TORONTO – Nia Vardalos returns to her Greek roots for the new romantic comedy, “My Life In Ruins,” but Canada figures almost as prominently in the film, the proud Winnipegger admits ahead of the movie’s release this weekend.
The boisterous actress says she can’t help but insert a bit of the Maple Leaf into every project she works on, and this one features a slew of obvious and not-so-obvious references to the Great White North.
Fictional Canadian tourists are repeatedly seen wandering archeological sites in red-and-white attire, while Vardalos’ parents and husband pop up in separate cameos.
“I put them in every film because they’re good luck,” the bubbly Vardalos explains on an early morning phone call from her home in Los Angeles. “And it’s just great to have this moment where we’re all (saying), ‘Hee, hee, we’re on screen together!’ “
A special shout-out to Winnipeg comes by way of the number 204 – the Prairie capital’s area code – which is positioned on a hotel room door.
“It doesn’t quite show up on film but it was there on set,” assures the 46-year-old, who snuck the same number onto an apartment door for her 2004 film “Connie and Carla.”
These little flourishes are among the touches Vardalos says she added to the script, penned by “The Simpsons” writer Mike Reiss.
“I layered some stuff into it but it’s very much his script,” says Vardalos, who shot to fame by writing and starring in 2002’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
“Mike and I had an agreement from the beginning that I would just (go over) the script and never take his credit. I think that’s gross and … again, Winnipeggers don’t do that.”
Still, the storyline seems tailor-made for Vardalos. Set among the spectacular ruins of ancient Greece, it centres on a lonely history professor (played by Vardalos) who has lost her job and passion for life. By the time we meet Georgia she’s jaded and bitter, wallowing in self-pity over her new job as a tour guide. It takes a quirky group of travellers – and a hunky tour bus driver – to help her rekindle her passion for life and love.
It’s a paint-by-numbers storyline, but Greece provides a breathtaking backdrop – Vardalos gushes over being allowed to shoot scenes at classical sites including Olympia, Delphi and the Parthenon. She says getting permission for the shoot involved two years of campaigning on her part.
“It was not easy, it was not easy,” she says of the ordeal. “I had to fly to Greece, I had to shake a lot of hands, I had to do dinners, really assure the Greek government that we would not break Greece.”
Behind the scenes, Vardalos notes she had a lot of help from friends – they include longtime collaborators Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson who serve as executive producers (they were also behind “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and her Second City buddy, Rachel Dratch, who supplies some improvised gags.
“My Life In Ruins” also stars Richard Dreyfuss, Canadian comic Harland Williams and Greek actor Alexis Georgoulis as Georgia’s love interest.
It’s a long-awaited return to the screen for Vardalos, who took a self-imposed break from acting in 2004 to come to terms with a 10-year infertility battle. She now has a four-year-old adopted daughter and has become a champion of American Foster Care, writing about her experiences for People.com and The Huffington Post.
“I realized that what happened to me is for a reason, I’m supposed to be using my big mouth to talk about foster adoption,” she says of the experience, adding that her daughter arrived at her doorstep at age three. “There are hundreds of thousands of kids who are just waiting for a forever family.”
The emotional tumult of the past few years has also opened her up to new creative paths, she agrees, noting that much of her work leading up to “Ruins” coincided with her struggle to become a mother.
“It was an interesting process to just kind of dip into the pit of despair that I was living in,” she says.
“I realize there’s no shame in it. This movie, my ‘Life In Ruins’ is about losing your mojo and I’ve got to tell you, I highly recommend it because in allowing myself to just step back and grieve, privately, I came out of the process refreshed and invigorated and with my perfect daughter.”
Vardalos says she has six scripts in the works for Hollywood heavyweights including Hanks and Jonathan Demme, among them a drama. She’s reluctant to reveal too much about the work, descending into a rare moment of cynicism as she derides her adopted home of Los Angeles as a “city of thieves”.
Carving out a career since her surprise breakout hit in 2002 hasn’t been easy, Vardalos says, but she nevertheless credits the cutthroat industry with giving her the strength to face her biggest life challenge in becoming a mother.
“It is a process of maintaining your integrity and trying to get your vision seen through the script,” Vardalos says of surviving show business.
“I have had great luck and I have had misfortune as well. I’ve had ideas stolen and I’ve had situations where all of a sudden your executive gets fired and your script isn’t going to get made. That’s life. It’s OK. For me, what happened to me personally, with the smack in the head from Mother Nature with the infertility, just put everything in perspective.
“‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ was a fantastic experience; it’s once in a lifetime. What happens after that is gravy. I just like to make fun movies where people leave the movie theatre smiling and I hope to do that with ‘My Life In Ruins.”‘
Vardalos’ next project will be one she’s written for herself, and re-teams with her “Big Fat Greek Wedding” co-star John Corbett. In “I Hate Valentine’s Day” she plays a florist who refuses to go on more than five dates with anyone. Until she meets Corbett’s character, of course.
The film will also mark Vardalos’ debut as a director, a harried stint she says took place over 18 days in Brooklyn. She says she made sure it was a fun shoot by packing the cast with friends.
“It’s 80 per cent my friends from Second City,” she says. “I directed it so I got to say, ‘You, you, you, you! All you friends who have done table reads for me all these years, come on and be in a movie!”
And yes, she’s still working on that sequel to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” but it’s several years before that film will be ready.
“We need to be a little bit older for my idea for the sequel,” Vardalos says of herself and Corbett, adding that she hopes her current release will bide some time with fans.
“I felt that doing ‘My Life In Ruins’ would satisfy all the audience who want a sequel and also satisfy those people who don’t necessarily want one, it’s got just a little bit of both in it and it’s got the exact same type of humour. It’s clean, funny, easygoing, relatable humour.”
“My Life in Ruins” opens Friday.