Most actors don’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for plum roles to come their way. But thanks to eight seasons—and seemingly endless syndication—of his breakout sitcom That 70s Show, Wilmer Valderrama doesn’t have to take a part just to keep the lights on.
“There are very few times in your career when you actually have a choice,” he says, “but I’ve been very lucky because the way my career has turned out, I’ve been able to work when I feel passionate about something instead of working because I have to.”
The latest project he’s passionate about is From Dusk Till Dawn, the first series on filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’s new El Rey cable channel. The series follows loosely Rodriquez’s 1996 movie, penned by Quentin Tarantino, and follows two outlaw brothers who happen upon a supernatural cabal—vampires in the film, a sinister something else in the series—much more dangerous than any cops they could ever encounter.
You’re perhaps best known for your role on a series. Were you eager to come back to episodic TV?
No, because it’s petrifying. It’s scary to try to create that magic with a new cast and a new crew on a new venture. It’s really petrifying. That’s why I didn’t do another show right away; I did awesome films with great filmmakers and had a chance to work with some of my idols. After launching a production company and working with the studios as a producer and a director, I woke up one day and said, I’m an actor. It was time to come back.
How did this project end up happening for you?
I got a call from my agent saying Robert Rodriguez was meeting very few people for this new series he’s doing—he’s never done one before—and we want you to go see him. I said ‘absolutely’ and went to the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, where he has all his meetings, and we met in his suite. I came in and sat in front of him and had a great meeting. He said he and Quentin Tarantino had never done TV, but based on what’s happening in television, there might be room for new kids, and he told me about the El Rey network and how he’d work with his friends and the directors, writers and show runners he wanted to work with.
It’s got to be impressive to hear that from the guy running not just the show but the network.
Oh, absolutely. There’s not a parade of executives putting their hands on things and watering them down until they could have been great. There’s no infrastructure with the goal of f-cking things up, to be honest. It was fascinating for me to see that Robert was the chairman, founder, own, president, writer, director and editor. I said, OK, I can ride with El Rey.
How does that ultra-violent, albeit campy and funny, Rodriguez sensibility translate to TV?
He doesn’t pull back. He’s doing a bunch of series I’m not allowed to talk about, but he’s saying this is my place to play. He’s green-lighting things with his friends, with people like Don Johnson and Robert Patrick. Studios don’t want to spend the money to change the face of television, and I think Robert has a way of not pulling back. Here’s a guy creating a destination for a coalition of people who want to pull TV off in a way everybody else is afraid of doing.
What about the character of Carlos was appealing to you?
First of all, how mysterious Robert kept the script. I didn’t read a script until I was on set. I didn’t even know who I was playing until I got to Texas. When we first met, he told me about a character but then I didn’t hear back for a couple of weeks. I figured the character got cast and things just didn’t work out. A couple of weeks later I got a text, though, saying, ‘I crafted a character and I’d love for you to play him.’ I didn’t care what the deal is, I was down.
I’d been waiting for an opportunity to do the sort of thing people weren’t writing. So I got to Austin, Texas, and I found myself in the wardrobe trailer. They were fitting me for this long leather trench coat, and it dawned on me: I didn’t know who I was playing. I looked over to someone in the wardrobe department and had to ask, ‘who’s my character?’
How do you like playing a bad guy?
It’s like being a blonde—you definitely have more fun. Especially in a Robert Rodriguez universe. This guy is larger than life, he’s very, very exciting to watch. I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had with a character.
Watch the trailer for From Dusk Till Dawn here: