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Greek Bearing Riffs

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former agent once told Nia Vardalos she would never make it as an actress in Hollywood because she wasn’t pretty enough to be a star and wasn’t fat enough for character roles.

So, after two years of doing voice-overs for commercials like Tide detergent and Home Depot and constantly being mistaken for Latina or Italian, Vardalos, a Canadian of Greek descent, decided to take matters into her own hands. She wrote and starred in a one-woman stage act rooted in something close to her heart: Greek families, where fathers believe Windex is a cure-all for every malady, grandmothers believe Turks are out to kidnap them, and daughters are expected to marry nice Greek boys in the Orthodox church and have babies instead of careers.

Today, the 32-year-old Vardalos has parlayed the humorous tales and idiosyncratic characters she remembers growing up in Winnipeg’s Greek Town into a screenplay and starring role in a movie called “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

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What’s more, her producers include actress Rita Wilson, who is half-Greek, and Wilson’s mega-star husband, Tom Hanks. But even with that kind of clout it’s been an uphill battle to bring Vardalos’ story to the screen.

Wilson, who with this film takes the reins as a producer for the first time, said she had to fight to get the movie made because no one wanted to go with an unknown actress in the lead role.

“When we pitched it at the studios, they said they liked the idea but didn’t want Nia to star in it,” Wilson said. “But I felt strongly it should be her. As a woman, I feel women get the shaft all the time. You do the play and then they cast someone else. You’re not a big star and, therefore, they won’t even look at you.”

Vardalos’ story is a familiar one in star-obsessed Hollywood, where unknown actors repeatedly have doors slammed in their faces unless they happen to get noticed by someone with power who isn’t afraid of taking risks.

“I couldn’t get a job,” Vardalos said. “I had a lousy agent, and then I realized that everybody [who is unknown] has one.”

How bad was it?

“I had given my agent 100 [head shots] and when she finally dropped me, I went to pick up my pictures and there were 98 there!” Vardalos said. “I wanted to shake her and say, ‘I want my two years back!’”

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Wilson and Hanks

Come to Vardalos’ Show

In a weird way, however, those lost years served to propel Vardalos to make decisions that would secure her breakthrough.

This Friday IFC Films will release “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” in nine U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, and Vardalos invited 50 family members to the L.A. premiere. The film, which was shot in Toronto, was produced by Gold Circle Films and Hanks’ production company, Playtone Co.

For Vardalos, life hasn’t really been the same since late 1997, when Wilson, wondering why more attention was not being paid to the L.A. stage scene, happened to scan the theater ads in a newspaper one day and came across an intriguing-sounding show called “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” that was running at the Acme Comedy Theatre on La Brea Avenue.

Wilson said she was “completely floored” by Vardalos’ comic routine. “Not only did it remind me of my life and my family--part of whom were with me--but I just loved Nia,” Wilson said. “My mother is Greek and my father is Bulgarian. I am a first-generation American and native Los Angeleno. I was born and raised in Hollywood. I would go to school and be American and then come home and be Greek. That is why I related to this story on so many levels.”

Wilson met Vardalos after the show and learned that she had written a screenplay based on the same material. At his wife’s urging, Hanks later took in the show, and it was an evening that Vardalos will never forget.

“For the first 10 seconds of the show, I couldn’t see any faces in the audience because all the heads were turned to them,” Vardalos said. “I could just see a sea of ears. Then he laughed at the first joke and you could almost hear the audience say, ‘Oh, it’s going to be all right’ and then they all turned and looked at me. I almost wanted to say on the 11th second, ‘Yes, I know!’”

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Vardalos is the first to admit that she owes much of that newfound success to her Greek family, from father Gus (the name of the father in the movie) and mother Doreen to grandmothers Antonia and Eugenia (hence the name Nia), and 27 first cousins and other relatives whose lives provided her with a rich trove of comic material.

“I have friends who are way more talented than me,” Vardalos said, “but they don’t have a Greek family that they can milk for material. My mom would say things to me like, ‘Greek women may be lambs in the kitchen, but we’re tigers in the bedroom!’ I would go to a party that night and I would say that line and it would kill. Everybody would laugh so hard. And I said, ‘There is something here.’”

In a recent interview at a tony Hollywood restaurant, where she limits her order to iced tea, Vardalos displays the high-octane confidence and darting wit one would expect from a comedian honed on six years of performing with Second City in Toronto and Chicago.

With a broad smile, throaty laugh and an oversupply of hair piled in swirls atop her head, she is a commanding presence even at 5 feet 6, and the jokes she serves up are as plentiful as plates of olives and feta cheese at a Greek restaurant.

In the film, directed by Joel Zwick (who directed Hanks in the early ‘80s sitcom “Bosom Buddies”), Vardalos plays Toula Portokalos, a frumpy, bespectacled, unmarried woman of 30 working the counter at her parents’ Chicago-area restaurant, Dancing Zorba’s. Michael Constantine plays her dad, Gus, while Lainie Kazan is her mom, Maria. Rounding out the cast are John Corbett (“Sex and the City”), who plays Toula’s handsome, non-Greek love interest, Ian; Gia Carides as her big-haired, busty cousin Nikki; Joey Fatone of ‘N Sync fame as cousin Angelo; and Andrea Martin as Aunt Voula. Vardalos’ husband, Ian Gomez (“Felicity”), is also in the film.

As the movie opens, Toula is riding in a car driven by her dad staring out at the rain.

“You better get married soon,” he bluntly tells his daughter. “You’re starting to look old.”

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Toula takes the slight in stride. After all, as she explains in her narration: “My dad has been saying that to me since I was 15, because nice Greek girls are supposed to do three things in life--marry Greek boys, make Greek babies and feed everyone until the day we die.” Toula says she always knew growing up she was different because “the other girls were blond and delicate and I was a 46-year-old with sideburns.”

The Portokalos family lives in a tasteful, middle-class neighborhood in Chicago’s Greek Town, where their home is decorated with Corinthian columns, Greek statuary on the lawn and a giant Greek flag emblazoned across the garage door.

What follows is a sendup of nearly everything Greek, from bridesmaids wearing turquoise gowns to a sea of loud-talking, backslapping Greek relatives swarming around the groom’s tidy, quiet and slightly frightened WASPish parents.

Vardalos said her first break in acting came while working in the box office at Toronto’s Second City, when one of the actresses got sick one night and they couldn’t locate her understudy.

“So, I just thought, ‘I have to do it,’” Vardalos said. “I went backstage, knocked on the door, and I said, ‘I’m a member of Actors’ Equity and I think I know your show.’ And they put me on! ... Is that insane? The audience must have seen me take their tickets and then 10 minutes later I was on stage wearing sweatpants, sneakers and goggles--my great big glasses.”

In 1995, after six years with Second City, she headed for Hollywood with visions of making it big. When reality set in, a friend she had worked with at Second City suggested they each write a one-act routine in hopes of getting noticed by a better agent.

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Vardalos tried out her jokes at a club that featured an open-mike night. People laughed. When she put together an hour’s worth of material, she began passing out fliers and selling tickets.

“I called my mom and said, ‘I went to church and handed out fliers to my show,’” Vardalos said. “And she said, ‘Oh, my God! The icons will weep!’”

Three production companies approached her with offers to buy the material, but they balked at casting her in the movie.

“I said I would like to play the lead and they said, ‘Yeah, right,’” Vardalos said. “Then I got worried. They were kind of waving these big checks at me, but I didn’t come here to sell an idea about my family, especially when they were telling me they were going to change it to Hispanic or Italian. This guy said, ‘Everybody loves Italians.’ I said, ‘You know what? I love them, too!’

“So, I started to think, if I’m going to be the Greek girl in town, I’m going to be the Greek girl in town,” she said. Fearful that someone might steal her idea, she dashed off a screenplay in three weeks and sent it off to the Library of Congress to be copyrighted.

“The day I got the copyright in the mail that said, ‘You own these characters, you own this story,’ that is the night Rita Wilson came to the show,” she said. “Is that nuts?”

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Now Vardalos’ budding career is being guided by heavyweight Hollywood management agency Brillstein-Grey, which, along with Wilson, has produced a sitcom pilot for CBS co-written by and starring Vardalos. She is also busy on another screenplay, this one about two girls from Chicago on the run.

Vardalos praises Wilson and Hanks for not only making the movie the way she envisioned it, but also going with their gut instincts and casting her in the lead.

“They were so respectful that this came from my heart and my family,” she said. For the casting, “Rita put her foot down and said, ‘We must find as many Greeks as possible.’”

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