Miami-born actor Wilmer Valderrama has come a long way since his days as Fez, the quirky foreign exchange student who was often the butt of jokes on the popular TV series "That '70s Show." The 26-year-old jovial, handsome charmer—known for gallivanting around with some of Hollywood's starlets—grew up in Venezuela and moved to Los Angeles with his family at age 13.
Initially finding success with his comedic work, Valderrama is now proving he can take on more serious projects such as Fast Food Nation. But he hasn't abandoned his roots in comedy: he helped create the funny MTV show "Yo Momma!" (as the executive producer), and is now starring in the recently released laugh-fest Unaccompanied Minors. In this family film, Valderrama plays the assistant to his acerbic boss (Lewis Black); both are made frantic looking for a group of unaccompanied minors snowed in at Chicago's fictional Hoover International Airport during the holiday season.
Valderrama is growing up as a hardworking, sharply focused talent striving to branch out beyond the obvious clichés of a comic actor and the stereotypes often foisted on the Latino actors of his generation. At the same, he's capitalizing on the opportunities to give back through his star-power. That's what happened the other day when Valderrama joined several kids from the Little Flower Children and Family Services on a $1000 Shopping Spree at FAO Schwarz. All for a good cause and a cute movie.
Q: You've been getting a great reaction to the wide range of work you've been doing lately.
WV: Over the past two years I worked on strategizing the [most recent] chapter of my career. I have to say that it feels good to have people like [ Fast Food Nation ] director Richard Linklater, [ Unaccompanied Minors director] Paul Feig and the people [such as the other writers of "Yo Momma"] at MTV who trusted me with my ideas and talents.
Q: What techniques do you utilize to make your characters convincing?
WV: A couple of months before Anthony Quinn passed away we had a conversation about acting and he told me that actors are meant to be chameleons. We are meant to remind everybody of their brothers, sisters, neighbors, bosses, coworkers and ex-husbands. It's exciting to be able to take that piece of advice seriously. I love choosing characters that are so different from me which might change someone's perspective and assumptions that they might already have [of who I really am].
Q: Your latest comedy Unaccompanied Minors, [opening this December] is quite cute; yet you've made such a progression as an actor that you deserve support for the effort.
WV: I really appreciate hearing that and I've got to tell you I have only come across a couple of people in the media that have been really supportive of me and understand what I'm doing as a performer.
Q: Still everyone says it's tough working with animals and kids—so what was it like working with the kids from Unaccompanied Minors?
WV: Working with the kids was amazing. I have a six-year-old baby brother, an 18-year-old and a 25-year-old sister. So, I grew up with kids around me and this was a thrill. The kids were talented and fun.
Q: What projects have you been working on and what's coming up next?
WV: This has been an exciting Fall season. First I launched "Handy Manny" for Disney which was a great success for the channel, and then finished up the second season of "Yo Momma," where I brought the show to New York. Then I did Fast Food Nation, which I consider to be one of the most important projects of my career so far. After that I did Unaccompanied Minors, which brought me back to my comedy roots.
I'm starting out '07 by going to Germany and doing three live shows at three different army bases for our troops. Then after Germany I come back to shoot the third season of "Yo Momma," in Atlanta. Also, I will be in pre-production for two films and then later next year I'll be shooting CHiPs.
Q: Which two films?
WV: I haven't released them yet. One of them I am producing and the other one I am just really excited to do. Q: If you are going to be a producer, have you learned to save money and account for budgeting the film?
WV: (Laughter) I've been playing it safe with everything I've done and have been saving money and using it wisely.
Q: You played off your Latino heritage as a foreign exchange student on "That '70s Show." Is being a Latino actor a burden or blessing?
WV: If anything I think it's a gift. I can really separate myself from a lot of the stereotypes that already exist in America today. Actually, in retrospect I'd love to be one of the actors that change the stereotype of Latino's in America. I think it's been a fantastic pursuit and mission through my work where I can highlight the great people in our culture. But I focus on entertaining everyone from all cultures.
Q: How does it feel to have built a classic character, Fez, during your time on "That '70s Show?"
WV: It was great to be part of a show that was on the air for a decade, making it a major part of many peoples upbringing. I mean, I was 18 years old when I started the show and I think I was pretty brave in the odd choices I made at the time. Somehow, they were right and somehow I hit it on the nail with the character. I could never ask for more as a performer.
Q: What did you learn about the '70s from being on the show?
WV: I learned a lot more about the '70s from the show than I did from history class. There are a lot of things that we talked about on the show and I learned to love the music as well, which was cool.
Q: Are you going to try to initiate philosophical or more serious projects?
WV: I grew hungry for projects that have some kind of message and for it to be delivered in a non-preachy way. After finishing "That '70s Show," I wanted to focus on projects that matter. Luckily, I've been stumbling upon some great projects and directors that think about it in the same way I do.
Q: With all the fame you acquired from your run at "That '70s Show" you were highlighted in the media quite often. Do you think we are too celebrity-focused in our society?
WV: I think the media is changing and transitioning to things that matter like social issues that – people are really trying to focus on what the next wave of demand should be.
Q: As a celebrity, you must know what it feels like to be in all the tabloids and associated with party girls such as Lindsay Lohan. What advice would you give Britney Spears about being "over-exposed" in the media as she tries to make a come back after her two-year hiatus?
WV: (Laughs) I am trying to figure it out myself as a person too. I wouldn't be able to advise anybody about that. I've been trying to focus on my work and how I want people to see my performances. I'd say the most important thing is to focus on your work no matter what.