Nia Vardlaos and her Big Fat Greek Wedding
By Maria Kostaki
Nia Vardalos is excited. Very excited. And she has every right to be ever since the moment she picked up the phone and heard Tom Hanks say, "I'm going to by your movie and you're going to play the bride."
Greek presence in Hollywood is not news. But a Hollywood movie about Greeks is. Billy Zane, Mena Suvari, and Melina Kanakaredes are just a few of the names that often scroll on the screen as people shuffle out of theaters. But unless we count Robert DeNiro's marriage proposal to Kanakaredes in "15 Minutes", a significant allusion to Greece has not appeared in cinema since "Zorba the Greek."
Vardalos is about to change that. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is due to hit the screens of Los Angeles and New York, and seven other cities on April 19th, later broadening to the rest of the US.
"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is the story of Toula Portokalos (played by Nia Vardalos), a 30-year-old Greek-American whose life is...well...she has no life. She serves coffee in The Dancing Zorbas, her family's restaurant in Chicago, constantly overhears worried conversations between her father Gus (played by Michael Konstantine) and members of her ridiculously large and very Greek family (27 first cousins) about a prospective change of her marital status, and refuses Gus's offers to send her to Greece to find a husband. All until tall, handsome, vegetarian, and very WASPy, Ian (played by John Corbett of "Sex and the City" and "Serendipity") appears and changes Toula's life. When the two decide to get married they are faced with the challenge of breaking it to the familia. The result is an entertaining, hilarious, heartwarming movie--anyone who has come in touch with the Greek community in the US, immediately knows that Vardalos has hit the nail on the head but strongly underpinned with a serious message throughout: according to Vardalos, "When someone says 'no' and you think 'yes,' you can get something done."
"Although I did base it on my family, it is not a documentary," Vardalos says. "I took my real-life family (I do have 27 first cousins) which on a scale of one to ten is an 11. I took my real-life marriage which is a 12. I turned them both up to 20. Took my mom, grandmother, some of my aunts and squished them into the character of the mother."
Growing up in Winnipeg, Canada, Vardalos always felt like an outsider. But as she got older, she learned to appreciate her Greek heritage, integrating it into her identity as opposed to rejecting it.
"I thought that we eat too much spice in our food," she says, "and now if I eat something that doesn't have garlic and pepper and cinnamon in it, I'm just like this is boring!"
After high school, Vardalos went to university to study theater. Her parents were relatively supportive. "In the beginning she was working in a flower shop," says Konstantine Vardalos, Vardalos' father, better known as Gus (Vardalos kept his real name for the character of the father in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
"I told her, yeah, go become an actress, I'll open a flower shop for you. Then I told her she could also become a teacher."
After receiving her degree, she auditioned twice for the prestigious Second Circle theater group, but was rejected.
"Then somebody said that if you work there you get to take the classes free, worked there," Vardalos recalls. So one night, when she was closing up the box office, she heard that the one of the actors had an ear infection and wouldn't be able to make the performance.
"They couldn't find the understudy so I went backstage and said 'Hi.' They said 'who are you?' (I'd only worked there three weeks) I'm Nia Vardalos I am a member of actor's equity and I think I know your show," recalls Vardalos laughing.
"They were like 'get out!' I was like, Oh, OK, and went walking back down the hall and the stage manager came running after me, 'Wait a minute, wait a minute kid do you know the show?' Yes I do. They had no choice. The cast was like, who is this? What are you making us do? I pulled off the first scene and that was it. The cast was completely behind me. I ran on stage did a scene sang the song. I was 25. It's insane isn't it?"
After that night, Vardalos was hired.
"And then Chicago Second City came up and saw me and said who's that girl with all the nerve?" They asked her to come to Chicago to work for them, got her a two-year work permit, paid for her greencard, and Vardalos liked it so much that she stayed and performed for over six years.
"I have three countries, Canada, Greece and the US," she says. "It makes me feel like I belong everywhere."
"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was originally a one-woman show that Vardalos staged in theaters in Los Angeles where she moved after marrying Ian Gomez, who also plays the role of the Ian's best friend in the movie. Vardalos's friends who listened to her tell hilarious stories about her family, suggested that she write a play. So she did.
"Nia has a remarkable ability to crystallize little conversations and little family anecdotes," says her mother, Doreen Vardalos. "A lot of the anecdotes in the movie actually happened in real life as she was growing up. not necessarily during the time that she was being courted by Ian, but she always keeps them in back of her mind and I'd always ask her 'How do you remember these things?'"
Vardalos always knew that she wanted to go into comedy.
"People laughing is like a warm bath," she says.
The one-woman show was the first in the history of the "Just for Laughs" comedy festival in Montreal to sell out before the run began.
"'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' is essentially a strung-out yarn," wrote the Montreal Gazette, "with dozens of fly-by character-takes and a steady run of good punch lines, expertly delivered."
Rita Wilson happened to see one of Vardalos' performances at the Globe Theater in L.A. and dragged husband Tom Hanks to see it the next day.
They loved it.
"Hanks said that when he married into Rita's family, his life changed," Vardalos says. "He developed this big fat Greek family and he loves it."
Vardalos met Hollywood's hottest couple when they came to talk to her after the play.
"And now I pretty well see them all the time," she says. "Actually, that's something that's something that you never get used to, seeing these Hollywood celebrities I'm like 'wow, how did this happen?'"
Does the 39-year-old she feel like she's living a Cinderella story?
"Yes I do," Vardalos says without a second thought. When Playtone (the production company run by Hanks and Gary Goetzman) asked to buy her screenplay, her dreams suddenly became her reality.
"I absolutely felt the tingling in my body. Something just happened," she says. "I hung up, tried to get Ian out of the shower, then I called my mom, she burst into tears, and then so did I. I never in a million years expected it."
"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was filmed in Toronto on a budget of US$5 million. Joel Zwick, of whose track record includes TV comedies/sitcoms "Family Matters," "Full House," "Mork and Mindy," sat in the director's chair.
Reaction from the audience has so far been phenomenal.
"It makes me cry," she says, voice shaking. "The Greeks are really amazing after they see the movie. People are shaking my hand, shaking my mom's hand. Really, really touches my heart in that somehow in writing this love letter to our people I have made our people proud. And that was the biggest bi-product of the whole thing. And oh my God, my family is just beside themselves. The most important thing is that I didn't embarrass my family and our people. I wanted people to know that it was only done with love and so when my family saw it and just freaked out, I knew I had done my job and I'd done it right."
Not only did Vardalos not embarrass her family, but she also managed to keep a story and its characters from becoming a superficial comic strip of exaggerated characters.
"I got to control all the writing. We hired really good actors who absolutely understood that these people could not become caricatures," Vardalos explains. "We all kept an eye on each other so if someone's performance started getting too big, someone would say, 'you need to bring that down because I have a cousin and she's not really like that.' So it was great, we were like a family. We ate together, we talked really about deep issues almost on the first day. Amazing, amazing chemistry. And we all felt like there was this special thing being brought to life."
Vardalos was told by "people" in San Francisco that they did not want to finance the movie because they didn't think there was a Greek-American market. As a result, a movement originated in San Francisco and reaching ears and inboxes of people throughout the country, called the Greek First Friday club, urging all Greeks to go see "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" on first day of its release.
"As for the non-Greek audience, I hope that they'll see that it's the same God, different flavor and that unconditional love conquers all. The one thing that I've loved about it is that non-Greeks say 'Oh, god, I'm Ian Miller, or my family is just like yours and I'm Chinese, I'm Jewish, I am the Ian miller of my husband's family.
It surprises me how much people relate to it, one way or another they relate to some character."
The love story of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" may seem too good to be true. Greek drab girl gets shaky knees when she see handsome stranger, stranger falls in love with Greek drab girl, they manage to bring their radically different families together, get married and live happily ever after. Not exactly your typical 20th century relationship.
"The thing about my real husband is that he loves me so unconditionally and my family loves him to the point of smothering, yet he hasn't lost his identity," she says defending her fairytale. "So the one thing I wanted to capture about the real Ian is the perfection of his love that he has offered me."
So true love really exists?
"It really does. I wish I had brothers for all my single girlfriends. I touch wood every day and I do my stavro, he's such a great guy. I was thinking I should get pregnant soon so we could have a sequel My Big Fat Greek Baby!"
Playtone wasn't alone in the bid for Vardalos's script. Other companies made offers, but all of them planned to change the Greek element to Hispanic or Italian.
"And I said no. At the time Ian and I didn't' have any money and they were offering me a lot to buy the screenplay. They wanted to change it saying that everyone loves the Spanish people. And I said 'I love the Spanish people too but this is about Greeks and don't you think it's about time we had a Greek-American movie?"
"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" opens with father and daughter Portokalos, Gus's voice bearing over the raindrops that beat on the windshield: "Hey you better get married because you're starting to look old."
"The funniest thing," says Vardalos, "is that he really did say that line to me. I told my mom and she said, 'Gus you better apologize,' and my dad said to me, 'kid someday you'll laugh about it.' And now that he's seen it in the movie, he said, hey, remember I'd told you that you'd laugh about it!' So all this movie has done is prove my dad right!"
"As Greek parents, we like our children to get married so they can have their futures outlined," Gus Vardalos explains. "When she first told us about Ian, well, we had talks, but then we accepted him like anybody else. Our other daughter married a non-Greek too. But lets not get into that."