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Greek Bearing Riffs

Comedian Nia Vardalos' love of her colorful family's heritage inspires her film's humor.

April 17, 2002|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former agent once told Nia Vardalos she would never make it as an actress in Hollywood because she wasn't pretty enough to be a star and wasn't fat enough for character roles.

So, after two years of doing voice-overs for commercials like Tide detergent and Home Depot and constantly being mistaken for Latina or Italian, Vardalos, a Canadian of Greek descent, decided to take matters into her own hands. She wrote and starred in a one-woman stage act rooted in something close to her heart: Greek families, where fathers believe Windex is a cure-all for every malady, grandmothers believe Turks are out to kidnap them, and daughters are expected to marry nice Greek boys in the Orthodox church and have babies instead of careers.

Today, the 32-year-old Vardalos has parlayed the humorous tales and idiosyncratic characters she remembers growing up in Winnipeg's Greek Town into a screenplay and starring role in a movie called "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

What's more, her producers include actress Rita Wilson, who is half-Greek, and Wilson's mega-star husband, Tom Hanks. But even with that kind of clout it's been an uphill battle to bring Vardalos' story to the screen.

Wilson, who with this film takes the reins as a producer for the first time, said she had to fight to get the movie made because no one wanted to go with an unknown actress in the lead role.

"When we pitched it at the studios, they said they liked the idea but didn't want Nia to star in it," Wilson said. "But I felt strongly it should be her. As a woman, I feel women get the shaft all the time. You do the play and then they cast someone else. You're not a big star and, therefore, they won't even look at you."

Vardalos' story is a familiar one in star-obsessed Hollywood, where unknown actors repeatedly have doors slammed in their faces unless they happen to get noticed by someone with power who isn't afraid of taking risks.

"I couldn't get a job," Vardalos said. "I had a lousy agent, and then I realized that everybody [who is unknown] has one."

How bad was it?

"I had given my agent 100 [head shots] and when she finally dropped me, I went to pick up my pictures and there were 98 there!" Vardalos said. "I wanted to shake her and say, 'I want my two years back!'"

Wilson and Hanks

Come to Vardalos' Show

In a weird way, however, those lost years served to propel Vardalos to make decisions that would secure her breakthrough.

This Friday IFC Films will release "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" in nine U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, and Vardalos invited 50 family members to the L.A. premiere. The film, which was shot in Toronto, was produced by Gold Circle Films and Hanks' production company, Playtone Co.

For Vardalos, life hasn't really been the same since late 1997, when Wilson, wondering why more attention was not being paid to the L.A. stage scene, happened to scan the theater ads in a newspaper one day and came across an intriguing-sounding show called "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" that was running at the Acme Comedy Theatre on La Brea Avenue.

Wilson said she was "completely floored" by Vardalos' comic routine. "Not only did it remind me of my life and my family--part of whom were with me--but I just loved Nia," Wilson said. "My mother is Greek and my father is Bulgarian. I am a first-generation American and native Los Angeleno. I was born and raised in Hollywood. I would go to school and be American and then come home and be Greek. That is why I related to this story on so many levels."

Wilson met Vardalos after the show and learned that she had written a screenplay based on the same material. At his wife's urging, Hanks later took in the show, and it was an evening that Vardalos will never forget.

"For the first 10 seconds of the show, I couldn't see any faces in the audience because all the heads were turned to them," Vardalos said. "I could just see a sea of ears. Then he laughed at the first joke and you could almost hear the audience say, 'Oh, it's going to be all right' and then they all turned and looked at me. I almost wanted to say on the 11th second, 'Yes, I know!'"

Vardalos is the first to admit that she owes much of that newfound success to her Greek family, from father Gus (the name of the father in the movie) and mother Doreen to grandmothers Antonia and Eugenia (hence the name Nia), and 27 first cousins and other relatives whose lives provided her with a rich trove of comic material.

"I have friends who are way more talented than me," Vardalos said, "but they don't have a Greek family that they can milk for material. My mom would say things to me like, 'Greek women may be lambs in the kitchen, but we're tigers in the bedroom!' I would go to a party that night and I would say that line and it would kill. Everybody would laugh so hard. And I said, 'There is something here.'"

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