One year ago, Nia Vardalos was just another comedian hoping to get a few laughs - and a paycheck. A veteran of the Second City comedy troupe, the Winnipeg, Canada, native had worked as a florist and appeared in a few TV shows (like HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm) but was still struggling in Hollywood. Then My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the film she wrote and starred in, became the sleeper hit of 2002, grossing $241 million. Now she's the star and coexecutive producer of the hit TV spinoff My Big Fat Greek Life (Sundays at 8 P.M. on CBS), whose February 24 debut attracted 23 million viewers. Now Vardalos and the cast tell Us about life on TV's A-list.
Life is sweet for the newly minted star.
"I couldn't get a job a year ago," the Los Angeles-based Vardalos, 40, tells Us. "Now I have a hair and makeup team - that's how I realized how much my life has changed. My neighbors are so used to seeing a limo in front of our house that they wait outside and go, 'I liked the red dress you had on last week better."'
Producing a weekly sitcom is no cinch, but it's worth the effort
Vardalos filmed the pilot for Life and pitched it to CBS before the movie was released, but the network passed. Once the film passed the $120 million mark, CBS had a change of heart. "It's like a sequel every week," says Vardalos, who reprises her Wedding role in Life with a name change from Toula to Nia Portokalos. 'We're new at this TV world, just stumbling around, going, What's going on?' But it's really fun, and I get to write some of it!" Adds Rita Wilson, 44, who is a producer of the movie and an executive producer of the series (and guest-starred on the March 16 episode as Cousin Ariana from Greece): "The great thing is that we have the cast from the movie [with the exception of John Corbett; see sidebar]. It's like [working with your] family every day."
It's all-for-one on the set
"She is so pleasant to the crew, and she keeps everyone up," says Louis Mandylor, 36, who plays her younger brother, Nick. "Nia is the captain of the ship, and we're all supporting her." That support is mutual. "The other day when I was tired she got me tea and massaged my back," says Lainie Kazan, 62, who plays Vardalos's mom, Maria. "She is just so generous."
Next stop: the Oscars!
Vardalos, who is nominated for best original screenplay, is still in search of the perfect dress. "All these different designers are asking me if I want to wear their dresses, and I'm like, 'Oh, my God!'" says Vardalos. "I'm going to do what I did for the Golden Globes, which is I stood in the dining room in my underwear and no bra and just kept putting on dresses. When I put on the Badgley Mischka, dress, Ian [Gomez, 38, her husband, who played Javier on Felicity] said my face lit up, so I went, 'That's it!'" Ah, must have been the sweet glow of success.
Nia's New Guy
Who's that actor playing Nia Vardalos's adoring non-Greek teacher-husband, Thomas Miller, in My Big Fat Greek Life? It's not John Corbett, 41, who costarred in the hit film, as Ian Miller, but passed on the TV show because he had signed on to star in the FX Networks' series Lucky, which debuts next month. Instead, Steven Eckholdt, 41, an old friend of Vardalos's who starred in the sitcom's original pilot, is filling in. "We lined up all the available actors in Hollywood and had what I like to call a 'kiss test,'" Vardalos jokes about the casting. But seriously ... "John Corbett did a wonderful job in the film," Eckholdt has said. "There are going to be many differences and similarities. Ultimately, it's up to the audience."
By Lewis Beale with reporting by Sharon Knolle* & Mia Sulpor
* (Interviews with Nia Vardalos and Rita Wilson)