"I hadn't really seen That '70s Show that much," Linklater tells TVGuide.com. "[Wilmer] told me his own story: He came into this country at 14, not speaking English. He didn't cross the desert like our characters do, but he had his own version of that. He seemed like a guy who was kind of proud, so I thought by the end [of the movie] you would care about him when he's been laid low."
For his part, Valderrama says it hasn't been too hard to convince people that he can be more than the goofy, naive foreign-exchange student he played for eight years on TV. "It was very difficult in the beginning, because a lot of people focus so much on That '70s Show," he says. "In other generations, it would have been really hard to imagine [an actor who played] that type of character doing something else. But we live in a society and a generation that is a little more open-minded about certain things."
In Nation, Valderrama and costar Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) play a couple who risk their lives walking across the border, and wind up in dangerous jobs at the meatpacking plant that supplies the burgers to "Mickeys," a popular fast-food chain. Many of their scenes were shot in an actual slaughterhouse in Mexico, an eye-opening experience for Valderrama.
"The workers become part of the machine; it's like a car factory," he recounts. "I grew up in Venezuela, and my dad had a farm, so I saw cows go through that process manually, but I never saw that machine, where every 60 seconds a cow becomes a steak. That was really intense. No matter what happens to the workers, what kind of health issues they're having, or what kind of [skills] they're lacking, the belt must move. That, to me, is mind-blowing. A lot of these people develop a lot of physical problems, and they're forced to take drugs to squeeze in a few more hours for money."
The 26-year-old has high hopes for the impact of this film, which also stars Greg Kinnear, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Dano and Ashley Johnson. "We have a movie that can teach something and make people more aware of their surroundings," he says. "For us it was a privilege to put a face to what's now becoming a statistic, a percentage of people who have become the [immigration] 'problem.' People who take jobs that are assumed to not exist. These jobs are invisible."
Valderrama punctuates this impassioned speech with the devilish grin that reminds one of his reputation as the romancer of many a Hollywood starlet. He's certainly getting his share of fun roles, too. Yo Momma, the insult-trading improv show he produces and hosts, just began its second season on MTV; he lends his voice to Handy Manny, PBS' new animated bilingual preschool show; and next month he'll be seen in Unaccompanied Minors, which he describes as "a fun, all-time classic Christmas movie." But he'll be shooting his most anticipated role next year when he attempts to fill Erik Estrada's tight polyester pants as Ponch in the movie adaptation of CHiPs.
With all this work, does he even have time to think back on that sitcom that launched his career? "I miss the show, but I don't miss TV," he says. "I miss my crew and my cast. I went through eight years of my life, all those years — I share them with these people. I've spent more time with them than with my family!"
Send your comments on this feature to email@example.com.