As the writer and star of the autobiographical comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002), Nia Vardalos took the entertainment industry by storm when the film came virtually out of nowhere to become a surprising hit. However, the real-life story of how Vardalos was able to make the film in the first place proves as interesting as the movie itself.
Born in Winnepeg-Ontario, Canada, Vardalos was raised in a quirky and eccentric family that proudly embraced its Greek heritage and encouraged her creative energies early on. She began her professional career on stage at a local theater, the Rainbow Stage, using her experience to earn a scholarship to Toronto’s Ryerson University. She joined Toronto’s famed Second City improvisational comedy theater troupe in an unconventional manner, taking a job in the box office where she dutifully watched every evening’s production.
One night an actress fell ill and had to be rushed to the hospital fifteen minutes before curtain before a sold-out house. Vardalos saved the day by convincing the producers she knew the show well enough to step into the part-which she did. Her success there led her to move to Chicago’s even more acclaimed Second City theater, where she would ultimately win Chicago’s Jeff Award for Best Actress.
While in Chicago Vardalos met fellow Second City performer Ian Gomez and the two married and moved to Los Angeles in 1993 to further their careers. Gomez hit early with recurring roles on popular TV shows such as “The Drew Carey Show” and “Felicity” while Vardalos had a tougher time, toiling in tiny TV guest spots and small film appearances.
Seeking to find her artistic purpose and desperately in need of a creative outlet, Vardalos began to pen a one-woman stage show to produce and perform in Los Angeles. Risking her own life experience by drawing upon her colorful relatives, the traditions of her powerfully ingrained heritage and the humorous hysteria that surrounded her own wedding to the non-Greek Gomez, she created a play that both affectionately skewered and celebrated her oddball upbringing. Vardalos finished the first draft of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” in just two weeks. In this play Vardalos played ten characters presenting it in various theaters around L.A.
The stage incarnation (which she also fashioned into an unsold screenplay) was a modest hit in Los Angeles, and the play’s sole piece of newspaper advertising happened to catch the eye of another woman who grew up in a traditional Greek family and married an outsider, actress Rita Wilson.
Wilson attended, loved the show and returned for a second performance the next night, this time with her husband, actor Tom Hanks, in tow. The couple was duly charmed by and impressed with Vardalos, and Hanks quickly optioned her screenplay for his personal production company, Play-Tone, and agreed to keep her as the star. Meanwhile Vardalos’ play was nominated for an Ovation Award for Best New Play in Los Angeles and also ran in Toronto and Montreal.
Even with the backing of one of Hollywood’s most powerful actors, Vardalos had to weather much attempted studio tinkering with her screenplay, with executives trying variously to cast a more bankable star, re-work the script and even change the ethnicity of the family. The actress was able to stick to her guns and keep the central role of Toula, joining a talented ensemble of actors with TV director Joel Zwick at the helm.
Made for under $5 million, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was released in April 2002 by HBO Independent Productions with little if any pre-release fanfare-including virtually no television advertising or billboards-yet somehow the film was able to attract an audience.
Positive word-of-mouth spread from people who saw the movie, and soon audiences were lining up-Vardalos’ easily accessible comedy transcended its Greek label and appealed to a wide cross section of people, feeling funny and true to anyone who’s had to deal with ethnic differences, eccentric relatives and even simply the often arduous task of getting married.
By the summer of 2002 the breakout film, aided by the media embracing Vardalos’ underdog success story and her connection to Wilson and Hanks, continued to open in more and more theaters and its box office numbers were suddenly challenging concurrent box office blockbusters like “Austin Powers: Goldmember” and “Signs.”
Its take escalated upwards of $230 million….
It might be hard to imagine right now what your next best idea can do, but just look at what Nia was able to do with hers? Instead of continuing to choose the same path every other actor takes in Hollywood, Nia decide to exploit what she uniquely could offer the world. It was Nia’s willingness to risk exposing who she really was through her acting that not only transformed her life as an actress, but also changed how the world feels about Greek traditions because she did. As a fellow Greek, I can assure you her film has helped make each one of us raised in the Greek culture feel so much better. Now our strange quirky customs and rituals are more understood and accepted.
Check out this funny ad peppered in Greek culture. Once upon a time I would have feared what you would have thought, but now, thanks to Nia, I know you will laugh.