She’s beautiful, funny, works steadily in film, TV and voice-overs.
And here’s the kicker: she can tap dance.
Nia Vardalos (Archive)
in a conversation
with ScreenTalk Producer Robin Rea
NIA VARDALOS may not be a household word… yet. I spoke to her recently after seeing her very funny one-woman show, MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, soon to be made into a motion picture.
REA: You have wonderful comedic style and timing, as a performer and writer. Were these skills honed during your Second City days?
VARDALOS: Definitely. My first time writing was at Second City. I wanted to be in the ensemble so badly, I took a job in the box office. One night a performer called in sick, so I went backstage and said, look, I’m a member of Equity and I know your show. It was ten to eight and the audience was seated, so they took a chance and let me go on that night. The next day, I was hired. Talk about being being careful what you wish for! I had to learn how to write by the seat of my pants.
REA: You move out here in 94. By the way, what’s a nice Greek girl think of L.A.?
VARDALOS: It kills me. My favorite is when I’m talking to someone, and they’re looking over my shoulder checking out the room.
REA: So, what’s auditioning like in the land of blond hair and blue eyes? Do they throw you in the quirky, ethnic pool?
VARDALOS: I mostly auditioned for parts that were Hispanic, although I believe true Hispanics should be hired for Hispanic parts. I think it’s insulting to the Hispanic community to have someone doing that accent. I kept losing these parts to what I call “true ethnics”, and while I believe I’m ethnic, there was no voice for my people. So, I set out to create something Greek.
REA: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your play?
VARDALOS: Two weeks.
REA: That’s how long it takes me to sharpen my pencils.
VARDALOS: I called all of my friends, and I asked them which were the funniest stories I had told them over the years about my family. They wrote or faxed back, and I shoved all of the stories together and hooked them around my wedding which had happened the year before, and I had a show.
REA: Where did you first perform the show?
VARDALOS: At the HBO Workspace, who knew my work through Second City. Over the next eight months, I performed it four times in front of an audience. They’d give me notes, I’d make changes, and then do it again. What I didn’t know was that there was shift in the power hierarchy while I was there, and none of the executives showed up on the night of my big presentation!
REA: That must have been frustrating.
VARDALOS: I was so frustrated, I decided to take it further. My director, Madeline Cripe and I decided to put it up at the Hudson Theater. I made a flyer and sent it to every Greek church in Southern California.
REA: You are smart.
VARDALOS: I know my audience.
REA: What happened?
VARDALOS: There was such an overwhelming response, that we were over-sold the whole six week run of the show.
REA: Okay, you know your material works as a play. What convinces you it will work as a screenplay?
VARDALOS: I was spurred on by the fact that a company affiliated with Disney called me in for a meeting and told me they wanted to buy my idea. I was like, yeah, all right! Until they told me I wouldn’t be in it. And I said, I wrote it for me. And they said, right, but we want Marisa Tomei. And I said, she’s cute and all, but she’s Italian. Long story short, I tell them, very politely, forget it.
REA: That’s brave of you.
VARDALOS: My knees were shaking. One thing that really convinced me it wouldn’t work was the writer in the room who pitched me some openings for the movie. And I said, I think I’ve seen that before. And he said yeah, it worked in…and he listed three films. That’s when I realized they were going to strip MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING of its authenticity. I mean, they would have put in a car chase scene by the time they had finished. I said thanks for telling me I have a good idea, but I’m going to try writing this myself. And they said, but you’ve never written a screenplay. I turn to the writer in the room and ask him, for the record, what he’s written. Wouldn’t you know, he’s uh, not exactly written something himself, but uh, assisted on other scripts. Okay, I said, we’re even.
REA: How long does it take you to write the screenplay?
VARDALOS: It took about a month and a half to finish the first draft, which I hated. I put it in a drawer, and didn’t look at it for months. When I went back to it, I realized there was too much exposition. I pored over old film scripts, and learned so much about scene craft. Three lines can reveal more than three pages.
REA: At this point, you’re working solo. There’s just you and your belief that you know this material and you can dramatize it better than anyone else out there. Is that what kept you going?
VARDALOS: I knew I had a good idea. I was on the Fox lot one day for an audition, and one of the executives from that early meeting followed me into the parking lot and said, hey, if you’re still interested in writing the screenplay, we could make a deal.
REA: Did any of these executives ever articulate what appealed to them?
VARDALOS: They told me I had a tried and true theme with a fresh and new twist. Also, apparently there has been some study that anything with the word “wedding” in the title does well.
REA: Meanwhile, in your spare time, you do a film, the soon-to-be-released comedy, MEN SEEKING WOMEN, and the director asks to read your screenplay.
VARDALOS: What I didn’t know is that he wanted it from seeing my one woman show. I give him the second draft, and I don’t hear from him for three weeks. I think he hates it, but I find out he and his production company need the time to draw up a budget, so they can make an official offer.
REA: I know this is where things get a little tricky.
VARDALOS: I had an option agreement with them. Right now, a bigger company is trying to buy it from the smaller company. As the smaller company are my friends, I don’t want them to get shafted. We’re negotiating, trying to find a solution favorable to everybody. I’m hopeful we’ll have an agreement shortly and shoot it sometime this year.
REA: Does it mean more money for you?
VARDALOS: Yes, but although the money is nice, what I want, what I’ve always wanted, is to be in it.
REA: Is it going to be a Greek cast?
VARDALOS: If I have any say, yes, absolutely. I would love Olympia Dukakis to play my mother, and Rita Wilson to play “cousin Nicki”.
REA: Rita Wilson is Greek?
VARDALOS: Yes. She came to the show, and she was so effusive that when we wanted to do a full remount of a production at The Globe, she agreed to produce it. I told her we didn’t need the money, just her name. And it was her name that brought in CNN, E Entertainment, Channel 7, Daily Variety.
REA: The show really strikes a chord with her.
VARDALOS: She said I completely nailed what’s it like to grow up Greek. I love that, because that’s what I set out to do.
REA: Of course, anyone can relate to the humor in the show, because we all, to one degree or another, have been embarrassed by the eccentricities of our family.
VARDALOS: My family had eight Lincoln Continentals parked in front of the house. Now that’s embarrassing.
REA: Any thoughts on a director?
VARDALOS: Someone with a light touch. These people are not caricatures. They may be loud and flamboyant, but they’re rooted in reality, and that’s what makes them funny.
REA: Did you ever think you would end up discussing points and percentages with a bunch of lawyers?
VARDALOS: It’s been an amazing journey. Even if everything falls through tomorrow, I’ve set out to do what I wanted to do. I’ve shared my family with a lot of people, and I’ve done it with love and respect and humor.
REA: Where do you get your tenacity from?
VARDALOS: My mother. She gave me a line for the movie the other day. I have the father in the movie say, “I am the head of this house”, and the scene as it exists now is that the mother turns to the daughter and gives a “yeah, right” look heavenward. But my mother suggested I have the mother character reply, “But the woman is the neck and she can turn the head anyway she wants.”