Vardalos talks motherhood, a third film, and going sans makeup on screen
It’s been 14 years since My Big Fat Greek Wedding broke out as a surprise olive oil-slicked hit, entertaining audiences with its missive about the magical healing power of Windex while delivering a sweet take on breaking free from family tradition. Though it became immediately obvious that fans would welcome a sequel, Vardalos decided that other matters – namely motherhood – would take priority.
“I was waiting for motherhood to come my way, to explore the emotions that a mom would know because I had written that Toula and Ian were parents at the end of the first film, and I wanted to keep the story linear,” Vardalos says. “The wait for the sequel is completely my fault.”
Reuniting cast members John Corbett, Michael Constantine, and Lainie Kazan, along with adding fresh faces like newcomer Elena Kampouris alongside Rita Wilson and John Stamos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 revisits the Portokalos family, only to find that nearly two decades later, Toula still struggles to balance a personal life with the demands of her overbearing family. Here, Vardalos opens up about settling on a film plot, the search for her on-screen daughter, and reconnecting with Corbett.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was there a specific event or experience that inspired My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2?
NIA VARDALOS: On my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, another mom said something that made me realize I had become my own Greek, suffocating mother. She said, “Just think, in 13 years they’ll leave us and go to college!” And I went “Gulp.” I sucked all the air out of the room and I realized, “Oh my God, that’s the sequel,” and I started writing it that very day. I worked on the script for almost four years.
What about your specific experience with motherhood was important to address in this movie?
I think there is a moment in every parent’s life where we realize that we have lost ourselves a little bit. It’s a moment of looking in the mirror and going, “I need to put on some lipstick.” That’s how I felt. So [during filming], I was absolutely adamant that I would not wear any makeup in the opening scenes. Not even moisturizer. Nothing. I was like, “It’s got to be authentic.”
Which cast member did you call first with the news about a sequel?
I called John Corbett on his birthday, to tell him we were going to go forward with the sequel and that I had finished the script and was going to send it to him. And then I picked up the phone and got to call the other cast members but I only told two, because by the time I got to the third, fourth and fifth calls, they had all called each other! They all knew.
What do you think John did in his role that made it so important to bring him back?
That’s an excellent question. We had auditioned so many actors all those years ago, and I kept trying to explain that there was something missing in the eyes, where the real Ian, as John calls [my husband] Ian Gomez, has a kindness and approached my family with an amused love. He wasn’t ever judgmental of them. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sure, I’ll get baptized.” That’s what John Corbett has in his eyes. He was raised by a single mother. He’s a feminist, he loves strong women, and yet he’s a guy’s guy, just like the real Ian. He is that person. He knew why I didn’t write the sequel right away, because I was in a private struggle to become a mom. I confided in him. I said, “I don’t want you to think I’m stubborn and don’t want to say yes to the sequel offer.” He was amazing. He took my hand and said, “That’s okay. We don’t have to make a sequel. We can be friends.” And he’s been one of my closest friends.
Did you experience any difficulties resigning any of the original cast?
The only person we had to say, “We’ll make it comfortable for you” was the actress who plays the grandmother, Beth Meisler. I said, “Beth I cannot do it without you. What would it take to bring you with us again on this fantastic fun Disneyland ride?” And she said, I’d like to bring my daughter with me. We said “Great!” So she came too.
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You have a few newcomers to the film, including John Stamos. Why was it important to bring him on?
John Stamos’ mom had mentioned to me before she passed away that if I ever did a sequel, it’d sure be fun to have John in it. I had to keep my promise to her.
Tell me about the process of finding an actress to play your daughter.
The producers and I felt it was extremely important to discover an unknown person. Elena embodied everything we were looking for in. In our casting call, we were open to all ethnicities, Israeli, Armenian, Italian, and Greek. But Elena, this half-Greek girl living in New Jersey puts herself on tape and through these various Greek connections, gets it to us. There was something about the way she channeled the angst, innocence, and awkwardness. She pulled it off in an on-tape audition without any direction.
In My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, you recreate a few scenes from the first film. Which was your favorite to tackle?
My favorite was walking into Dancing Zorbas with Michael Constantine. It was such an emotional day for us. We hired the same production designer as the last film, and he recreated Dancing Zorbas to the finest detail. When I walked in there and put on the seating hostess smock, I told him, “I feel like I never left this cash register.” They rebuilt almost everything, except the Portokalos house, which is authentic. It’s the same house.
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Are you planning to make a third film?
Have you been talking to John Corbett? At the end of production, as we were walking off set, we looked at each other a bit wistfully, and he put his arm around me and said, “Hey baby, let’s do this again.”
And what was your response?
I said, “I need a little time to write it but I won’t make you wait 14 years.”
The concept of a woman and family who feel to a certain extent foreign in a foreign land, still feels fresh all these years later. Is there anything about that storyline which you think is particularly relevant today, especially that we’re in an election season and surrounded by all these very complicated issues?
It really is complicated stuff. America was founded on immigrants. The immigrant experience is common to all of us. If you aren’t a descendent of the Mayflower or if you’re a Native American, you see your family in this film. And I understand that now more than ever, because I’ve had 14 years of people coming up to me saying, “I’m Scottish, and I married a man from Israel. I’m Peruvian and I married a woman from Italy.” Those stories have made me realize that we’re all the same.