It's a very Hollywood moment, mid-morning, sometime in early 1998, when the phone rings in Nia Vardalos's Los Angeles apartment.
Her husband, actor Ian Gomez ( Felicity, Norm), isn't home, and Vardalos is in her sweatpants and a T-shirt, puffing on a treadmill. Her hair is a mess, twisted like a piece of wrung-out laundry and plopped on top of her head. She's waiting to hear from a friend about where to meet for brunch. She grabs the phone. Barks hello.
"Hi Nia. It's Tom Hanks," says Tom Hanks.
"Oh shut up, would ya?" Vardalos replies crossly as she keeps her pace on the treadmill. For two months now, ever since Hanks came to see her one-woman show, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, her friends have been phoning her, pretending to be Hanks. She's fed up with the prank.
"No, really," insists Hanks. "It's Tom Hanks."
Vardalos stops dead. "Oh, yes, hi Tom," she says sweetly, mustering all the girlish nonchalance she can.
That was The Call, Her Big Fat Hollywood Call, that just over two years later has brought Vardalos here, talking over coffee in Toronto's Sutton Place Hotel, all fired up and spilling her story, as though she still can't quite believe it herself.
The Playtone Company, which Hanks owns with his wife, actress Rita Wilson, and producer Gary Goetzman ( Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs), purchased Vardalos's screenplay adaptation of her autobiographical play about a young Greek woman who falls in love with a non-Greek man. The character's family is huge, loving and a little overbearing, but eventually they accept the fiancé after he learns to appreciate spanakopita (spinach pie), among other things, and agrees to full-immersion baptism in a Greek Orthodox church.
It's the first independent film project for Hanks's company. Vardalos stars in the lead as Toula Portokalos. They're filming in Toronto for the next six weeks. The budget is $11-million (U.S.).
"I know this is crazy," says Vardalos, "but sometimes I think I've had a terrible car accident, and this is the dream I'm having in my coma!"
Hollywood works like that. It's beautifully, ruthlessly fast. You can have overnight success. Then you're always worried about overnight failure. But Vardalos is a practical Prairie girl, from Winnipeg, which she figures makes her both more suspicious of good fortune, and resilient to the ups and downs.
"We see stuff happen," she says, squinting her eyes, thinking of tornadoes or floods or something. And she's Greek, which makes her passionate and principled, she laughs. That's why she won't tell me how much Hanks bought her screenplay for. That's why she wouldn't live with her boyfriend before she married him. "Good Greek girls don't do that," she says.
She talks with the confidence of someone who comes from a stable, supportive family. She is the second-youngest of four children in a comfortably middle-class family. Her father, a first-generation Greek, started as a mechanic and now leases cars and owns some commercial property. Her favourite childhood memory is of her mother calling good-naturedly from the next room: "Niiiaaaa, you don't have to be the loudest in the family!" She has 27 first cousins.
Riffs on Hollywood life -- the cult of celebrity, which she considers ridiculous, or the pressure to be thin -- reveal a rock-solid personality. "I am not a Hollywood thin girl. And I refuse to look like that in this movie. I have hips! I have a butt! I'm Greek!" She is mature in age as well -- in her 30s. ("In Hollywood, every actress is supposed to be between 28 and 32.") And she's had success before. Just not this big.
Her life has had many turnaround moments. This latest one she credits to Rita Wilson. "She's my fairy godsister," says Vardalos, dressed in Cinderella clothes: baggy black-cotton pants, a red sweatshirt and flipflops. Her hair is piled on top of her head, as tousled as the end of a mop, and she's wearing thick glasses. "My goggles," she says. "I have the worst eyes in show biz."
It was Wilson who first came to Vardalos's one-woman show, which she and her husband self-financed in 1997. Wilson is also Greek. After the show, she went backstage, and told Vardalos she loved the production. Vardalos had been nervous that night on stage.
She knew Wilson was in the audience because she was also the one taking reservations in the box office during the week. They were on a shoestring budget, with only one performance a week, and Vardalos had been handing out flyers in her local Greek Orthodox church. The next week, she took another reservation: Hanks wanted five tickets, two for his children and two for his wife's father and brother.
The night Hanks came, she peeked through a crack in the curtain during the applause at the end. If Tom is still clapping, I'll go out for a second bow, she thought. He was on his feet, leading the standing ovation. But he didn't come backstage. He wrote a letter the next day, explaining he couldn't stay because his daughter had school the next morning. There was no hint of his interest in the screenplay, which Vardalos had already written and mentioned to Wilson. He was in the process of forming Playtone, and made no commitments.
Wilson, meanwhile, offered to put her name to the play. Vardalos's manager, Rick Siegel, put up $20,000. They moved to a larger theatre, The Globe in West Hollywood, made a better set, bumped up the ticket price by $5, did five shows a week. The advertisement read "Rita Wilson Presents," which brought in the press and Hollywood executives. The six-week run turned into a four-month engagement.
In 1998, Vardalos was nominated for an Ovation Award for the best world premiere of a play. She fielded offers from film companies. One wanted to make the story about Hispanic-Americans. She walked out of the office. She also knew that if she sold to a big studio, she'd be out as screenwriter and lead actress "in a heartbeat."
"They would not have backed a project with an unknown, and it's such a great part for a female that they would have grabbed Julia Roberts and put her in a brown wig and called her Greek and I would have wept."
Hanks and Wilson, along with Goetzman, listened closely to Vardalos. "They knew it was about my family and that it was from my heart."
For years, people had been telling her to write something about her family. At parties, she'd talk about the time her cousins had an announcement read at the Winnipeg airport, paging "Sue Vlaki," as in souvlaki, when one of the family was leaving on a trip. Then there's her father, who always points out the Greek root, real and imagined, of just about every word in the English language.
But it wasn't until she moved to Los Angeles that she tried to make something of the material. In 1995, two years after they were married, Vardalos and Gomez, an American of Jewish Puerto Rican heritage, moved to L.A. from Chicago where they had met, working for the comedy troupe Second City.
In Los Angeles, Vardalos would be sent out for Hispanic roles, because of her name and dark features, only to lose out to Hispanic actors. "I thought, there's nothing Greek. So instead of whining about it, I wrote something."
She set the play in Winnipeg but the L.A. audience didn't know it well enough, so she changed it to Chicago. She also made the Ian character "more white bread," because "people were, like, 'What's the problem? Jewish, Greek -- both the same.' "
Vardalos talks about herself as though she's a comically flawed character in the story of her life. "I'm so not cool. I see myself as a loser type," she begins, laughing. Really? Her face fills with the delight of untold stories, which then tumble out, exuberant as children. Imagine, her hands say, waving about in the air, and I, too, begin to see the movie in her head.
Our heroine arrives at Playtone for a meeting -- ambitious Prairie girl, doing the cool L.A. thing, shades on, driving her car in car city. Just before she goes in, she looks in the rear-view mirror. Yikes! She has a poppy seed the size of a planet stuck in her teeth. There is nothing but the joy of storytelling in her voice. She moves seamlessly from being an interview subject to chatting like a girlfriend, about the facials and massages she is getting in preparation for the shoot, about working with Hollywood heavy hitters. "Sometimes, Tom says my name," she confesses girlishly, "and I just hear white noise, 'cause all I can think is, omigod, he knows my name!"
The greatest dramatic and comedic moment in the movie of her life was in 1989, when a sudden, brief illness of Deborah McGrath, a Toronto Second City performer, changed Vardalos's life. Vardalos was working in the box office that night. She had quit the drama program at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnic two years into a three-year course. ("I had no interest in Shakespeare, and I didn't want to be the third sword carrier at Stratford.") She wanted to do comedy at Second City, but hadn't been accepted.
On this night, the manager rushed into the box office, desperate to locate McGrath's understudies. Both were unavailable. In 15 minutes, the curtain would go up. "I'm a member of Equity, and I think I know your show," Vardalos blurted out, standing in her sweatpants, T-shirt and Coke-bottle-end glasses. They phoned Chicago head office to get approval. She was on. The next day, they hired her.
Is she nervous about starring in her own movie? "It's not pressure. It's an opportunity," she insists. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is every immigrant's story, she explains with shy confidence. "As an immigrant, you first try to escape from your ethnicity to assimilate into Canadian culture and then you end up embracing it so hard because it is what defines you as a person."
Just before she gets up to leave, she touches the corner of one eye. "I've suddenly got one of those twitches in my eye," she confides. "Nerves," I say.
She laughs. Welcome to one more loser moment, she must be thinking: The big shoot is about to begin, and the star has one eyelid that's got a mind of its own.