This is not the story that we set out to write.
We intended to immerse ourselves in the world of Wilmer Valderrama, the thick-accented That '70s Show actor known for dating starlets and hanging out at clubs with his raucous entourage. We were looking for the sizzle of flashbulbs, the glitz of VIP treatment, and perhaps a dinner at Geisha House, one of the three L.A. restaurants he co-owns. We were hoping to witness a text-messaged booty call. We wanted to know what it's like to roll with Hollywood's hottest bachelor.
What we quickly learned is that that guy no longer exists. In his place is a young man billing himself as a serious entrepreneur, one who's currently promoting three projects Fast Food Nation, Unaccompanied Minors, and his MTV show, Yo Momma. Over the course of the last seven months, Valderrama met with EW on movie, television, and commercial shoots; each time, he spoke almost exclusively of his drive, ambition, and plans for the future. The 26-year-old is well protected by a team of associates, whose mission is to make you forget that he ever appeared in the pages of a tabloid magazine. We were allowed to hang out with him at one party. He did not have a drink in his hand.
This is what happens when you decide to profile the private life of a Hollywood gadabout just as he decides that it's time to grow up.
To sit down with Wilmer Valderrama is to bear witness to a bizarre contradiction: He's fidgety, friendly, and low-key, sporting a backward baseball cap but at the same time he delivers everything with such polish and panache that it almost seems scripted. It's hard to get a clear read on him, and that's exactly how he likes it. ''People have no clue who I really am,'' he asserts. ''And that's a fact. People can only make assumptions about me.''
Valderrama is hoping that his upcoming work will change whatever assumptions people have. He currently appears as a migrant worker in Fast Food Nation, Richard Linklater's film version of Eric Schlosser's 2001 best-seller. On Dec. 8, the actor will headline the kid-friendly holiday romp Unaccompanied Minors. He recently launched the second season of his MTV reality comedy Yo Momma, and also lends his voice to the title character on Handy Manny, a bilingual animated show on the Disney Channel. Next year, he'll begin shooting his role as Ponch in a big-screen version of CHiPs.
Born in Miami and raised in his father's native Venezuela, Valderrama is the oldest of four children. His dad, Baldino, leveled land for farmers; the money he made each summer had to last the entire year. Wilmer played soccer and acted in school plays, and his first business plan was to breed mice from the local pet store and sell back their babies for 50 cents apiece. When his family moved to L.A. in 1994, the 14-year-old did not speak enough English to count to three. ''People forget, because they see this glossy image of me, that when I grew up there were weeks when we would eat dinner every other night,'' he says. So Valderrama decided to learn English by plunging into the one thing he knew: acting. His high school theater department taught him the language, and after one very lucky open call in 1998, he charmed his way into the role of oversexed foreign exchange student Fez on the Fox sitcom That '70s Show. The comedy ran for eight years and ended last May; he's been supporting his family since he was 18. ''If you could define the American dream, it's gotta be Wilmer's life,'' he explains, in the straightforward, less-than-modest way that he says everything. ''No way my family could ever imagine this. It's the biggest lottery ticket we could have hit.''
When Wilmer talks about his career, words like platforms and leverage split the profanities he drops for emphasis. He's relentlessly positive and believes in what he's selling...even if what he's selling is, at this point, a vaguely defined version of himself: ''I want all masses to know that I connect with every single one of them.'' He frequently mentions Desi Arnaz, and strives to emulate the Cuban actor-producer's ability to transcend Latino stereotypes while becoming an entertainment brand. According to his peers, Valderrama has the chops to pull it off. ''I don't think Wil has to prove anything,'' says former '70s Show costar and Valderrama's close friend Ashton Kutcher. ''You think you know who Wil is, but he's already on to the next thing.'' Adds Linklater: ''The party kid? I don't know that guy. The guy I worked with is a serious f---in' actor.''
Valderrama's role in Nation which is almost completely in Spanish is less a performance than an archetype of a world that, had things gone differently, he might identify with all too closely. ''I wanted to bring light to what's become a statistic,'' he says of the real slaughterhouse workers he filmed alongside during the shoot in Mexico. Nation also holds a symbolic place in his well-plotted career arc: '''70s Show ended on Thursday night, and the following Friday I was on the biggest red carpet in the world at the Cannes film festival with Fast Food Nation,'' he says. ''When you watch this movie, you don't see Wilmer, you don't see Fez. This is the caliber of things I wanna do.''
But he hasn't completely abandoned his comedic roots. Yo Momma was his second stab at partnering with MTV (the first series involved cars), and he says he created the good-natured smack-talk tournament ''to give a shot to kids from the streets who never thought they could be highlighted in a very honorable, edgy, smart way.'' He's now planning a semi-related charity, a mentorship program to help underprivileged youth break into the entertainment business. (As someone whose life was changed for the better by Hollywood, it's completely logical that this constitutes his idea of public service.)
On the movie side, Valderrama will follow up his dark role in Nation with Minors, where he plays an airport employee exasperated by a group of snowed-in kids wreaking havoc on Christmas Eve. The part was written for someone far geekier the guy who just can't get the girl and was rewritten after he lobbied to fill it. (Another part of his master plan? Proving he can play the straight man, too.) ''I didn't know him before,'' admits director Paul Feig. ''I'd read about [his love life].... You have an image of that guy being too cool for school.'' Hardly. Valderrama became a de facto babysitter for his underage costars on the Utah set, organizing field trips and allowing himself to be used as a jungle gym. The kids called him Uncle Wil. ''They tend to behave better when I'm around,'' he laughs. ''I make sure they understand this job is supposed to be a lot of fun. But at the same time, it's a big responsibility.''
For as hard as he's working to create Wilmer 2.0, Valderrama still remains less famous for his talent than his dating prowess, and that aspect of his public persona lingers like a hangover on a hot June day as Yo Momma tapes in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. When shooting is suspended to let an elderly woman hobble past, a crew member looks up from behind a monitor. ''Hey, Wil,'' he jokes. ''If you slept with her, it would balance out all the underage girls you have in your little black book.'' There is uproarious laughter. ''Lemme do the math on that,'' replies Valderrama. He then glances at a visiting reporter, whispers something in the crew member's ear, and everyone instantly goes back to work.
Valderrama has clearly lowered a steel grate between his personal and professional lives, and heaven forbid one should ask about his appearance last March on The Howard Stern Show, where he took part in a bawdy discussion about his relationships with Lindsay Lohan and Mandy Moore. Yet he'll happily admit that his man-about-town reputation played a huge role in his current success: ''When I started getting mentioned at all these events, people saw, 'Okay, this guy is not Fez.''' MTV senior VP of talent and series development Rod Aissa agrees that Valderrama's peccadilloes didn't hurt him with his target audience: ''It wasn't bad that he was dating Mandy and Lindsay. It was like, 'Dude, I wish that was me.'''
In August, Valderrama sits down for a chat at a Cuban diner on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and for once, there is nobody with a headset waiting to pull him away. He is tucked into a window booth that leaves him no privacy, but he doesn't seem to mind. Over the course of two hours, he greets several friends who walk by, drinks one Diet Coke, and calls the trucker hat the worst fashion trend ''ever.'' This is his last face-to-face meeting with EW after more than half a year, so it seems like the right moment for that old job-interview chestnut: Where do you see yourself in five years?
He fiddles with the black cuff on his right wrist and takes a small pause. ''I want to be one of the most influential performers that this industry has,'' he says. He stops himself and points at the tape recorder. ''In the most humble terms, by the way. You can start my quote with that.'' Seeing the slightly bemused expression he gets as a response, Valderrama chortles. ''She's going, F--- this guy!'' he announces to no one in particular. Then his grin fades. ''In the most humble terms,'' he begins for the second time, ''I would like to be one of the most influential performers, producers, entrepreneurs that you'll see.'' This time, he doesn't laugh at all.
A Few Good Men
Wilmer Valderrama talks about stars whose work past and present inspires him.
Valderrama may be hoping to build a producing empire akin to his '70s Show castmate and close friend's, but he insists there's no jealousy on either side: ''I am really proud of my brother, and he's very proud of me. Look, he's a gorgeous, tall, white man. I am a 5'9''...you know, whatever. I am f---ed.''
He met the multitalented Oscar winner not long before his 2001 death: "This guy played Greek, Italian, Mexican, [American] Indian.... The number one way of erasing stereotypes is by not highlighting [them]. Just go by work.''
Sammy Davis Jr.
If the cast of '70s Show is the Rat Pack, Wilmer says he'd be Sammy Davis. ''I would never claim his legacy, ever. But oddly, I kind of relate to his struggles.''
An avid soccer player, Valderrama met the Brazilian star after last summer's World Cup. ''I was literally like a 14-year-old girl at an 'N Sync show, going backstage and meeting Justin.''