Wilmer Valderrama can do anything. The Miami native is an accomplished actor, producer, singer, content creator and activist.
He burst onto the scene playing “Fez” in an iconic sitcom This 70s show from 1998 to 2006. Then, he creates, produces and animates YO MOM on MTV from 2006 to 2007.
On the small screen he appeared in Fox’s Minority report, Netflix The ranch, ABC Grey’s Anatomy, and the television series by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino From dusk until dawn. He also voiced the lead character in the hugely popular Disney animated children’s show Handy Manny, who introduced preschoolers to Spanish.
Currently, Valderrama plays Special Agent Nicholas Torres on NCIS, which is in its 18th season.
As an activist, Valderrama sits on the board of directors of Voto Latino and is the spokesperson for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Ready 2 Lead program, which aims to educate and empower young Latinos. In addition, he recently co-founded HARNESS, a group dedicated to connecting communities to inspire action and power change. In 2013 he received an ALMA Award for Outstanding Social Activism
I met Wilmer and we talked about the rise of Latinos on TV and in movies, how his father’s battle with COVID affected him, his involvement in activism, and his new podcast Essential voices.
Grove: For my generation, you were one of the most visible Latinos on TV with This 70s show and MTV YO MOM. Now there are so many more Latinos in the industry telling various stories as creatives and playing so many different roles. What do you think of the growth of Latin representation on television and in the cinema?
Valderrama: It’s emotional, isn’t it? When I started 25 years ago I thought I was just playing and being funny. I didn’t really understand the impact of what I was doing on screen. I just wanted it to be as funny as possible and not get fired because it was the biggest dream of my life. I didn’t want it to go away. So I continued to work hard and that’s all we could do at the time. We had to take what we were given.
Back then you had Desi Arnaz and you’re like “Whoa, a Latina with an accent on the biggest TV show” and then nothing else. Then you have Freddie Prince and nothing for 10 years.
So it’s good to have this conversation with you and come full circle after being there before and now to see what tomorrow will be like. Man, this is amazing. It’s amazing to have a brush right now and keep painting and it’s intense when you think about the responsibility you have to paint afterwards.
Grove: I read that your dad was diagnosed with COVID and luckily he got away with it. How did this experience impact you?
Valderrama: My dad is an Uber driver and I tried to retire him but he doesn’t quit. He was still getting up at 5:30 am trying to drive. He shows people pictures like “This is my son”, and everyone says, “I don’t believe you, sir. He takes pride in it because he loves people and loves the community, but it has become a high risk job for him.
He went to the hospital to check his heart because he has pre-existing conditions. Simply put, it is a bit more voluptuous for its size. He’s got breathing trouble, heart trouble, and it all worked against him and he had a heart attack in the hospital. They saved him and they said if he had come 10 minutes he would have left.
After that he was battling COVID and almost got to the point where we were in denial and didn’t want to say goodbye. I certainly thought my dad was gone. We were able to quarantine him at my house, in his own apartment away from the main house so he could be nearby. It really attacked him on levels. He couldn’t even get up from the sofa to go to the bathroom because he had to stop and stand at the chair. At the time, my fiancee was pregnant with our first child and I started to wonder if my dad was going to meet my daughter and it really hurt. It was incredibly scary for us.
Grove: Wow. I can only imagine.
Valderrama: I am incredibly grateful to these essential workers who showed up for him. I mean, his medical team, right down to our grocery store workers who never took a day off and have to come two hours before the store opens and two hours later to keep stocking up so that people have their toilet paper and food canned. We are so grateful.
Grove: You have always been heavily involved in progressive causes as an activist. How did you develop the passion for the most vulnerable people in society?
Valderrama: Using my voice and my platforms has always been a passion of mine. I’ve been on the board of Vote Latino, I’ve worked with farmers, immigrants, DACA students, and Dreamers. I’ve done a lot of work in the community to understand those who take on roles in society that we often assume don’t exist. Sometimes we think that everything is done by magic. Many of these roles are played by our minority communities. With honor, they do these jobs, they are paramedics, they are cops, they are doctors etc. have done a lot of work in these areas. But, you know, coming full circle with the pandemic, it really amplifies and really amplifies the importance.
Grove: How did you come up with the concept of Essential voices?
Valderrama: I teamed up with iHeartRadio and my other partners Claire Morton and decided that my company, WV Entertainment, should start an audio department. I spoke to Leo Clem who is now the head of our audio department and our first creation was Essential Voices. We thought it might be a way to create some notable and important narrative stories that we felt was important to highlight. I have my co-host MR Raquel with me and the podcast builds on what we were doing with “6 Feet Apart” on Instagram Live.
Grove: In each episode of the podcast, you highlight the stories of essential workers in various industries. What is the story that really marked you?
Valderrama: I went to a grocery store and there is a cashier who became a friend. I see her every week. I say hello to her all the time and ask her how her family is doing. One day I asked her how she was, and she said, “I’m fine. And I said, “What do you mean? How are you? “She said to me that she saw something else waking up in the clients. They come in frantic, nervous and projecting a lot of anger. I said,” What do you mean by projecting anger? She said if they walked into the store and didn’t see toilet paper they would get mad and throw a bunch of stuff on the floor and come out. They would empty a whole shelf because they were pissed off. She was getting phone calls. at the checkout of customers outside the store asking if the store had certain items. Once she told a customer that there was no more item and the person said, “Well, fuck you, I hope you get COVID and die, “and hung up the phone. Think about what woke up in humanity at that time and what these individuals were facing and receiving what they never asked for. They were never psychologically trained or even given the path to therapy. Eutic to take care of themselves. When she said that, she looked so defeated. She was almost in tears.
Grove: What do you want your listeners to leave with?
Valderrama: I definitely think they should open their hearts to listen to their stories. There are no clickbaits in any of these conversations, and I’m not going to get any shiny items here. But I think at the end of the day it’s our brothers and sisters and they’re asking for understanding right now. As we have started to emerge from the pandemic, I hope people don’t forget how essential these workers really are because they will continue to be in 90 years.
Grove: This is my last question. Will there ever be a reboot of YO MOMMA and if there is, can I be a part of it? But you have to say “$ 1,000 in cash” like you used to.
Valderrama: It’s hilarious! What’s crazy is that when I created these lines, the producers had a conversation with me after two episodes and they were like, “Are you going to keep saying it like that?” I was like, “What !!? Yeah, I keep saying it like that. They were like,” I think you think that looks cooler than it is, and I was Like, “These m * therf ** kers.” I promised them people would say this shit everywhere and they didn’t mean it. I said, F ** k you guys. I was looking at the camera towards my producers and I was like “$ 1,000 cash”, and everybody was like, “This guy thinks he’s so cool.” I think it worked. I’m gonna have to think about bringing your mum back. Let it be known. Haha!