What’s the best way to make it in show business?
The Canadian Vardalos, who comes from Toronto’s Second City fame, wrote and performed a hysterical one-woman show in Los Angeles which brought down the house–and brought in the likes of Rita Wilson (who is of Greek descent) and Tom Hanks. The powerful Hollywood couple found it so incredibly charming, they decided to produce it as a movie.
In the film, Vardalos plays Toula Portokalos, a frumpy, 30-something woman who works in her Greek family’s restaurant. Her father, Gus (Michael Constantine) and mother, Maria (Lainie Kazan) want Toula to “marry Greek boys, make Greek babies and feed everyone until the day she dies.” Yet, Toula wants much more. To better herself, she goes to college, gets a job as a travel agent at her aunt’s travel agency–and falls in love with a decidedly un-Greek man, Ian (John Corbett, Sex and the City), who asks her to marry him.
Even though Toula is scared to death her father will never accept Ian or that her large, loud family could scare him away, they plan their big, fat Greek wedding anyway. Eventually, everyone comes to accept the fact that the two are destined for each other.
Every time I mention this film to someone, they say, “Oh, I really want to go see that!” or “I saw that–wasn’t it great?” Such a tremendous response for a little film that could.
Nia Vardalos: It’s crazy! I guess people are relating to it in some way.
It’s certainly a change of pace from lightsabers and spiderwebs.
Vardalos: Which are great movies too! We say, go see that movie because they’ll just walk by our poster on the way in. We’re just happy people are going out to the movies. If they are going to that movie or our movie, it’s good for the industry.
Still, you are competing with the big guns and are pulling your weight.
John Corbett: It’s unbelievable.
Vardalos: It’s pretty damn funny that we are in the top ten with these movies. We can’t believe it. I don’t think people understand that we opened in half the country and hit the top ten. So now [distributor] IFC Films is releasing the movie nationally, on way more theaters.
How does that make you feel, Nia? I mean, this film is your baby…
Vardalos: It makes me extremely happy. It’s like making a really good cake and everybody goes, “I love this cake! It’s really tasty” and you go, “Thanks. I made it. Here, take a bite.” It feels good.
The story behind getting this film made is an interesting one. First of all, you were trying to jump-start your career, and decided to put on this one-woman show.
Vardalos: Yeah, I was really tired of waiting for the phone to ring. I had a really lousy, lazy agent and I’m not ashamed to say it. I thought, I can’t put my hands in the career of someone who wears white shoes before May. I remember being in her office and looking down at her cinnamon pantyhose and white shoes and I went, “This woman is handling my career? What am I doing?”
Corbett: Wow. What was her name?
Vardalos: Nope. Not gonna go there. I just thought, I gotta do something different. So I got up on stage and started telling stories about my Greek family. I did not know, obviously, where it would take me, but I felt creatively alive again and that was all I was really doing it for. Which is really kind of the lesson in all this. Right now, I’m being offered stuff, but I can’t take the things that are going to pay me the most. I need to take the things that are going to keep me creatively alive.
Vardalos: Have to. Otherwise, I’m gonna lose my SOUL to Hollywood. I’d rather have a smaller house and my heart. Although, my mother does want a pool right now…
Then Rita Wilson, who is Greek, sees the show and loves it. She sends her husband, Tom Hanks, who is not Greek, to see it and he loves it. And the rest, as we say, is history. How did your family react?
Vardalos: When I called my mom and told her Rita Wilson had come to the show and that Tom Hanks was coming that night, she said something was going to happen. And she’s not one of those people who does that. I said, “What? What do you mean?” She said, “Something is going to happen from this. I just know it.” So when Tom called and told me he read my screenplay and wanted to make it into a movie, with me in the leading role, I called my mom right away and she said, “I knew it. I just knew it.” Amazing, huh? Two years later, Tom meets my parents. Actually, they were never on the set at the same time, which is a good thing because my dad would have been like, “Come here Tom, let me teach you about Greek history.” But when Tom met them he shook their hands and said, “Thank you for your daughter.” I was like, “Tom! Like they don’t love you enough already?”
Is Tom Hanks the nicest guy on the planet?
Vardalos: He is, but he isn’t milquetoast. Not boring. He’s super funny and edgy and charming. Obviously, I think Rita and Tom are the best people on Earth. They are just incredibly down-to-earth and normal people. Rita will ask me where I got my shirt and I tell her the Gap. She says, “Recently? Think it’s still at the Gap?” And I look at her, incredulously thinking, “You could buy the Gap!”
One day that could be you, and I’ll tell the story about you buying a shirt at the Gap.
Vardalos: Oh sure. But with that fame, though, you lose a lot of your freedom.
John, have you found that to be true? Do you get recognized more since playing Aidan on Sex and the City?
Corbett: Yeah, fame’s an odd thing. They recognize you, they don’t…I don’t pay much attention to it. It’s of little consequence to me if people recognize me or don’t. You have to use the bathroom every day, [you have to] to sleep and eat every day. It’s just another part of the day, you know?
What do you look for in a project?
Corbett: I look for something that’s going to give me some fun. You’ve got to work hard on these things, so I don’t want to waste my time.
Vardalos: You better want to wake up at 5:30 in the morning. It’s a very unglamorous glamorous job, you know? And I agree, you got to take something you like because you are going to be hanging out with these people and smelling their morning breath. You better like ’em.
Nia, how did you get such a fabulous cast, like John, Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan?
Vardalos: Rita put her foot down and said they had to find as many Greek actors as possible. The casting director really worked hard and found Greeks from Australia, Chicago, Winnipeg, Toronto. She found Greeks everywhere.
[Second City alum] Andrea Martin was hysterical as your aunt.
Vardalos: She’s Armenian. So she’s been persecuted too, her people. I wrote that part for her, you know. Even though I had been in Second City, I had never met her and I wanted to work with her. I created that character for her. I think about all the things that did happen on the set, the compromises I made, like cutting out 30 pages of the script and the things that didn’t work. But the things that did! Boy, I got to choose him [indicating Corbett]. And for the role of my father, I begged them to find a Greek actor. Please don’t make me use a Hispanic person in a Greek role, again. I want to be able to go back to church. And then they brought in Michael Constantine. When he left the audition, Tom slapped the table and said, “We’re done!” Michael came out of retirement to play the role because he liked it so much.
Did your dad meet Mr. Constantine?
Vardalos: Oh yeah. My dad said [in a thick Greek accent], “Oh boy, how ya doin’? I’m the real Gus.”
So, how was your real-life wedding [to non-Greek actor Ian Gomez]?
Vardalos: [without hesitation] A big fat Greek wedding! Everything was overblown. My family was furious with me because I refused to buy a wedding dress. I thought it was a ridiculous expense and I wanted to wear my mom’s dress. My dad said, “You are going to embarrass us in front of the Greek community. Everyone is going to say we couldn’t afford to buy you a dress.” The limo arrived and it was like faux blue and smelled like prom vomit. Isn’t that classic?
[to John] Are you going to have a big wedding someday?
Corbett: No. It’s gonna be a small one. It would be a Las Vegas wedding.
Any chance of you going back on Sex and the City?
Corbett: Nope. That’s it.
I have to tell you, and Nia will probably agree with me, that you can say “I love you. Will you marry me?” better than any other actor out there. Carrie [Sarah Jessica Parker’s character on Sex and the City] was a fool to let you go.
Vardalos: He’s the perfect guy, right? Poor Carrie Bradshaw. She didn’t get him, but I did.
Corbett: [gazing intently at the interviewer, who promptly dissolves into a puddle] Will you marry me?
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is currently playing in theaters nationwide.