During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and pride. We are highlighting Hispanic trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the months of September and October. For more, head here.
When Wilmer Valderrama moved to the United States with his family at age 14, he had no idea what to expect — or that he’d soon be starring on a hit television show.
“My father, who, when I came to America with him and my mother and my sisters, he said, ‘Mijo, we came here to work,’” he said in an interview with TODAY. “‘We didn’t come here to go to theme parks or the mall. We came here to work.’”
Valderrama took his dad’s advice, and a few years later, as a high school senior, booked the role he’d become best known for on “That '70s Show.” Valderrama starred as Fez for all eight seasons that aired 1998 to 2006 on Fox.
“I really was very naive and very innocent to the fact that — mostly because I had just arrived to America and I had no idea, at 16, 17, 18 years old, that there was such a conversation about representation and lack of images of our culture on screen,” he explained. “As an immigrant family, you come here and you put your head down and you keep working and you do what you got to do, and back then certainly was no different.”
Valderrama, now 41, said he often reflects on what compelled him to take the role of Fez and how he approached the character. In the years since the show wrapped, Fez has been criticized for being a stereotypical “lovable foreigner,” as Screenrant described him.
Valderrama had a more nuanced view of it. He explained that people of all kinds of cultures and backgrounds auditioned for the role originally called Fes, which stood for “foreign exchange student.”
“I interpreted it as like, oh, we don’t know where he’s from, it’d be really funny if I just combined accents from different countries,” he explained.
“And then given this naiveté, this innocence, in which he could just make any verbal mistake he could and be received as just charming as opposed to offensive,” he added. “So I created his little secret sauce and I went in the audition with that and then they brought me to audition four more times.”
His character’s name eventually morphed into Fez because of Valderrama's take on his accent. Because Fez wasn’t from any specific country, he explained, and because he was written to be naive, it gave Valderrama “license to be a little bit of everyone.”
“In many ways, (Fez could) ask the questions that everyone was thinking and say the things that was on everyone’s mind and not have to filter it,” he said. “I felt like that accent was another great aesthetic to create a character that was still multi-dimensional that I hadn’t seen on television.”
Now, more than 23 years since the pilot episode aired, he said he’s grateful to have gotten to be on TV for so long at the time.
“I’m very proud to be one of those few that were on primetime back then,” he said. “When I think back about what it probably did for my community … it’s a privilege.”
Fast forward two decades, he explained, and there’s a huge window of opportunity for the wider, much more diverse Latino community to be heard in Hollywood — and he believes more studios and networks are listening.
“It’s a new dawn,” he said. “I just think now is the time if there was ever a window for us to be as loud as possible with who we should be on screen.”
But there are still some roadblocks, in Valderrama’s estimation. At the very top, behind closed doors in rooms where decisions happen, there’s not enough diversity.
“The truth is that there is a bottleneck, based on the decision-makers who deem some of this content possible or not,” he said.
Statistics back Valderrama up. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reported in July, just after inducting its 2021 class, that only 33% of its members identify as women and 19% are from underrepresented ethnic or racial communities, according to the Los Angeles Times.
A study released earlier this year by consulting firm McKinsey & Company also echoes the disparity. The data, collected 2015-2019, found that 92% of film executives and 87% of television executives are white. Agents and executives at the top three talent agencies are approximately 90% white.
Valderrama, who heads his own production company, WV Entertainment, explained that even if someone gets through the door, staying there is just as tough. If a pilot about a diverse family is shot, the odds are stacked against it being picked up or getting a second season. He compared it to trying to hit a baseball — if you keep swinging at enough pitches, eventually you’ll probably hit it out of the park. The trouble is, he said, shows about diverse families aren’t getting enough pitches to hit enough home runs.
“I am just truly hoping that our industry is confident enough to give it enough tries until it works,” he explained. “That’s the frustration of a lot of our communities who are developing content that could be really groundbreaking, that could read really, really, really help the communities elevate. But ... if they don’t stick by them or if they don’t try them long enough until it works, we’re going to have the same conversation 10 years from now.”
That said, Valderrama believes change is happening. Not only is he still starring in television shows like “NCIS” and voice acting as one of the characters in Disney’s much-anticipated animated feature, “Encanto,” due out in November, but his company and others are also working to tell more Latin American stories.
One of those projects is his podcast, “Essential Voices with Wilmer Valderrama," which is on iHeartRadio and produced by WV Entertainment and Clamor. Released weekly, the actor has intimate conversations with people on the frontlines of food service, transportation, child-care and other systems where workers’ voices are often overlooked. The show seeks to illustrate the invisible connections between all of us and point us toward strategies for meaningful change.
“No matter how behind we are, we’re a lot further than we thought 10 years ago,” he said, adding that he has several upcoming projects to announce soon. “I mean, it gives me so much joy.”
Valderrama, who welcomed his first child with fiancée Amanda Pacheco in February, said he hopes the youngest generation takes that sentiment with them into the future.
“Every generation has a responsibility not to change the world but to move the needle forward for the next one,” he said. “Changing the world may or may not happen in our lifetime, but if it doesn’t, I think we can go to sleep at night knowing that every day we are trying to move the needle a little more.”
He added that he hopes the next generation will “carry a torch that hopefully is a little lighter than the ones that we carry.”
For more of our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, tune into TODAY All Day’s special, “Come with Us: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month,” hosted by Tom Llamas. Watch Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. EST at TODAY.com/allday.