My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s Nia Vardalos: Greece is going through hell, but we will rise up

The writer and actor explains why she waited so long to write sequel My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, and reveals her hopes for her home country's future

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The last time we saw Toula and Ian on the big screen back in 2002, they were living next to her loud Greek family, waving their six-year-old off to school.

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My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the story of a young woman struggling to combine her parents’ Greek traditions with opportunities as one of the first generation to grow up in Chicago, made Nia Vardalos (who wrote and starred) hot property in Hollywood.

The small-budget romantic comedy, made for just $5 million, went on to gross $368 million, making it one of the most successful films of its type, and earning Vardalos an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

Having failed even to get her script read a few years earlier, Vardalos, born in Canada to Greek parents, had turned it into a one-woman off-Broadway play. Fellow Greek actress Rita Wilson (married to Tom Hanks) came to see it and asked her whether she’d consider turning it into a film. Suddenly, “I would be talking and studio executives would be laughing so hard, and I thought, ‘I’m the same person! I’m no funnier than I was last year.’

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“But my parents raised me well, none of it went to my head. When I go home, I’m not treated any differently to my cousin Tommy, who works for IBM – actually, he’s more special because he can fix our computers!”

Vardalos’s family is the key to her success. The film is so autobiographical that even the names are the same. Her husband is a non-Greek called Ian (Gomez, also an actor) and she really does have an Aunt Voula: “She’ll show you the tiny scar where she claims they took out her twin. Whenever I introduce her to anyone she’ll say, ‘I’m the real Aunt Voula. The original!’”

And her parents really did freak out about her leaving home – “The only way I got to go away to theatre school (she is an alumni of Chicago’s Second City theatre troupe) was by telling my dad that 500 people auditioned across Canada, they only accepted 25 kids and I was the only Greek. He reluctantly said ‘Entaxi’ [meaning OK in Greek].”

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The pressure to write a sequel was huge. Vardalos was wary, though. Having left her film-self with a young daughter, she didn’t want to compromise on authenticity by writing about something she hadn’t experienced. She wanted to wait until she, too, was waving her daughter off to school. Following 13 rounds of IVF, however, her dream remained just that, until she and Ian adopted three-year-old Ilaria, a journey that inspired Vardalos to write New York Times bestseller Instant Mom.

“I got the idea for the second film on my daughter’s first day at kindergarten,” she recalls. “I started writing but didn’t tell anyone, so when I was asked for the millionth time about a sequel, I said, ‘Here it is!’ The reaction was so funny. We were out within 14 months.”

John Corbett returns as Ian, much to Vardalos’s delight. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s just work.’ Rubbish! There’s a scene where we’re in a car, sexy Aiden (Corbett’s Sex and the City character) and me. It’s a great job!”

The best lines in the film, however, are given to the female characters. You may not have heard it yet but the catchphrase “Pull my neck!” before a photograph is taken has already led to a stream of “Pull my neck” selfies online, while women of a certain age will be trying the trick for years to come.

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“As a writer,” the 53-year-old explains, “it’s an absolutely conscious decision to create strong roles for women. Every woman is struggling because there’s a dearth of roles in Hollywood. I can’t complain, I just have to keep writing.

“But my real goal is parity – both genders equally represented within one screenplay – and I’m hoping that my male counterparts will do the same and stop saying, ‘Hey, there are two women in there. What are you complaining about?’ They have no last names, one is a wife, one is a whore… it’s tedious.”

The pressure is already on for a third film – “And I’m like, ‘Hang on!’ During number two, a lot of ideas did start coming to me, and I’m not done with Toula and her family yet. I would like to take them back to Greece, so I’m looking through my schedule to try to make time.

“Any excuse to go to Greece to be honest, and anything I might be able to do that helps the economy and the people right now.”

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Vardalos goes back to Greece to visit family and take in her favourite spot overlooking the caldera in Santorini at least once a year.

“People are struggling in Greece. In Athens, you see that the buildings can’t be maintained and my own cousins are struggling. It’s heart-breaking. But in time, we will rise up. I have tremendous belief in the Greek people. We do best – as evident with the Syrian refugees – when faced with adversity, that’s when the Greek character really comes out. We are proud people and incredibly generous. I haven’t paid for Greek salads since the first movie – even now, however much I insist!”

In the meantime, there’s another sequel on Vardalos’s mind. Last year she and her husband presented the American version of The Great British Bake Off featuring our own Mary Berry, which is being reprised. “She is so dreamy!” the actress sighs. “She makes you want to sit up straight and be a good person but she’s hilarious. We don’t have Paul Hollywood, we have Johnny Iuzzini, an American pastry chef, and he flirted outrageously with her and she’d go, ‘Oh, you’re a cheeky monkey!’

“My husband and I are the American Mel and Sue and we wanted to do all of it – the puns, the tasting, the drinking – whenever there’s brandy on the set, we try to out-Mel and out-Sue each other!”

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And there’s the small matter of My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2’s premiere – although funnily enough, it’s not that small. “I have 27 first cousins, with their husbands, wives and children, there’s about 60 of them – and they’re all coming to the premiere in New York. I’m going to need a lot of tickets.”