You loved the movie, now bear the TV show

Nia Vardalos builds ‘Big Fat Greek’ franchise
By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY
A blockbuster movie can do amazing things for a stalled sitcom.
Nia Vardalos and Steven Eckholdt star as newlyweds in My Big Fat Greek Life.
CBS passed on Nia Vardalos’ pilot about her raucous Greek family for last fall’s schedule. But the mood changed when her $5 million film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, became the year’s surprise hit and grossed more than $240 million.
“When the film crossed $120 million, they coincidentally picked up the phone and said, ‘We’re picking you up as a series,’ ” Vardalos says of My Big Fat Greek Life, which makes its debut tonight (9:30 ET/PT), then moves to Sundays (8 ET/PT).
In less than a year, Vardalos has gone from Hollywood hopeful to the real-life star of a Cinderella story more unlikely than that of her Wedding character, a mousy type who found love, pizazz and the backbone to stand up to her loving but domineering family.
“We’re out on video. We’re in theaters. And the TV show is premiering. It’s just unheard of,” Vardalos says of her Greek empire. “And really fun.”
There’s an Oscar nomination, too, for best original screenplay.
Vardalos, 40, a Winnipeg native and veteran of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, remains stunned by the power of a short, family-oriented monologue. Inspired by her family and her husband, actor Ian Gomez, her piece grew into a screenplay and a one-woman show, produced with the simple goal of trying to attract a better agent. After Rita Wilson, an actress of Greek heritage, saw the show, she and her husband, Tom Hanks, shepherded the story onto the big screen. Both are involved in producing the series.
“I keep thinking I’ll be able to catch my breath one of these days. One thing piles on the next. I have these moments, as if I’ve absorbed it all. Then I start to shiver. What happened?” says Vardalos, who also will star in the upcoming movie Connie and Carla Do L.A.
As star and co-executive producer of the TV show, with responsibility for its voice and tone, Vardalos hopes to remain faithful to the film while moving beyond it. To start, she wants to reduce the old-world feel, making the family less obstinate and shifting away from such themes as the father’s idea that women shouldn’t go to college.
The success of Wedding probably means many viewers will give Life a look. But Brad Grey, whose company is one of Life’s producers, hopes the early spotlight doesn’t lead to snap judgments.
“My experience is you don’t find your footing for six to 13 shows,” he says. “Hopefully, if given time, we’ll find our way to an entertaining show.”
In what might be a first for a movie turned sitcom, all but one member of the movie cast returns, including Portokalos family members Lainie Kazan, Michael Constantine, Andrea Martin, Louis Mandylor and Gia Carides. The change is the spouse: Steven Eckholdt (It’s Like, You Know …) replaces John Corbett, who has his own series, Lucky, premiering on FX in April.
Eckholdt, a longtime friend of Vardalos’, played the same part in the pilot and says the series has been more fun. “It just has a different vibe to it. It might be that it’s the cast; there’s a cohesiveness they bring with them.”
Eckholdt doesn’t feel like a stranger at the Wedding party, but he realizes his relationship with his on-screen Greek-American in-laws has to be laced with frustration. “There has to be that conflict in order to sustain it. A movie is a two-hour capsule. A TV series has to be there every week.”
The presence of Eckholdt and the Wedding cast creates an instant comfort level for Vardalos on the set, but there have been adjustments and concessions. She didn’t want a laugh track, but that sitcom staple will be there. The demands of a weekly series mean delegating writing duties.
On Wedding, “I had complete autonomy. No one touched a word of that screenplay but me,” Vardalos says. “At CBS, they are very supportive, but I can’t possibly write every episode. And yet these are characters I created, so no one knows them better than I do.
“It’s a tough couple of first episodes, trying to keep characters’ voices right, trying to keep jokes out of the script. It’s a work in progress.”
Marsh McCall, the day-to-day executive producer, is impressed by Vardalos’ ability to jump from writing to rehearsing to editing. “She doesn’t seem to need sleep,” he says.
Even with non-stop work, the series could find crossover success elusive. For every M*A*S*H, there are plenty of duds, such as Working Girl and 9 to 5.
But Vardalos, who went from virtual anonymity to wealth and fame in less than a year, says she doesn’t feel pressure.
“I’m a bit of a fearless idiot that way,” she says. “I honestly think this whole experience is, ‘Hey, I’ll try it.’ If it doesn’t work, OK, I’ll do something else.”