Academy Award-nominated Nia Vardalos has established herself as a versatile actress, writer, producer and director who is known for her trademark sharp wit and relatable persona. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada, Vardalos wrote and starred in the hit romantic comedy feature My Big Fat Greek Wedding. She has guest-starred on numerous television shows including Cougar Town, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Drop Dead Diva, and has hosted Saturday Night Live. She also became an award-winning performer/writer in 12 revues for The Second City in Toronto and Chicago.
MoviesOnline sat down with Nia at a press conference in Los Angeles to talk about her new movie, Larry Crowne, an optimistic comedy she co-wrote with Tom Hanks about how the hard knocks from today’s recession inspire one everyday guy to undergo a personal reinvention. She told us what it was like collaborating with Hanks on the script and why the work ethic she learned from her parents at an early age has been an invaluable life lesson. She also revealed why she enjoys working professionally with her husband and what her fondest memories are of being part of The Second City in Chicago.
Nia also updated us on her upcoming projects including a television pilot she’s writing for Fox Studios, a project entitled Happy Mother’s Day that she’s penning for Walden Studios, an R-rated script she’s co-writing with Rob Riggle, and an acting role she has in the American Girl Doll movie that starts shooting in Winnipeg next month.
Q: The two of you started working on this before the recession which I thought was very clairvoyant of you.
Nia: It was Tom’s idea. He came to me. I think it was around 2005, 2006. I was at Playtone. We were developing My Life in Ruins and Tom said “I have an idea for a movie. Do you want to write it?” I describe this entire process as a series of “be cool, be cool, my face.” “What?” “Be cool, be cool.” “Yeah, sure, oh yeah.” We sat down at his office and he laid out the entire idea. It was very clear in his head of what would happen if a man at 50 years old lost his job through no fault of his own, just downsizing, and had to reinvent himself. He wanted to keep it as a very quiet story and a very simple, streamlined idea. I think Tom’s approach is very much he is the everyman because the way things happen to him is what he wanted to do. So he had the entire idea from the scooters, everything, all his idea.
Q: As you were writing it, did you realize things were starting to turn?
Nia: Well I think Tom Hanks is friends with Obama so I think that Tom and Barack Obama have caused this economic crisis so that the film would be successful. That’s what I think. There’s a relevance to Larry Crowne that is fortunate and unfortunate, but this is not a downer movie. This is an uplifting movie and yet it’s not out of the realm of ordinary. It’s what can happen if you keep your heart open. I certainly have lived that too. When we were trying to become parents, I thought the only way to become a parent was either to have a biological child or adopt an infant, and when I opened my heart and thought of different ways, we ended up finding our perfect daughter in American foster care. And that is what I think Tom has, this optimism and this way of looking at things and to stay open, and that’s what Larry Crowne does.
Q: Can you talk about the writing process with Tom and what that was like? Also, why didn’t you write a role for yourself in this film?
Nia: The way we wrote was, I called it the ‘no rules’ way. Neither one of us had an ego or a feeling of ownership of the script. Sometimes we would sit in a room and write together. Sometimes I would take the draft. Sometimes he would take the draft and go on vacation and write and then bring it back. I loved that process. For me, it felt like it was very honest in that we were just trying to write a story, a ‘what if’ story, but neither one of us was trying to force our own ideas into it. I thought he was incredibly smart to want to create a character for Julia Roberts that was interesting and had depth and was not perfect — you know, the romantic comedy heroine who falls a lot — and I can make fun of it because I’ve done it. He wanted to create something much more real. I think I had a secret plan that I was going to play one of the sisters and we had a whole family in the first and the second draft, a whole family that’s up in his grill when he loses his job and wants to help or not help or whatever, and then we realized that maybe it would be better to cut the entire family so that Tom is just an island. When he doesn’t have an income anymore, what does he do? We felt it was more indicative of what is happening to people globally. The writer in me always fights with the actress. There’s always that. So, without thinking, I went “Okay, so the family’s gone” and then went back to the whiteboard and didn’t even think like “What are you going to play? Oh well.” But they’re so lovely to me that I play the voice of the GPS, so yes, I will be getting some SAG residuals from this movie, thank you very much. And my husband is in it, by the way. My husband is so naïve. That was Perry’s Pie Shop, and then, of course, Tom found Frank’s in the Valley and he cast my husband as Frank, and then we got there and my husband went “This is so lucky that you found a place called Frank’s!” I was like “Oh honey, no, we changed the name. No.”
Q: Since this movie is about reinventing yourself, if Hollywood went away one day and you had to go back to college or trade school, what would you study?
Nia: I was a florist and I was quite happy. I can make a casket spray in under 10 minutes and I do my friends’ weddings still. I love it because it’s creative and it smells great. Your hands are usually pretty scratched on the back. So that’s probably what I would do while I was going back to college. I would like to get a degree in English so that I could be at a party and just be like “Oh, that’s so like Chaucer!”
Q: You mentioned Tom wanted to write this for Julia. Was she part of the writing process the whole time and did you write to the voice of the other actors who had been cast? Also, at any point was the ex-wife in the story?
Nia: No, she was definitely just on our wish list and then Tom sent her the draft. I believe they had a conversation director to add to her conversation after that and he did some tweaking for her. I remember just being so thrilled that she liked it, just so thrilled for my friend because I knew that he wanted to please her and have her be drawn to the project. The reason that we cut the ex-wife was because Tom felt that it was a movie moment that you would expect and see and so we didn’t ever shoot it. She was never in the final draft.
Q: Is there anything in your own life with friends or colleagues where you saw the effects of the depression, recession and unemployment in their lives which you were able to address in this script?
Nia: I think what we both drew from is our years as actors trying to make a living. It’s not like when you suddenly become a working actor. All your friends are in the same lucky situation. I have friends who are still handing out flyers for their one-woman show and are trying to make ends meet by waitressing and doing all the wonderful jobs that we all do to try to make a living. I’m the child of immigrants and when I was growing up, everyone worked. I had a job at 16 and although I didn’t like that, I’m very, very grateful for it now because it taught me to be self-supporting and not depend [on others]. And also, when I worked at Second City in Canada, they brought me down to Chicago on a work permit. I was thrilled to be in Chicago but what I didn’t know was that you only made $65 a show. Our wonderful producer, Joyce Sloane, called me in for a meeting and said “How are you doing?” I had this plan. I thought this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell her I’m going to understudy all the cast and make a better living. So I said, “You know, Joyce, I’m not making enough money” and she said, “Okay, you can sell T-shirts in the lobby for $7 an hour.” I’ve been raised by parents who taught me “Don’t think you’re better than you are. Work and earn your living.” In that moment, I said “Okay, I’ll do that,” even though I’d written five shows in Canada and I’d been making a living as an Equity actor in Canada. “Of course,” I said, “Yes, I’ll sell T-shirts in the lobby.” And when I got up and walked out, Joyce said, “That was a test. If you had said ‘I’m not going to sell T-shirts for you, I’m an actor,’ I would have shipped your ass back home.” That, I think, is what I think Larry Crowne is going through. Larry will do anything to make a living and that is indicative I think globally and much more so in this country. People are just trying to get by.
Q: Who was your inspiration for the character of Gugu? Do you know people like her in real life?
Nia: Yes. I have this thing about free spirits. That was actually Tom’s idea to have that person who is so light. I think that she represents how I wish I could be coming into a room and just not caring what people think. That’s what I loved about the way Gugu played it. We all know somebody like that, somebody who is just so confident and does things like that. By the way, the various things like that was Tom’s idea. Also, you would think me being the romantic comedy girl that the makeover was my idea, but no, that’s all Tom Hanks. The male makeover was Tom’s idea and I completely objectified him when he was in the black jeans and the zip-up jacket. We were on the set one night and I’m really good friends with Rita, but I was like, “Tom Hanks! You look so good in those pants!” So he was like “Be quiet, Nia!”
Q: You mentioned your husband is in this movie and both of you were recently on Cougar Town this last season. Can you talk a little bit about working with your significant other and what that’s like?
Nia: When I’m writing in my office, it’s right by our daughter’s bedroom. I’m in there usually and that means that Ian is watching TV at night by himself. So, he’ll walk by and he’ll go “Who are you kissing now?!” That’s usually what he knows I’m writing. And then, I try to get him to be in everything because it’s a chance to see each other. We don’t necessarily want to play romantic leads opposite each other because we just don’t think that “Oh, we’re so cute!” and that people want to pay $14 to watch us kiss. Gross! But we do like to be on the set with each other, making fun of each other. In My Life in Ruins, he plays the hotel clerk. We shot that on our anniversary and his goal of the day was to get me fired by making me laugh on camera. Also, in Larry Crowne, I was really thrilled when Tom said “What are we going to get Ian to play?” It’s just so sweet and it’s nice to be around each other. It’s just good. On Cougar Town, they let us improvise actually which was a mistake with two Second City actors. We were like “Move the furniture!!” We had a great time.
Q: You’re very fortunate to have two of the world’s biggest movie stars in this film which will certainly attract audiences. But in a summer where there are a lot of blockbusters, what challenges do you face with a film whose topic is not necessarily the most upbeat?
Nia: Well this is where we would appeal to you. We are all saying the same thing. Reviewers say it, audiences say it, we all say we want adult movies and this is a movie that we strived to keep uplifting about a very real topic. It’s a romantic comedy about something that is relevant. So, the fine line that I think Tom walks so well is to keep it light and quippy and Tom Hanks-like and earnest and charming, which is everything that this man actually is and he imbued the film with. Why? Because otherwise you’re going to be reviewing and we’re just going to be acting in Transformers 12. I also will go to that movie. I love all movies. I went to X-Men. I went to Bridesmaids. I love movies. But, in order to keep a variety out there of movies that we want to see, you want to write about, and I want to be in, I’m asking you to support this film and help us out and get the word out and tell people it’s not a downer. We’re so proud of it, and what I was telling Rob as well, it’s a simple movie. It’s got almost a grace to it and that’s what I admired about Tom. He didn’t give into obviously what we know would sell – so boobs and car crashes, which I love! They’re not in this movie.
Q: What has this whole experience been like for you?
Nia: It’s so interesting to be on a studio movie like this because there’s food. Also, I was telling Rob when I was driving up Highland and saw the posters, I’ve never had a print and advertising campaign with billboards. I’ve never had that for any of my movies, and so when I saw the billboards, I was like “Shut Up!!” When I saw my name, it was such a loser Winnipeg girl moment. I jumped out of the car and I took a picture of it on my phone.
Q: What are you working on next?
Nia: I’m writing a Fox Studios pilot for television that I will probably direct and play a smaller part in, and I’ve written something for Walden Studios called Happy Mother’s Day about four moms who run away from home. I’m writing an ‘R’ script with Rob Riggle who is in Larry Crowne. We met on the set and made each other laugh so hard in the shoe aisle at K-Mart — I mean, U-Mart — that we decided to just write together. For my next project, I’m going to Winnipeg to play the mom in the American Girl Doll movie and you know why I took that part. You know it. I get to go home and I get to be a hero to my daughter.
Q: Which doll?
Nia: Actually I’m not allowed to say or they will shackle me. So, everything is under wraps. But yeah, I get to say I’m playing a mom.
Q: Is it this year?
Nia: Yes, I’m going in a month.
Q: Is it a full shoot in Winnipeg?
Nia: It’s a full shoot in Winnipeg. Yes, I know, it’s booming now. Why? You want to come? You can stay with my parents. There’s a curfew though.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your time in Second City in Chicago and some of your fondest memories there?
Nia: My fondest memories I think are about now how my husband and I drive in our cars and we’ve become…you think that you haven’t changed, but of course, the trappings of the way that we live now is just so different to then. We shared a backstage area as big as this right here (indicating the small area around the interview table) with six people. It was like five brothers and sisters that you did not choose. Invariably someone’s feet would smell, somebody would be in a bad mood, and we were trying to create comedy together. I loved it because it taught me to be again self-sufficient and think. Our producer, that same producer who said she would have fired me if I had balked at selling T-shirts, used to say “Tell me what you think is funny” and I got through my five or six years at Second City with a subscription to People Magazine and the Chicago Tribune simply by trying to figure out what was going to be on trend in three months when we opened the show. So, writing topical humor, we weren’t allowed to make dick jokes. We weren’t allowed to do TV references and we weren’t allowed to play caricatures, like we weren’t allowed to imitate political figures, for example. But we would do things like share a wig. We didn’t even think the hygiene of it was so disgusting. We’d all be like “Oh, can I have the wig tonight?” But what I did love about it was the absolute freedom to play any role I wanted. If I wanted to play a sexy character, I would just shimmy into somebody’s tight skirt and walk into an improv. If I wanted to play a Native American character, I parted my hair in the middle and just walked out. And that is actually the time that I realized the freedom that it gave me. It made me fearless, a fearless idiot.
Q: What about the city overall?
Nia: The city is great. I was there in the height of the Bulls era and you cannot live in Chicago for a minute without knowing every DJ’s name and every Bulls’ name. It was pretty great.
Q: Which would you like to do more – write or act?
Nia: I wrote an article for Elle Magazine Canada where I admitted that I really, really don’t like writing at all. It’s very lonely. It’s very daunting. I have a voice in my head the whole time telling me I’m a fraud and no one will buy it and you just click away and click away and just push through. I, like most writers, love having written. Love that. But it’s not that satisfying. This was the first time, on this project, that I felt grateful to be a writer on that set. I got to go to the set every day and watch and learn. I treated it like film school. I became very proud to be a member of the WGA. Again, I’m very grateful to be working always but it’s not what I want to do. I write so that I can act.
Larry Crowne opens in theaters on July 1st.