Nia Vardalos: True love and lots of laughs

A highly successful «Big Fat Greek Wedding» made Nia Vardalos famous worldwide – and that a world away from Hollywood tradition, given that she was just turning 40. Two years later, Vardalos came to Athens to promote her new film, «Connie and Carla.» On my way to the interview, I was determined to throw some tough questions at her: ask her about the conservative portrayal of the Greek family in her blockbusting film and the fact that she had borrowed screenplay elements from other films for her new movie. But it’s hard to be gruff with toward Vardalos. Smiling and friendly, she is living proof that what you see in her movies is really a part of herself. How did the idea for the new script come about? Ever since I started writing scripts, I wanted to sing in a movie. So I started working on that idea. When I began writing the script, I had terrible things happening to Connie and Carla. Unemployed, pursued by gangsters, they couldn’t pay their rent. And then they got into a drag show club. These girls were so stupid they didn’t even understand that these people were drag queens. That’s when I got the idea of making the girls pretend they’re drag queens. There are a few obvious references to «Some Like it Hot» and «Victor/Victoria» here. And many more, including «Thelma and Louise» and «Mrs Doubtfire.» I think we all borrow from Shakespeare. He was the one who started the ideas of disguise, sex changes and unconditional love. The idea that you fall in love with the soul, not somebody’s looks. That’s what I wanted to show and I think that David Duchovny presents this in a wonderful way. He is really taken by this woman, he has no idea why he is attracted by this man, person, girl, but he really is. In general terms, the subject is more or less the same as in «My Big Fat Greek Wedding.» Yes! It’s the same. Trust your family, they are they only people you have, follow your dream, you only have one life, make sure it’s a happy one and of course, unconditional love. I’m really interested in this. Falling in love with the person who makes you truly happy. Did you write «Connie and Carla» before the «Wedding»? I wrote it before shooting the film. I sold the script six weeks after the release of «My Big Fat Greek Wedding,» before it became such a hit. The sister of one of the producers persuaded her brother to go and see it. He liked it and he immediately called my manager asking her, «What else does she have?» Following the film’s success there were a few setbacks – pulling the plug on the television series, for instance. We went to such trouble to set up the show in no time, but so many bad things were written about me and the screenwriters. What happened was that they were pushing things; you should never push things to happen. «Connie and Carla» was not that successful – commercially at least. The distribution was rather limited – small distribution, small revenues. But we did get good reviews. When I read the one in the Los Angeles Times, I said, «Who wrote that, my dad?» Personally I’m really happy when I sneak into a movie theater and hear people laughing. I don’t allow myself to be affected by how a well or badly a film does. Do you know when I felt genuinely happy about the «Wedding»? Not when it broke the records, but when it found a distributor. Your life changed, however, given the success. Yes, that’s true. But it didn’t change who I am. It changed the opportunities. Did you become rich? That’s part of the press exaggerating, saying that I had made 100 million dollars, that I had a nose job, that I behaved like a diva on television… Tom Hanks [who produced «My Big Fat Greek Wedding»] was very generous, of course, but I did not make 100 million dollars. But you must have felt a little bit like Cinderella. Didn’t you feel excited, stressed and dazzled attending award ceremonies? Dazzled, that’s it! I still feel that way. I felt that I had no business there, that I was living somebody else’s life. I travel, I stay in beautiful hotels, I speak to journalists, I discuss future projects. So when bad things are published I think to myself that these drawbacks are part of the package. How did you keep your sanity through all this? It was one crazy thing after the other: records broken, directors and studios calling, working on the series – sheer madness. So every morning at six, before the phones started ringing, I would go out and run, taking my mind to a stress-free place. If I had allowed myself to get stressed I would not have been able to enjoy my success. What are your plans now? First of all I’m going on a three-month vacation – though I can already see this turning into three weeks. I would like to work on more comedies, but before doing that I want to rest. I have to live life before I can write about it. I can’t complain; everything I’ve done in the last two years has been positive, but I do need some time for myself. To sit down, eat, see my friends and look for new ideas. I will probably be just an actor in my next two films. I believe that the end result will be better if I remove the screenwriter and producer «hats.» And then I’ll go back to comedy writing. I love making people laugh. I also want to come back for the Olympics. Do you have relatives in Greece? Of course. I have 27 first cousins – it’s true – and I usually come to see them every 18 months. Even though we are scattered around the world, in Greece, Australia, America and Canada, we are very close. This interview was translated from the Greek text. From Winnipeg to LA Born in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1962, Nia Vardalos (who takes her name from her two grandmothers, Andonia and Eugenia) takes great pride in her Greek heritage – her father comes from Kalavryta and her grandmother (yia-yia) has Smyrnean roots. It was her marriage to xeno (foreign) actor Ian Gomez and her family’s doubts about the union, that led Vardalos to develop her one-woman show. This subsequently turned into a a film project, after Vardalos’s performance caught the attention of actress Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks’s Greek-American spouse. Wilson then urged her husband to see the show and the Hollywood power couple eventually undertook the film’s production and «My Big Fat Greek Wedding» became an unprecedented success – with a $5 million budget it earned more than $240 million in the United States alone. A record for an independent production, it was recently surpassed by Mel Gibson’s «The Passion of the Christ» – the Gibson project’s budget, however was six times that of Vardalos’s film.