Life's a drag after 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'

Friday, April 16, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- Nia Vardalos still has bridal jitters, even though her big-screen wedding went off without a hitch.

Everyone came, they showered her with gifts, and Vardalos' low-budgeted "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" turned into an underdog sensation that took in $241 million.

Vardalos scored an Academy Award nomination for her "Greek Wedding" screenplay and found herself on the fast track with her second script, the drag-queen comedy "Connie and Carla" (for which the music budget alone equaled the entire $5 million cost of "Greek Wedding").

Still, she runs a little scared.

"I am afraid sometimes that I actually have been hit by a bus and that this whole thing going on is the dream I'm having in my coma," said Vardalos, 41.

But Vardalos, who was going nowhere in the movie business before embarking on her do-it-yourself Cinderella story, is banking on turning another unlikely romance into a hit.

Two years after "Greek Wedding" opened in 108 theaters and began its slow build to blockbuster status, "Connie and Carla" debuts in about 1,000 cinemas, with a cast that includes Toni Collette, David Duchovny and Debbie Reynolds.

Vardalos had written "Connie and Carla" and sold the script before "Greek Wedding" caught fire. Once her first film took off, Vardalos had a wealth of movie opportunities.

"I did find that doors that had slammed shut in my face were suddenly wide open with people saying, 'Hey, kid, what do you want to do?"' Vardalos said. "I got offered everything from 'My Big Fat Iranian Wedding' to 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.'"

She stuck with "Connie and Carla" for her next film because she came up in musical theater and simply wanted to sing in a movie.

As with "Greek Wedding," Vardalos had a choice supporting part waiting for husband Ian Gomez. In "Greek Wedding," Gomez played John Corbett's best buddy; in "Connie and Carla," he's the owner of the drag club.

Vardalos hopes her warmhearted humor will make the drag-queen setting resonate with audiences the way Greek-American life did in her first flick. Though her TV follow-up "My Big Fat Greek Life" flopped, Vardalos does not fret over the prospect of ending up a one-hit wonder.

"One hit is good. One hit is more than I thought would ever happen to me," Vardalos said.

Vardalos was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to a Greek immigrant family not unlike what she created for "Greek Wedding." She was named Antonia Eugenia, after her two grandmothers, and from an early age was called "Nia," the last three letters in each name.

After studying acting in Toronto, Vardalos hooked up with Toronto's Second City comedy troupe. She later moved to Chicago and joined the Second City company there.

In the mid-1990s, Vardalos and Gomez, best known for a recurring role on "The Drew Carey Show," moved to Los Angeles. Vardalos managed to land a few TV guest spots, among them "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but she did not fit the cover-girl mold Hollywood fancies.

"It was many things. Too young, too old. Too fat, too thin. Get a nose job, get a boob job. Dye your hair blond," Vardalos said.

"The best thing that happened to me is a casting director said, 'I can't cast you in anything because you don't look like anybody else.' I went home and told my girlfriend, who is a thin, trim, pretty blonde, and she said, 'Interesting. My agent just dumped me because he said he can't get me work in this town because I look like everybody else.'"

Vardalos' swarthy complexion was one of her main obstacles.

"I came to Hollywood with the attitude, well, I'm going to work. And then when I didn't, I wasn't going to slink away crying," Vardalos said. "I thought, I can't bang my head against this brick wall. I can't go through this brick wall. I'm going to go around it.

"So I thought OK, I'm going to become THE Greek girl in town."

She started out with a short monologue about hubby Gomez's Puerto Rican and Jewish background and his conversion to the Greek Orthodox Church to placate Vardalos' family when they became engaged.

Vardalos expanded the idea to a screenplay but could not get it read, so she adapted it into a one-woman show, rented a theater and hoped someone with clout might catch her act.

Actress Rita Wilson saw it, then had husband Tom Hanks go. Hanks and Wilson wound up producing "Greek Wedding."

Even with Hanks in her corner, Hollywood did not want Vardalos. As Hanks and Wilson tried to line up studio backing, executives told them, "Love the script. Lose the girl," Vardalos said.

Hanks and Wilson stuck by her and secured independent financing for "Greek Wedding." The movie had a solid but unspectacular debut weekend. At that point, Vardalos felt her dream had come true.

It was just starting. Audiences began spreading the word about the sweet, old-fashioned romance, and it climbed into the company of "Spider-Man" and "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" as 2002 megahits.

"Nia's just a story that you want to tell," said "Connie and Carla" co-star Duchovny. "It's what you hope happens all the time and just happens once every great while. And she's the story that keeps people that love acting, who don't have a lot of success, going."

Despite its ethnic trappings, "Greek Wedding" struck a universal chord. In Vardalos' ugly-duckling-turned-swan heroine and her meddlesome family, audiences saw a mirror of themselves and their own unruly relations.

It still flabbergasts Vardalos that so many people got the joke and found such gags as spraying Windex to heal a zit enchanting.

"I am not a Hollywood girl. Like, do you see the curling-iron burn on my arm? I'm so not cool and never will be," Vardalos said.

"This is the theory that drives me through my life. I think that there are four cool people in high school, and the rest of us. And I make movies for the rest of us. For the four unfortunate people who peaked in high school and now know what the rest of us feel like and who ARE now the rest of us, welcome to the movie."

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