Wilmer Valderrama's greatest role is proving that he's for real

by Neal Justin

McClatchy Newspapers

18 December 2006


MINNEAPOLIS - Wilmer Valderrama - sitcom star, restaurateur, TV producer, serious actor, babe magnet - was in the midst of playing DJ for 104.1 Jack FM, the local jock-rock station that invites celebrities to “hijack” the playlist and spin their own songs.

The hitch: Valderrama wasn’t in the studio and he didn’t know several of his supposed faves, including Steely Dan’s “The Fez,” a wink-wink-nudge-nudge reference to the actor’s socially challenged character on “That `70s Show.”

He was speaking into a recording system at a movie theater here, ad-libbing jokes and introductions, as producers promised to splice the comments to make it sound absolutely live when they used it later in the week.

Valderrama had no complaints.

“I like to fake things,” he said. “Faking things is fun.”

To those only looking on the surface, Valderrama, 26, could be faking an entire career.

Fez was comic relief that had more in common with Ralph Malph than the Fonz. Now Valderrama is in the very grown-up “Fast Food Nation” and the very juvenile “Unaccompanied Minors,” decidedly different parts, but neither suggesting the next James Dean.

His most impressive work to date may be as escort to the stars. Former girlfriends include Lindsay Lohan, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Mandy Moore.

But upon meeting him, one can’t help but be impressed by his persona, even if it keeps changing to fit his audience.

With teenage fans - dozens of whom showed up for a two-hour autograph session in the theater lobby - the guy in the black turtleneck, black scarf and wristwatch the size of Big Ben was a playful pinup boy, hugging star-struck girls and mugging for the camera with unabashed enthusiasm.

“If I was a Wilmer fan, I wouldn’t be getting up to see me,” he said, oozing with sincerity to those near the front of the line.

For a newspaper interview, he was gracious, passionate and thoughtful. Asked about his plane ride, he delivered a homily about the wonders of America, how blessed he was to have come to the United States at the age of 14, how thankful he is for his parents’ sacrifices, how flattered he is by all the attention and, and, and - the in-flight movie wasn’t too bad, brother.

His most notorious persona made an appearance earlier this year on satellite radio’s “Howard Stern Show,” in which Valderrama gamely played along to personal questions about past girlfriends’ performances in the sack.

Asked about it now, Valderrama appears genuinely wounded.

“Everybody who heard it knows I was being funny, but when you read about it, it came across as a whole different thing,” he said, leaning forward in one of the auditorium’s stadium seats. “There were media people I trusted that were doing it. It hurt me a lot, it hurt me emotionally. But (‘70s Show’ executive producer) Tom Werner once said to me, `No matter how many people have a definition of you, the more true you stay to who you are, that’s who they’ll remember when you’re done.’”

Smart advice - and Valderrama seems to be taking it to heart. While the hottest thing on his slate is the feature movie adaptation of “CHiPs,” expected to start filming late next year, his more intriguing, more telling projects are on the small screen.

MTV’s “Yo Momma” has Valderrama producing and hosting a search for America’s best trash-talkers, a competition that may sound, well, trash, but it also goes a long way toward defining big-city hoods as more than gang turf. Then there’s Disney Channel’s “Handy Manny,” a winning animated series in which Valderrama voices the part of an unbreakable fix-it man who always saves the day with the help of tools and neighbors from various racial backgrounds.

Not exactly what you’d expect from a Hollywood party boy, but it’s a good reminder not to judge a pop star by his cover.

“You can only be a character in the weekly comic books for so long,” he said, referring to celebrity tabloids. “If you’re going to be famous, you want to be famous for your work.”

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