Wilmer Valderrama: Out Of Character

Growing up on TV with a wholesome image can be a good thing – that is, until your personal life ends up in the tabloids, or until you want to take on a role that doesn’t involve being Mr. Nice Guy. Wilmer Valderrama knows all too well the ails of being hounded by the paparazzi, and he is taking every measure to ensure that he’s not typecast in Hollywood.

After successful jobs on TV shows like That ‘70s Show (1998-2006), Handy Manny and Yo Momma (2006), and the movie Fast Food Nation (2006), Wilmer sought to expand his horizons.

He landed the role of Danny Boy in the upcoming film Days Of Wrath, and you can bet that all of your images of that boy-next-door will go out the window when you see it. Unless you live in a very rough neighborhood, that is.

As a budding entrepreneur with several restaurants and a clothing line already under his belt, Wilmer Valderrama is on his way to becoming a multi-faceted mogul before he even turns 30. In a recent conversation with AllHipHop.com, Wilmer had a lot to say about his flourishing career, the challenges he faces as a Latino actor in Hollywood and some of his philosophies on how to achieve a dream.

AllHipHop.com: I was really intrigued by the trailer for Days Of Wrath in seeing you play that type of a role, which is very intense. Do you feel that it was necessary for you to take on that type of role?

Wilmer Valderrama: No, not so much that it was necessary. I think it was exciting for me to do something different. One of the things I've been taking my time with is finding challenging roles that are not the predictable choices. I think what's exciting for me as a performer is to push myself to do characters that are very far removed from who I am.

To create a character from scratch and give him some life, I think that that's what acting is about and that's what's exciting. I've been trying to not be predictable when it comes to my career and that's why I've been taking my time. When this role came up I thought it was really exciting to show another face of what I can do.

[Photo by Sam Urdank]

AllHipHop.com: How did you research that role?

Wilmer: To be honest, I went to school and a lot of my friends lived in Compton and East L.A., so the lingo was kind of there but it was one thing having friends that kind of give you the swagger. Another thing is going in depth with the consultants and really understanding what that lifestyle is about and what kind of things happen in your life that give you that kind of ruthless mentality.

That's what was really exciting for me, to be able to really get in depth with this character and pull it off. I have gang consultants and people that were helping me with this role and they were very proud of me. That was half the battle for me, to make them proud and connect and kind of forget that it was me for a second.

[Photo by Sam Urdank]

AllHipHop.com: Exactly. Even watching the trailer you kind of forget that that was the good guy who was on That '70s Show.

Wilmer: My main goal was for when people saw this character, off the bat they understood this is not Wilmer Valderrama from That '70s Show or from Fast Food Nation or Yo Momma. This is a character we're watching and we've seen him go through the streets of L.A. being the most likeable a**hole you can find in the streets. [laughs] To be honest the trailer doesn't even scratch the surface, I had some really fun times and did some great scenes.

AllHipHop.com: You've done everything from Shakespeare to Yo Momma. What type of role has been your favorite?

Wilmer: That's interesting. Growing up in Venezuela and Los Angeles and becoming the guy who's in charge of his family - my family really depends on me, my father, my mother, my sisters and stuff. At a very younger age I took responsibility to really mature fast enough to understand certain realities, which gave me the sensitivity to really understand certain genres, demographics and things like that.

I was able to really use my sisters as secret shoppers. It's kind of like my sisters would tell me when I sucked, when an episode was funny [laughs]. They're ruthless with me. I have a 7-year-old baby brother, a 19-year-old sister and a 27-year-old sister. So I kind of cover all genres, and I include my parents in that when it comes to the Latin community.

It's a tough question, because I've been able to put my hands into a little bit of everything and had a really great time doing it. But I think the key is to do things that you would want yourself and to really put yourself in the shoes of the genre and demographic you're trying to appeal to.

One of the things that's really helped me, outside of my sisters, was really growing up on That '70s Show and understanding what worked, and really growing up with MTV and seeing why there was such a pioneered trendsetting company. Obviously MTV has changed to a different phase, and when Ashton [Kutcher] and I and a few other people were on the network, I feel that we were one of the few high concept shows that were people-driven.

Right now they're really understanding what their market is gonna be again, so it's exciting to be a part of the mix. It's kind of a complicated question, because you base it on what are some of the exciting roles I've had, and I had a great time trying to understand every genre and the demographics. Being in my 20’s still kind of gives me both sides of the coin.

To do a show like Handy Manny on The Disney Channel then do [Yo Momma] on MTV and then do something like Fast Food Nation, and then do a movie like [Days Of Wrath]... It's crazy, you really get to understand the things that you can do, and you wouldn't be able to do it unless you push yourself and put yourself in vulnerable places where you have to rely on your gut instincts to pull you through it. I admire, and I'm a huge fan of every actor that puts himself in a risky situation and takes roles that people have never seen him in.

AllHipHop.com: There was a rumor that you were playing in the CHiPs movie. Are you in the movie, and if so what are you bringing to the role of Ponch?

Wilmer: Yes, it is true. I am gonna be Ponch in the CHiPs movie which is very exciting for me because I feel like that's my Spiderman. [laughs] If there's any superhero to play, it's gonna be Ponch. But yeah I'm really stoked to be doing it with Warner Brothers, hopefully later this year. Andrew Panay who's a producer of Wedding Crashers is producing the movie, the executive producer of 300 is going to be executive producing the movie.

The movie is not a spoof, it's not a comedic take on the world, it's gonna be a fun look at what CHiPs was. I like to compare it to more of a Rush Hour, it's an action comedy that doesn't take itself super serious but we have fun with a serious storyline. There's a lot of great characters, it's gonna remind a lot of people what CHiPs was. What I want to do is always keep in mind the heart and soul of what Eric Estrada brought to the role, but I definitely want to put my spin on it and give it a little Wilmer Valderrama kind of flavor.

AllHipHop.com: You own restaurants and you're launching a fashion line. Tell us a little about your entrepreneurial efforts.

Wilmer: Today I own eight restaurants - I own three in Atlanta, Georgia. We opened up our first restaurant/bowling alley in the Atlantic Station in Atlanta. It's going fantastic. The entertainment industry is definitely blooming in Atlanta, so it's a great place to put some high concept restaurants. Then I own another restaurant called Compton right next to the LAX Club in Vegas, and here in L.A. I obviously own another four [including Dolce, The Lodge and Geisha House], but it's been a really fantastic opportunity to use your platform.

I don't gamble money, I'd rather buy a bottle. [laughs] What I like to do when I get a little money is to try to move it around, try to find opportunities. The key is to not dip into your savings to pay your monthly bills - that is the philosophy. To invest your income to whatever interest, so that whatever income you're making from your different ventures, that kind of supports your lifestyle.

I just launched a clothing line called Calavena which is fantastic - it's in Saks Fifth Avenue. It's been great, I've been designing lines, I've been really involved in it and it's been another really great platform for creativity. You get a lot of free s**t, you might as well make your own. [laughs] Sometimes you say, "I want to do a jacket or hoodie like this", so I give it more of a multi-cultural, international kind of philosophical take on the world.

AllHipHop.com: What's the biggest lesson that you've learned as an entrepreneur?

Wilmer: The biggest lesson that I've learned with all of the ventures that I've done is to really watch when you form the team that's gonna execute your investments. That's the number one. You don't want to trust your money to your friends, you don't do business with your friends and family. My biggest advice - if you think of keeping the business in the family, I think you're wrong. Money always spoils friendship and family.

I also don't believe in lending money because you'll never see it again. If you're gonna give someone money you might as well be like it's a gift, because it always makes it weird for everybody. You don't wanna go through any of that, so number one, if you're ever investing in your career you gotta make sure you have the best people surrounding you that you're gonna be able to trust with their job. I think that's rule number one, you gotta really know who your team is when it comes to it.

AllHipHop.com: The media in Hollywood has crossed the boundaries beyond privacy [with celebrities]. They really intrude and are ruining people's lives. Do you feel that actors in general don't have enough rights to their privacy?

Wilmer: I believe you're right. I believe the actors don't have enough rights to keep their business to themselves. But I also believe that every actor and performer has a choice to their own privacy, either you make a left or a right. Whoever keeps making that right, you're looking for it. If you don't want to be followed by paparazzi don't go [where they are]. If you don't want to be caught by TMZ, don't go to the paparazzi infested clubs. They're not more fun than any other clubs. There was a time in my career when they had my number and they knew where to find me - then I quickly started realizing this hurts careers, because your fans lose the mystery of who you are.

But I think you have a choice, and at some point I made the choice that I don't have to go to the popular nights. As long as I roll with my boys, have a couple of drinks and get the f**k out, that's all I gotta do. We know where they're coming, it's not like "Oh man, we showed up and they're here." It's not a mystery, we all know where they hang out pretty much.

I especially feel for the starlets of today, the girls get it worse. But you're right - there's two sides to the coin. It's not fair right now how they're ruthless to the girls. At the end of the day they're young girls who still have insecurities and ask, "Am I good enough for this?" When people tell you you're not good enough, then at some point you might believe them.

You can’t be worried about anybody else's definition of who you are. As long as your family and friends are around and your core support group understands what you're going through and is helping to support your cause, it doesn't matter what anybody else's theory is about who you're gonna be. Your fans are gonna love you no matter what, so the people who are hating on you are your best customers.

AllHipHop.com: Considering that your heritage is Venezuelan and Colombian, but you live in Los Angeles and you've played Mexicans and someone like Fez [on That ‘70s Show] who nobody really knew what [heritage] he was, how much in real life have you had to deal with people being confused about your background, or dealing with flat out racism?

Wilmer: Hollywood is interesting, Hollywood has a different definition - they have different takes on this whole theory. When I first started my career in 1997 and 1998, I was the only Latino on Fox for four to five years [with That '70s Show] until Jessica Alba and many other people came to the network. I think a lot of people had no idea that I was Latino for four years. They couldn't really pinpoint it.

The world has definitely embraced minorities, because they understand that the volume and the numbers [of the] demand is in the millions and it's in their best interests. Now are they doing it because they wanna support minorities and they think we're just as talented? Who knows? The fact of the matter is, they're giving us a platform to prove them right or prove them wrong. I think it's a time to focus on who we are and what's the legacy that each one of our cultures is gonna leave behind.

Each one of our cultures is just as influential as the others, and it's a great time right now to embrace each other and really do for each other as a team and really do things that we want to do ourselves. By the way, our work is just as good as anybody else's, if not better.

In 2000, about eight years ago I did a movie called Summer Catch with Freddie Prinze Jr., Jessica Biel, Marc Blucas, and Matthew Lillard. I did this movie in North Carolina, and I love the people in North Carolina, they were incredible to me. I went to dinner with Christian Kane and Jessica Biel, we were in a restaurant that was half empty and the people in the restaurant were sitting in the back waiting at the door for us to get seated, and I had never experienced this in my life.

I grew up in Venezuela - we're black, Chinese, brown, white, everything. So it was really interesting and one of the first times where I started realizing, "What's going on? Why is this happening?" and Christian Kane made it clear to me that certain people still have a certain mentality about minorities, and it really hurt me because I love this country and what it's given my family.

Forever more, not only am I waving my Colombian and Venezuelan flag, but even stronger I'm waving the American flag, because it changed my life, my family's life and it gave me a platform to feed my family. So I'll always be faithful and I do a lot of work for the USR and go visit my troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, I go all around the world to visit the men and women who are away from home because I'm so grateful to this country.

I think the industry is slowly reflecting that and now we're capitalizing on the ones, but it's also understanding that we're now a multicultural country and becoming one of the most influential forces in entertainment. I think the times are changing, but my upbringing was really interesting. I had to go and audition for white actor roles because there weren't enough roles for me. So I had to go out there and re-educate the industry that I was capable of playing those roles and lead this movie or scene. Certain roles weren't Latin roles, and we had to kind of change their minds.

I have to admit, I encountered a lot of great open-minded people - to drop a few names, Peter Ross who was the president of Fox at the time, Bonnie and Terry Turner who created That '70s Show who gave me my first shot and also Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey from Carsey-Werner, these are people that own the company that did Cybill, Roseanne, 3rd Rock From The Sun and That '70s Show, these were people that understood what we were doing.

In a way I was given a platform to show what I could do without highlighting my heritage and letting my culture and heritage gain pride by what I've done as a person. I think that goes for any minority in any culture, I think that the goal is to give your heritage pride by the accomplishments of you as a person, a performer and an entrepreneur before you wave a flag. We need to focus on what we're gonna leave behind and then let our heritage gain pride organically.

I think now I'm at a place in my career where I thank the Lord and my family everyday because they gave me the confidence for me to do what I want to do and take my time with my career, which has been fantastic. Now I have a bigger responsibility, I'm not just waving the Venezuelan and Colombian flags, I'm waving the Latin American flag. Everybody with brown skin, we have very few shots and we can't afford to f**k this one up.

I think that's besides the fact that I work really hard, because I think that we've been able to slowly but surely change the stereotype of who we are, and what kind of roles we play in this industry. It's a beautiful time to reinvent the stereotype, and I could not be more proud. I'm all for giving say to anyone who's been under represented, like when I did Yo Momma I was putting kids in the hood that never thought they would be on MTV. That was my goal. I fought that battle with MTV - I didn't want to be politically correct and make it a rainbow in there, because that's not what the hood is and what some of the places we visit are.

I said, "Look, if I'm gonna do your show, I'm not gonna water down the s**t. I'm gonna show the faces [of kids in that environment]." Trust me it's not about a bunch of kids complaining about how much f**king money they got or because they broke up with so and so, and that they were fighting at a club. That's not our upbringing and real America, not all of us grew up on the beach. That's one of the reasons I felt Yo Momma worked so well.

AllHipHop.com: Why don't you tell us about what else you have coming up?

Wilmer: We have a bunch of things in development right now. I have a TV and film company, and we've been developing a lot of TV and films as well. This year we're setting up some great projects, but I'm kind of working on the scripted world with just a few branded franchises, we're building formats in the reality world. But that'll come, and I'm sure we'll talk about it the moment we can announce it. There are some things we're working on that's very exciting.

AllHipHop.com: Anything else you want people to know?

Wilmer: I'd like to say to all the fans out there and everybody who's showed up and shared a laugh with me somehow, that I really appreciate the years of support and to keep on trucking. Bottom line is I'm grateful for where I'm at, and it's because of the fans and everybody out there who's led themselves to believe and go on this ride with me. Big shout out to all of my audience out there.

Days Of Wrath trailer (Directed by Celia Fox, Co-starring Laurence Fishburne, Ricardo Chivera, Jesse Garcia, Taye Diggs, Melyssa Ford, Faison Love, David Banner, Kurupt, Slim Thug, Rick Ross and more)