The ’90s-’00s were some of the best years for Nickelodeon. And while this was a bit after my generation, I wasn’t blind to the magnetic charms and multicultural influence the Nick Jr flagship property, Dora the Explorer, had on kids of its generation.
I personally grew up with Sesame Street, Rugrats, and Mister Rogers, but while I will always love those shows and how wonderful they were for kids, much like most of the media during our childhood days, there wasn’t as much in terms of diversity and representation as there could have been. And hence, though I didn’t watch it myself, I highly respected Dora, and how it really paved the way for the idea of greater inclusion among the television landscape for younger audiences, while teaching them Spanish. Well ’00s kids, the time has come for Dora, herself, to grow up, just as you all did. And as such, Paramount Players and Nickelodeon Movies have brought the explorer to life in Dora and the Lost City of Gold.
The Nerds of Color were fortunate enough to meet with a few of its stars recently, including the man playing Dora-icon, Diego (star of his own spin-off show, Go, Diego Go! post-Dora), the very cool Jeff Wahlberg. Following in the footsteps of his legendary family, Dora and the Lost City of Gold gives Jeff the opportunity to carve out his own niche within Hollywood, proving himself to be a great male lead for the film. Here’s what Jeff had to say about what it felt like bringing such an iconic character to life, the challenges of filming (such as dancing!), and his thoughts on the entertainment landscape becoming more diverse.
NOC: Jeff thank you so much again for taking the time to talk to us! I think kids are going to love the movie!
Jeff: No problem! Thanks man!
So did you watch Dora as a kid growing up?
I definitely watched Dora. So I have a twin sister, actually. And I grew up in Miami. And having a Dominican mom and an American father, it was definitely very much encouraged to watch Dora in our house because [the show] blended those two cultures very well. And teaches Spanish to English speakers, and English to Spanish speakers. I probably watched it every day from ages 4-6. Me and my sister together watching it. I have very vivid memories. So it’s crazy now doing this. It’s all come full circle!
It really has! And as part of that, as a fan growing up when you were a kid, the role of Diego was an iconic role. So much so that he got his own show. So it’s pretty cool that you got the role and did a great job. Even the outfit was correct. So when you heard you got the part, how did that hit you? Were you nervous about bringing Diego to life?
You know, it happened so quick, Mike. I was literally on a plane two days after I found out I got the part. I only had time to pack and just leave. There was no time for any nervousness. And I remember when I landed — we shot in Australia — and when I landed in Australia, they took me straight from the plane to dance practice, because as you know there’s a huge dance number. And so I literally hit the ground running. They were already shooting when I got there, so I hit the ground running.
Oh wow! And once you hit the ground running, did it hit you?
No, no. It still hasn’t hit me. I think it’ll hit me — maybe when the movie comes out all around the world. But for right now, I’m just happy, grateful, and enjoying the ride.
You did great in the movie. You, Isabella, Nicholas, and Madeleine made a really good team!
It’s crazy because we’re actually real friends in real life. Don’t have a bad thing to say about any of them. I can hang out with them… they are the real deal.
Do you guys have any funny stories about hanging out on the set?
Since it’s such a lighthearted movie — I’ve done dramas before, and I’ve done very serious movies, and those tend to be very serious, so when you’re acting in those you have to stay in it as much as possible. But doing a lighthearted comedy like this is just so fun. The energy on set is just so fun. Constant jokes, constant laughter. Eva [Longoria], Michael [Pena], and Eugenio [Derbez] are all absolutely hilarious. They’re all real friends in real life. So it was just a constant goof off. So we had a blast!
That was one of the things I noticed while watching the movie. It seemed like everyone was having a good time.
Oh yeah! And they improvised so much! Our director James gave us so much room to try things. And you know sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes absolutely not. But being able to have that safe space to try anything is all an actor can really ask for, and we really had that.
Did you personally get to improvise a lot? Did you add any jokes or lines that made it into the final movie?
I did 101 things that didn’t make it into the movie. But yeah there’s a couple of things. Like when we’re in high school, and Isabella is talking to Nick’s character, and he makes us late, and I thanked him for making us late. I tried a lot of weird things that didn’t make it in. Mostly because Diego is like the straight man, while everyone around is pretty goofy. I had fun trying it!
You have a very dry sense of humor that carries over very nicely to the movie. The way you react to the craziness in the movie and your delivery were very well done!
One of the things I noticed about the movie is that things get very physical. There’s a scene with quicksand, and a scene where you’re stuck in an aqueduct. How physically challenging was it, and were there any stunts that were tedious or annoying, or tough to do?
Yeah! The quicksand stuff was so so crazy. Not to speak for everyone, but I probably can say that was everyone’s least favorite! It was the least comfortable scene to shoot because the sand was made of little pieces of cork and it just gets everywhere. All between your toes and every crack and crevasse. But I think the most physically demanding scene for me — besides all the running through the jungle, which is pretty tiring — there’s a scene where we’re getting really close to finding the treasure, and we’re figuring out the last few puzzles, and the hallway that we’re in starts to tilt all the way up at a crazy angle. And we’re hanging there. And we were on ropes, but for the most part, they gave us enough slack that we were actually holding ourselves up. So after take five, I was like, “I need a nap! And a massage!” It was really really tiring. But we had so much fun!
That scene really did look demanding. And I liked that! That portion of the movie goes into a very Raiders of the Lost Ark sort of direction.
For sure, for sure! Well it’s really hard to fake that sort of physical stuff. You sort of just have to do it!
Being that we’re from The Nerds of Color, we can’t really talk about this movie without talking about its importance. And the fact is, you touched on it when you first started talking about how you watched Dora growing up. It is an inherently Latino property. It’s Latino in spirit, and promotes multi-lingual and multicultural lessons. Being that you’re of Dominican descent, how do you feel about the industry is now shifting towards favoring these types of projects that promote multicultural and diverse landscapes?
It’s such a special time. I hope it’s not just a fad, and I hope it does stick around. This is an important time and we’re seeing so much representation in film and TV. And it just honestly makes me feel really warm to be a part of that. I remember we had a Miami premiere recently, and I just remember seeing a lot of little kids there that could be related to me. They looked like they could be my siblings. And I just remember thinking, “Wow! This is really what this is about.” If these kids watch this movie, and are inspired in any way, or we make them feel like anything is possible, then I can speak for everyone and say that our work here is done. But it’s so awesome to see such a strong, independent, smart Latina character literally just carry this movie. I mean Isabella–no one else could have played this as well as she did. Her level of comedic timing and improvisation is just — I mean she was only 17 when she shot this movie, and she’s 18 now — but she’s such a bright light. Representation matters. That’s all I can say. And I’m so glad we could do something like this. And I hope audiences come out and support it so we can keep doing it.
I think they will! If anyone grew up with Dora the way you did, I think they will!
Now I do have one more question. So you get the role, you hit the ground running, you arrive on set, and you have to start dancing. How was that? Did it take you a long time to pick up the choreography for the dance scene? Because it’s a funny scene when you first see it, but at the end it becomes this huge elaborate number. What was that like for you?
Well when I landed, they took me right into dance rehearsal. And that’s actually where I met all of my other teenage co-stars for the first time. Looking back at it, in retrospect, I’m like, what a freaking awesome way to meet them! I was definitely nervous taking a 15-hour flight halfway across the world, jumping into this big movie that’s already going. But it was a such a really good way for me to just shake my nerves out, and get out of my body, and just meet them. Get right to it, get right in each other’s faces, and start dancing. It was awesome!… That was probably everyone’s favorite scene to shoot. Dancing in unison with like 200 other people. It gives you this incredible high that I can’t even put into words. I definitely want to do a musical if I can in the near future.
I think you got the moves for it, sir! And I’d be willing to see that!
And that’s the truth! Jeff is an absolutely awesome dancer!
See Diego go when Dora and the Lost City of Gold hits theaters August 9.