Film

BIG, FAT BREAKTHROUGH

A Greek-Canadian gal spins family tales into gold

PATRICIA HLUCHY August 5 2002
Film

BIG, FAT BREAKTHROUGH

A Greek-Canadian gal spins family tales into gold

PATRICIA HLUCHY August 5 2002

BIG, FAT BREAKTHROUGH

Film

PATRICIA HLUCHY

A Greek-Canadian gal spins family tales into gold

SHE WAS A BRIGHT, funny Greek-Canadian actress in Los Angeles hoping for film or sitcom work. But after months of “zero auditions,” her female agent wrote her off, evil stepmother-style: “You’re not pretty enough to be a leading lady, you’re not fat enough to be a character actor— you’re Greek and there’s nothing I can do for you.” So, what was Nia Vardalos to do? “I decided if I was going to be a Greek girl in town, then I would be the Greek girl in town,” laughs the Winnipeg-born and -bred writer and star of the summer’s sleeper hit movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The film, now playing in the U.S., Greece and several other countries, opens in Canada on Aug. 16. For years, friends had been urging Vardalos to turn her hilarious family stories into comic material. The

veteran of Second City comedy troupes in London, Ont., and Chicago (at the latter, she developed talk-show-host character Sue Vlaki) began doing bits based on the Vardalos clan during open-mic nights at L.A. comedy clubs. The bits turned into the popular one-woman stage show My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

And this is where the story turns into a Hollywood fairy tale à la grecque. One night another actress from a Greek family, Rita Wilson—born Margarita Ibrahimoff, and also known as Mrs. Tom Hanks— went to see the show with her mother. Like Vardalos, Wilson had spent her childhood going to Greek school instead of Brownies. Wilson and her mom loved Wedding so much they visited Vardalos backstage. “Rita was so effusive, so kind and sweet, and she

said, ‘You know, this should be a movie,’ ” recalls Vardalos, who replied that, in fact, she’d just completed a screenplay for Wedding. Then Wilson dispatched Hanks to see Vardalos perform. He sent the actress a letter saying how much he related to the show, concluding with, “Thanks for a great evening, a wonderful show, and all those stories I know by experience to be true. P.S. I look Greek.” Two months later he called to propose the production group he runs with Gary Goetzman, Playtone, shoot Vardalos’s script, with her as the star. Wilson then joined them as a producer.

The fairy tale, still unfolding, includes a surprise pot of gold. In a summer of disappointing returns, the US$5-million film— a charming, often hilarious tale about a large, larger-than-life Greek clan joined by marriage to a mute, tiny, haute WASP family (with John Corbett playing the groom)—“continues to defy box-office gravity,” as the Hollywood Reporter said last

week. Grosses for the four-month U.S. run are now at $31 million, and there are big expectations for Wedding’s Canadian arrival. “I saw Tom and Rita on Friday night, and we just giggled at the numbers,” says Vardalos, 39. “We didn’t expect the film to play this long; it was supposed to open and close in a month and then make money on video.” And it’s not just Greeks who are going to Wedding. “There aren’t enough of them to support how much the movie’s made so far,” she notes. “Everyone relates to this story. I loved it when a Chinese woman came up to me and said, ‘This is just like my family.’ ”

Vardalos’s labour of family love has generated poignant moments more smalltown than Tinseltown. Like the times she and her mother would cry on the phone as Nia read, once again, Hanks’s letter. Or the spectacle of Wilson’s large, boisterous Greek family holding hands and dancing with Vardalos’s large, boisterous Greek family at the film’s premiere (Wilson and Vardalos attend the same L.A. Greek Orthodox church). The second of four children born to businessman father Constantine, now 69, who immigrated to Canada from Greece in his early 20s, and homemaker-bookkeeper mother Doreen, 62, born to a Greek family in Winnipeg, Vardalos seems genuinely amazed at, and grateful for, her success, as if the fates have been ridiculously generous with good breaks. She says she knew she wanted to be an actress by the age of four, and moved to Toronto when she was 20 to study at Ryerson Polytechnic’s theatre school, dropping out after a couple of years because of its classical focus. She got a job in the box office at Second City, where she’d auditioned three times without success. After three weeks, an actress fell ill 10 minutes before curtain time, and Vardalos convinced the producers to try her because she’d memorized the entire show. She went on stage, and was hired for the London, Ont., company the next day.

Vardalos spent two years with Second City in London, and then four years with the Chicago troupe. There, she met her husband, actor Ian Gomez, of Puerto Rican and Jewish descent. Gomez, who has a small part in Wedding playing the groom’s best friend, was baptized Greek Orthodox before their nuptials—just like Corbett’s character in the movie. But while that

doesn’t completely extinguish the Greek family’s wariness in the film, Vardalos says it did convince her real family to embrace Gomez.

The two moved to Los Angeles in 1996 to pursue TV and film work, and both have had a number of gigs. But Vardalos didn’t get enough jobs to sustain her, so she developed Wedding. The one-woman show, and the movie, are in many ways love letters to her family, albeit ones with a fair bit of ribbing and irony. “If you spent five minutes with my family,” she says of the many colourful personalities, “you’d have an idea for a movie too.” Like Vardalos, her film alter ego Toula Portokalos cherishes every member of the tribe, even as she’s sometimes driven crazy by their backward or overbearing ways. The writer says she “took every relative I have and then mixed them all together—I squished all the aunts into one [played by Andrea Martin].” She even managed to get the first names of all 27 first cousins into the script, and she calls the groom Ian, like her husband. Her mother, her sister and several cousins have cameos in Wedding.

But she cautions that her father, who appears in the movie a few times—he’s a chanter during the wedding scene, reprising the role he plays on a regular basis at Winnipeg’s St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church—is not the retrograde patriarch (played by Greek-American Michael Con-

stantine) of the film. “My dad is pro-education and pro-women. He’s a very good guy. I just took facets of the Greek male personality. Of course my dad, like the movie dad, does take every word and try to find its Greek roots.” In an interview, Constantine Vardalos does his etymology schtick, contending that 22 per cent of English words are of Greek origin. But does he also, like the movie father, use Windex to treat everything “from psoriasis to poison ivy?” “Just try it,” he says laughing. Nia, meanwhile, declines to answer that question “until Windex calls offering to make him their national spokesperson.” The actress’s mother is following Nia’s progress with “disbelief, awe and joy.” Does she worry that Hollywood will spoil her daughter? No way, says Doreen—the family will keep her in check. “When people were asking for her autograph at the premiere, I thought it was absolutely hilarious. And every time she comes back home she gets a dose of grounding. Last December in Winnipeg we had a party for our daughter who lives in Toronto. Everybody was running around doing things, and Nia and Ian ended up delivering the sweets to the reception hall. It was minus 30, there was a wicked wind, and they had to go in and out. It must have taken all of 20 minutes for them to bring in the boxes. And I thought, ‘So much for living the Hollywood life up here.’ ” I