After establishing himself as a go-to comic actor (That ’70s Show, Yo Momma) with fine dramatic chops (Fast Food Nation), Wilmer Valderrama decided to become a repairman: he’s the voice of the title character in The Disney Channel’s animated smash Handy Manny. Wilmer stopped by the USO station in New York City around Christmas to entertain local children. He spoke to Babble about learning English through TV, getting out the Latino youth vote, and Handy Manny’s thoughts on the auto bailout. – Billy Gray
A kids’ show like Handy Manny sticks out a bit on your resume. When did you decide to get involved with a children’s program?
When I noticed what my little brother was watching, you know? That’s when I started realizing that I should maybe give it a shot and give him something substantial to watch.
I read that watching TV shows like I Love Lucy helped you learn English when you moved here from Venezuela. Is Handy Manny a way to return the favor?
Yeah. I mean, a lot of the stuff that I do, I want it to help. I believe that that’s what being part of our generation now is all about. We’ve come out with this message where you’re allowed to believe in the American dream again. And I think that we as entertainers have a responsibility to help that momentum build. A lot of times it’s the artists, not the networks or studios, who realize these projects, and it’s important that we have a choice to do work we believe in.
You mentioned hope and change. I know you were instrumental in getting out the Latino youth vote in the recent election. Were you pleased with the results?
Definitely. We’re talking about sixty percent plus of that demographic voting. It’s amazing to see the Latin community join the national community. That’s really exciting and I take it very seriously. It’s our country as well, and we all need to weigh in on what happens in America. And I’m always excited to educate the Latin community and help them understand what’s right and what’s wrong for them. No matter who the captain of the ship is, the community is going to help move things forward. So I was very pleased and very proud. Rosario Dawson and I did a lot of work for it and we really believed in it, and were very happy that it turned out the way it did. It was really beautiful. But at the end of the day, the big message is it’s not just the Latin community, but also the youth, and finally they made themselves a part of the bigger picture.
Felipe the Screwdriver on Handy Manny is played by Carlos Alazraqui, voice of the Taco Bell Chihuahua, and therefore one of the most recognizable voices in America. What’s it like working him?
He actually did an episode of That ’70s Show back in ’99 or ’98. So I’ve know him for almost ten years. And he’s awesome. He and Tom Kenny [who plays Mr. Lopart] are the people who crack me up the most. I mean, you think you know funny people. I’ve worked with this dude and he’s hysterical. When we’re recording the show he’s doing voices and improv. We really have a great time.
[Laughs] No, no. Not yet.
[Laughs] Yeah, one day. You know, we’re not trying to reward bad behavior on the Disney Channel. That’s for another network.
You were in Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, a rant against the fast food industry. Have you and Carlos come to blows yet for him supporting Taco Bell?
Honestly, when you’re a performer, you don’t have a lot of control with what projects you do, especially early on. So I could never judge anybody. But I do think that that film helped people understand how the fast food industry affects all of us directly and indirectly. For me, being part of that film was really special. It was the most dramatic stuff I’ve done. And it’s a good message. It also talked about immigration, which is very important to understand – what immigrant workers go through in America just to feed their family. But the movie was a gift, and the fact that I can count that as another stepping stone in my career is incredible because Richard Linklater is the man.
You mentioned workers. Manny’s tools might be hurting if the auto industry goes under. What do you think their thoughts are on the bailout?
[Laughs] Actually, I don’t know if Manny is quite up to mechanic level yet. I think he knows how to put in a battery and maybe change a tire, but he doesn’t necessarily have more complex skills. [Laughs]
On That ’70s Show, your character’s yearbook superlative was “Most Likely to Play Ponch.” On Mad TV, you played Ponch in a series of CHiPs-related skits. Now, you’re set to star in a big screen revival of CHiPs as . . . Ponch. Has Erik Estrada taken out a restraining order?
[Laughs] No, he has not! I gotta tell you, he gave me his blessing. When we announced the project with Warner Brothers he came over to my set and said, and I quote, “I couldn’t imagine anybody else better playing me than you.” And that was the coolest thing ever, because he’s one of my idols.
Do you have any plans to have kids of your own one day?
Oh, yeah. I mean, my little brother is eight now and he’s practically my son. I look forward to the day when I can have a whole family and count Handy Manny as a character I can trust to entertain my kids.
Article photos: ©Disney Channel/Steve Fenn