Playing a character created for him by director Robert Rodriguez is a "dream come true"

By Alicia C. Dennis
Updated March 07, 2014 06:30 PM
Rick Kern/Austin Film Society

Sweet, shy Fez from That ’70s Show and can-do, friendly children’s hero Handy Manny are crossing over to the dark side.

Wilmer Valderrama is starring as the villainous crime lord Carlos in Robert Rodriguez’s new television series From Dusk Till Dawn, showing on Saturday at SXSW in Austin.

“I stay in touch with everyone from my That ’70s Show cast and they are so proud of me getting to do this,” Valderrama, 34, tells PEOPLE from the Texas Film Awards hosted by the Austin Film Society. “They have known me since 1997, ’98 and they know how obsessed I have been with everything that Robert [Rodriguez] has ever done.”

Some of the cast members have gotten closer than others – Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher, who met 16 years ago on set, are now engaged. Valderrama says all of his pals on the cast are cheering him on to play a character Rodriguez created just for him.

“They are so happy I am getting to do this,” he says. “After an initial audition, I got a text from [Rodriguez] that said, ‘Hey, I handcrafted this character for you that a lot of people haven’t seen you do.’ I now have that text on my wall. I said, ‘Yes’ without knowing what I was playing and 24 hours later I was playing the villain.”

Rodriguez, 45, tells PEOPLE that putting together a cast – the series includes Mexican actress Eiza Gonzélez, Zane Holtz, Jesse Garcia and Robert Patrick – is about instinct.

“My cast is fantastic,” he says. “You meet people and if you like one person and the other person, it’s going to work. It’s an instinct. You are the link between them all. I pick actors who are hardworking and really serious – we are all like-minded.”

Filming in Austin has been exciting to Valderrama, who goes running throughout the city and hits hip spots on South Congress.

“I go to South Congress every single day,” he says. “Austin has all the elements of a big city with the humbleness of a small town and that makes it very special. I am having the best time ever. This is nothing short of a dream come true as a performer.”

The SXSW Festival starts Friday and runs through March 16 in Austin.