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Wilmer Valderrama Says Father’s Battle With COVID Inspired New Podcast About Essential and Frontline Workers

Wilmer Valderrama poses for a portrait
Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

Wilmer Valderrama has a very personal reason for launching “Essential Voices,” his podcast featuring interviews with essential and frontline workers. His dad battled COVID-19 and suffered two minor heart attacks in the past year. “They showed up and helped my dad be with us for many more years,” the “NCIS” star tells me. “I’m so thankful, and I want to make sure their voices are heard. That’s my small contribution back for what they’ve done for my family.” Today, his father’s recovery is progressing. “He’s still working through his respiratory stuff, and he’s still trying to get his stamina back,” Valderrama says. “He’s working out every day. I always joke with him that he reminds me of Stella because he’s trying to get his groove back.”

Produced by Valderrama’s production company WV Entertainment and Clamor and distributed by iHeart, “Essential Voices” is co-hosted by MR Raquel and is an offshoot of his “6 Feet Apart” interview series on Instagram Live. The guest lineup for the podcast includes Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, founders of Hollywood favorite Jon & Vinny’s. “As part of their community, they realized that a lot of the shelters were being shut down and the homeless needed food,” Valderrama says, adding, “They decided to start donating a lot of their food to the homeless … Their company, their restaurants showed up and were seen as an example by other restaurants how to get involved with their communities to fill a hole that was created by the pandemic.”

In addition to the new season of “NCIS” premiering in September, Valderrama will also be seen — well, heard — in “Encanto,” Disney Animation Studios’ upcoming Colombia-set film that features music written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. “My mom is the Colombian side of me and when I showed her the trailer, she couldn’t believe they were making a movie about a town in Colombia,” Valderrama says. “She grew up in one of those towns. She couldn’t believe she was seeing Disney bring it to life.” And yes, Valderrama says he has some singing chops: “I am experiencing some challenges because Lin-Manuel is so brilliant with his melodies. It’s a lot more rehearsal than just winging it.”

Valderrama recalls being the only Latino actor playing a Latino character on Fox “for a very long time” when he played Fez on “That ‘70s Show.” “It’s emotional in many ways because I’m seeing a younger generation that is hungry to see themselves,” he says. “Before, we weren’t invited to have an opinion on what was on. Now, these younger people say, ‘This is what I want to watch’ and the studios are saying, ‘OK, cool. Let’s make it.’”

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Jack Whitehall auditioned for Prince Eric in Rob Marshall’s live-action adaptation of “The Little Mermaid,” and the experience was “traumatic.” “I did a self-tape where my mom [actor Hilary Gish] was the Little Mermaid,” Whitehall told me at the “Jungle Cruise” premiere. “It’s really fucked up. I was flirting with my mom. Everything about it was wrong.”

I also saw Disney corporate comms chief Zenia Mucha at “Jungle Cruise” for the first time since it was announced that she’s leaving the company at the end of the year after almost two decades with the studio. She tells me she’s looking for recommendations for wellness retreats, with plans to work on her health and fitness for about three months before deciding her next move. … Champion skier Lindsey Vonn has competed in four Olympics. If she were taking part today, she doesn’t think she’d let the pandemic stop her. “As an athlete, this is your bread and butter — you have to go,” Vonn tells me. “[But] I would really struggle without fans because I love that energy.”

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In her new memoir, “The Great Peace,” Mena Suvari reveals that although she appears to have a glamorous life, she suffered sexual and emotional abuse for years, starting with being raped when she was just 12. Before her breakout roles in “American Pie” and “American Beauty,” “I was filing for unemployment on the dirty carpeted floor of the apartment … and I was shopping at the 99 Cents stores,” she tells me on this week’s episode of the “Just for Variety” podcast. As her career blossomed, she spent years steeped in substance abuse and endured two marriages that ended in divorce. Now, Suvari, 42, has been happily married for two years to set decorator and prop master Michael Hope. She gave birth to their first child, son Christopher, in April. She decided to write the book to help others: “It’s important to know you’re not alone.”

 

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Jazz musician Billy Tipton (above, center) became a tabloid sensation when he died in 1989 and it was revealed that his family — including his wife — didn’t know that he was assigned female at birth. His story is now being told in the doc “No Ordinary Man.” Co-directors Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Yee tell me they’re hoping this isn’t their only Tipton project. “We think there are so many different ways to explore Tipton’s life and experience, and should the opportunity arise, we would be so happy to go deep into the performance belly of the ’30s and ’40s jazz eras,” Joynt says. A musical perhaps? “Absolutely!” he laughs.

The doc is a gripping exploration of what happened when Tipton’s secret was exposed. His wife and kids offered their take during countless media appearances. They were steadfast in their support of Tipton even when tabloid television shows pelted them with transphobic and homophobic slurs and opinions. Tipton’s son Billy Tipton Jr. is a prominent interview in the film. Although audio recordings of the late musician are played in “No Ordinary Man,” they weren’t able to find any video footage of him. “We have unturned every single rock, figured out every single archival search of who he played with. We know he wasn’t always the opening act so maybe he’s buried under archivists’ language, under someone else that he might’ve been playing with,” Chin-Yee says. “We did all that work, but I kept saying to Chase that as soon as this movie gets released, someone’s going to be like, ‘I’ve had all these film reels in my basement for the last hundred years.’”