underutilized), but Alvarez also features prominently in Batman’s contemporary diaspora, especially in Catwoman’s storyline as seen in DC Comics’ The New 52 Catwoman Series. Hello — do we really need to send up a Bat signal?
In life, there are givers and takers, so goes the maxim. It is also said that givers eventually win out. If that is the case, then J.W. Cortés is not only an emerging real-life hero, he is also a winner in life, as he has dedicated himself to bringing attention to several causes and charities close to his heart: war veterans and children with disabilities. He also has loaned out his voice to sing the U.S. National Anthem at major sporting events and charities across the country. In 2012 he was cast in the Mark Burnett-produced reality TV show Stars Earn Stripes, competing alongside super-sniper Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, Todd Palin, Laila Ali, and somewhat prophetically with Dean Cain of Lois & Clark. That project garnered him an inaugural ‘Excellence in Reality Television Award’ from the Hispanic Organization of Latino Actors (HOLA).
In 2014, he caught the attention of legendary singer/songwriter Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) who included Cortés in his benefit concert on behalf of wounded veterans where he led a rendition of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ that Rolling Stone said “sounded like a mixture of Marvin Gaye and John Legend” sung with “incredible passion and intensity.” Recently, Waters personally contacted him and asked for an encore presentation at his next charity event, set for this forthcoming October 16th in Washington.
After a break in season one, Cortés accepted a lead in a low-budget indie production entitled “Sugarfields” (Dir. Michael Biggam) that was scheduled to shoot in Puerto Rico. He says he felt compelled to do the project because it provided an opportunity to stay sharp between seasons and to give back to the ‘homeland.’ “Puerto Rico is in the midst of a dire financial crisis,” he says. “While there, I was able to break the fourth wall and connect with the people—mi gente—who were shocked that I would come out and do a project there after being on a major TV series.” But the endeavor proved to be a mutually cathartic experience, providing the locals with a sense of being supported, and giving him the inner satisfaction that he’d done more than just read about it in the news — part of his ongoing MO and desire to serve, that harkens back to his early decisions to join the military and police force.
It’s obvious that both ends of the promise he made to himself during the bombardment in Iraq all those years ago, is finally being fulfilled as both talents (acting and singing) close in on each other. “It’s premature to say if Gotham will be the venue that finally provides the traction I so desperately needed in this crazy business,” he says during a follow-up phone interview. “But it’s great to see that all this plugging away has led to some headway, especially when it’s allowed me to do some good, too.”
Asked which Hollywood leading men have inspired him over the years, Cortés’ first answer doesn’t surprise. Without losing a beat, he conjures up the late-great Raúl Juliá (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Moon Over Parador, The Addams Family). “I admired Raúl Juliá for his ‘solid core’ as an actor and his ability to convey the depths of a character’s soul through his eyes,” he says.
His second choice, one from another glamorous era, takes a few seconds to set in: James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Heat, Ragtime). “Cagney is another character actor whose work I gravitate to,” he adds. “His knack to go from 0 to 60 in a scene—from a composed inner stillness—to an exploding dynamo, hasn’t been topped since. Both these artists weren’t loud or went around thumping their chests. They defined themselves with the niche ability to find the spine of a story without the benefit of CGI or hoopla, just solid and timely performances.”
Back at the subterranean photo shoot, J.W. Cortés is now in full beast mode in his crisp Hugo Boss suit. He stares unblinking at the camera with a fisheye scowl, starts air-BLASTING away with both guns as the photographer rips through as many frames, finally calling it– “That’s a wrap!” The shoot has ended, but we are left with the certainty that we’ve only witnessed the beginning of his long and prosperous acting career. He raises a pistol to his sweaty brow, takes a deep breath and smiles: ‘Look ma, top of the world.’
And with that, a Latino superhero is born.
You can follow J.W. Cortés at Twitter @jwcortes or Instagram @jwcortes. His official website is: jwcortes.com
Edwin “El Miedo” Pagán is the Founder-In-Chief of Latin Horror. Pagán is a writer, filmmaker (with over 20 years production experience in the narrative and documentary film sectors), photographer/ cinematographer, curator, cultural activist, and life-long horror fan. @thepaganimage