A big, fat new adventure for actress Nia Vardalos

April 12, 2004|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Nia Vardalos will move on from My Big Fat Greek Wedding the way a mobster leaves the Mafia. It will never quite happen.

As the writer and star of the second-most successful independent movie ever - $230 million gross and counting (behind only The Passion of the Christ) - Vardalos will gladly deal with being one of the few in Hollywood to capture lightning in a bottle. She does not hesitate to refer to the film, even while she's promoting her new movie, Connie and Carla, which opens Friday.

Asked when the hubbub eased, she replies, "It hasn't. I took two weeks off this summer. It was supposed to be two months. I rented a beach house. ... I just tried to be free and just think, absorb what happened. And in increments, I've actually had a bit of perspective on it."

The aftermath was not all a big, fat success. My Big Fat Greek Life, the TV spinoff starring Vardalos, did not last a season. And the surprisingly huge profits from the film triggered not-so-unexpected lawsuits by those seeking a bigger slice of the pie.

Still, a $5 million independent movie has probably never bought a writer-actress so much influence in the major-studio world. Universal did not change a word of Connie and Carla, Vardalos says.

Vardalos and Toni Collette play dinner-theater chanteuses who run afoul of the Russian mob in Chicago and hightail it to Los Angeles. They continue their singing careers by pretending to be drag queens in a West Hollywood stage bar.

Vardalos, a 41-year-old Winnipeg, Manitoba, native who's a veteran of Toronto and Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, has always loved dinner theater. She learned about the gay scene for the film.

"I hope the audience from My Big Fat Greek Wedding knows I respect them too much to write the same movie twice," she says. "It's the same family values; it's the same acceptance of people who're different than us. The first time was Greek; the second time is drag queens. Pursue your dreams. You only have one life."

Rita Wilson and husband, Tom Hanks, are again her producers. When they got involved in the first film, they generated a tale of Hollywood kismet that will be retold as if it were a fairy tale.

After reading an article on Vardalos' one-woman show about her Greek family and her marriage to a non-Greek, Wilson, also Greek and married to a non-Greek, checked out Vardalos' performance one night. The two met afterward, and Wilson remarked that it would make a fun movie. Vardalos shoved her finished script into Wilson's hand.

Vardalos' life was instantly transformed. She was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar. She was mobbed in shopping malls. One time, her husband, Second City and Drew Carey alum Ian Gomez, chased a man who pinched her derriere.

Her full figure also changed (as evidenced in Connie and Carla) but not under pressure by directors.

"I started running every morning because once the movie started taking off, my phone would explode," she says. "In a 36-hour span, I hosted Saturday Night Live and was in France for a photo shoot. I'd run to clear my head, and that's the only reason that my body has changed shape a little bit. But trust me, I love my curves."

Vardalos is warm and chirpy over the phone. The actress says she was "disappointed but not beaten up" over the cancellation of the sitcom.

"There's no scoop there," she says. "It just got rushed onto the air. There wasn't time for me to write it. That's it. I had to act. I was trying to be in the writer's room but I had to be on the soundstage. ... The poor writers, they tried their best. They just weren't familiar with the characters."

She considers it professional validation that she sold Connie and Carla to Universal before My Big Fat Greek Wedding began snowballing.

Vardalos and a friend plan to check out L.A.-area theaters Friday to hear the laughter, as she did when her first film opened to far less publicity. She has no expectations. Who could top what she did the first time around anyway?

"I don't think anything should ever try," she says. "It lived by itself. It's its own special thing."

It overwhelmed her at times, but Vardalos discusses any discomfort with the utmost of diplomacy, mindful that she grabbed the show-business version of the Holy Grail: a small movie that refused to close.

"I never complained, because I was living what I wished for," she says.

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