NEW YORK – She performed in the Greek folk dance group and went to Greek school. Her mom was the president of the parish Philoptochos chapter. iWhen the original was released in 2002 it seemed that Greeks born in America laughed just a bit more than those from across the pond, but the movie also had a strong human touch in addition to the comedic, reflecting Vardalos’ deep love for her family and passion about her Greek roots.
As for the blockbuster movie’s sequel, which opens in New York on March 25 – buckle up, Toula and Ian and the Portokalos and Miller clans are back, and it’s going to be another bumpy but funny ride.
The first movie’s classic lines like “O Nikos ehi ena katsiki – Niko has a goat” reflected the ridiculousness that was foisted upon us, but the immigrant experience itself, whether we are Greek or Italian, Jewish of Russian, there is something about it that makes us funny,” she told The National Herald.
“We have a foot in both worlds,” she explained further, but not all immigrants’ children create blockbuster movies, so TNH persisted about what made her so funny.
“My dad is more of a storyteller funny, and my mom is more wry funny – she has a keen eye and she’ll just observe something and say something,” she said.
“And I think Greek school made us funny,” she said, noting that her teacher’s “sideburns like brizoles” – lamp chops – “made us laugh.”
WHICH ONE OF YOU IS NICK?
Among her three siblings are two sisters, Maryanne the elder and Nancy the younger. “Surprise, surprise,” TNH interrupted: “You’re the middle child!”
“Right!” she responded. “Now does everything make sense?”
“And guess what my brother’s name is?” – drum roll: “Nick!”
The hilarious scenes in the movie were not so delightful when she experienced them as a child being raised by her mother Doreen, a bookkeeper and homemaker, and Constantine “Gus” Vardalos, a land developer.
“I remember opening a container of feta cheese at school and the entire lunchroom recoiling in horror at the smell…I remember just being confused that they would get a boloney sandwich and I would get a Tupperware of moussaka.”
And like many Greek immigrants’ children, resentment began to creep into her consciousness. “I resented being othered, and not having to go to Greek school when they could go to volleyball practice…I would rebel against going to Greek school and the dance group.”
“And now, I am so grateful for it. It also made me funny, and yes, I do send my daughter to Greek school.”
She told her father she wanted to do musical theater and be an actress. “Good. Fine. You can be a teacher and teach acting,” he said.
Asked if she was drawn at all to teaching, Vardalos said “I was drawn to theater at such an early age” but Vardalis said she can’t really explain why.
“I was always the class clown. My mom would say to me from another room ‘Nia, you don’t have th be the loudest person at the party.”
“I saw The Sound of Music when our parents took us to the local dinner theater and I was mesmerized and from five, six, seven years old I would say, over and over, ‘I’m going to be an actor.’”
PAYING YOUR DUES PAYS OFF
She doesn’t tell many people – no one’s career begins with a Nobel prize – but she began with a local TV show called Let’s Go!
“It was a low-rent version of The Electric Company when I was 11 and 12, and then the harsh reality hit us – we were let go when puberty set in.”
When she realized “cute” has a short shelf life in the entertainment business, Vardalos worked hard to develop her acting talent. She did high school theater and among the things she learned was how to survive tough crowds.
“We went to a local old age home and they were just not amused. They had stone-faced expressions. It was the first time I experienced dying on stage.”
She never did standup comedy, but she values her time doing sketch comedy at the Second City – the source of so much Saturday Night Live talent.
She was in her early twenties and that’s when she started writing, and her creative principles are founded on her Second City improvisation experiences.
“I responded to the story tellers. They were insightful and really had something to say. Like Chris Rock. After SNL he went out on the road and formed his opinions and that’s why we love him so much,” she said.
“I don’t outline or card out a story. I write through improvisation and play all the characters out loud” she said with slight embarrassment. “I listen to the voices, try to have conflict and have everyone make sense. Everyone must have a valid point of view – that’s why there are no villains in my screenplays.”
The best comedians are in tune with their societies.
“I got my citizenship in the United States so I can vote and I try to keep my eyes and ears open on social issues. My sister Marianne has her doctorate in sociology…it was a common discussion at family dinners – what’s going on in the world.”
She majored in theater, English, and stagecraft. She loves the fact that Ryerson University in Toronto made them learn to make scenery. “You don’t know what can happen. Backstage, onstage, you should know” how to do all the practical things. “
I responded to that work ethic because that’s how I was raised. I’m the child of immigrant parents and you work hard.”
She got into Second City in Canada that way. “I had auditioned three times but didn’t get hired. I took a job in the office because they told me I could take classes for free if I worked there.”
She watched every night and a month after she started a woman got sick and they could not find her understudy.
“I walked backstage and said ‘I know your show’ and they put me on.”
old that reminded of the Greek-American experience where at church festivals, doctors, lawyers, teachers make souvlaki and loukoumades, she replied “I love that, that beautiful sense of community we grew up with, I search for it in every faced of my life. I love to be surrounded by loving people who work hard and don’t put on airs.”
“And if they do” TNH asked. “I write about them.”
When the conversation turned to the presidential campaign she said, “It’s a good source of comedy isn’t it? All of it. What a circus!”
The topic of the Greek crisis elicited a sigh, however, but Vardalos does not have a heart for criticizing the homeland. “I’m completely on the side of Greece at all times. I blame Merkel. I believe she wanted to make an example of Tsipras and it’s not fair, but I believe the Greek spirit will prevail.”
She visits every summer and island hopping is her favorite thing to do. “Every single Island is a unique experience. That’s what I love about it.”
Her daughter Ilaria is almost 11, and TNH asked how funny she is.
“This kid is so naturally funny. She came this way.
“You have to be humble with kids because they see things and they tease you and it really is a funny experience for me and Ian and me” – her husband Ian Gomez.
Asked for some stories, Vardalos explained that she consciously protects her daughter’s privacy. She also does not want to reveal more than what she presents in her book, Instant Mom, because she donates all its proceeds to the cause of getting kids adopted.
When she told Gomez, who is an actor – he played the role of Ian’s best man Mike in the first movie – she wanted him to be in the sequel, he was very busy in other acting projects but he said “you know I would really like to play a cop.”
Vardalos was flummoxed at first, but then she thought “people’s careers change.”
PUSH THE ENVELOPE
She will be in a TV series next year for EPIX with Nick Nolte and Sela Ward, but she is also developing an Off Broadway play that will open in 2017. The title can’t be revealed yet but she said “It’s a very dramatic piece about grief and mourning…I didn’t write it, but I got to play a completely different role of a savvy political consultant.”
Vardalos explained, “It’s very important to stretch and grow and try things that terrify me and keep trying things that are outside my comfort zones.” That’s why she does things like appear in Law and Order SVU.
The award-winning comedienne is drawn to dramatic roles, but she noted it’s difficult to find good roles for women. “That’s why I write very strong roles for strong roles for strong actresses like Lanie Kazan and Andrea Martin. If Sandra Bullock is having a hard time finding roles, imagine what It’s like for the rest of us.”
Some other universes face a laughter deficit because in those she is a paleontologist. “I like dinosaurs and rocks, and the study of old worlds. On a British talk show I got to hold a rock from Mars,” she said excitedly. “I also love anything about space. I’m fascinated by the final frontier. I might have gone that way – and she might still do that in her literary and acting lives this universe. “If a role like Gravity came my way I would grab it.”