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Greek Treat: Nia Vardalos and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”

Two weeks after the premiere of her highly praised feature My Big Fat Greek Wedding, newcomer writer/actress Nia Vardalos can finally sit back on her laurels and enjoy the spoils of success. Not simply because her film has received accolades from major critics and, of course,, but because she will be celebrating Greek Easter this Sunday, May 5th, at home with her family. For her the holiday symbolizes a pinnacle of achievement as she has finally been able to make a film about her roots that really, as she put it, ‘went all the way.’ The movie is the autobiographical story of a young Greek woman, played by Vardalos herself, who attempts to bring home a non-Greek husband to her traditional and overprotective yet loving family.

Until she can relax on Easter Sunday and enjoy some roasted lamb, she’ll have to endure a few more days promoting her film on the road. We spoke with her over the phone on a publicity pit stop, shelled up in a Houston hotel room, as she was attempting to enjoy a relaxing moment and a cup of coffee.

Despite her weariness, from the second she came on the line, Nia Vardalos’ exuberance shined through, undoubtedly the same enthusiasm that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson must have seen when they first saw the one-woman stand up routine that inspired the film, referring to the couple as ‘the God and Goddess of Hollywood.’ In our brief conversation, she revealed her passion for Greek culture, her drive to overcome the grueling production process, and how she embellishes her newfound role as comedic and cultural ambassador. How much of Nia Vardalos do we see in the Toula Portokalos character?

Nia Vardalos: I pretty much packed a lot of my own experiences growing up into Toula. My husband, Ian Gomez (from the TV show Felicity) isn’t Greek, but has the same first name as John Corbett’s character. That’s no coincidence. I also had my own experience of blossoming when I went to college. But what I really tried to do was pack a bunch of the people that I knew into Toula. The same is true for Toula’s father Gus (Michael Constantine) and mother Maria (Lainie Kazan). They come from family members, friends, aunts, and uncles. That’s how I transitioned the script from a one woman show to a full length feature. It’s essentially the process through which I brought the characters to life.

Did you help cultivate the characters mannerisms in order to get the actors to become so accurately ‘Greek?’

Actually, no. From the start I wanted as many Greek actors as possible in the film. In fact, many people ask me whether Michael Constantine was able to meet my father in preparation for the production. The truth is I didn’t want it. I wanted Michael to bring his own version to the table. He was the ideal blend of rough fatherly pride and that soft underbelly that a loving father rarely shows, and director Joel Zwick and I knew he was perfect from the start. He beat out quite a list of accomplished actors for the part.

Does your father really have a Windex fetish as Gus’s character did?

Yes, I’ll admit it. I know it sounds crazy, but now he swears by vitamin C and calcium. The Windex people have given me a resounding thank you for the plug — although I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone for getting rid of pimples.

How important was it for you to have Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson attached to the project?

Those two are really like the God and Goddess of Hollywood, and both were incredibly encouraging. They were great from the start in allowing me to see my creative vision the whole way through. The first two production companies I went to wanted it be a big fat Hispanic wedding and then a big fat Italian wedding. Needless to say I walked out of those meetings frustrated, but I remained adamant about what I envisioned. Tom and Rita insisted on it to being Greek all the way. In fact, there was a scene where a character was wearing jeans and supposedly the family had just gotten back from church. Tom knew that no Greek Orthodox practitioner wears jeans to church, so he astutely made the appropriate changes that everyone else missed. So often the converts are more zealous than those born into the church.

What was the message that you wanted to send? Were you interested in humoring the audience or sending out more of a theme of cultural awareness?

Of course I wanted people to laugh, but I also feel that it was time to give a little perspective on the Greek culture. We have perception on the Italian culture and the Jewish culture already from film. I felt that it was time we shed a light on the Greek culture and gave people a good laugh at the same time.

What has been the film’s response within the Greek community?

People kept telling me that there was no real ‘Greek Community’ within the U.S. that could carry the film. I told them that we’re six million strong and of course they would support it. The response has been tremendous; there was the ‘First Friday Club,’ which was made up of many Greek Americans that wanted to see it on opening night. Also, the Metropolitan of the Greek Orthodox Church flew me in to San Francisco for a Hellenic convention and lauded the film by pronouncing to the audience, ‘Beee a goooood Grrreeeeek. Goooo ouuut aaaand seeee thiiis mooooovie.’

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