Actress Nia Vardalos found romance and an Academy Award nomination for the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding. She is actually from Greek Canadian parents and married to Cougar Town's Ian Gomez. She adopted a daughter and became a U.S. citizen in 1999. Then, she pretended to be a drag queen in Connie and Carla, and a florist in I Hate Valentine's Day.
Her television roles have included being on Drop Dead Diva, My Big Fat Greek Life and Grey's Anatomy. She returns to TV for a guest stint this week on Law & Order: SVU as an attorney.
Vardalos talked about that and her big fat gay life with musicals.
Windy City Times: Hi, Nia. I think I have your career covered because I'm gay and adopted, and I live in Chicago.
Nia Vardalos: My Godare we related?
WCT: We might be! Could you talk about your huge gay following after playing a drag queen?
Nia Vardalos: Thank you so much. Actually, I have a book coming out called Instant Mom, which is the story of how I became a mom to our daughter was a preschooler when we adopted her and it was with 14 hours' notice she walked in our door.
One of the things that I talk about is how I am trying very hard to play musicals constantly because I love musicals so much I think I actually am a gay man. I play them in the car. The moment I turned around and she was singing the lines to Funny Girl, I was like, "My work is done."
WCT: Do you have a favorite musical?
Nia Vardalos: I would say it's a tossup between Evita and Rent. Evita, when I sing it in my car, I play Che and Evita of course.
WCT: What made you want to play this character on Law & Order: SVU?
Nia Vardalos: I never get offered things like this. I never get roles where I get to say lines like "There is a presupposition. The perpetrator is in that line-up." Never. The roles that I'm offered are usually I stand on a cliff with wind blowing my hair and I kiss a guy way out of my league. Those are my roles.
So this was delightful for me to get to go and do something nerdy again. You know, I'm from Second City. Second City girls like to black out a tooth and play a character, so that was extremely freeing. I got to work with Mariska [Hargitay], and Raul [Esparza] and Ice-T. Like it was just a dream. Like every day, I was calling my husband going, "No way!"
WCT: What did you think of her when you got the script? It says she is a deceptively tough attorney.
Nia Vardalos: I actually wondered about that as well. It said, "Disheveled," and I wondered am I walking into a room surrounded by a mess like the character Pigpen from Charlie Brown. You know I really wasn't sure, but the costumer is so good at keeping things from being costume-y. She and I found this really great look that it was just a person who is absolutely more focused on her work than her appearance. The producers and I agreed that I would be kempt, but just sort of nerdy. So not slovenly, the case is the most important thing to this person and I just felt that was so freeing. I've never worn more flammable polyester in my life.
The clothes, the shoes, the everything, were just really forming for me. It helped me create this slouchy walk. Also, I love that about the show. That things are never what they seem to be. I think the writing is inspired in that way that you think things are going one way and then they go the other.
WCT: Who did you base the character on?
Nia Vardalos: I have a cousin to illustrate any situation. There are 28 of us so there is always somebody. I have a cousin who is a prosecutor and now a judge in Cook County, Ill.
When I worked at Second City in Chicago, on my days off, I would go and watch there in the courtroom because it was just fascinating to me. When I was teaching classes at Second City I had a few lawyers taking improvisational classes because they felt that it would make them a little quicker on their feet. So I used my cousin Anna Demacopoulos as the inspiration for this character. Not the look, but for the fierceness and the tenacity.
WCT: What was a memorable moment from filming the episode?
Nia Vardalos: It happened off-camera, actually. Raul Esparza leaned into my ear and sang the song that I love so much from Company. I melted and Mariska absolutely cracked up laughing. I just loved them. They were really welcoming and really warm, and I told them all what a fan I was of them, and they just let me gush. It was really a nice set.
WCT: What was working with the cast like?
Nia Vardalos: Sometimes, it can feel a little clique-y. You know how sometimes you don't realize when you are walking into a new job you are the one that no one knows. I tend to be a little tentative in new situations and sort of see what its like, but they didn't even give me a chance.
As soon as I walked on the set, Mariska was walking the other way and she went, "Hey I'm so glad you are here," and hugged me before I had even gone into hair and makeup. When I got to the set in my sort of nerdy outfit with the glasses, they all started laughing and were just like really fun.
WCT: How is working on films different than television?
Nia Vardalos: For me, it's the same because I've only done low-budget films, so I never get the luxury of several takes. We are usually going very quickly and the camera barely moves. Now in a TV show like thiswith multiple cameras, a very experienced director, a crew with DPit's almost a step up for me from the productions.
Like I remember when we were shooting My Life in Ruins in Greece; we were so independently financed that we were afraid we were going to be shut down at any moment. That film was a negative pick-up for FOX.
My movies are always on a wing and a prayer. When I shot I Hate Valentine's Day, it was so low-budget, and an 18-day shoot. My camera never moved. I'm sure you noticed. For my directorial debut, I had so little footage to cut from that during John Corbett's speech, if he flubbed a line and I had to cut away from him, I had to use my stupid expression staring off camera.
I had nothing. My God. It was terrible. I couldn't even cut to a lamp. I used every there was nothing for outtakes even. I used every shred of film on that thing. Then I get to a set like Law & Order: SVU and it's a well-oiled machine.
WCT: You were nominated for an Oscar with My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Have you been able to check out the other nominees?
Nia Vardalos: Yeah, that's a big thing over here. We do movie night a lot. We like to see the films in theaters. Even though I get screeners there's just nothing as special as going into a movie theater. I think it's just the way I was raised. I don't like to watch a movie unless I'm smelling popcorn. We have been seeing as many movies as possible, and by we, I mean my husband and I.
WCT: Well, come back to Chicago soon.
Nia Vardalos: I actually am coming back for the book tour and I'm very excited. I realize that the signing will be the swarthiest one you've ever seen because I will be predominantly made up by my cousins.
WCT: I will bring the gays to the signing.
Nia Vardalos: Okay, so we will have feta and showtunes. How will we go wrong?
Look for Vardalos on Law & Order: SVU on the "Criminal Hatred" episode Jan. 30. Visit www.nbc.com for details.