Mama Nia

Photography Bryan Adams

She’s had many roles, but The actor and screenwriter most relishes her latest as the mother of an adopted daughter. Kim Izzo sits down with Nia Vardalos in Los Angeles

Nia Vardalos has the flu and like the polite girl from Winnipeg she is, she doesn’t want to give it to anyone. “Just tell the makeup artist and anyone on the shoot tomorrow they can wear surgical masks. I won’t be offended,” she pleads to me via cellphone as I sit in the lobby bar of my L.A. hotel. “And I won’t be able to hug anyone hello or goodbye.” This last bit is spoken apologetically, as if it’s a foregone conclusion that the next day’s session will be so enjoyable and successful that she’d want to hug a bunch of people
she has never met before. It’s this sort of sweetness and sincere optimism that has
been her calling card ever since she burst onto the scene in the 2002 indie film hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

By now, hers is a story much publicized and one that sounds oddly like the plot of a Hollywood movie: oddly because at the time of its release, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was the largest grossing independent — i.e., non-Hollywood studio — film of all time, making more than $360 million worldwide.

But screenplay-worthy twists of fate follow Vardalos. Take her first big break: an aspiring comedic actress and writer, she took a job at the box office at Toronto’s Second City where she faithfully watched each night’s show. When the female lead fell ill immediately before a performance, Vardalos stepped up to the plate to volunteer her services — after all, she knew the lines. That turn eventually led to a job stateside at Chicago’s Second City where she would win a local acting award and the heart of Ian Gomez,
her husband of 17 years who currently co-stars on the TV series Cougar Town.

It was her marriage to the non-Greek Gomez that inspired Wedding, as a one-woman show that Vardalos performed in L.A. and whose sole newspaper ad was spotted by another actress of Greek heritage, Rita Wilson who, in turn, brought her husband, Tom Hanks, to see it. Hanks optioned the screenplay and helped produce the movie. The film garnered Vardalos multiple award nominations including a Golden Globe for acting and an Oscar for her screenplay. She also won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance.

“What I find ironic is so many things that I didn’t think I was going to do have led me to what I feel I’m supposed to do. Like, I never thought I was going to get married. When I was growing up, I had rejected my ethnicity. Ironically, being Greek and my own wedding led to me finding my career path,” she tells me over tea in the Writer’s Bar at the L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills. It is now the day after the shoot, and it went as well as everyone hoped. Vardalos, 47, stocked up on over-the-counter cold medicine, rallied, and her sexy side, one we’re not accustomed to seeing, emerged. More on that later.

But as often happens with so-called overnight sensations, a fall from great heights was inevitable. The enormous and unexpected success of Wedding opened doors across Hollywood, but unfortunately her next projects fell short of expectations. First, there was the television spin-off, My Big Fat Greek Life, which was cancelled after seven episodes. Then there was the lukewarm reception of her second film, Connie and Carla. And then, quietly, she disappeared.

 

While many actors step out of the spotlight to nurse wounds from poor reviews, what drew Vardalos away from the Hollywood glare was far more intense and personal: her quest for a baby. The struggle to get pregnant is a familiar one for thousands of women, especially those over 35, and when she couldn’t conceive, the feelings of loss were so overwhelming that she didn’t perform for more than four years and instead focused on her writing. “I didn’t want to be on camera. I was grieving,” she explains softly. Publicly, Vardalos and Gomez will admit to fertility treatments, but she will not comment further. In the past, she’s felt cornered by reporters demanding to know how far down the fertility road she went and, more contentiously, how far she thinks other people should go. It’s not a responsibility she wants: “I would never tell another woman when her personal journey is over.”

For Vardalos, the personal journey to motherhood came to both a happy conclusion and a new beginning in 2008 with the adoption of a three-year-old girl through the American foster care program. Ironically, it was her return to performing that gave her the strength to try this final avenue to parenthood. “During the fertility stuff, I couldn’t find the energy to [act] again. But as I was polishing the script for My Life in Ruins about a woman who loses her mojo, I realized I was going through the same thing. Then when we went to Greece to get permission to shoot at the Parthenon, I realized I wanted to be in this movie. Around the same time, I met with the social workers for the first time, but I didn’t sign up. I just thought it over. During filming, I realized I had found my mojo again, and that’s when they said, ‘Could you come in for a meeting?’ And we started.”

She explains that what attracted her to the American foster system was that it didn’t discriminate based on age, income level, marital status or sexual orientation. She and her husband went to a foster family agency, which is a free service, and nine months later their daughter walked into their home. At this point in time, the little girl’s name is being kept out of the media to protect her privacy. However, like any proud mother, Vardalos shows me photos on her iPhone of her daughter. She is a wide-eyed, pretty, little girl with pigtails who looks remarkably like her adoptive mother. When I mention this, Vardalos nods; she’s heard it before. “[At the
start of the  adoption process] you write down a list of what you’re open to and because we had said any sex, any age, any ethnicity, we went very quickly through the system. What is ridiculously amazing is they found a three-year-old girl who actually looks like us.”

 

I want to ask her if she had any fears or anxieties about adopting from the foster system, which is often depicted as a nightmare, Dickensian or worse, with tales of abuse and neglect, both emotional and physical that leave deep wounds in their wake. But Vardalos is way ahead of me.

“There’s such a stigma attached to these kids, and I don’t blame anyone for asking me any question,” she says, her eyes welling up. “You know, I have been at a party, and someone has asked me, ‘Are you worried that your daughter is damaged? Haven’t you read these stories about foster kids killing their parents?’ At first, I would say, ‘Well, the Menendez brothers weren’t foster children.’ After a while, I got really calm and realized I had had those same thoughts.”

Thankfully, since working with the foster care program — Vardalos was an
official spokesperson for National Adoption Day in the U.S. last year — she has seen that even children of abuse have, with love, blossomed into beautiful, perfectly
balanced people. There are approximately 123,000 children legally available for adoption in the U.S. and about 30,000 in Canada. As it turned out, her daughter
had no abuse or neglect in her background. “Our daughter was relinquished to
foster care by a too-young woman who said, ‘I can’t do this.’ And I admire
her,” Vardalos says.

Like her auspicious debut at Second City and the runaway success of Wedding, Vardalos sees the years of struggling to be a mother, and the resulting adoption of her daughter, as fate showing her the way. “I now realize I’m supposed to be her mother because I’m supposed to be the person talking about foster adoption. There’s no doubt in my mind. A lot of the time when My Big Fat Greek Wedding was happening to me, I went, ‘Why me?’ And now I’m kind of like, ‘Could this [adoption] have been my reason?’ Did I get a certain amount of status because I’m supposed to use my big fat mouth to talk about it?”

Talking about foster adoption isn’t the only thing on Vardalos’s plate these days. Motherhood may be new, but she is a seasoned writer and actor with a full slate of projects — a working mom. So it’s appropriate that the soundtrack during our conversation is provided by the anxious voice of an unidentified screenwriter at the next table breathlessly pitching someone, a producer perhaps, an idea for a thriller, but as his pitch gets longer and the silent reaction gets louder, we feel it’s not going well.

“It’s so Hollywood,” Vardalos whispers, sounding as excited as a fresh film school grad on her first trip to Los Angeles. But she’s right. The vibe is very The Player, and we both giggle a little. Vardalos gives the impression that she still has to pinch herself to know her life is real and that she really does get to wake up everyday and work in the movie industry. Following the 2009 back-to-back releases of Ruins and I Hate Valentine’s Day (which she wrote, starred in and directed), Vardalos co-penned Larry Crowne with long-time supporter Tom Hanks (he and Rita Wilson, are godparents to her daughter). Hanks will act in and direct the movie, which began filming in April, and also stars Julia Roberts. The film is about a middle-aged man who has to re-invent himself. “[Tom is] incredibly intuitive because he had this idea a long time ago before people were losing their jobs in America,” Vardalos enthuses.

She is also polishing off a first draft script about her experiences as a new parent, a film she describes as an ensemble comedy in which she will co-star. And then there was the pilot she guest-starred on because the character allowed her to step outside her comfort zone as an actor.

Stepping out of her comfort zone is something that Vardalos finally felt ready to do both professionally and in her personal life. To a certain extent, Hollywood has  pigeonholed her as the less attractive girl next door, nerdy, overweight, the underdog, but she also recognizes that she had a hand in that as well.

“I was always 220 pounds, big old glasses and over-permed hair and I made sure that none of the guys thought of me as a sexual being by making disparaging jokes about myself,” she explains. “And then, when I was at Second City, my producers very quickly taught me to rise above disparaging fat jokes and challenged me to improvise for a week without using the word fat, and I really realized how much I was using it as a crutch, making fun of myself.”

 

She considers herself lucky that growing up she was never really admired for anything other than what was coming out of her mouth, something she credits to her parents and her training in musical theatre. Moving to L.A. in her 30s, however, was a wake-up call.

“I realized that it’s all about your looks. I am not a standard beauty. Some people would say I’m not even attractive,” she says matter-of-factly. “You know what someone said to me? And she really didn’t mean it to sound like the putdown it is. She said, ‘You will never know the horrifying feeling of getting a part just for your looks.’ You know, she’s right. I will never get a script because someone was actually attracted to me. It’s a great feeling. I know I’m the only female screenwriter to have had three scripts produced that I starred in.”

During the photo shoot, as she poses and plays in front of the camera in an array of fashion-forward looks, it’s tough to imagine anyone finding Vardalos unattractive. Yes, she’s lost weight in recent years, thanks to a healthy diet and exercise, and she exudes self-confidence in front of the camera, which shows up in the photographic evidence, proving there’s a Hollywood bombshell lurking beneath the comedian. Yet when she sees the digital shots on set, she seems surprised at the results. “I’ve never seen myself look like this before,” she gushes to photographer Bryan Adams.

When I ask her the next day how she felt about the photos, she admits that seeing herself depicted as a sultry beauty is new, but it’s a direction she wants to keep going in. “This is the year I started to push myself a little further in the letting go and doing more sexy shoots and everything, because I feel that it’s okay,” she says. “I won’t be negating my accomplishments by being a sexual person, finally. Isn’t that interesting that it took me that long?”

Interesting yes, but given her remarkable journey to Hollywood stardom and motherhood, it’s not surprising that she still has new ground to cover, and may perhaps one day write about discovering her inner sexpot at 47 in the same smart and wry way she has tackled other life changes.

Speaking of changes, it is clear that being a mother makes Vardalos happy, but I wonder how it has altered her life. Her reaction is to grab her handbag and dive in. “The inside of my purse is sticky all the time. It’s much heavier. I have a section that’s dedicated just to her. There’s these constantly. And then these. Why do I have these?” she laughs and shows me Wet Ones, Band-Aids, Gummi bears and the head of a Goldfish cracker. “And in the same section that’s hers, I have red lip gloss for me. I got to be a hot mom, right? And I love having to define myself every time she asks, ‘Why?’ ‘Why can’t I?’ ‘Why can I?’ ‘Why is that?’ And I have to go, ‘Okay, I’m going to take time and I’m going to explain it.’ ”

Fortunately, Vardalos, being a writer, is never at a loss for words — not usually anyway. Despite the funny jokes about her heavy purse, it is obvious that the difference motherhood made in her life goes far beyond a line of dialogue.

“I would never propose that I appreciate it [motherhood] more than the average person,” she says thoughtfully. “But I think that I appreciate it more than I might have because I had to work so hard to get it.”