The ‘70s are so over
WILMER VALDERRAMA brings two cellphones to his interview. “Business is blossoming,” says the 26-year-old actor-producer, who came to fame as the language-challenged exchange student Fez on Fox’s sitcom “That ‘70s Show.”
Since the series ended after eight seasons in May, Valderrama hasn’t stopped working. He’s the voice of the gentle bilingual handyman on the Disney Channel’s multicultural CG-animated series “Handy Manny,” and the second season of his MTV comedy competition series, “Yo Momma,” kicks off Oct. 23.
He also stars in Richard Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation,” which opens Nov. 17, and the holiday comedy “Unaccompanied Minors,” set for Dec. 8; next year, he’s set to play Ponch, the role originated by Erik Estrada, in the big-screen version of “CHiPs.”
In some circles, though, he may be best known for his high-profile relationships with the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ashlee Simpson and Mandy Moore, which at times have overshadowed his career. Particularly notorious: an appearance in March on Howard Stern’s satellite radio show in which he went into graphic detail about the conquests he’s made since he was 14, the attributes of his most famous girlfriends and his own sexual prowess.
Valderrama isn’t the first celeb pulled into a raunchy kiss-and-tell on Stern’s show -- Corbin Bernsen and Ryan Phillippe are just two who became too open for their own good. But when they were guests, Stern was on terrestrial radio and under scrutiny by the FCC. With Valderrama, that wasn’t the case, and he’s still swatting away questions on the topic.
Why did you become so sexually explicit on Stern? Do you regret talking so frankly about your romantic liaisons?
This is what I have to say about the Howard Stern thing. When you go on Howard you are in his home. And I allowed myself to be very playful about a lot of subjects and topics. Eventually such topics were paired up with certain names.... Obviously, we know the media loves to get a little confirmation of a story line, and that is all they needed and they ran with it. I don’t really have a real opinion about it anymore. I am so past it already.
Weren’t you still in high school when you got “That ‘70s Show?”
I was 18 years old. My family and I came to America to work. I was born in Miami, but I am such a Venezuelan at heart because I was raised there. We didn’t come here to go to Disneyland or we didn’t go to Universal Studios. We came here to work.
We worked the agriculture business [in Venezuela], and it became extremely competitive. It was tough for my dad. We were barely breaking even. We had really long winters, and you can’t work the land during the winters. During the summer, that is when he was making his money, so we were living on savings. It was really tough. We would break even, but there was no real progression. My mother and my father sold everything they had in Venezuela for four plane tickets and to afford the move.
So you have siblings?
I have two sisters and a baby brother. I have a sister, Marilyn, who is 25. Stephanie is 18, and Christian is 6. Christian is one of my biggest gifts. He is one of the reasons why I did “Handy Manny.” A lot of the things I did were not targeted to that audience, and I wanted him to have something.
So did the Disney Channel approach you about “Handy Manny?”
They said, “We have this project, and we are trying it out. We would love to do a pilot with you.” I read the treatment, and I read the script, and it was a very refreshing character.
You found him refreshing because he is bilingual?
Yeah, but at the same time I am very anti-preaching Latin culture. I think Latin culture, as passionate and beautiful as it is, should be discovered as opposed to someone feeding it to you. Obviously, I have been Latino since I was born, and I rarely tell people I am Latino because I think it’s pretty obvious. The goal is to let others figure out why we are so passionate about our culture and so family-oriented, as opposed to us having to shove it down people’s throats.
It’s not about Latin American character. This is a character everybody can relate to because of his motives and views and his personality and, most importantly, his values and morals.
Your MTV comedy series “Yo Momma” is returning for its second season on Oct. 15. I didn’t see the first season -- it’s primarily young people doing “yo momma” jokes?
It’s actually bigger than that. I have to admit there is an audience that is 100% underrepresented by the networks. For the past 3 1/2 years, MTV and I were trying to figure out something to do together. I couldn’t relate to anything that was on MTV.
What about “Punk’d,” the popular series created by your friend and “ ‘70s Show” costar Ashton Kutcher?
I loved “Punk’d.” I helped Ashton with a lot of his punks. I grew up with all of these kids from East L.A., Compton.... I would see them do this thing called “yo momma” jokes, which in the underground in the hoods became this pop cultural thing.
The thing I found so attractive about “Yo Momma” is that I was able to give these kids from the inner cities a shot at being on a show or a network they wouldn’t have ever dreamed of being on. They are not the cute American kids with the rich family who live by the beach or who have problems with their sweet 16. To me these are the real kids of America who grow up to be the fireman or a policeman.
In Richard Linklater’s new film, “Fast Food Nation,” you play an undocumented worker from Mexico. How do you feel about the illegal immigrant debate?
Immigration has been here since this country was formed, and now why is it considered a problem? Doing the movie and seeing what these immigrants put up with.... I didn’t have it like they did. But I didn’t know how to speak English. We had two bedrooms ... for five of us. And we pretty much ate dinner every other day. That was the reality, and [we thought] it will get better because we are working toward it. That’s hopefully the feeling of every immigrant family. I think that it was very mind-blowing for me to sit there and reenact crossing the border and working at a slaughterhouse. We worked at a real slaughterhouse!
-- Susan King