Nia Vardalos is an actress who comes across with a genuine ‘joi de vivre’. Larger than life, this vibrant, almost overwhelmingly larger-than-life Greek American whose miniscule-budgeted My Big Fat Greek Wedding managed to single-handedly change the shape of independent film, has re-surfaced with Connie and Carla. Here she plays an unsuccessful airport lounge singer who, with friend Carla [Toni Collette], ends up hiding out as drag queens in Los Angeles when they witness a mob killing, a kind of twist on the classic Some Like it Hot.
As with Toula Portokalos in her 2002 comedy smash, Vardalos’ Connie is genially optimistic, yet the outsider, and cheerfully admits to certain parallels with these two characters – and perhaps with their gregarious creator. “I have this theory of life that there are four popular people in high school and then there are the rest of us,” the 40-year old ex-stand by comedienne says laughingly. “I write movies for the rest of us who never peaked in high school, and then realized later that it’s all downhill, which is kind of how I go through life, as I like being a bit of a loser. I think it’s funny when I run into my ex-boyfriend on the street and a bird craps on my head. I just think we all feel that way and feel like we don’t fit in.” As for which of these two perennial misfits is most like Vardalos, the actress will only admit to being “a mix of both. My favourite thing in the world is when people come up to me on the street and go ‘I am you. I am Israeli and I married a man from Scotland’. I love hearing everyone’s story. Everybody feels like every woman and every man, which is why we all relate to Oprah.”
Born Antonia Eugenia Vardalos in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada in September 1962, Vardalos’ good-natured and eccentric family encouraged the talented youngster’s creativity she began exhibiting when she was merely six years old. Her love of performing led Vardalos to begin her professional career at the Rainbow Stage, a theatre company that eventually provided her with the means to get a scholarship to Toronto’s Ryerson University in 1986. It was two short years later that the emerging performer would join Toronto’s Second City theatre troupe, moving to Chicago’s Second City stage shortly thereafter. Introduced to future husband Ian Gomez while performing in the Windy City, the couple married in September 1993 and moved to Los Angeles shortly thereafter.
Both Nia Vardalos and Gomez began appearing on numerous small-screen shows such as The Drew Carey Show, and it wasn’t long before Nia Vardalos, inspired by her eccentric family and her colourful childhood, began to pen a stage play entitled My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Penning her first draft in a mere two weeks, the play was assembled based on her friends’ recollection of humorous stories about her family and centred around her account of her and Gomez’s memorable wedding. A stage hit that soon drew the attention of actress Rita Wilson, Wilson recommended the play to husband Tom Hanks and after Hanks attended the following night’s performance of the charming one-woman play, the couple agreed that a film version would captivate audiences. Though she faced much adversity by means of executives eager to cast a major star and tinker with her winning script, Vardalos stuck to her guns and brought her vision to the screen fully intact for a paltry five million dollars, a gamble that paid off when word of mouth found audiences flocking to the film in record numbers.
One of Vardalos’ recurring themes, prevalent in both Connie and Carla and Greek Wedding, is to be true to yourself. Asked where that comes from, Vardalos smiles as she recounts her own family life. “As you know from the documentary that is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I have an incredible family that is so supportive, who showed up in Connie and Carla as well. There’s a big wide shot when Connie and Carla are singing and my whole family is right across the audience of course mugging for the camera and that’s where it comes from. I’m so lucky, because these twenty-seven first cousins do actually exist, who will call me up and say ‘don’t wear your hair like that. You’re not a rock star. Get real’. I have this real family and, of course, I have my Second City friends from Chicago here in L.A. We are so supportive of each other. They did box office for me when I was doing a one woman show. I try and give them jobs and ‘no, no, no’. They won’t do anything so I named characters in Connie and Carla after them,” she recalls, breathlessly laughing. ” The character Jeff is named after my friend Jeff Rosenthal who read the script of My Big Fat Greek Wedding for me constantly and gave me suggestions, ideas and notes while Brian is named for my friend Brian Blondell who’s like ‘hey, how come I’m a drag queen?’ “
While Connie and Carla may have been tailor-made for Vardalos’ unique comic talents, the actress has had to fend off suggestions that it resembles the 1950s comic farce Some Like it Hot. “The first thing is that I feel like there are a lot of these movies like Victor Victoria, Shakespeare in Love and all the Shakespeare plays that involve cross dressing. If we could slide easily into that genre, I would be absolutely honoured to be included. There’s also a tip of the hat to Thelma and Louise.”
As for convincingly playing a woman, pretending to be a drag queen, she pays tribute to her director Michael Lembeck, “who helped me a lot with trying to be a man trying to be a woman. Sometimes, even I was confused, Michael told me that when my mouth is open, it’s more feminine and when it’s closed, it’s more of a masculine line. I was doing a shot where I was listening and apparently, my mouth was open and from off camera during the scene Michael goes ‘Nia. Close your mouth!’ I wanted to go ‘you close yours’.
I tried to dance like a man, not exactly as feminine as I wanted to be, but sometimes more masculine but in the end I think Michael did a great job of piecing it together.”
As with her Greek Wedding, Vardalos had locked up this script in a desk drawer before trying to get it made, and admits she has others waiting to be relieved of their respective cobwebs. “I like to write about pieces of my life which have been varied. I was a florist when I was going through theatre school so one day, maybe I’ll write about that. Right now I have two or three ideas that I’m working on, so I write a draft of it then I’ll leave it for a while which I think is the way to germinate. You let it grow and then go back and fix it.”
Of course, not all has been a bouquet of roses for Vardalos. Inevitably, the topic of her ill-fated TV series, My Big Fat Greek Life, rears its ugly head. While she learned a lot from that experience, Vardalos avoids defining it as a failure in an otherwise successful career. “I feel like I’ve lived a lifetime since it happened so it’s hard to put it into words. I love my cast and we see each other at lunches and dinner now, so that’s the great thing about that.”
As for life in the movies outside her own outsider persona, Vardalos is also actress looking to bring other writers’ scripts to cinematic life. “I love being an actor and I’m getting scripts sent to me that I would never have gotten two years ago in my life, which includes chances to play extraordinary roles. It would be a gift, at this point to be able to take somebody else’s words and create a character. I don’t like wearing a lot of hats, and I very happily give control like ‘Michael, you’re in charge. I’ll be over here in wigs and make-up”.