They’re two stellar examples that even the widest version the American Dream is alive and well for immigrants from other nations. He was raised in Venezuala until he was 13, when his family moved to California, and before he graduated high school he was starring in the popular network sitcom That ‘70s Show. She was born to a middle class family in Bogata, Columbia where an acting audition for an American film led her not only to relocate to New York but to earn an Academy Award nomination for Maria Full of Grace.
Now Wilmer Valderrama and Catalina Sandino Moreno are acting a far less appealing side of the immigrant experience, playing low-paid McWorkers in director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the bestseller Fast Food Nation. “We tried to focus a lot more on the universal theme and feel of the immigrant,” said Valderrama, “which is the hopeful side of them, how positive they are about coming to America and creating the original American dream that we all have heard about for so long.”
Hollywood.com: Wilmer, you’re not known primarily as a serious actor. Did you have to fight really hard to get this movie?
Wilmer Valderrama: Nobody has ever seen me to anything dramatic yet, and I really tried my hardest to convince everyone. It’s been for a couple of years that I’m re-educating the industry a little better of who I am as a performer and what I can pull off, and Richard [Linklater] was amazing to give me a shot at doing something this dramatic. And then I did my best to bring it home.
HW: Catalina, do you sometimes feel you’re representing your home country Columbia when you appear in films?
Catalina Sandino Moreno: I feel a lot of responsibility in choosing the parts because I feel not just responsible as a person, but as a Columbian. I feel that sometimes they misrepresent us and I just want to take projects that show another thing and not stereotypes. After I saw Maria Full of Grace, I saw people’s reactions to the film, and they didn’t know anything about drugs. They just were saying “OK, that’s how heroin comes into this country because somebody ate it and shit it.” They just couldn’t believe it, yet it’s something that’s happening in Columbia every single day. And I just felt that part of my job is movies with a message.
HW: Playing fast food workers, how deep into the meat did you guys actually get?
WV: As deep as possible. That’s the one thing I can honestly tell you about is that we worked at a real slaughterhouse. Our extras were real slaughterhouse workers so everything that you see in the movie, we were an inch away from it. It made it so exciting as an actor because so many times you’re acting with fake sets or a green screen and to be inside of a slaughterhouse and be among people—their reality was so mind-blowing and gratifying as an actor, because very few times you get that kind of real motivation.
CSM: I went to the slaughterhouse, but I thought how can you prepare for a role like this? The only thing I could give my character is the fact that I am an immigrant, but how can you do it? But my character had never been to a slaughterhouse before and I didn’t want to know anything about drugs when I did Maria. so when I went to the slaughterhouse, the cameras were rolling and I just reacted.
WV: I’ll tell you I’m more aware of: what’s in my meat. I’m more aware of what ends up in my food. As a culture, we grew up knowing what immigration is. From when you were one year old, you grew up knowing that immigration is something that might be a part of your life eventually. So we knew that some of us had to take jobs that were unpleasant at the beginning and try to work our way up somehow from the bottom. My dad always wanted me to have education. I always wanted to work with the family since I was 14 years old, but he wouldn’t let me do much of it. Seeing my dad’s struggles—we ate dinner every other night and it wasn’t a sad thing, it was reality. This is what we’re doing right now and eventually it will get better and it did, thank the Lord. But yeah, we have a very hardcore understanding what to be grateful for and what not to be grateful for, because one day you’ll have this and the next day, you won’t.
HW: Catalina, did you have dreams of coming here or was it something that more or less happened?
CSM: Yeah, it was something that happened. One day I was in Bogota and the next day I found myself in NY. I thought the culture wasn’t going to be so different but they are. Learning to be alone—In Columbia, I went to the doctor with my mother every time I had to. I was always with someone. And now in New York, I’m all alone and nobody is going to look after me like my mother did, for example. Like my family, like my grandmother.
HW: Do both of you now have an opportunity to help your family, the next generation, to make their transitions easier?
WV: It depends. My entire family is here—my mom, my dad, my sisters, my brothers so there is nobody really else to migrate. We’re really here by ourselves in a way, you know.
CSM: My family doesn’t want to come here. My mother is a doctor, she’s a pathologist and she teaches. My brother loves the country and wants to do something for the country. He’s a real Che Guvara and wants to do something for Columbia; he wants to change Columbia and change the world. That’s his attitude. And those are the most important people in my life. They’re happy there and fine there; they come visit me and then go back.
HW: How did you like speaking Spanish for the entire project?
WV: It was actually pretty refreshing, because on That ‘70s Show I spoke some kind of English [laughs] which was a different language, so I guess it was some practice for Fast Food. But it was really neat because I was born speaking Spanish, and the one obstacle was speaking with a Mexican accent, which we worked on hard.