Feature: A big fat Hollywood success story

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporer  |  Dec. 12, 2002 at 9:00 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- With a big fat certified hit virtually securing her future in Hollywood, Nia Vardalos -- the writer and star of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- has decided what to do for an encore.

Vardalos will develop and star in a half-hour comedy for CBS based on the movie. She is also moving ahead with plans to executive produce and star "Connie and Carla Do L.A." -- a buddy story about a couple of musical comedy dinner theater performers who witness a crime and are forced to go into hiding in Los Angeles to save their skins. They disguise themselves as drag queens.

No co-star has been chosen but Vardalos will almost certainly be involved in the selection, as well as many other creative decisions on the project, given the degree of clout she has acquired by virtue of the phenomenal marketplace performance of "Greek Wedding."

Speaking recently at a Harold Lloyd Master Seminar for the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles, Vardalos talk expansively about the life-changing success of her breakthrough movie. In down-to-earth tones, Vardalos described the process of bringing "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" to the screen with the help of actress Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks, and Hanks' Playtone Productions partner, Gary Goetzman.

Although it seemed as though Vardalos came out of nowhere with the movie, she actually brought a considerable amount of experience to the project -- including a hitch with The Second City Comedy Theater in Toronto and Chicago and guest-starring appearances on such prime time comedies as "The Drew Carey Show" and "Two Guys and a Girl."

Vardalos came to Los Angeles in the mid-'90s with her husband, Ian Gomez, an actor who has guest-starred on "The Drew Carey Show" and "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" and appeared in movies including "Edtv." Her experience in Hollywood included its share of disappointments, as she and her husband went through their savings in relatively short order.

"We were stunned by how expensive everything was," she said.

But that wasn't the worst of it. Although Vardalos managed to get a reputable agent, she said she was disappointed when the agent told her not to tell people she is Greek, because the agent supposed she wouldn't be employable.

"'I'll tell you what,'" she recalled the agent telling her, "'we'll tell them you're Puerto Rican.'"

Vardalos left that agent.

Eventually, as she looked for work, Vardalos said a friend suggested she write a comedy based on the stories she was always telling about her family. She said the project lifted her spirits.

"It was a great feeling of connection after feeling so silent for so long in this city," she said.

Hollywood literary agents did not see it that way.

"They all said it's not good; it's not funny," said Vardalos. "Nobody wants to see a movie about Greeks."

Taking matters into her own hands, Vardalos rented a theater and staged her now-famous one-woman show -- passing out flyers for the production at her church.

"The Greeks came, and they came back a week later with their non-Greek friends," she said.

Although she had sent out a mailer inviting talent agents to see her showcase production, Vardalos said none came. Still, she was playing to sold-out houses and enjoying a financial reward for her effort.

And of course, by now, the story is well told how Wilson decided one day to go see more theater in Los Angeles, took in the show, and loved it so much that she and Hanks decided to make the movie.

"(Wilson) laughed so hard I almost had to call security," said Vardalos -- who had something of a last laugh herself when Hanks bought the exact draft of the screenplay that every agent in town had rejected.

With Hanks on board, studios became interested in making the movie, but even then Vardalos said every studio that looked at the project passed.

"'Love the script. Lose the girl,'" said Vardalos. "Tom and Gary and Rita said no. They were ridiculously, uncommonly nice to me. Rita and Tom are people who have managed to maintain their integrity in this cesspool of a city."

Even HBO, which helped finance the production, "just put up the money to maintain their relationship with Tom and Gary," according to Vardalos. Hanks had brought HBO some of its most successful miniseries, including the Emmy-winning "From the Earth to the Moon" and "Band of Brothers."

Based on the reviews, there was no way to know when "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" opened that it would become the fifth top-grossing movie of 2002 and reach as high as No. 39 on the list of all-time U.S. blockbusters.

Daily Variety called it "familiar and sitcom broad" and said it would not be able to "count on stellar reviews to draw crossover audiences." The Hollywood Reporter called it "a slight but agreeable comedy" and the Los Angeles Times said it was "as overbearing and over-the-top as the family it depicts."

But Rolling Stone said it was "heartfelt and hilarious in ways you can't fake" and the San Francisco Chronicle called it "a buoyant comedy with more warmth and generosity of spirit than anything else in theaters right now."

Vardalos said she got what she called a sense of "peace and completion" about the movie when it was booked into 100 theaters. When it grossed $5 million, she thought it was good that the movie made back its budget.

The grosses climbed higher -- eventually breaking the record for an independent movie, $149.5 million ("The Blair Witch Project," 1999). Heading into its 34th weekend in release, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" has grossed more than $213.3 million.

"All I wanted to be was a working actor, so this is beyond my wildest dreams," said Vardalos -- who insisted she will use her newfound status as a player in Hollywood "for good, not evil ... so that people who have a story to tell don't give up."

The Harold Lloyd Master Seminar series brings accomplished filmmakers together with AFI Conservatory students -- called fellows -- to talk about their work. The 2001-02 series has featured Hanks, "Spider-Man" producer Laura Ziskin, David Lynch and Baz Luhrmann. Past seminars have featured Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, Charlton Heston, Jack Nicholson, Sidney Poitier and Steven Spielberg.

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