Wilmer Valderrama played the clueless and lovable foreign exchange student Fez on “That ’70s Show,” but the actor is a real-life immigrant as well -- he moved to the U.S. from Venezuela in the early ’90s. Now he’s stepping up to the plate to advocate for people just like him.
“To me, you know, something happened along the way in the last four years where we lost a little confidence,” Valderrama told CBS News. “We lost the ability to be as loud as possible and be proud of who we are, as not only a culture but as an immigrant community.”
Last month, Valderrama traveled to thriving border town Brownsville, Texas, to encourage residents to embrace their cultural identities.
“To be an American is to be an immigrant,” Valderrama said. “To be an immigrant is to look at America and see the American dream.”
Here’s what Valderrama had to say about his trip to the Texas border town, “combative” campaign rhetoric, his acting career and more.
Why do you feel like it’s important for you, especially as an immigrant, to be a part of the Keep Walking America campaign?
I think that the reason why I feel passionate about the campaign is because it’s a quick reminder. It’s a reminder to us of -- not only who we are, but what we are to this country. And it’s about embodying your stories and to continue to retell your stories, because people need to hear. People need to be fueled again to say that it’s not only okay to be an immigrant, but it is a gift to this country.
That’s why I felt like it was so important to do something like this. In a world where there’s been so much negativity about the conversation, these people that come from the border towns also become our main examples and role models, and it makes us feel like you can [become a role model] too.
When you were walking the U.S.-Mexico border, in Brownsville, Texas, what was your message to the people there — and in return, what did you learn from listening to their concerns and comments?
As I was walking the line I thought about how special it is to be so close to two cultures. To see the infusion of both cultures. To me, that was so unique. We all have a sense of pride about where we come from and our culture and who we are. But in this town, on a daily [basis] they’re reminded of this bicultural and super diverse fusion of the flavors and I think that was something that really inspired me — is to see how effortless both cultures coexisted. It was almost like you were seeing the future. You were seeing what it’s gotta be and what it has to be.
I also think some of the conversations I had there were the perception. There’s so much perception behind the border towns and the problems. There’s a lot of negativity that’s been broadcasted about the border towns. But there is so much beauty to the border towns because — you know, I’m talking about any border town; I’m talking about the border towns between Canada and the United States, the border between Mexico and the United States — there’s so much trade of cultural richness.
Immigration has been a really hot topic in this year’s election. What do you think of the rhetoric that’s been used throughout the campaign season by the presidential candidates?
There’s so much to say and I think that if you know anything about what I’ve been doing the last couple years as an activist, my frustration has been in the paraphrasing and the avoidance of the actual priority in conversation. I think immigration should be the number one topic. Why? Because that’s what America is. To be an American is to be an immigrant. To be an immigrant is to look at America and see the American dream.
So, they don’t talk about the American dream. They don’t talk about the fact that this country is the greatest country in the world because it has the melting pot of all the cultures coming together and the diversity of all the dreams together is what’s strengthening us as a country. They’re focusing on a lot of the combative fragment of this conversation. They forget there is an entire generation who are doing extraordinary things for the country that may or may not have documented or undocumented parents who also are suffering because of the possible division of it.
What’s your overall message to immigrants who live in this country and how we should coexist in this country?
At the end, we should never forget that we’re not just a guest in this country. This is also our home. We don’t live in the guest house. We actually own the house too, and we should embrace a key role — that is to be a real member of the national community. If you are in this country then you belong here and if you or two people in your family are the only ones able to vote then you have to represent your family in that vote. It’s about regaining that confidence back and showing up in this election.
I do want to get an update on how your role as (Nick Torres) on “NCIS” has been? This is such a unique role. What was it like adapting to this character? What was the one of the biggest challenge for you with this character?
It was exciting because I haven’t played a character like this before. I was excited to work with the producers and film writers and the writers to develop something that would be exciting for the existing fans of “NCIS.” And also, you know, a new character that would hopefully welcome another audience to come to this show. I also was excited by the diversity move that “NCIS” made by bringing in Jennifer Esposito and me and then Duane Henry. I think it painted a really great picture about Washington and how diverse that city is.
Expect this guy to be breaking doors before knocking, and breaking certain rules and bending his own rules before asking Mark Harmon’s character Gibbs for permission. He’s the kind of guy who will just go ahead and do it before a plan. He’s kind of a lone wolf and he doesn’t play well with others, but he’s learning to be part of the team. What’s exciting about him is that he’s very disruptive. He’s really changing the dynamic between the squad room.
Also, there is a notion to a possible love interest happening. There may be a little triangle happening at some point. There will be some kind of interesting conundrum for him at some point within the next year. There’s some really big threads coming, and he will be a key component — not only solving those cases, but keeping the squad room safe as well.
Are there any other projects coming up that you’re working on?
I had a pretty exciting year, not just joining “NCIS,” but also joining my co-stars [Ashton Kutcher] and [Danny Masterson] on “The Ranch” and finishing up Season 3 of “From Dusk till Dawn.”
I’m also geared up to be the first Latin prince in the “Charming” movie by John Williams, the producer of the “Shrek” franchise. It’s really fun and funny and I came together with a bunch of amazing actors. We’re doing basically an animated movie that is sort of a musical. I get to sing in it. I’m definitely not terrible. I can hold a tune -- I’ll tell you that. We’re going to release a first look within the next two months.
This interview has been edited and condensed.