Varda­los re­gained chops for gru­elling mu­si­cal

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Laura Kane

TORONTO — When Nia Varda­los first ar­rived at re­hearsals for Theatre 20’s Com­pany, she thought she had made a ter­ri­ble mis­take. “I couldn’t re­mem­ber how to do har­monies. I had not sung live in 15 years, other than do­ing ben­e­fits, and moved around at the same time,” she re­called. “I went home and called my hus­band and said, ‘I’m in over my head. I’ve made a huge mis­take. I’m the re­me­dial mem­ber of the cast.’ And then I just re­mem­bered the old me — the fear­less id­iot that tends to just take stuff on.” Varda­los, the Win­nipeg-born ac­tress best known for writ­ing and star­ring in 2002 sur­prise hit My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding, is not one to be eas­ily dis­cour­aged. She went home, put on her head­phones and prac­tised un­til she mas­tered the tunes. “One day I could just hit the notes. Then it started to be fun, re­ally fun,” she said with a bright smile, sit­ting back­stage af­ter a week­day mati­nee at the Berke­ley Theatre in Toronto. Her bub­bly per­for­mance as Jenny eas­ily ri­vals her Com­pany cast­mates, an im­pres­sive en­sem­ble of Canada’s top theatre stars: Brent Carver, Louise Pitre and Carly Street among them. A re­vival of a Stephen Sond­heim mu­si­cal that cen­tres on an un­mar­ried man’s 35th birth­day, Com­pany ex­plores at­ti­tudes to­ward com­mit­ment, hap­pi­ness and what it means to be alive. Varda­los said that she was drawn to the pro­duc­tion be­cause Theatre 20 — an artist-led com­pany founded to present story-driven mu­si­cals — re­minded her of her own hum­ble be­gin­nings. “It’s ac­tors who have come to­gether to cre­ate a com­pany. How great. How smart. That ap­peals to me be­cause I had to write my own movie to get into the in­dus­try,” she said. “We are like-minded in that we can’t just sit around and wait for the phone to ring. You gotta call yourself to get a job.” The show wraps on Sun­day, and af­ter a gru­elling eight per­for­mances each week, Varda­los says she’s headed straight back to work — se­lect­ing a di­rec­tor next week for the My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding se­quel. Varda­los, 51, said that her pro­duc­ers and men­tors, Tom Hanks and Rita Wil­son, wanted a se­quel im­me­di­ately af­ter the orig­i­nal film be­came a smash hit, netting $200 mil­lion in North Amer­ica alone and nab­bing an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for her script. But at the end of the first film, her char­ac­ter Toula be­comes a mother, and Varda­los her­self was strug­gling to con­ceive at the time. “I was in such a strug­gle to be­come a mom that I just couldn’t do it. I just could not do the se­quel for the sim­ple rea­son it would be dif­fi­cult to write an ex­pe­ri­ence that I was not hav­ing. And the Amer­i­can press was so in­va­sive,” she said.

“I thought, ‘I can’t do it,’ and I hid, and did all these other fun movies that I wanted to ex­plore. Now that I am a mom, there is just such a story that I want to tell. And al­though just like the first one there are things that have been made up, the script for num­ber 2 is from my real ex­pe­ri­ence.” Varda­los wrote about her ex­pe­ri­ence adopt­ing a fos­ter child from the United States in her re­cent mem­oir In­stant Mom. She do­nated pro­ceeds from the book sales to adop­tion char­i­ties, selected care­fully by her daugh­ter Ilaria, now 9. “I wel­come the lines around my eyes be­cause I know that it’s be­cause I am ridicu­lously happy. She is a very spe­cial per­son. I know ev­ery­one thinks their child is amaz­ing, but mine is,” she said with a laugh. The script for the My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding se­quel has been in the works for four years now, but Varda­los said she felt stuck — un­til her par­ents re­cently stopped by for a visit. “My par­ents came to live with us for a month dur­ing the win­ter months, and just watch­ing their dy­namic, one night I went, ‘I got it! I got it!’ and just went to my of­fice and fin­ished it,” she said. She turned in the script to Play­tone — the pro­duc­tion com­pany cre­ated by Hanks and pro­ducer Gary Goet­z­man — on John Cor­bett’s birth­day. Cor­bett, who played her fi­ancé in the orig­i­nal film and set many fe­male hearts rac­ing, was im­me­di­ately back on board, said Varda­los. “I texted John Cor­bett and said, ‘Do you feel like kiss­ing me again?’ He was like, ’I’m in, baby,”’ she laughed. Al­though Varda­los says she’s sworn to se­crecy about the plot — “The pro­duc­ers in Los Angeles told me if I talk about My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding they will Taser me from there!” — she promised that the se­quel will in­clude a wed­ding. The whole “big fat fam­ily” has been in­vited back, with some spe­cial sur­prise guests thrown in, she added. Varda­los re­called how when My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding was re­leased, she went from be­ing a starv­ing artist to host­ing Satur­day Night Live within six months. Asked about her Os­car nom­i­na­tion, tears came to Varda­los’s eyes. “The phone rang and it was my best friend, Kathryn Green­wood ( Wind at my Back ac­tress),” she said, her voice break­ing. “I had slept through the nom­i­na­tions. That’s how bone tired I was ... She called and she was cry­ing, and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ She said, ‘You’ve been nom­i­nated for an Os­car!”’ Some things re­main the same in her life since the film was re­leased — she re­mains hap­pily mar­ried to hus­band Ian Gomez and still pals around with old friends. But Varda­los says the big­gest change has been in her per­spec­tive. “I think I have more con­fi­dence and con­nect­ed­ness to a com­mu­nity at large. I think I was go­ing through a very soli­tary ex­pe­ri­ence of feel­ing that I couldn’t get act­ing work and blam­ing my­self,” she said. “I wrote the (first) script out of des­per­a­tion, and this one I wrote out of joy.”


Nia Varda­los worked hard on her role in Toronto mu­si­cal theatre pro­duc­tion of Com­pany.

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