Say Yes to These 20 Secrets About My Big Fat Greek Wedding

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Nia Vardalos and John Corbett Dish on “Greek Wedding 2”

Break out the Windex, company’s coming.

Throughout the spring of 2002, moviegoers all over the country were saying “Opa!” to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the tiny rom-com with an A-plus-list producing pedigree that became one of the highest-grossing films of the year and made everyone in attendance at the Portokalos-Miller nuptials feel like part of the family.

Based on writer-star Nia Vardalos‘ own marriage to an American of non-Greek provenance and the humorous aspects of his eventual acceptance into her boisterous, tight-knit Greek-Canadian clan, the culture clash at the heart of the story turned out to be a premise a lot of folks could relate to, no matter their backgrounds. Directed by Joel Zwick, the film cost an estimated $5 million to make and grossed $368.7 million worldwide. 

Not that Vardalos threw a wedding just for the gifts.

“When everyone talked about the financial success of the movie, I really didn’t know what they were talking about as I didn’t understand that part of the industry,” she reflected to Huffington Post in 2012. “All that mattered to me was that I finally felt heard.  I didn’t ever look like the standard North American beauty. When the movie came out, people would tell me I was so lucky to have gotten such a part with my looks. But because I grew up with such confidence, none of that registered with me.”

The film resonating with so many people around the globe was what stuck with her, Vardalos continued. “I was in Times Square and a bunch of Japanese tourists looked at me and started shouting ‘Toula!’ I loved it,” she shared. “It’s these tiny moments of connection that register with me the most and always have.”

If she sounded a little nonchalant about her film’s smash-hit status, Vardalos—a writer, comedian and actress with a handful of bit parts to her name before this—once again pointed to how she was raised.

“It’s impossible for success to go to your head with a Greek mom—no way,” she explained. “When I got a call telling me that never before had a film playing in so few theaters been seen by so many people, I hung up and told my mom, ‘Hey, I think something huge is happening with the movie.’ She said, ‘That’s so nice…Now, will you take the chicken out of the oven?'”

And if you don’t eat meat, not to worry, she’ll make lamb. Here are 20 secrets about the making of My Big Fat Greek Wedding:

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My Small, No-Frills One-Woman Show

An improv specialist who polished her skills as a member of Chicago’s Second City, Nia Vardalos wasn’t getting the sitcom opportunities that studios were passing out like candy to standup comedians in the 1990s, so she decided to write and develop her own material. Her efforts ultimately landed her in Los Angeles, where she performed her solo venture called My Big Fat Greek Wedding in whichever theaters she could book, leaving fliers promoting the show at every Greek church in town.

“I had no idea of the lousy odds of getting your screenplay produced,” she recalled to the Chicago Tribune in 2019. “But it’s not so bad, really, to be a fearless idiot.”

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Meant to Be

Fate came calling when Rita Wilson, daughter of a Greek mom, caught the show at the Acme Comedy Theater one night in 1997 after seeing an ad for it in the Los Angeles Times. The phone number to reserve a seat was Vardalos’ own line, so she knew when the actress was coming—and when Tom Hanks was in the audience a week later, his wife having liked it so much she insisted the Oscar winner go see it, too. 

When Wilson told her she wanted to make the show into a movie, “I handed Rita my screenplay so fast that her hair flew back,” Vardalos told the Tribune.

But her friends “thought I was making it up,” Vardalos told The GBTV Show in 2002, recalling their reaction when she said that Hanks and Wilson might be interested in producing her screenplay. The guys, in turn, would pretend to be Hanks whenever they called. That happened so often that when Hanks finally did call, she totally thought it was her friend Brian.

“So I went, ‘Yeah, all right,'” Vardalos recalled saying in response to his assertion that it was Tom Hanks on the line. “There was this pause and he went, ‘No really, it is.'”

Fast-forward more than four years to the film’s premiere, and Vardaolos told E! on the red carpet, “I got really lucky. Obviously I kind of won the lottery here.”

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Not the Right Fit

Wilson and Hanks weren’t the first producers to show interest in Vardalos’ script, but she has said that those who came before wanted to make the family another ethnicity and cast a famous actress in the lead role.

“‘Here’s a big check. We’ll make it Italian and get Marisa Tomei to play the lead,'” Vardalos quoted one producer’s pitch to the Washington Post in 2002. “I said no. I just thought it was blasphemous to turn my family into anything else.”

But she was the star of the film all along once Hanks and Wilson were onboard, no waiting until a bunch of other actresses had passed (as the story goes for so many classic roles). 

“It was that easy,” she quipped in a 2002 press interview. “They just plucked me from obscurity, and I said, ‘Wait, shouldn’t I be selling shoes at the mall?’ And they said, ‘No, kid, you’re gonna be in a movie!'” 

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Mr. Right

From the beginning, Vardalos wanted John Corbett—an Emmy nominee for Northern Exposure but the world’s favorite lovelorn furniture maker from Sex and the City—to play Ian Miller, the character based on her own husband, Ian Gomez

However, they were told Corbett wasn’t available, Vardalos recalled to 20/20 in 2018, and they still hadn’t found a leading man days before they were set to begin filming. So wasn’t she surprised when Corbett walked into the bar in Toronto where she was sitting with producer Gary Goetzman, co-founder of The Playtone Company with Hanks, and they overheard him telling the bartender he had just read the script for something called My Big Fat Greek Wedding. For whatever reason, his agent had told him the part had already gone to someone else.

So Vardalos and Goetzman immediately disabused him of that notion and in 10 minutes the part was his.

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The Big Makeunder

As part of her vow to change her life and become more independent, Vardolos’ Toula undergoes your basic movie makeover—she gets a new ‘do and clothes that fit and starts wearing contacts—but the early scene in which she’s in the car with her dad to open the family diner before dawn was shot last. So the aura of resignation was real.

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The Best Man

Gomez, who was a regular on Felicity at the time, plays movie-Ian’s best friend, Mike, a role Vardalos wrote specially for her husband because she wanted him to be part of the film in some way. “We didn’t want to play a couple opposite each other,” she explained to journalist Bobbie Wygant in 2002, “because we felt like it’s kind of a little presumptuous to tell an audience, ‘Look how cute we are as a couple!’ Actually, that’s just a lie. I wanted to cheat, so I wrote a movie.” Corbett, sitting next to her, laughed.

(Though Toula and Ian may still be chugging along, Vardalos and Gomez separated in 2017 after 23 years of marriage and ultimately divorced.)

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That’s What She Said

“When I started to write My Big Fat Greek Wedding, all I did was write down everything that had ever happened to me,” Vardalos told 20/20 in 2018. Meaning, many of the film’s sassiest lines aren’t wishful thinking.

Remembering a time when she was poking fun at her mom for being so traditionally domestic, Doreen Vardalos came up with a heck of a comeback. “‘Greek women, we might be lambs in the kitchen, but we’re tigers in the bedroom,’ is something that my mother said to me while we were making chicken soup,” Vardalos shared. “So I threw up in my mouth. And then I wrote it down.”

In the film, Toula’s mom, played by Lainie Kazan, memorably tells her daughter about the family’s real power structure, “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants.”

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Hooked on Ian

Vardalos’ mom was apparently very concerned that her daughter was going to injure herself shooting her big stunt—the scene when Ian first walks into the travel agency where Toula works to say hello and, forgetting she’s tethered by the cord of her phone headset (a very 2002-era problem), she offers to grab him a brochure and is yanked to the floor.

“The way you do it is you take two steps and then they throw a big mattress in behind you so that when you fall, you don’t break your head,” Vardalos told 20/20. But her mom didn’t know they were cushioning her fall. “I go flying back,” the actress said. “My mom was like, ‘She’s gonna hurt herself. Shut it down.'”

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Practice Makes Perfect

Vardalos had never starred in a movie before, let alone done a big kissing scene, so she asked Corbett if he could give her a preemptive smooch before they had to lock lips for the cameras.

“‘I’m really nervous about everyone seeing it, and could you just—could you just kiss me right now and let’s just get it over with?'” she recalled telling him to 20/20. “And he goes, ‘Right now?’ And I go, ‘Yeah, just kiss me right now.’ And he goes, ‘OK.’ So he just kissed me, right now. And I was like, ‘Oh, that was easy.’ So by the time we were on the set filming it four hours later, it was fine. It was easy. I wasn’t embarrassed.”

They may have wanted to give the rest of the crew a heads-up that they were rehearsing because, Vardalos added, “We found out years later that the hair artist on the movie had come out of the makeup trailer at that moment, seen us kissing, and went, ‘Oh, they’re having an affair.'”

Meanwhile, Vardalos insisted to Bobbie Wygant in 2002 that Gomez had never seen her kiss Corbett, not on set and not even onscreen. They would watch the movie, she explained, but if a kissing scene was about to happen, she’d squeeze his hand and he’d close his eyes. She’d squeeze again to let him know it was over, “and then he always turns to me and says [whispering], ‘That was a really long time.'”

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Mamma Mia

Stage and screen legend Lainie Kazan, who is of Spanish and Russian-Jewish descent, went straight to the source to prepare for her performance as Toula’s mother, Maria Portokalos: her family-run neighborhood Greek restaurant.

She spent several nights kibitzing with the staff of The Great Greek in Sherman Oaks, Calif., which has been open since 1984, and the matriarch of the business “had a fabulous attitude and accent,” Kazan told TooFab in 2017. “I had her read my part with her accent, and I taped it. And she really gave me the inside into the Greek culture.”

They were given fairly free rein with the material, she continued, and they all “improvised a bit. Who I am came through to the character. I embrace a lot. I’m a very loving person. I’m not at all judgmental. And I think in those ways, I was like my character.”

Overall, Kazan said, “It was my favorite movie to film because we all got very close. We went out to dinner every night. We really got along and everyone really had a lot of heart and great senses of humor. It was wonderful.”

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A Meaty Role

Vardalos wrote the part of Aunt Voula for veteran actress and comedian Andrea Martin.

“Even though I had been in Second City, I had never met her and I wanted to work with her,” she told Hollywood.com in 2002 before the film came out. “I created that character for her. I think about all the things that did happen on the set, the compromises I made, like cutting out 30 pages of the script and the things that didn’t work. But the things that did! Boy, I got to choose [John Corbett]. And for the role of my father, I begged them to find a Greek actor.”

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Getting the Families Together

Enter Emmy winner Michael Constantine. “When he left the audition, Tom slapped the table and said, ‘We’re done!'” Vardalos said. “Michael came out of retirement to play the role because he liked it so much.”

Though Kazan crushed it, Vardalos originally envisioned Greek-American Olympia Dukakis as Toula’s mom and Wilson as bombshell cousin Nikki (who ultimately was played by Greek-Australian actress Gia Carides).

“I took from my actual life and then I turned it up to 11,” Vardalos told BGTV. “I have all my cousins that I’ve ever had squished into cousin Nikki. My dad [in the film] is an amalgamation, pretty close to my dad, and then a couple of uncles who are [makes a few loops with her finger next to her head], and then my mom, I combined my mom and my grandma—my [real-life] mom doesn’t have an accent.”

And “every cousin that I have, somewhere in the movie, you hear their name,” she added. “That’s the one gift that I gave to my family. And every cousin that I have”—all 49—”is coming to L.A. for the premiere.”

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The Answer to Everything

The confidence that Toula’s father Gus has in the problem-solving powers of Windex was inspired by Vardalos’ own dad, also Gus, who once spritzed some of the cleaning fluid on a wart and insisted that got rid of it.

“So he started using Windex on everything,” Vardalos told FabFitFun Magazine in 2016. “If his elbow ached, he soaked it in Windex. If I had pimples from puberty, he would say, ‘Put some Windex on it!’ I didn’t realize how ridiculous it was until I went to college and told my friends these stories. So naturally I put it into the first screenplay and of course it has to appear in the sequel, because as they say in the tagline, ‘People change, but Greeks don’t.'”

IFC FILMS / Album/Zuma

No Strings Attached

N Sync had been talking to Playtone about a project that ultimately never panned out, but one day Joey Fatone stopped by the office to say hello, and Hanks told him there was a small part in “an independent film” Playtone was making that he might want to audition for, the singer recalled in 2017 on The Night Time Show podcast. 

He got the part of cousin Angelo, his first role in an estimable movie, and took about a week off from recording Celebrity to shoot in Toronto. “Learned the lines, had a dialect coach to kind of do like this Chicago accent, not so much of a New York,” Fatone said, “and all of a sudden I sit down and [director] Joel Zwick goes, ‘That’s your mother, that’s your father, that’s your aunt, that’s your uncle, that’s your sister, these are your cousins. You got your lines? Okay, let’s do it.”

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Continental Cuisine

According to Corbett, the scene in which only-child Ian’s perfectly nice but buttoned-up parents, Rodney and Harriet (Bruce Gray and Fiona Reid), visit the Portokalos household for the first time and are greeted by dozens of relatives and a whole lamb roasting on a spit was inspired by the first time Vardalos’ folks had her future in-laws over for dinner.

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Crafty Services

“There was free food at all times, it was great,” Vardalos gushed in 2002. But not only free as in paid for by the studio. Also, local Greek restaurant owners were so thrilled that the film was shooting nearby that they provided all sorts of complimentary deliciousness for the cast and crew.

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Yes to This Dress?

Costume designer Michael Clancy found Toula’s dress at Windsor Bridal in North York, Toronto, and paid about $2,000 for the traditional full-length lace gown with three-quarter sleeves and a scalloped hem.

In 2003, a classified ad in the LA Times offered the dress Vardalos wore in My Big Fat Greek Wedding for the bargain price of $1.5 million, which assistant costume designer Jay DuBoisson described to Canada’s Globe and Mail as “way, way, way more” than the film’s entire wardrobe budget.

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Members of the Wedding

The production didn’t want an inauthentic face in the bunch, so they found extras of all ages, including the many key elders essential to the sprawling, multigenerational experience, by putting posters up around Toronto’s Greektown. Vardalos also had family members, including her parents, fly in from Chicago, Winnipeg and Vancouver to be extras and they can be seen at a big table during the wedding reception. “If you see my head, which looks like I’m wearing different wigs, it’s my cousins,” she told GBTV.

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Great Reception

“My family loves to laugh at themselves,” Vardalos said when asked if any real-life relatives were no longer speaking to her in response to the colorful (but always big-hearted) take on their culture. She had cousins all over the world “and the best thing about my family is, if they’re not making fun of themselves, they’re making fun of you. So [the reaction’s] been pretty great, and they all came to the premiere.”

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Quite the Honeymoon

My Big Fat Greek Wedding spent more than four months in theaters, a practically unheard-of concept now. It’s still one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time and its $223.9 million domestic box office made it the fifth-biggest movie in the U.S. in 2002, ahead of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and behind only Tobey Maguire‘s Spider-Man (in first place with $403.7 million), Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the ClonesHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Signs.

Until Sing passed it in 2016, the film was also the highest-grossing movie to never log time as No. 1 at the box office, the definition of a sleeper hit.

“I remember when we filmed the movie, I said to John Corbett that I would have been happy if it was shown in Greek church basements across America,” Vardalos told FabFitFun in 2016. “So, everything that happened after that was crazy.”

Last but not least, she was nominated for an Oscar for her original screenplay, and she and her co-stars were up for a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by the Cast of a Theatrical Motion Picture.

The long-awaited My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, in which Toula’s parents find out they’re not officially married in the eyes of the Greek Orthodox Church and they decide to have the big fat nuptials of Maria Portokalos’ dreams, was a much more modest success upon its release in 2016, grossing $90.6 million worldwide.

But just last year Vardalos said her script for a third film was ready to roll, and that it was dedicated to her movie dad Michael Constantine, who died last August. She posted a photo of herself reunited with costars Lainie Kazan, Gia Carides (cousin Nikki) and Louis Mandylor (brother Nick) last September, sharing that Constantine had been rooting for the film to go on, even if he couldn’t be in it.

“I wrote the screenplay to reflect Michael’s decision and will always treasure his last messages to me, hoping we were filming soon,” she wrote. “The various variants have made indies difficult, but we are hopeful. Please do stop calling my mom to ask if you can be in it…and please do not tell me your ideas, the script is finished.”

In case you think she’s exaggerating, Vardolos told Huffington Post in 2012 that for a long time she couldn’t even go out for coffee without getting a sequel pitch.

“Over the years, I’ve heard from everybody about what the sequel should be,” she explained. “People next to me at Starbucks would say, ‘Hey, let me tell you my idea,’ and I’d be like, ‘Hey, I’m just trying to get a cup of coffee.'”

Make that an ouzo and save us a seat at the table.

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