Nia Vardalos: A Greek Mom For an ‘American Girl'

The Actress Takes On Her First On-Screen Mom Role After Really Becoming One

With her big, fat Greek wedding (and hit movie) behind her, Nia Vardalos has moved on to parenthood, on screen and off.

After getting famous as a big screen bride in her breakout indie film a decade ago, Vardalos takes on her first movie role as a mother, in “An American Girl: McKenna Shoots For the Stars,” which debuts on home video July 3 and then airs July 14 on NBC. The film, based on the wildly popular doll brand, casts the actress as the mom of a competitive young gymnast who struggles to find balance between her everyday life and her big dreams.

The mother of a young daughter herself, Vardalos tells PopcornBiz about growing into the role of mom in life and in art, her day of discovery with the uber-famous dolls and how both she and her daughter will remain ever bonded to their favorite toys.

This must've been a rewarding project to get involved with.

I saw Debra Martin Chase, the producer, at a party and like all good things that come my way, they're always not from an audition or a meeting that's set up. It's always by some sort of socializing and this is exactly what happened. She said, 'I'm doing a movie in Winnipeg.' I said, 'Oh, that's my hometown. If you need anything, here's my cell phone number' – because of course all Canadian middle children, all we ever want to do is help people. She took my cell phone number and she called the next day, and she said, 'Nia, there's a mom role in this movie.' I went, 'What?' She said, 'It's the "American Girl" movie.' I went, 'Stop talking!' I was so excited. So, I called my lawyer and I said, 'You're going to get a call from Debra Martin Chase. Please, don't ask her anything. I will do this movie for free.' He said, 'I hope you didn't tell her that.'

I'm sure he made certain you didn't.

I have to tell you, I would've done it for just a week of dolls. My daughter thinks that I'm cool and that's all that matters.

Where were the American Girl dolls on your personal radar, in your life, before this project?

Actually, it's almost too tied in. I'll tell you what happened. We were at The Grove. We had adopted our daughter when she was three years old, and we were at The Grove and paparazzi were there and we were trying very hard – this was in 2008 – to keep her privacy and anonymity. So we ducked into that store, and this was a store that I avoided like you wouldn't believe. Motherhood for me was hard to come by, and so I would never have gone into the store before that. I was so charmed by the place because of how it's about child empowerment. 'What's your talent? Oh, it's horseback riding. Mine is gymnastics. Oh, you're a reader? I'm a writer.' I just love that about the whole American Girl world. So as we walked around this place, I said to my daughter, 'Choose a doll that you feel looks like you,' in helping her form her identity and also keep who she of course is in the first place, when she came to live with us. So she chose a doll that day and the American Girl people were so kind to us and didn't even act like that it was out of the norm that suddenly I had a child with me. That was it. We left and that was it, and so it's kind of beautiful and very full circle for me to be playing my first mom role in a place that helped my daughter. She of course has her doll, the Rebecca Doll, and now I'm the mom in the next movie, so it's kind of cool.

Did you feel that it was almost a give back, that you got something great from American Girl and so you wanted to give back whatever you could?

No, because I still think that I win in this situation, to get to play the mom. I still win because my daughter threw her arms up in the air. She had no interest whatsoever in my career before this. She'd been seeing the ‘American Girl’ movies for years, and when I told her that I was going to play the mom in the next movie she threw her arms up in the air and screamed 'That's my favorite!'

What's the thing that sticks out in your mind about how being a mom changed you, something that you never really saw coming?

I think the thing that got me the most is that I've always been an organized person, to the point where Ian Gomez, my husband, makes a joke about how I make lists of lists that I have to make, and yet nothing prepared me for how organized you have to be as a parent. Otherwise you will slowly keel over grey and have a heart attack from the amount of goldfish crackers that you eat as your daily intake. That's how I felt. I suddenly felt like, 'I'm not taking care of me,' and I had to really find time for exercise, taking my supplements, eating a balanced diet and go to my classes, my exercise classes. Otherwise I just wasn't present. I felt a little bit almost foggy and sleep deprived. So, that scene in the movie where the mother character talks about finding balance, finding time to do things with balance. For kids that makes a lot of sense because kids are over scheduled these days, and for parents, I think they'll be able to relate to that moment.

Do you think these movies have always had that dual message, something for the kids and for the parents?

Yeah, I think so. I think in all movies, like in 'Madagascar 3,' it had little, private jokes for the parents and also things for the kids. Of course we don't get each others humor and maybe that's why it's enjoyable to sit through these movies together. What I like about 'American Girl' is they don't have sly, private jokes for the parents. It's just an overall movie that you can watch with your kids and you know that it's safe. You know that suddenly one parent isn't going to jump into creek and disappear. They're sort of safe family viewing.

Did you have a toy growing up that you had an especially significant connection to?

Yes. I had a dog that was a wiener dog that I pulled on a string all over the neighborhood. I was that kid. Because of the 'Toy Story' movies – and also now seeing how my daughter feels so incredibly safe with her dog, one that looks exactly like our real dog and certain things that she holds and sleeps with – I don't throw anything of hers out now – anything! If she's not really playing with it I'll just put it in a box and put it away, because of those movies where now I look at her toys and I wonder when the lights go out, 'Do they come to life? Sure.' Those movies have captured something in them that makes us all relive our childhood, even watching 'Sesame Street.' Don't you suddenly remember? Could you ever imagine when you were a kid that you'd be an adult watching 'Sesame Street' with our kids? No.

I interviewed Kermit the Frog in the Muppet flesh and could barely keep myself together.

That's exactly how I feel. Now when I watch 'American Girl,' and the store is right by our house and it's not like I have to go out of the way, but I walk through this place and I think, 'This is a place that is teaching kids history, how to value what's important, the relationships in your life, girl power, the sisterhood.' You know how I feel about that. And I always think, 'If we had that growing up…oh, no, wait. We did. We had our own form it.' We're so lucky that we have this now.

What's going on for you behind the camera these days? Any projects as a writer or director on the horizon?

Yeah. I have a project with Rob Riggle that I've written, and also a film called 'For A Good Time, Call…' that I'm in that comes through Universal Focus in the fall, I think. Just all these different things: John Corbett and I just sat down and said, 'Hey, we should do something together soon.' You never know. Our ideas are always so far-fetched. We're like, 'Hey, maybe we're in a spaceship and we're looking for alien planets!' 'Yeah, maybe that's it – and we play guitars!'

It seems that with everyone that you became close to on ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” like John, you've remained professionally and personally very close to. What's it been like to have that extended Hollywood family and have those bonds really last over this time?

Very, very lucky. The beauty of 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' is that first of all Rita [Wilson] and Tom [Hanks] treated me like gold before the movie made a dime, ever. They were absolutely on my side, and then the cast, we became friends on the set because we didn't know we were low budget. We were just having a blast. There was catering. We were happy. Then the movie came out and that explosion happened, but it didn't really affect us because we were already friends. Subsequently, every movie after that… Rachel Dratch, we were friends from our days at Second City. I just made her be in two movies with me just so we could hang out.

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