Like any former struggling actress, Nia Vardalos remembers all the tiny details of her rise to recognition. For instance, the onetime florist brags she ”can make a casket spray in 10 minutes.” She breathlessly recites the companies for which she did commercial voice-overs: ”Budweiser, Home Depot, Kraft…” And she can recall exactly where she was sitting when she learned that Tom Hanks had arrived to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the one-woman show she took to the L.A. stage in 1998: behind the ticket counter.
”I kept thinking, ‘Why is Tom here? Doesn’t he have Oscars to shine?”’ cracks Vardalos. ”It’s so embarrassing.” Perhaps, but it was the pivotal moment in a dizzying Cinderella story that’s turned Vardalos’ film of her lighthearted routine into a big fat surprise hit, a crowd-pleaser that recently surpassed $25 million at the box office.
Vardalos is enjoying the unlikely ride, especially given the string of rejections Hollywood threw her way. ”I had an agent say to me, ‘You’re not pretty enough to be a leading lady, and you’re not fat enough to be a character actress. You’re Greek. There’s nothing I can do with you,”’ says Vardalos, 39. ”I was so frustrated that I just did what I knew. I got up on stage and told stories about my family.”
She hardly expected a Hollywood power couple to take notice. Actress Rita Wilson — who’s half Greek — saw the show after spotting an ad in a local paper, loved its generous ethnic humor, and sensed a project for hubby Hanks’ production company, Playtone. The couple (below) bought the script and championed Vardalos for the role of Toula Portokalos, a dowdy Chicago waitress who falls for a WASPy vegetarian (Sex and the City’s John Corbett), much to the chagrin of her traditional paterfamilias.
Still, ethnic comedies — about Greeks, no less — are no sure bet in a marketplace that favors superheroes. ”Lions Gate was our original distributor, and they didn’t get it,” says Wilson. ”And [the big studios] said it wasn’t edgy enough or big enough. We were stuck.”
Enter IFC Films. Last fall, the upstart indie acquired the $5 million Wedding based on enthusiastic test screenings and crafted a savvy marketing and release strategy to ensure that this Moonstruck for the baklava bunch didn’t get lost in the box office shuffle. ”When a studio makes [films like this], they open wide,” explains senior VP Bob Berney, who opened Wedding in just eight cities to shore up word of mouth. ”We’re using our independent limitations to our advantage, and it’s really paid off.”
And how. Hanks’ Playtone partner, Gary Goetzman, accompanied Vardalos and Corbett on an old-style cross-country press tour — one that even included a promotional lap at the Indy 500. ”If you can’t get national exposure for the stars of your picture,” reasons Goetzman, ”you’ve got to go to the local level.” Says Berney: ”Taking them to places like Kansas City and Minneapolis was really important. A studio wouldn’t have cared to stretch out the process and keep it going.”