ELLE Life: Nia Vardalos
Nia Vardalos lived the dream: from clumsy comedienne to superstar. But it took years for her to finally get what she wanted.
I’ve never gotten used to it. This is going to sound like name-dropping, but here it is: For more than 10 years, I’ve known the world’s biggest movie star, Tom Hanks. And yet still, when he speaks to me, all I hear is white noise. And that’s what I heard when he asked me if I wanted to write a script with him. Tom opened his mouth, said “Nia…” and, as I stared into his bluer-than-you’d-think eyes, all I heard were those classic Charlie Brown teacher sounds: “Wa, wa, wa, screenplay.”
Screenplay? What? Let’s step back for a moment. I’m from Winnipeg. I performed with Canada’s Second City in Toronto from 1988 to 1990 and then was added to the cast of the Chicago troupe. I was happy. I was
content. Performing my own sketch material onstage was… enough. Then I moved to L.A. to try to break into film and television. These were my “not enough” years: There was not enough money for rent. Not enough roles for someone who looked ethnic but was not Hispanic. Sure, I’m olive-skinned, but since I wasn’t a minority, I wasn’t ethnic…enough. My agent—who wasn’t exactly a looker herself—brusquely informed me that I was “not fat enough for character roles and not pretty enough to be a leading lady.” Then she dropped me.
Without representation, there were not enough auditions, so I did voice-over work to pay the bills. In 2000, I wrote
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, hoping that I could play a bridesmaid. But I had no way of getting it read by anyone at a studio because I didn’t have “enough” industry connections. Actually, I had none. Feeling creatively stifled, I rented a theatre for a year and performed the script as a solo show. It was a wonderful experience—it was enough. Then Rita Wilson and her husband, Tom Hanks, came to the show and produced the movie, and I got to play the bride. We became friends and worked on other projects, and then he had an idea for a movie—and asked me to write it with him.
Now here’s a little secret: I actually loathe writing. It’s a lonely, frustrating experience. I really only became a screenwriter out of necessity. I love acting. I love directing. For me, writing is never really satisfying…enough. The opportunity to write with Tom Hanks, though? Yeah, I was in.
I got to sit in an office with him and hash out character arcs, story points and comedic tone for Larry Crowne, which opens this month. Tom stars as a sweet guy who loses direction after being downsized and takes a second stab at college. Tom wanted to create a real story about the economic situation that many people are finding themselves in and create an interesting female lead for Julia Roberts as his college professor— a character who was deep but flawed. Now when I say that Julia is beautiful, please understand that I can’t think of a bigger word to describe her spectacularly perfect exoskeleton. And she’s funny, so you want to be her best friend— or, if you’re a man, you want to date her. Surprisingly, though, I had to convince Tom that his character should get the girl. He was hesitant that he, an Everyman, would have a shot with the beautiful Julia Roberts.
And then we began shooting. Movie sets always seem to crackle with energy, but now it was time to film the scene where Tom’s character gets the confidence to go for the girl. I sat at the monitor and watched these two grand actors work. I watched breathlessly as they leaned in. Tom kissed Julia. The Everyman got the girl. I leaned back and felt a flush of satisfaction. And as I looked up at the crew, lights, cameras and actors, I felt grateful to be part of it. Writing is a terrifying and frustrating process. It’s daunting and hard, but it’s so immensely satisfying. I felt a flush of happiness, and suddenly I loved being a writer.
I realized then that sometimes I’ll act, sometimes I’ll direct and sometimes I’ll write. Each experience will be satisfying in its own way because just working in this industry, getting any film made, is against all odds. And that’s more than enough; it’s wonderful.