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As if the aching reality of families involved in offspring culture clash (OCC) didn’t make it obvious, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is based on the writer and star, Nia Vardalos’ own life, and it’s all true, she tells Andrew L. Urban. For the audience it’s funny - because it’s happening to someone else.

Originally a one woman show, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the funny side of pain – the pain of having your family faint when you fall for a man (in this case) who is of a different ethnic/cultural background. 

Toula (Nia Vardalos) is 30, unmarried and is destined to work in the family business at Dancing Zorba’s, the Greek restaurant owned by her parents Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan). But Toula is intent on changing her life and takes a job at her aunt’s (Andrea Martin) travel agency, meets a handsome, tall, high school teacher Ian Miller (John Corbett) and falls in love. But what will upset her parents more – the fact that Ian is not Greek, or that he’s a vegetarian?

"I had a bruise on my chin from my mouth hanging open"

How did it feel – for a person used to theatre like Nia Vardalos – to see a part of her life on a giant screen? “Oh god, the first time I saw it I had a bruise on my chin from my mouth hanging open the entire time. It was so visually spectacular I was afraid I was dreaming and had mad the whole thing up.”

But at that stage, still with no distributor on board, Vardalos didn’t know what was going to happen to the film. “I wasn’t sure if it would just be shown in church basements across America for the rest of my life . . . but I had such an enormous feeling of satisfaction that it was shot and pieced together. It was the greatest feeling of satisfaction that Rita and I had pulled off this miracle.”

That’s Rita Wilson a Greek American (and also Mrs Tom Hanks) who had “come to see the live show and she waited for me in the lobby because the theatre was so small there was no backstage. And we instantly connected. We met, we shook hands, and then we hugged and we just started rattling off stories about growing up Greek, laughing our heads off. We talked for about an hour.”

Rita sent Tom to see “the very next show; they read the screenplay and then Tom rang and spoke about a company that he and a partner were just forming, and they wanted this to be their first feature. Then they set about trying to find independent finance because none of the studios would be interested in a movie with an unknown screenwriter and an unknown lead. So it took about a year to raise the finance, which was good because I needed time to get the script in shape.”

The jump from a local theatre to a movie produced by Mr and Mrs Hanks ”was a leap across the biggest crevice I’ve ever seen in my life,” she says. 

Ian Gomez, Vardalos’ real husband, is the model for Ian Miller in the film. “My husband Ian is one of those Americans who didn’t retain his ethnicity. He comes from a very reserved, genteel, quiet family and is the only child of only child parents. So I chose to change his name in the film to Miller to make it all the more clear how great was this incredible culture clash when our families met. But Ian’s family never made me feel unwelcome… there was certainly bewilderment,” she says with a laugh.

“I’d say 100 per cent is based in truth but then I spun off into comedic exaggeration sometimes. Other times the more bizarre elements are true.” There are minor adjustments, though, such as the setting of the wedding, which in real life took place in Vardalos’ Canadian home town of Winnipeg, not Chicago as in the film, but that was just a switch to make the story clearer. “We met and fell in love in Chicago, but we got married in Canada.”

"I think it’s important to always have an outside eye for better perspective."

Vardalos never contemplated directing the film herself. “No, actually…I’m an egomaniac but not that much so. I think it’s important to always have an outside eye for better perspective. When I was at Second City theatre in Chicago there were six of us creating the material but we always had one director who was not in the show. Because that one person can tell you when things are not going right.”

The Vardalos career path has dramatically changed since the film’s fantastically successful release (by early October it had grossed almost US$150 million in America).

“The same physicality that once prevented me from getting roles – being that I’m not a skinny blonde and I’m not Hispanic either – is now suddenly the new chic thing,” she says with a laugh. “Now if I can pull it off, I’d like to do both movies and theatre, and maybe with luck even a Broadway musical…I’d be the happiest girl on earth.”

Published October 24, 2002

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