Dulé Hill on Why 'The Wonder Years' Reboot Is So Vital: 'We Can Find Joy Amidst Adversity'

"The beauty of art is to sow seeds of change," says Dulé Hill, reflecting on how facing racism in Hollywood "inspired" him to keep going.

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Photo: Getty

Like many kids of the 1980s, Dulé Hill was a fan of The Wonder Years — and now, the actor is starring as Bill Williams, the patriarch of a fictional 1960s family in the reboot of the beloved hit.

For the actor, the new version comes at just the right time.

"As much as I appreciated the original, I was very aware of the fact that I didn't see myself reflected in it," Hill, 46, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "The reimagining is with a different family telling a different story. And the beauty of America is that there are so many dynamic and diverse stories to tell if we allow ourselves to go there."

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Erika Doss/ABC

An entertainer from a young age, Hill, who tap-danced on Broadway before transitioning into acting, launched his Hollywood career with a bang: as one of the stars on The West Wing in 1999.

"I was young and green and new to the world," recalls Hill. "So I learned, I leaned in and I listened. I took it all in."

The show was a critical success, though not all of the attention was celebratory. When his character began a relationship with the President's daughter, played by Elisabeth Moss, Hill received hate mail.

"It was a shock, but at the same time, it was like, this is America," he says. "I dealt with racism growing up. But I never imagined that something happening in a fantasy world would cause someone to act out. So the main thing I got from that is, we have a lot of work to do. And it inspired me to keep doing what I was doing."

For more from Dulé Hill, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

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Now a father of two (Hill's wife Jazmyn Simon gave birth to their son Levi in 2019; Hill also adopted her daughter Kennedy, 17), the actor says he's even more keenly aware of society today.

"Like my character on The Wonder Years, I want to build up that strength inside of my kids, but also prepare them for what the world is," he says. "[Last year's protests] really affected my daughter. She started to see how society sees her and how society will see her brother. It's a painful transition for a parent to see happening."

But ultimately, "it's encouraging when you see them blossom through that," says Hill. And he's also encouraged that the new Wonder Years will help people to see how far we have to go while remaining hopeful about the future.

"A lot of the issues we dealt with [in the 1960s] should be long gone but there are a lot of similarities, and there's shame in that," says Hill. "But the beauty of art is to sow seeds of change. And we can find joy amidst adversity."

The Wonder Years airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

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