Nia Vardalos became the face of the diaspora back in 2002 with her blockbuster romcom My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the highest-grossing movie of its kind in the history of film.
Her stereotypical story of a Greek migrant family even scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, making her a Hollywood household name.
Nia’s main character, 30-year-old Fotoula (Toula) Portokalos, falls in love with a gorgeous, non-Greek, upper middle class professor of Anglo-Saxon descent, Ian Miller.
When the couple decides to take things seriously, they are confronted by the cultural and religious clash of their backgrounds.
Ian is a Protestant and Toula’s Greek Orthodox family is by no means prepared to accept a non-Orthodox wedding.
Her overly-patriotic father Costa, or Gus for short, played by Michael Constantine, is adamant.
Ian loves Toula so much that he decides to convert, and is baptised at a Christian Orthodox church, receiving the name Yianni (John).
Ian’s determination to pursue Toula’s love and do everything within his power to marry her finally earns Gus’ respect, and consequently the acceptance of the rest of the family.
The ‘love-conquers-all-obstacles’ movie ends on a high and happy note, with an epilogue showing the new couple’s life six years later. Ian and Toula are parents to a six-year-old daughter, who complains that she would prefer not to go to Greek school.
The film inspired the brief 2003 TV series My Big Fat Greek Life and a sequel titled My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, which is set for release on March 25, 2016.
What was it that kept Nia from writing the much awaited sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding earlier?
“The reason I kept saying no to the sequel, the reason it took me more than a decade, is that at the end of the first movie Toula was a mother and in reality I was not a mother,” Nia told Neos Kosmos.
“Then suddenly I became a mum! I got to adopt my daughter and it all resonated with me.”
After many painful and unsuccessful attempts to become a mother, in hindsight, Vardalos feels grateful she could not have a biological child.
“I have my daughter and I couldn’t be happier that life happened the way it did. It healed me and made me think the time to write about what it’s like to be a mom had finally come.
“On my daughter’s first day at kindergarten I got the idea for the sequel, and it wasn’t just because I realised I had packed moussaka in her lunch.”
In the years between the two films, Vardalos published a book, titled Instant Mom, where she shares her hilarious and poignant ‘road-to-parenting’ story leading her to become a major advocate for adoption.
In the book, moments after the star finds out she has been Oscar nominated for the screenplay for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, she is alone and en route to a fertility clinic, trying yet again for a chance at motherhood.
Vardalos tried everything from holistic health approaches, alt medicine, acupuncture, to working with two surrogates. Finally, she and her husband, actor Ian Gomez, came across a free service: Foster Family Agencies.
One unexpected day, the social workers ‘matched’ her with a three-year-old girl, with whom Nia connected instantly, as if she were her biological daughter.
“As you probably know from my book, the story is about me being a mom, and I can’t write about something I haven’t experienced, since I create stories on improvisation and based on personal experiences,” she repeats. “It’s just that simple. “The struggle to become a parent was so difficult for me that there was no way I could do the sequel directly after the film because I was in a private, secret hell. I was in a very bad place emotionally.” Vardalos could finally connect with the feelings of motherhood. In fact, she found she connected a bit too much. In the flick she returns as Toula Miller, mother of teenage Paris Miller, played by actress Elena Kampouris. Chicago couple Toula and Ian are struggling not only to keep up with a demanding Greek family which is putting a lot of strain on their marriage, but also with their only daughter’s decision to study in New York in an effort to escape her ‘Greek reality’.
“Through Toula’s story I discovered I’ve actually become the overbearing mum. I’ve become my mother. I am Toula, I am my family,” she says, admitting that like her leading character, she wants to be around her daughter all the time, which can sometimes be a little suffocating.
“I have found myself always too close to her, never knowing when to step back. My Greek excuse is that it’s what we call good parenting.”
When Vardalos finished the script, she only sent it to her on-screen husband John Corbett, the first person to come on board. When she finally got the green light to film the sequel, she brought back the entire cast from the original movie.
“I am so excited that every person who was in the original film is back; showing where the Portokalos family is at right now.”
“When My Big Fat Greek Wedding was released 15 years ago, you all told me that you saw your family in my family, whether you are Greek, Italian, Chinese or from Peru. You all seem to have an aunt Voula with a lump on the back of her neck which she thinks is her twin!”
Vardalos has a special connection with Australia, which is why she chose it for the world premiere. In both Sydney and Melbourne she was joined on the white carpet by dozens of Australian relatives and fellow actors.
“I can definitely tell you that there will also be a third one,” she enthused jokingly, endorsing the idea of a shoot in Australia.
Finally, when asked what she would say to those who might find the film is promoting a ‘stereotype-laden’ and ‘offensive’ image of the Greek diaspora she said: “I actually never met anyone who is offended by the movie. At the end of the day it’s just comedy.
“This is my story, this is me, I’m Toula and my approach to comedy is ‘Come laugh with me’.”
*Universal has slated My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 for a March 25 release.