Her 40-pound weight loss isn't -- insists Nia Vardalos -- some diabolical plan to land herself in the pages of People magazine, amid Valerie Bertinelli, Melissa Joan Hart and myriad new celebrity mothers proving their moral and genetic superiority by dropping their baby weight within days of giving birth.
"I find it strange being mentioned as some sort of accomplishment or triumph," says Vardalos, the unlikely writer-star of the unlikely box-office smash of 2002, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." It's only weight loss, after all, not curing cancer, and the only reason she bothered was because "I had to. I had a blood sugar issue," as well as thyroid disease, and diabetes in her family tree, and so her doctor insisted. "To be told you have to do something, what a bummer," she says.
It's clear that Vardalos doesn't like being told what to do or adhering to some Hollywood conventions. This is the woman who wrote her own ticket into Hollywood, after being infamously told by an agent that she wasn't pretty enough to be a leading lady or fat enough to be a character actress.
"I'm like this every woman in terms of my looks," Vardalos says over a glass of iced tea at L'Hermitage. "I had to write my scripts in the first place because I don't look like Nicole Kidman. I continue to write parts I want to play."
In person, the actress radiates a kind of sunny, albeit definitely determined, optimism. She wears white jeans, a loose black, print top, and her hair tucked up under a jaunty cap. Her skin looks particularly radiant and tawny, though she points out the zit on the top of her forehead. Her laugh is ready and enveloping.
At 46, Vardalos returns to the screen this summer after a three-year absence, with two romantic comedies. In "My Life in Ruins" (in theaters Friday), Vardalos plays a burned-out tour guide, resigned to a bus trip from hell around Greece with a disparate bunch of tourists, who falls for a Greek bus driver. In "I Hate Valentine's Day" (July 3), which she also wrote and directed, she stars as a snappy, commitment-phobic florist who will date men only five times before a mandated breakup, a plan that goes awry when John Corbett (her "Greek Wedding" costar) opens a restaurant on her street.
As she notes, "In the movies, you often see the average-looking guy with the incredibly attractive woman. In my movies you see the average-looking woman with the super hot John Corbett. I'm happy to make those movies for all of us women. Guess what? We need people like me on screen. That's what movies are. You go and escape for a sec."
One of the themes of "My Life in Ruins" is a woman who's lost her kefi, which is the Greek word for life force or passion. It's an idea that clearly resonated when Vardalos read the script (which was written by "The Simpsons" writer Mike Reiss), and she later tweaked the script to accentuate it. Despite the success of "Big Fat Greek Wedding," which catapulted Vardalos from struggling unknown to Oscar-nominated star, she was hardly doing Greek dances for years after.
"I had lost my mojo a little bit," she says, before adding bluntly, "I had come to the end of a 10-year infertility battle. It knocked me on my butt. I had to just walk away. It was awful. I thought I was going to just quietly step away and not be on camera. It was so healing. The only way to go through grief is to go through it.
"It was a big secret that I was keeping during all of the success of 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding,' when everyone was saying she's so lucky. I fully appreciate the luck that came my way, but I was secretly, silently praying for the simplest act in the world, to carry a child to term. Career success is empty without a family for me."
She pauses tremulously. "I think that's why I'm so joyous right now."
Last year, after wrapping "My Life in Ruins" and "I Hate Valentine's Day," Vardalos and her husband, Ian Gomez, finally were matched with a 3-year-old girl through an American foster care agency. It had been a long wait, with a series of disappointments as previous adoption plans had fallen through. "I love my daughter so much," she says. "It's the reason I breathe every day."
Get on the bus
Screenwriter Reiss is a self-admitted bus-tour junkie. He estimates he's logged some 38 bus tours all over the world including Asia, South America and Europe. He calls travel his form of a "controlled substance," and notes "in my experience, 95% of my tour guides have been women and gay men. They seem enormously over-qualified. All my tour directors have been brilliant, learned. They're erudite but they're stuck finding the bathroom every two hours for all the people on the bus, handling money orders and just doing so much clerical work."
Despite being known for his sardonic tone (he also created the TV show "The Critic"), Reiss wrote the sweeter "My Life in Ruins" as a spec, and upon the suggestion of his wife, sent it to Vardalos, who flipped for the script.