Like any good, never-toot-your-own-horn Canadian, Nia Vardalos has always been loath to discuss her long-standing friendship with mentor Tom "the-most-beloved-man-in-Hollywood" Hanks.
Since they met over a decade ago, the two have collaborated on several projects – the most high-profile being Vardalos's 2002 sleeper hit movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which was made for a paltry $5-million (U.S.) and went on to gross $369-million worldwide. (The story goes that Hanks's wife saw Vardalos's play by the same name and suggested they produce it. When Hanks first called, Vardalos hung up on him, convinced it must be a prank.)
While the pair has kept in close touch since, Vardalos has stayed mum on the topic of Mr. Tom Hanks. But now, having co-written the new romantic comedy Larry Crowne with the two-time Oscar winner, the Winnipeg native says she finds herself in the awkward position of having to break her cone of silence (a bit) and dish some details on her famous friend, who also stars in and directs the film.
"For years, I felt sick to my stomach talking about our relationship," says Vardalos, who also teamed up with Hanks's Playtone Co. for 2009's My Life in Ruins and the short-lived TV sitcom, My Big Fat Greek Life.
"As a Winnipegger, we don't name-drop. It's just not in our makeup. So for years, I'd be coy about discussing Tom. Now it's so odd because I have to talk about [our relationship] since we wrote the script together," says the vivacious 48-year-old actor and former Second City ensemble member.
What seems to have brought Hanks and Vardalos together is that they are true kindred spirits in their low-key, hard-working approach to high-profile Hollywood careers.
"I'm an innately optimistic person, and Tom is like that as well. He's an empathetic guy and it shows in the script. Tom's had the idea for Larry Crowne in his head for a long time, and we set out to discover what a person would do if he suddenly lost his job, and his prospects were bleak. Tom's so in touch with what's happening in the world globally, and with the economy. He brings a common man's touch to a hard-knocks story. And he's the perfect person to pen a script like this because he truly is an average guy. He doesn't live in a big castle. He's such a normal person."
In the works for six years, Larry Crowne is a heart-warming (although so far, critics' hearts have been cold) story about a 50-year-old guy who, through no fault of his own, is downsized and has to reinvent himself. Vardalos, who estimates she and Hanks churned out 40 versions of the script, says the character of Crowne was a constant work in progress. He starts out as a family man, and ends up single, forced to sell his house and car and go back to college. There, he meets the comely but disillusioned teacher Mercedes Tainot, played by Hanks's other frequent collaborator, Julia Roberts.
"Initially, Tom didn't think it feasible that Larry, who drives a scooter and works part-time in a diner, could get the girl," chuckles Vardalos. "But I basically said, 'Forgive me, but I'm the audience, and I'd like to see the two of you kiss, so there.' "
Vardalos, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 18 years, New York-born actor Ian Gomez, and a six-year-old daughter, adopted in 2008, claims she landed this latest writing gig largely because of her impetuous labrador, Manny.
"I was talking on the phone to [Hanks's producing partner] Gary Goetzman about My Life in Ruins, and he invited me in for lunch. I packed up Manny, and when we pulled up to Playtone, he raced into the office and started running everywhere, peeing on everything," she laughs. "Tom was in his office with his agent, running through a list of potential writers for Larry Crowne when Manny burst in. And in that It Girl moment, he said: 'Nia, do you want to write a movie with me?' I love that mutt."
But the Ryerson University grad admits that writing does not come easily to her. "It's so lonely, and daunting. I normally hate it, because I feel like a fraud. But I loved writing with Tom. I loved how disciplined he was, how engaged, diligent and focused. He wanted to create an adult story that wasn't a downer but hopeful."
To shape the storyline, Vardalos says she tapped into her working-class roots – her Greek-Canadian parents pushed her to get her first job, at 16, stacking shelves at the Zellers in Winnipeg's Polo Park Mall. "I still have my Zellers badge, because when you have an unusual handle like mine you don't often get a lot of things with your name on it," she says. At university in Toronto, she made ends meet by working at a tiny florist shop on Gerrard Street. And when she moved to Chicago to join Second City, she sold T-shirts in the lobby to make rent.
"My parents [her bookkeeper/homemaker mother and land-developer father] taught me to work, and I have friends – whose careers are at different stages – who still hold down several jobs. Larry Crowne is not too proud to scramble eggs and flip pancakes at a local diner, and believe it or not, if all this went away tomorrow, I'd be quite content to go back to the wonderful world of floral designing."
The cast of Larry Crowne is jam-packed with Hanks's friends, including his bestie Roberts, his wife Rita (who has a cameo), Vardalos's husband (another cameo), as well as Barry Sobel, newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Cedric the Entertainer. Vardalos, too, has a bit part in the film as the voice of Robert's GPS. "I love that it's the part that's harassing Julia," she says.
Vardalos says she and Hanks wrote the role of the dissatisfied, rum-swilling college professor Mercedes with 43-year-old Roberts in mind. "We always hoped we were writing for her. Tom wanted a character with depths and edges to her. He sent her the script, and she said something like she couldn't stop smiling through it."
The actress makes no apologies for writing a film that is simple, feel-good fare. "Tom and I are both optimists, so it just fit." But she adds that her next feature is going to a less sunny place. "I'm writing an R-rated film about the world of motivational speakers [with Larry Crowne cast mate Rob Riggle]. I want to push myself in a different direction. I want to be fearless and see if I can do it."
As for whether there will be future collaborations with her buddy Hanks, Vardalos resets quickly to coy. "We rescued a dog on the street about a year ago, and our daughter has christened him Louie Salvadore Dominick Bagel Vardalos Gomez," she says. "So maybe I'll head back to Playtone, with Louie this time, and see if he can work the same magic Manny did.
"Tom and I came out of Larry Crowne better friends than when we went in," she adds. "I'm proud of our relationship, but after this movie, I plan to shut up about him again."