J.W. Cortes is an award-winning Marine combat veteran and New York MTA officer turned actor-singer-activist. Last year, he signed on to a recurring role as Detective Carlos Alvarez on Fox’s hit show “Gotham.” Cortes has a personal connection to the autism community through his six-year-old son Jonah, who is on the autism spectrum. He’s been involved with organizations such as Autism Speaks to help support our community.
Kerry: Hi J.W.! Can you tell us how you first got involved in the autism community?
J.W.: My son is six. About four years ago we noticed Jonah was very delayed in speaking, and so we took him to the doctor. We wound up getting one opinion that, to be quite honest, I didn’t want to accept - that my son had autism. We decided to go to another doctor in NYC who re-confirmed what the first said about my son’s diagnosis. I started to think of what that meant to me as a parent, and I found at first, how reluctant I was to accept it.
Being an Iraqi war veteran, I felt like I had something to do with it. I started doing some research and found out that it could have been nothing that I did. I then, through my research, connected with Autism Speaks, and I could tell the organization really embraced community.
That’s when I started to become a champion for the autism cause through organizations like Autism Speaks.
What was going on in your mind when you heard you were going to have a recurring role on “Gotham?”
As a struggling actor, we struggle for different reasons. I trained as a dramatic actor. I would grind out audition after audition. I even did a reality TV show. After I auditioned for the role of Alvarez on "Gotham", we planned a family reunion in Puerto Rico, for my 39th birthday. My manager gave me a call while I was getting on a boat to Flamingo Beach. That’s when she told me the news that I got the role of Detective Alvarez and that the role was recurring. It was a moment where I said, “thank you God” and kissed and hugged my family and my kids.
How were you able to go from a New York City MTA officer to being a full-time actor?
It’s really been the best of both worlds. I can be an officer and a full time actor and make it work. I have incredibly supportive coworkers and at the end of the day, if I need someone to cover a shift for me while I’m shooting, my coworkers are willing to do it. Once I would do off Broadway stage work, they were one of the two people in the audience. Whenever I’m on TV, they are watching, and they are cheering me on. It’s been great, but it’s been incredibly challenging. Hopefully, I’ll go from a recurring role to a series regular at some point and when that happens, I’ll have to consider my options, whether it be retirement or leave of absence.
Last year, all of us were blown away when you sang the national anthem at the New York Mets Autism Awareness Day Game. How did you start singing?
Singing was my first love. I did musical theatre in high school. I absolutely loved music growing up. I had a diverse musical background in my household. I’d listen to Ruben Blades, one of the biggest salsa singers of all time, and then my dad would turn on Motown. I also loved hip-hop and R&B music was always an escape. Even to this day, it’s therapy. Music was my first love.
If at some point my acting career allows it, I hope to put out some music. I would love to tie it to Autism Speaks and Wounded Warriors, another organization I’m involved with. One moment that stood out was when I was at Stand Up For Heroes 2013 in New York City’s Madison Square Garden where I sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” with the legendary Rogers Waters of Pink Floyd.
So that’s the goal for the future; to create original music still and try to raise awareness.
What advice would you give to autism dads out there based on your experiences?
That’s a really good question. I think realizing that our children learn differently but don't love differently, finding the beauty in it that is important. Letting them grow and stretch while also being a protective father figure, if you can find that balance, then you are certainly on your way.
My son is the most compassionate being I’ve ever met. He has a volume of empathy. And I really don’t think if I wasn’t open to that, I would have been able to see everything he has to offer.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
The biggest thing I want the community to know is that someone on the screen hopes to make you proud, represent you, and is going to help give you a voice. I know there is a lot of work to be done, but I hope to be a champion and ambassador for this cause. I think that’s ultimately what I really want.