'Walker Independence' Star Justin Johnson Cortez Unpacks Calian in Court and Connection to Abby

The actor breaks down 'The Owl and the Arrow' episode of The CW drama.
by Allison Bowsher — 

Justin Johnson Cortez in 'Walker Independence'

The CW

Warning: This story contains spoilers for the seventh episode of Walker Independence, titled "The Owl and the Arrow." Read at your own risk!

Even with only seven episodes under its belt (buckle), the historical Western drama Walker Independence (Metascore 63) has provided no shortage of tense moments for viewers, many of whom have already fallen in love with the show's diverse cast of outlaws and locals.

Set in the late 1800s, the small Texas town of Independence gains a handful of new inhabitants when Abby Collins (Katherine McNamara) and Tom Davidson (Greg Hovanessian) arrive. A Boston-native, Abby and her husband were en route to Independence for Liam's new job as the sheriff when their wagon was attacked and Liam murdered — by Tom. After wandering for days in the unrelenting Texas heat, Abby collapsed and was rescued by an Apache tracker named Calian (Justin Johnson Cortez), who delivered her safely to Independence, only to find Tom has taken her husband's place as the new sheriff.

As a scout, Calian has plenty of experience following clues and reading the unforgiving terrain of Independence, but his Apache heritage makes him someone who is only sometimes welcome in town. In the seventh episode, titled "The Owl and the Arrow," Calian's life as an outsider in Independence is literally put on trial after his arrow is found in the body of his friend Francis Reyes (Nestor Serrano), one of the founding fathers of Independence.

Unfortunately, Calian can't remember much about the events leading up to Francis death, aside from seeing a vision of his sister Nascha (Olivia Johnson Cortez), who went missing 15 years earlier. But his friends, including Deputy Sheriff Augustus (Philemon Chambers), quickly scramble for evidence proving Calian's innocence. 

The role of Nascha, Johnson Cortez tells Metacritic, was originally a one-off for Episode 3, with Calian and an unnamed girl having a short and lighthearted interaction. Johnson Cortez had an idea for a more meaningful significance for the character, which evolved into Calian being led by visions of his little sister to those in need, including his first meeting with an unconscious Abby. And no, the fact that he shares a last name with the actor playing his sister is not a coincidence; she is actually his real-life daughter.

"I was extremely pleased when I read the script," Johnson Cortez tells Metacritic of "The Owl and the Arrow." "It's heartbreaking but it's beautifully done. It's very powerful."

Even with Abby acting as his lawyer and the judge admitting he doubts Calian's guilt, he's sentenced to die by hanging. Moments before the noose is placed around Calian's neck, Hoyt (Matt Barr) manages to get a confession out of Francis' son Luis (Santiago Segura), who shot his father and placed one of Calian's arrows in the bullet hole as a cover. But the true savior comes from the most surprising place when Tom cuts Calian free, even before learning of Luis' guilt.   

Although Calian survives the episode, he doesn't stick around Independence, though.

Here, Johnson Cortez breaks down "The Owl And The Arrow" with Metacritic, including his connection to Abby and how Calian will find his way back to the titular Texas town (because Johnson Cortez is not leaving the show!).

Calian's speech in the courtroom is so moving. Why did Calian finally decide that this would be the moment he shows his vulnerable side?  

I always want to go to the heartbreak of the situation. He's had a lot of time to process his sister being missing, so the heartbreak wasn't that; it was that these people couldn't see him for who he was. They couldn't see him as a human. They had already decided his fate. It was a complex situation because you could easily go to anger. He could have been screaming at them and been very big. But for me, it was always about that he was helping someone and they still can't see you for who you are. They're still scared of you when you've proven they didn't have to be.

The moments of Calian being led to the guillotine are incredibly intense. Luis' confession and Augustus finding the bullet in Francis come in at the last minute, but the biggest surprise is Tom cutting the noose. Why do you think he did that?

The development of this character has been so interesting to me, and I love the dynamic of where they're going with this guy. The best characters are the ones you don't quite get all the way and maybe things happen that you don't see coming. You don't want to be predictable.

I think maybe he just saw Calian as a human. Calian looks down and sees the Sheriff's wound and the fact that he's bleeding, and he knows well enough that that is the kind of wound that will kill somebody.

In that moment when [Tom] says, "Any last words?" Calian is speaking to him and saying, "Don't fear death. I'm going and I don't fear death." That's what I really love about Calian. He was willing to accept his fate and, in this moment, he was reaching out to another human being and saying, "You're not alone, you don't have to be afraid, there's more after this." I think that moment of compassion from Calian created a moment of compassion from Tom.  

Calian and Augustus' relationship has been strained, but this week it felt like Augustus standing up for Calian in the courtroom repaired everything. Why do you think Augustus and Calian are so well connected to each other?

A major part is that they're both outsiders to this time and this town and the changing landscape of what's happening. They obviously have a history and are connected on some level, but I think what's kept them together and so supportive and able to identify with each other is the fact that they're not quite accepted.

I love what Augustus' character says at the end of the episode when [Calian] is leaving: "I don't know why I'm here for this town when they would probably do the same thing to me and judge me just as quickly." I thought that was so powerful and I thought that was essential to hear. I love that they didn't shy away from the fact that there's still so much racism at that time, and we feel it today as well. I thought it was powerful and true and showed how deep their relationship is in this story.

Augustus has pressed Calian for information on the secret he's been keeping since Abby arrived, and even with Calian trusting his friend, he's never revealed Abby's identity. Why do you think he's kept this secret from him?

Because Nascha is part of his connection to Abby, I think there's almost something sacred about the whole situation with Abby and he's not quite sure where it lives yet. It's something that I think he holds very close and he's still trying to navigate. I think there's definitely a bit where he's trying to protect [Abby], but he might be trying to protect Augustus a bit too because you don't want to put him in a tough spot [as Tom's employee]. That's what we do as people. We keep these secrets and once they come out you think, "I don't know why I held onto that for so long."

There's a moment with Abby right before Calian leaves town, culminating in this buildup of emotions between them. What do you think it is about the pair that keeps drawing them back to each other?

I think it goes back to Nascha. Coming into this whole project, knowing that he finds her [Abby] and wants to help her, I definitely didn't want it to be just because she's this beautiful, charismatic white woman. I needed it to be more, especially coming from a Native perspective. In the past, that's always been such an easy thing: "Oh, of course, he loves this blue-eyed woman."

I was so pleased to read the script when everything kind of tied together with Nascha being the reason he tracks Abby and Nascha leading Calian to Abby. I think he just trusted that if he was led to her by Nascha, there was a really good reason. I don't think he quite knows either, but it almost feels like fate, and I think he felt like it was part of his fate to know her. And she's also obviously a very attractive and intelligent person, and she's different from any other settler he's met. I think he's naturally drawn to her, in a way, after the fact. 

Many people in Independence were ready to find Calian guilty before the trial, so it's understandable that he wouldn't want to stick around, but the town has always been hostile towards him and his tribe. What is it about now that makes him leave?

It's a struggle he's been carrying since the beginning. In the time leading up to when we meet him, he's been struggling with this balance he's trying to hold together. He wants to be there for his tribe — for his elders — and I think at this point, having seen what happened and the close call, I think he's willing to try to see it from the other side. Maybe he got ahead of himself. Maybe he wasn't right, maybe there is no balance here. Maybe the others in his camp are right and you can't trust these people.

The fact that his elder came and supported him through this and came to a place that he was really uncomfortable in, I think that Calian feels like he owes it to him to come back and be 100-percent there. 

When will we see Calian back in Independence?

Calian's relationship with the town was always very challenging even from the start. Talking with the showrunner, it was like, "How do we get him into town, period, because we've established that he's not very comfortable there?" That's always been a very big challenge and now he's left to regroup, so are we going to get him back in town? These people are a part of his life now and he's a part of theirs, so our worlds intertwine. But I can't tell you too much. [Laughs]

Walker Independence airs at 9 p.m. Thursdays on The CW.

Get to know Justin Johnson Cortez:
Before joining the cast of Walker Independence, Johnson Cortez appeared in such TV series as 9-1-1: Lone Star (Metascore: 67),Splitting Up Together (54), andLucifer (49). He can also be seen in the TV movies Staties and This Is Heaven. In 2020, Johnson Cortez wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the short film The Fall, which was a Skins Fest official selection.