When Wilmer Valderrama got the call to join the cast of Pixar’s Onward he was ecstatic. As a longtime fan of the studio behind such classics as Toy Story and Coco, he knew how much it would mean to become a part of that legacy. Starring Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as bickering brothers living in a world inhabited by mythical creatures but little of the magic that once accompanied them (their house pet is a small dragon, for example) Onward follows their journey as they set out to course-correct a spell gone haywire. Valderrama has a short but affecting scene early in the film that spurs Holland’s Ian Lightfoot to want to better get to know who his late father was.
Among a cast that also includes Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Lena Waithe and Ali Wong, Valderrama stands out because his character — equally as blue and pointy-eared as the Lightfoot brothers — has an accent. As in, he sounds just like the NCIS actor does on any given day. It may seem like a small detail, but for the Miami-born actor it speaks to a broader feeling of inclusion that he knows firsthand can inspire future generation of moviegoers. Using his own voice and being proud of hearing his accent in a Pixar movie was critical for Valderrama.
“I grew up with very little accents on TV,” he tells Remezcla. “There was no one on TV telling me it was OK to sound like I did. And I think one of the few in television that really made me feel like I could be what I am today was Desi Arnaz — Ricky Ricardo. Someone that was not being made fun of for his accent. And that gave me strength. Like, that gives you an image that you go, OK, I can aspire to do that.”
That feeling has driven much of Valderrama’s career. It’s what originally led him to delve straight into animation. Onward, after all, isn’t Valderrama’s first voice acting gig. He may have once been best known for his role as the heavily-accented ‘Fez’ in That ’70s Show but there’s an entire generation of kids who grew up with him as the titular character in Disney’s Handy Manny, a show he helped develop and produce. Part of the reason he jumped on the chance to get behind an animated show was the conviction that there were Latino kids around the U.S. who needed to see someone like Manny Garcia up on the small screen. He knew one such kid personally: his six-year-old nephew.
“I got into it because I saw the cartoons he was watching and I realized that none of them really were saying much. And we really wanted to create something special. So when I went and partnered up with Disney for Manny, it really was a way to create the first little Latino character on preschool content.”
Marrying a desire to effect change with a drive to make broad-appealing content has long been part of Valderrama’s playbook, particularly when it comes to throwing his weight and support behind Latino content. Part of what he wanted with Handy Manny, as he tells Remezcla, was letting his nephew know that “it was normal for him to grow up with his heritage and that he could appreciate it while still looking ahead to assimilate to a new frontier here with American culture.”
That could very well describe two other 2020 projects that feature Valderrama in key supporting roles: Gentefied and Blast Beat. The former, a Netflix bilingual comedy about ‘gentefication‘ in Boyle Heights is, as its producer America Ferrera puts it, a show about Latino culture “that’s also 100% American.” Similarly, Esteban Arango’s Blast Beat follows a Colombian family making a new life for themselves in the U.S., finding ways of assimilating while keeping their culture intact.
“I made a commitment to this generation of storytellers,” Valderrama adds, “and a commitment to the community that it was important to not just be included but to be seamlessly included. To not make this a marquee moment. It’s not. We’re not looking for that marquee moment. We’re looking for normality.”
Part of it, he now understands, is about showing up for one another and knowing that every little bit counts. Which is why, when he got the call to join the Onward family — while his inner kid was jumping up and down at the prospect of being in a Pixar film — he knew deep down that it was also an opportunity to lend a Latino voice to a project that’s all about embracing who you are and the community that’s around you.
“I think it’s beautiful to have projects that put us all together and give us important roles in the storytelling of major films — like in a Pixar movie! So it’s exciting to be part of that next generation who has been included in the first line of defense, as you go out there and try to really create a more seamless way of including our many cultures and represent them in iconic and epic stories.”
Onward opens in theaters March 6, 2020.