Wilmer Valderrama Spotlights Frontline Workers On His Podcast ‘Essential Voices’
Wilmer Valderrama can do it all. The Miami native is an accomplished actor, producer, singer, content creator, and activist.
He burst on the scene playing “Fez” on iconic sitcom That '70s Show from 1998 to 2006. Then, he created, produced, and hosted YO MOMMA on MTV from 2006 to 2007.
On the small-screen, he’s appeared in Fox’s Minority Report, Netflix’s The Ranch, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, and Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s television series From Dusk Till Dawn. He also voiced the main character of Disney’s hugely popular animated children’s show Handy Manny, which introduced preschoolers to Spanish.
Currently, Valderrama plays Special Agent Nicholas Torres on NCIS, which is in its 18th season.
As an activist, Valderrama serves on the board of Voto Latino and is the spokesperson for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Ready 2 Lead program, which works to educate and empower Latino youth. Also, he recently co-founded HARNESS, a group dedicated to connecting communities to inspire action and power change. In 2013, he was honored with an ALMA Award for Outstanding Social Activism
I caught up with Wilmer and we spoke about the rise of Latinos in TV and film, how his dad’s bout with COVID affected him, his commitment to activism, and his new podcast Essential Voices.
Grove: For my generation, you were one of the most visible Latinos on TV with That 70s Show and MTV’s YO MOMMA. Now, there so many more Latinos in the industry who telling diverse stories as creatives and playing so many different roles. How do you feel about the growth of Latino representation on TV and in film?
Valderrama: It's emotional, right? When I first started 25 years ago I was thinking that I was just acting 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 just kept working hard and that's all we could do back then. We had to take what we were given.
Back in the day, you had Desi Arnaz and you're like, “Whoa, a Latina with an accent on the biggest show on TV” and then nothing else. Then you have Freddie Prince and then nothing for another 10 years.
So it's good to have this conversation with you and come full circle having been there before and now to see what tomorrow is gonna look like. Dude , it’s unbelievable. It's unbelievable to have a brush right now and continue to paint and that's intense when you think about the responsibility you have to paint what’s next.
Grove: I read that your father was diagnosed with COVID and thankfully he pulled through. How did that experience impact you?
Valderrama: My dad is an Uber driver and I tried to retire him but he won’t quit. He was still getting up at 5:30 in the morning trying to drive. He's showing people pictures, like, “This is my son,” on and everyone is like, “I don't believe you, sir.” He finds pride in it because he loves people and he loves community but it became a high risk job for him.
He went to the hospital to check his heart because he has preexisting conditions. In layman's terms, he’s a little more voluptuous for his height. He has some respiratory issues, heart issues, and all of that was working against him and he had a heart attack at the hospital. They saved him and they said if he would have come 10 minutes he would have been gone.
After that, he was struggling with COVID and almost got to the point we were in denial and we didn't want to say goodbyes. 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 close by. It really attacked him on levels. He couldn't even get up from the couch to walk to the bathroom because he had to stop and hold himself up at the chair. At the time, my fiancee was pregnant with our first child and I started thinking if my dad was gonna would meet my daughter and that really hurt. It was incredibly scary for us.
Grove: Wow. I can only imagine.
Valderrama: I’m incredibly grateful to these essential workers that have shown up for him. I mean, his medical team, all the way up to our grocery store workers who never took a day off and have to come in two hours before the store opens and two hours later to keep stocking things up so people will have their toilet paper and canned food. We’re so grateful.
Grove: You’ve always been heavily involved with progressive causes as an activist. How did you develop the passion for people who are most vulnerable in society?
Valderrama: Using my voice and platforms has always been a passion of mine. I’ve served on the board directors of Vote Latino, I've worked with farmers, immigrants, DACA students, and the Dreamers. I've done a lot of work in the community to understand those who take roles in society that we often assume don’t exist. Sometimes we think sh*t gets done magically. A lot of these roles are taken by our minority communities. With honor, they do these jobs, they're paramedics, they're cops, they're doctors etc. There are a million jobs we often don't really highlight and I've never been too far from that understanding because I've done a lot of work in those in those fields. But, you know, coming full circle to the pandemic, it really magnifies and really amplifies the importance.
Grove: How did you come up with the concept for Essential Voices?
Valderrama: I partnered up with iHeartRadio and with my other partners Claire Morton and we decided that my company, WV Entertainment, should launch an audio department. I talked to Leo Clem, who is now the head of our audio department and our first creation was Essential Voices. We thought this could be a way to create notable and important narrative stories that we thought were 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: On every episode of the podcast you highlight the stories of essential workers in various industries. What’s one story that really stuck with you?
Valderrama: I went to a grocery store and there’s cashier who's become a friend. I see her every week. I say hi all the time and ask her how her family is doing. One day I asked her how she was doing, and she said, “I'm doing okay.” And I said, “What do you mean? How are you doing?” She proceeded to tell me that she's seeing something else wake up in the customers. They’re coming in frantic, nervous, and projecting a lot of anger. I said, “What do you mean projecting anger? She said if they came in the store and didn’t see any toilet paper, they would get mad and throw a bunch of stuff on the floor and walk out. They would clear a whole shelf off because they're pissed. She would get phone calls at the register from customers outside of the store asking if the store had certain items. One time she told a customer that they ran out of an item and the person said, “Well, f**k you, I'll hope you get COVID and die,” and hang up the phone. To think about what woke up in humanity at that point and what these individuals were facing and receiving what they never asked for. They've never been trained psychologically or even given the way therapeutically 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 certainly think that they should open their hearts to listen to their stories. There's no clickbait in any of these conversations and I'm not going to have any shiny objects here. But I think ultimately, these are our brothers and sisters and they are asking for understanding in this moment. As we began moving outside of the pandemic, I hope that people don't forget how essential these workers really are because they'll continue to be essential 90 years from now.
Grove: Here’s my last question. Will there ever be a YO MOMMA reboot and if there is, can I be a part of it? But you have to say, “$1,000 of cash money” like you use to.
Valderrama: That’s hilarious! What’s crazy is when I created those phrases the producers had a conversation with me after two episodes and they were like, “Are you gonna keep saying it like that? I was like, “What!!? Yeah, I’m a keep saying it like that.” They were like “I think that you think it sounds cooler than it does,” and I was like, “These m*therf**kers.” I promised them that people will be saying this sh*t everywhere and they didn’t think so. I said, F**k you guys.” I would look out at the camera to my producers and I would be like, “$1,000 of cash money,” and everyone was like, “This guy thinks he's so cool.” I think it worked. I'll have to think about bringing your mama back. I’ll let you know. Haha!