He Went From War To Being Nearly Homeless But Gotham’s J.W. Cortes Has Finally Made It

Fans of FOX’s “Gotham” will instantly recognize J.W. Cortes.

Every Monday night, Cortes slays as the passionate and dapper Detective Alvarez.

J.W. Cortes / YouTube

Cortes has also appeared in recent episodes of “The Blacklist” and “The Mysteries of Laura.”

But most fans don’t know that when Cortes scored the “Gotham” gig, he was also working as a Metro Transit Authority officer in New York.


No, that’s not a costume. Back in 2014, Cortes was featured in the photography blog Humans of New York. He spoke of his acting aspirations: “I work as a police officer to pay the bills. All the other officers call me Officer Hollywood.”

Cortes’ struggle to become an actor has taken him through war, both figuratively and literally.


Cortes’ path to acting success took a detour through war and a stint as an NYPD officer.

Born to Puerto Rican parents, Cortes grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn in the ’70s and ’80s.


In the ’80s, Sunset Park was mired in a “crack epidemic” and was a hotbed of gang activity.


According to The Hollywood Reporter, Cortes’s older brother was one of the heads of the infamous Latin Kings in Sunset Park. On Twitter, Cortes called the neighborhood “Gunset Park.”

During his high school years, Cortes stayed out of trouble by acting and singing for people on the subway.

Credit: nickmormal / flickr

In 2014, Cortes told Humans of New York, “I used to perform in high school musicals and sing Doo Wop on the subways. It was the Boyz II Men era, so that was in.”

Cortes also performed in his high school’s performance of The Wiz.


Cortes told Humans of New York, “I always loved doing musicals in school.”

When Cortes turned 18, he joined the Marines, putting a hold on his dreams of entertaining.


Cortes told The Hollywood Reporter that joining the Marines saved his life. A few months after enlisting, Cortes’s brother “was indicted on federal charges.”

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Cortes was an active Marine until 1999, but then in 2003, the Iraq war began…

Although Cortes had completed his service with the Marines, he was recalled for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. For Cortes, this period in his life helped shape him into the man he is today. In an interview with AOL, Cortes said:

Serving for me was and will always be a two-fold experience. In one respect, I learned what patriotism and service was through my father who always taught us about the great sacrifices made by our service men and women. The idea of serving one day was spurred by him. Separately, enlisting and serving saved my life and made me the man I am today.

During this time, Cortes had a close encounter with a scud missile attack that forever changed his life.


Cortes talked about the experience with The Hollywood Reporter:

In Iraq – when my unit came under attack by a Scud missile, I had all these flashbacks like someone who is about to die. 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.”

Cortes would remember this promise a few years later.

After 14 years, Cortes was discharged from the military, but his experiences in Iraq took a heavy toll on him.


Cortes told Humans of New York, “When I came back from Iraq about ten years ago, I was really depressed and almost homeless.” He added, “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.”

Though Cortes struggled with depression, he never stopped looking to the future.

[…] it did take me going to Iraq for the 2003 invasion to fully come to grips with an understanding that life is short, we are only here for so long and dreams are meant to be pursued. Since Iraq I have very much lived with that constant reminder and tell others that there really is no better time than the present to follow their dreams.

Cortes met the woman who would become his wife…

Cortes’ social anxiety actually helped him meet his wife, as he explained to Humans of New York: “I was too afraid to go out and socialize so I met my wife on Match dot com.”

… he joined the police academy…


Six months later he got a job as an MTA officer.

… and shortly after, he and his wife welcomed their first son.

After the birth of his first son, Cortes remembered his promise to not take life for granted.

Having never lost his love of entertaining, Cortes realized he had a second chance to chase his dreams, and so he decided to honor the promise he’d made during his the Scud missile attack.

So on his days off from his job as an MTA officer, Cortes went out on auditions for small roles.


As Cortes told The Hollywood Reporter, “[…] I started just showing up, going on auditions and got lucky sometimes.”

After eight years and “hundreds of auditions,” Cortes finally tried out for the role of Detective Alvarez on “Gotham.”

Credit: Humans of New York / Facebook

In another interview with Humans of New York, Cortes described his reaction when he received the call that he’d landed the role of Detective Alvarez, saying:

I was in Puerto Rico, celebrating my 39th birthday, when I got a call from my manager. She said: ‘I need you to sit down.’ I said: ‘What’s going on?’ She said: ‘Are you ready for this, Detective Alvarez?’ I said: ‘What are you talking about?’ She said: ‘YOU’RE DETECTIVE F–KING ALVAREZ.’ I just started crying and hugging my kids and thanking my wife for never giving up on me.

But Cortes hasn’t lost sight of what it took for him to get to this point.


In this photo on Instagram, the actor wrote:

This pic was taken on my very first day of Gotham. I can tell you that I sat quietly in my dressing room waiting to meet everyone that day. Can’t really tell you verbatim who they were. What I can tell you, is that I stared long and hard at the guy in the mirror — (he knew) how hard he worked and how lucky he was to be there and even more, how lucky he was that he didn’t give up on himself. There was a lot of that between 2003 and 2014.

For Cortes, his success is important because it gives him a chance to shine a positive light on Latinos in the media.


In an interview with NBC News, Cortes acknowledged the responsibility he has as a Latino, saying: “I think the bigger picture here is that Hollywood is seeing that [Latinos] are definitely a viable force and that I represent, just like Gina Rodriguez represents and all those other wonderful actors, a community that wants to see themselves up on that screen.”

Cortes is proof that heroism is about living life to the fullest.


In an inspirational message on Instagram, Cortes sums up his journey:

For someone like me though, who is often introduced by various media outlets as a real hero who’s served in the Marine Corps (Iraq War Veteran) and in law enforcement – and as humbling as it is to be acknowledged that way, I’m also compelled to point out that someone with those credentials who looks and sounds like me – that exists in the real world can then very well live truthfully on the screen. It is time that we have a legitimate, fully fleshed out leading Latino superhero now and that’s what I’m fighting for. If I were to take it a step further, I’d say that now more than ever we need that sort of figure to draw inspiration from so that our children can say, “Wow! That’s really cool. He looks like me – I want to be just like him and he is just as American as anyone else!”

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