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Five Minutes With: Nia Vardalos

The very open, funny and charming Vardalos talks to MiNDFOOD about her own experiences as a Greek mother raising her daughter in Los Angeles.

Five Minutes With: Nia Vardalos

Nia Vardalos, 53, reprises her role as Toula from the surprise hit comedy of 2002, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, [which earned an Oscar nomination]. In the sequel we find Toula and her husband Ian, played by John Corbett (Sex and the City) facing the challenges of raising their Greek American 17-year-old.

It’s been 14 years since we last saw you. What inspired you to write the sequel?

I felt ready to write the sequel on my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. Another mother said something that made me so fearful that I stopped in my tracks. I was stuffing moussaka into a container in my daughter’s lunch at school and all the other parents had gone. Here I was, the last mother, refusing to leave and I thought, ‘I have morphed into my own parents! I am my own Greek mother.’ Now, of course, I just call it good parenting. (laughs) But when my daughter saw the movie, I said to her, ‘Am I always too close?’ She didn’t even miss a beat. She went, ‘Yes!’

How was it working with John Corbett again? He became very popular on his role in Sex and the City all those years ago.

Well John and I are very, very good friends. We had a deal on the kissing scene days that we don’t eat garlic. (laughter) We were walking towards the car and they had prepared us, done our hair and makeup and everything, and we were walking towards the car and he put his arm around my shoulder and he said, ‘Okay, baby. Let’s go make out.’ (laughs) We do have an ease with each other that you can see and we do genuinely like each other. We are very good friends which helps, it really helps.

I read somewhere that you said you didn’t want to be glammed up in the film. Can you talk about the pressure to be glamorous?

I fought very hard not to wear makeup in the opening scenes. I said, ‘No moisturiser, nothing, because that’s how I go to school in the morning. I said, ‘I use the same toothbrush on my teeth and my hair,’ (laughs) I just get out the door. I wanted to show the real depiction of motherhood. The truth of the matter is that my character is a real person and so am I. And so I think I owe a responsibility to parents and working people in the audience to look real. So I showed the bags and the wrinkles and everything because it actually just means that I have lived. I am quite proud of it.

Why did you wait so long to do the sequel?

I waited so long because on the first film, I was smiling on the outside but very quietly hiding a secret in that I was trying very hard to become a mum. Even before we filmed the first film, I had already suffered some fertility disappointments. So immediately after the first film, the producers came to me and said, ‘Let’s do a sequel.’ And I couldn’t do it. I had written that Toula and Ian were parents. And how could I write the continuation when I was in emotional pain? So I retreated. I made my living as a screenwriter and I acted every now and then but I was in a quest for motherhood that is not for everybody, but for me was very important. And then I was very lucky that we got to meet our daughter when she was almost three years old living in American foster care. We had 14 hours notice, and like that, I was a mum. And still, I volunteer at school. She is almost 11, and as soon as we finished the film, I went back and kept volunteering at her school, because I say to her, ‘You are my favourite channel. I could watch you all day.’ (laughs)

This film is about breaking away from your parents. What was your own departure like? Was there a lot of rebellion when you were younger?

I did rebel. I did not want to be a nice Greek girl and I said to my dad, ‘I want to be an actor.’ And he said, ‘Okay. You could be a teacher, and you could teach acting.’ (laughs) My parents are in all my movies, every one of my movies, but my parents have gotten so good at it now that my dad said on this film, he plays the church chanter, he said, ‘No, no. Put the camera over here, it’s my better side.’ (laughs) I think it’s important for teenagers to push against their parents and that’s what I did. I think that we have to keep one foot firmly rooted in tradition or we will lose our cultures. But always have the other foot taking a step forward.

What is your feeling about immigrants and assimilating with new cultures?

I think we have a responsibility to the immigrant situation, to have nurturing environments, because we all are immigrants. Except for the Indians and except for the Aboriginals in Australia, we all in some way, when we come to the Diaspora, have to make it. And that’s why I wanted to show the true immigrant experience.

Do you think this film comes at a good time considering the plight of the Syrian refugees?

I do. I am so proud of the Island of Lesvos for taking in the Syrian refugees and I am so proud of certain countries, my own and Canada for saying that there is a place for you. I am an eternal optimist I think we have a great responsibility.

When was the last time you visited Greece?

I go every Summer. I tend to hide when I am there and have a nice family vacation.

The movie touches on the importance of making an effort in relationships – did that come from personal experience?

Yes. I feel like it’s important to mirror what is happening in society and even friendships go through an ebb and flow, and marriages do too. My husband is an actor, he has never seen any of the kissing scenes in any of my films, which I think keeps it alive and fresh. But what we found that really changed things was parenthood. We found that we barely looked at each other and we were always looking at our daughter. And not that that’s a bad thing, but that was definitely a wakeup call for us. Plus I forgot to take care of myself. I mean right down to the not wearing makeup or anything like that. But I was chopping vegetables for organic soups and making all handmade costumes and always, always taking care of my daughter, and finally my cousin Nicki came over and she said, if you don’t pluck that eyebrow, I’m going in. (laughs)

Do you eat a lot of Greek food? Do you speak Greek at home?

Yes. I am full Greek in every way, right down to the pride that I have. (laughs) When my daughter and I watched the Olympics, I was explaining everything about it, and I looked across the room and my husband was laughing at me. I cook Greek and I think every Greek feels such a connection to the homeland. Somebody said, ‘describe Greece in one word for you.’ And I said, ‘Home.’ And isn’t that strange? I am Canadian, I live in the States, and yet for me, when I see the word Coppertone written in Greek, I get a little shiver.

How was the first film received in Greece?

It was successful in Greece. I did an interview with a Greek reporter, and he said, ‘Nia, do you know why your film is so successful?’ And I said, ‘No. I don’t know, why?’ And he said, ‘Well, we have been making fun of you Greek Americans for years.’ (laughs) Because the immigrant experience is spot on for us who come over, whether it be from Africa or Italy. And for our parents, time stops in 1955 or 1965 – whenever they came. But Greece is modern. People live with their boyfriends and I was shocked to find that out about my cousins. And they don’t exactly go to church every week like we do and they don’t do to Sunday School like we do and they are very, very traditional, in the Diaspora, because we are the children of immigrants.

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