He doesn’t just play a cop on TV.
New York city MTA officer J.W. Cortes patrols Grand Central Station most days. But on Monday nights he patrols Gotham in Fox’s Batman drama. The show focuses on the early days of police commissioner James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) as a young detective. Cortes plays Detective Alvarez, who works with Gordon in the precinct.
It’s an unusual gig for a kid who grew up, as he says, during the crack epidemic, in the heroin-infested neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Cortes’ older brother was a leader of a notorious gang, the Latin Kings. But in high school, he did theater and would sing doo-wop in the subways.
When he turned 18, he made what he calls the “Great Escape,” Cortes tells The Hollywood Reporter on the phone after finishing a shift of real-life law enforcement. “I signed up for the Marines. And I was right. One or two months later my brother was indicted on federal charges. It saved my life, honestly.”
Cortes stayed on active duty in the Marines until 1999. Then the Army instituted its stop-loss policy and Cortes was dragged into Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. In a twist of fate, a ballistic missile put him on a path to the small screen, although he wouldn’t realize it until years later.
“I had done a musical in high school called The Wiz and I loved it and I had to bury all that stuff when I was in the service. In Iraq – when my unit came under attack by a Scud missile, I had all these flashbacks like someone who is about to die,” Cortes says. “I don’t know what could’ve been of these things. I made a promise to do these things and not take life for granted.”
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When he returned from Iraq, Cortes was without a job and almost homeless, he says. “I had a really hard time. One of my really good friends was killed out there and I just had a bunch of issues going on. I wasn’t sure what my future held. I had no work lined up yet.”
Luckily, he went on Match.com and met the woman who would become his wife, and he enrolled in the police academy. He became a Metropolitan Transportation Authority officer six months later. He first told his story to the photography blog Humans of New York.
Then his son was born, and “I remembered that promise, and I started just showing up, going on auditions and got lucky sometimes,” he says. “I went to acting school, got some bit parts, and got on NBC’s Stars Earn Stripes in 2012,” he says. On the short-lived reality show he was paired with Todd Palin to teach him military exercises.
Last year Cortes auditioned for Gotham before taking his family on a trip to Puerto Rico for his birthday. Sitting on Flamenco Beach, he got a call from his manager, telling him: “You’re going to be Detective Alvarez!”
On Tuesday, as he patrolled Grand Central, people stopped to ask Officer Cortes if they could take a picture — with Detective Alvarez.
Nov. 5, 2014, 3:31 p.m. Updated with quotes about military service.
Nov. 5, 2014, 8:25 p.m. J.W. Cortes is an MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) officer in New York. A previous version of this story referred to him as NYPD (New York Police Department). THR regrets the error.