How Nia Vardalos' Fight to Become a Mother Finally Led to 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2' (Q&A)
"Freeze your eggs, get your sociology doctorate, worry more about war and pestilence and the incredible inequality of geographical birth than finding your soulmate."
My Big Fat Greek Wedding began as a one-woman comedy show that caught the attention of Tom Hanks and his producing partners and then became a 2002 sleeper hit that earned $368 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing indie film of all time.
Fourteen years later, writer-actress Nia Vardalos is back with My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, which Universal will release on March 25. The sequel checks in with the Portokalos family, as Toula (Vardalos) feels stretched between her neglected marriage, her teenage daughter and her aging parents.
Between the two films, Vardalos wrote the comedies Connie and Carla and Larry Crowne, starred in the short-lived My Big Fat Greek Life series and appeared on a string of TV shows. But even more than her work, her life has been dominated by her daughter Ilaria, whom she and husband Ian Gomez adopted in 2008 — the subject of her book, Instant Mom.
You adopted your daughter in 2008. What happened?
The struggle to become a parent was real for me. It was very long, but I did become a mom. We found our three-year-old daughter in American foster care. And on my daughter's first day of kindergarten, I was crying so hard, another mother tried to comfort me with the thought of, "What are you going to do when she goes off to college?" That's the moment I had an idea for the sequel [to Greek Wedding]. I started writing that day and finished the script over four years. It was only a decade until I started writing.
The personal and professional battles, are they linked?
I wanted to be a mother. It was not happening, and then we found our daughter. There were so many struggles I had to get through to get to her that I'm grateful for, because I think [they] taught me tolerance and patience and made me, hopefully, perhaps gave me some wisdom. I believe that you will not get what you want unless you ask for it. It is true over and over again in my life, how difficult things have been in certain aspects — like breaking into the industry. When Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman said, "We're going to make this movie” — the audacity that I had to say, "I want to play the bride," that is the same tenacity I carried over into [adoption].
You’ve been married since 1993. Do you believe in marriage for everyone?
I wholeheartedly believe that [you] should not necessarily get married unless you absolutely meet your life partner. Don’t settle, don’t compromise. Freeze your eggs, get your sociology doctorate, worry more about war and pestilence and the incredible inequality of geographical birth than finding your soulmate.
Andrea Martin returns as Aunt Voula in the sequel.
Does your movie reflect that thinking?
I kept layering into the script what I say to my daughter: “You don't have to get married and make babies." I have [Toula's mother] say, "Marriage is not for everyone, but it worked out for me." I'm trying to send a subliminal message that nobody completes anybody. We must make choices that are outside of the familial expectations of us, or we'll just be repeating the mistakes. Our parents came here to give us better choices.
How has being a parent changed you?
There’s this constant guilt that comes with parenting. You always feel like you're never enough. If you're confident in your parenting, you probably suck at it. But I have never experienced love like this. We're lucky if we have a family that loves us to the point of suffocation. It's a curse and a gift.
What was the hardest part about shooting the movie?
My husband was bringing my daughter back and forth, and I was flying back and forth to L.A. She was 10 at the time. I was burning the candle at both ends. As soon as I'd finish rewriting, acting and co-executive producing, I would get on a plane and go back to L.A. The day we filmed a big scene with Paris [her onscreen daughter, played by Elena Kampouris] was the day my daughter left the shoot to go back to school, and I was really emotional.
Why did you opt for a different director this time?
Kirk Jones has a way of making the tiniest quirk in human behavior feel universal. And he got Waking Ned Divine made against all odds, which is what happened with our first film. Kirk Jonesopoulus, we called him on set. It's hard to take us all on — we're a loud, loving group that has known each other for so long. But we needed somebody who [didn’t] know us to tell us when things are not clear, to have a clearer vision of our clouded love for each other.
"I'm trying to send a subliminal message that nobody completes anybody," says Vardalos.
This film has a wedding — the parents' — which shows a different side of love.
I really enjoyed showing romance in the first film, but I remember thinking, “What happens after it fades to black?” You actually don't get to gallop off into the sunset with your prince; at some point, you’ve got to get off your horse to take a pee. And the reality of sharing a bathroom and raising children together and not having time to dye the gray out of my sideburns, it caught up to me. The sequel talks about feeling underappreciated by your partner and not having the nerve to say what you want.
Much of the storyline revolves around the aging parents. Where did that come from?
From my real life. I now see myself as a generation, because of my daughter. Before, you're just living your life and you don't realize, but now I see that you're so many things: you're a cousin, you're an aunt, you're a daughter, you're a sister. We're lucky if we're multigenerational. You get to see your hopes and dreams reflected in your child and watch your parents' hopes and dreams in their eyes. It's a gift when you get to take care of your parents, [though] it's difficult to watch them age. I don't like it. And I always feel I have no problems when I hear about my dad coming over to America with $5 in his pocket, learning the language and going to mechanic school.
How has the rom-com changed?
It's evolved in a beautiful way. We have strong female characters who can be living outside the guidelines of focus groups. I fought so hard not to wear makeup in the opening scenes — I don't even have moisturizer on. We're breaking the rules, and that's a great thing.