My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3
Nia Vardalos and John Corbett in My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3. Photo Credit: Focus Features

Nia Vardalos didn’t believe she could direct again.

After her feature directorial debut, 2009’s I Hate Valentine’s Day, died on the vine at the box office and among critics, she avoided a return to the director’s chair — until this year’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3.

Vardalos is an accomplished actress who wrote and starred in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) and its 2016 sequel. The first movie in the franchise started as a screenplay, which she performed as a one-woman stage play before getting it made into a feature. She’s also acted in countless television shows, including Jane the Virgin, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, Law and Order: SVU, and the My Big Fat Greek Life spin-off series.

The idea of both directing and starring in the upcoming My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 wasn’t even on her mind until series producer Gary Goetzman encouraged her to take on the responsibility. 

“On the second film, our producer Gary Goetzman said the difference between director Kirk Jones and me is Kirk thinks he can do it. That really struck me as the reason that I was not directing,” Vardalos told MovieMaker. “That and John Corbett said he wouldn’t do the third movie unless I directed it.”

What Is My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 About?

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 follows the Portokalos family, led by Toula (Vardalos) and Ian (Corbett), as they travel to a family reunion in Greece after the death of family patriarch and Windex-loving Gus (Michael Constantine). Actresses Lainie Kazan and Andrea Martin also returned for the threequel. 

The franchise finds itself nestled in a subgenre of Romcoms that are equally about family as they are about falling in love. Moonstruck, The Wedding Banquet, and Ray Romano’s directorial debut Somewhere in Queens are a few other examples of that subgenre. And it’s no coincidence that each movie deals with a culture clash in the American immigrant experience.

These films have a unique ability to bring audiences comfort by helping them “laugh, to cry, to care. Because we need that, all of us,” to quote Nicole Kidman’s AMC ad. 

Also Read: In The Nun 2, Director Michael Chaves Takes Us Demon-Hunting in 1950s France

MovieMaker spoke with Nia Vardalos about adding the director title alongside writer, star, and executive producer. She told us how an agent’s discrimination almost sabotaged her career before it even began; describes the pain of losing friend and series actor Michael Constantine before filming part three, and why Hollywood hasn’t been able to copy the franchise’s success.

MovieMaker spoke with Vardalos prior to the Screen Actors Guild going on strike.

Joshua Encinias: In 2002, I wanted to see the new Hannibal Lecter movie Red Dragon, but couldn’t get in because it’s rated R. So I bought a ticket for My Big Fat Greek Wedding instead. The theater was packed with adults, and then I walk in, the only person my age seeing it. Long story short, I loved it. 

Nia Vardalos: I love that so much. There are aspects of every movie, whether they’re successful or not, that you think, “Oh, I remember making that scene.” But to hear from an actual person who saw the movie and had that response is really touching for me. 

JE: You’ve said that early in your career, an agent excluded you from work in Hollywood because you’re Greek. Will you share how you turned that rejection into a one-woman play that became the first movie?

NV: Sometimes I’m depicted as this very strong person who was rejected by Hollywood and therefore created my own story. The reality is that it hurt to be told that my ethnicity and my looks were the problem. I never had my looks categorized as being detrimental to my career. So, anyway, f- her, because look how it turned out. 

JE: How did you handle the rejection? 

NV: I was raised with comedy, so within twelve hours, it became a really good story that I was telling at parties — that my agent told me I wasn’t pretty enough to be a leading lady and not fat enough to be a character actor. 

People were not even shocked. They would say, “Oh yeah, my agent told me the same thing.” I realized that story and that negativity was going to drag me down. I had to turn the experiences into something, so I borrowed a friend’s computer and wrote the screenplay for My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

JE: So it was actually a screenplay before you performed it on stage.

NV: I didn’t have any means whatsoever of getting it made into a movie, and that’s why I jumped on stage and did it as a solo show. I thought I could at least be a storyteller. I’m not a stand-up, but I performed at Second City, and every night on stage there’s a catharsis and an exchange of energy that I did not realize I was wholly dependent on as an artist. So in creating my own screenplay, turning it into a solo show, and then when Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks came to the show, I accidentally created my own job when they helped me create the first movie. 

But I was not that strong to begin with and I really need to be clear about that. I became a beacon of hope for people, but it came out of a bleakness in myself.

JE: How did you use your experience with this agent to push you forward instead of, say, using it as a reason to leave the industry?

NV: I turned that pain and anger into absolute empathy and it informed the way I write female characters. I always show positive female friendships. 

My own child pointed out that when I get up from the table, the women in my friend group don’t talk about me. That’s what my teenager hates about high school. I said, it gets better, but I realized, it’s all about the kind of women you surround yourself with. That’s why I have full empathy for the person who told me that, because she catapulted me into my career. 

JE: You’ve had other setbacks in the industry, but some of your movies like Connie and Carla became cult classics. 

NV: The poster for Connie and Carla has a billboard on it and we didn’t even have a real billboard to promote the movie. We just had no support, and years later, I have so many young gay kids telling me what the movie meant to them and that it helped them come out. 

That’s why we’re supposed to do what we do. Here’s what you have to tell yourself over and over: “I like that movie.” You cannot hope that it’s going to be a critical darling, because you will never know what’s going on in the heart and mind of a critic, ever. You just have to love them for who they are, like that agent, right?

JE: How did you prepare to direct the third movie?

NV: Years ago, I followed Mike Nichols around during Charlie Wilson’s War and asked him far too many questions to still have a civil relationship with him before he passed away, but I learned a lot. And between the second and third Greek Wedding movies, I set about learning how to direct: I studied, took courses, shadowed directors, and asked questions. 

JE: As an actor yourself, what’s something unique about the way you direct fellow actors?

NV: As an actor, I have to get warmed up. So as a director, if you need to reset a scene with something small like a prop or two, all you have to do is run into the scene, tell them not to cut, and move the cup back. Then tell your actors and script supervisor to go again. It allows the actors get so warmed up that they give you magic.

JE: How is the third chapter different from the first two movies?

NV: I took a big leap in this movie because not a lot of Greeks are familiar with some of the things I depict. I don’t show the typical Greece. We’ve seen that. This time, I wanted to show a very wealthy side of Greece to depict the migrant experience, that no one leaves a wonderful, beautiful life by choice. People leave because of war and famine and the lack of opportunities. 

JE: How did the absence of actor Michael Constantine as Portokalos family patriarch Gus change the dynamics of your cast? How did it shape the story?

NV: It affected us deeply. We each have ten great stories about Michael. He was our dad in every way. It affected us emotionally. Lainie Kazan, Louis Mandylor, Gia Carides, and I went and had our own small wake for him because his family was in Reading, Pennsylvania and didn’t have a funeral because of COVID.

I miss him so much and I missed him on set. One of the final scenes that we filmed was the tribute to him in the movie, the Michael Constantine scene. And that was so difficult for me to do. I was holding Louis Mandylor’s hand as we were going through it. Because the very last scene of the first movie that we filmed was Michael Constantine and me alone in the car and he says to me, “You better get married soon ’cause you’re starting to look old.” It was quite fitting that we ended with Michael, but it was hard for us. 

JE: How do you balance the humor of Greek stereotypes with your character’s humanity?

NV: I think that the reality of my real family is much more of a caricature than I could ever show on screen because no one would believe it. I would never say the Portokalos family is the model Greek family in the same way that we wouldn’t say the family in Goodfellas is the model Italian family. They are one Greek family. I’ve spent a lifetime of some people thinking I’ve gone too far and other people saying I haven’t gone far enough. I think I’m okay with it. I’ve become quite Teflon. You have to say “This is my sense of humor and that’s it.”

JE: Why do you think the first movie is still the most profitable Hollywood romcom of the last twenty years?

NV: I’m quite proud that the industry doesn’t quite get it. I think the movie’s kookiness and its non-conformity is its value. I didn’t set out to do that, it’s just my sense of humor. People seem to relate to my weird, fish-out-of-water stories. 

We’re supposed to be telling our stories and not trying to satisfy the key target markets. Not what’s selling, not what will connect with audiences, because then I’ll have to walk away from my own creative integrity. Sometimes I’m going to be successful and sometimes it won’t quite connect with the audience, but it’s always going to be something I like to make: sweet movies that show when you stay true to yourself, you will most likely get to kiss a cute boy.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 arrives in theaters in the U.S. on Friday from Focus Features.

Main Image: Nia Vardalos and John Corbett in My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3. Photo Credit: Focus Features

Mentioned This Article: