Nia Vardalos exploded onto the pop culture landscape in 2002 with her critically acclaimed and Academy Award nominated indie comedy ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.’ In years that followed, Vardalos quickly became household name and a familiar face on TV with notable guest appearances on everything from ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ to ‘Law & Order: SVU.’ Over a decade after her powerful debut, this multi-facted performer finds herself back on the silver screen with another ambitious indie.
In ‘Helicopter Mom,’ Vardalos takes on one of her most ambitious roles to date in the form of a seemingly unlikable character. You see, even with good intentions and an abundance of love, parents can sometimes become…smothering. Such is the case with Maggie (hilariously played by Nia Vardalos), who decides that she would not only accept her son Lloyd (Jason Dolley) as gay, she would encourage it. In fact, Maggie becomes so convinced that Lloyd is indeed gay that she “outs” him to his entire high school. Like any good “helicopter mom” Maggie hovers over every aspect of her son’s life. She takes control of his social life, sets him up on dates with boys whom she has approved, and files for a gay student college scholarship. There’s just one wrench in her grand plans: Lloyd doesn’t even know whether he’s gay or not – and he’s just asked a cute girl to prom (Skyler Samuels). In the end, will Maggie be willing to accept her son for who he is-or just who she thinks he is?
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Nia Vardalos to discuss what attracted her to the role in ‘Helicopter Mom,’ the challenges of playing the character, the status of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,’ her recent book ‘Instant Mom’ and much more!
What drew you to acting and made you pursue it as a career?
It just felt right to me. I always enjoyed putting on plays and things of that sort. When I saw Second City, which is a largely improvisational theater in Toronto, I said, “That’s it! I know what I want to do!” I wanted to write my own material. It was very difficult for me to get hired into the Second City cast. I wrote a book last year called “Instant Mom,” and the second chapter is all about how difficult it was for me to break into the field of acting. What I finally did was work in the box office at Second City and I watched the show every night. One night, a woman got sick and was rushed to the hospital. I went backstage and said, “I am a member of the actor’s union and I know your show.” They put me on and I was hired the next day!
That is an amazing story! Who would you cite as your biggest influence?
I would say the three most amazing comedic geniuses — Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and my mom! [laughs]
Where do you look for inspiration as an actor these days?
I just like to have fun. I don’t really see any downs, I just try to pick the right movies that I believe in and some of them will be box office hits and some of them will be lesser seen but they were all really fun to make! In my eyes, they are all successes!
Absolutely! It is cool to see someone like yourself have such enthusiasm for their projects and I feel it comes through on screen.
Your latest film is called “Helicopter Mom.” How did you get involved with this project?
I had a meeting with the director and she told me that there was a script, each of the scenes would be improvised. I was so delighted by that concept! I said, “Sure!” And signed on! It was so low-budget and those are usually the projects that are the most fun. You don’t make any money and there isn’t a lot of craft services or catering but you truly have a blast! That is really why I signed on for it!
When it comes to a role like this, or any other, do you have a process for tackling a new role?
I mostly just think about what the character wants. I think that is what motivates every one of us each day from the moment we wake up each day and think, “What do I want to eat? What do I want to do? What do I actually have to do?” We all want to go walk on the beach but we all actually have to go to work! I always think, “What does she want?” This character really just wants her son to have a good education, so she may be a little overbearing at times but ultimately it comes from love. What I found really relatable about Meg is that I do try to make everything better. I am a middle child from Canada, so I am always trying to fix things and make things better. Sometimes you just have to let things be!
There is some great chemistry in this film. What can you tell us about working with this talented group and what they brought to the table?
I thought that Jason Dolley, that plays my son, was just fantastic! I think he is a consummate professional. He is so focused and doesn’t get involved with drama. He’s a very easy-going person. I thought he was amazing and I loved working with him. Working with the director, Salomé Breziner, was another great experience. She was wonderful. It was a very fun set. I refer to it as controlled chaos! It was very loose but in control!
How much of what we see on screen comes from improvisation?
It is hard to remember exactly but so much of it came from improv. In the trailer, there is a moment where I say, “Let’s pause and think about that moment you came out of my cooch!” I just said that to make Jason Dolley laugh. It is always such a surprise to see it in the film. Basically, improvisation makes for some great moments to make people laugh.
Looking back on the project, are there moments you will always hold close to your heart?
I really enjoyed the day we went to the Venice boardwalk. When I first moved to Los Angeles with my husband that was a free thing we could do. We were struggling financially, so we would take a bus out to Venice Beach and just walk and look around. When we went back 20 years later to film a scene, the same characters are here. It was the same guy rollerblading around playing electric guitar and the same person juggling! It is frozen in time, so I really enjoyed that day!
What was the biggest challenge for you on this film?
I think the biggest challenge was to play someone so unlikeable. I really wanted to go for that and push the boundaries of acceptable behavior!
Looking back on your career to date, how have you most evolved as an actress?
That is interesting. I think it is what I just mentioned, to play someone who is so unlikable. That was a leap for me. I really wanted to go for that and I confirmed that with the director when we sat down. She said, “You are going to be the person people don’t like in this film.” I said, “Great! What a relief!” [laughs]
Building on that thought, is there a role you are still eager to take on as an actor?
Yeah! I would love to play a murderer or someone really awful! I think that would be really fun!
I think you have it in you and could really pull it off!
Obviously, we all know and love you from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” What is happening with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” at this point?
We are starting to film on May 11th!
That is great! What excites you about revisiting that role?
I have been working on the script for five years and it was just joyous to see everyone and have our first table read a few weeks ago. The cast has been so close since we made the movie, so it is not like it is a reunion but it is beautiful that every single cast member is coming back!
Did you have any reservations about doing a sequel?
Yes. For six years, I said, “No.” Then when I became a mom, I said, “Yes!”
You mentioned your book earlier, “Instant Mom.” I am sure a book is quite an undertaking. What was that experience like?
I enjoyed writing the book because there wasn’t a structure, an editor or anyone telling me what I could or couldn’t do. It was very surprising when HarperCollins said, “We want the story that you want to write.” Because my daughter was so brave when we met, she was almost 3 when she walked in our door and we first met on 14-hours notice, I felt I had to do the same thing with my book. I was definitely influenced to write from a more candid point of view and I held absolutely nothing back including that I was the victim of a crime very soon after I became a mom. It is something I kept off the radar and didn’t want out there. When I was writing the book, I thought, “I have nothing to be ashamed of.” And I put it in. That bravery was something that definitely came from my daughter.
Many people can look to you as an inspiration on many levels. What is the best advice you can pass along to aspiring creatives?
I learned at Second City, our producer Joyce Sloane, used to say, “Write what you know.” I just turned down a job two days ago to write a script about a world I am just not interested in pursuing. Not only do I not know it but it is not something I am yearning to know. I like to dive into whole new worlds that are interesting. I realized you have to have a passion for it. If you don’t know about it, then your audience won’t want to know about it either, so never take a job for the money.
Solid advice and certainly admirable! Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about your charity work. Are there any organizations we could help spread the word on for you?
Thank you! Yes, I donate the proceeds of my book to several adoption charities like You Gotta Believe based in New York. They match children living in foster care, who are older, with prospective parents. www.helpusadopt.org is an organization who endows grants without any discrimination based on sexual orientation or religious background. I love them and work with them! www.adoptuskids.org is also fantastic, along with The Children’s Bureau. They are all absolutely great places that help kids find a home!
Awesome! We will certainly help spread the word! Thank you for your time, Nia! We look forward to everything you have in store for us in the years to come!
You are so nice! Thank you very, very much Jason!
‘Helicopter Mom’ hits select theaters & VOD on April 24th, 2015! Check out the trailer for the film below!