In 2003, Nia Vardalos was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her 2002 film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. Her career has comprised a background in theater, a specialty in film, and has also featured forays into TV series, such as tonight’s episode of Law & Order: SVU, in which she plays an unpredictable defense attorney giving ADA Barba (Raul Esparza) a run for her money. Vardalos took part in a conference call to discuss her appearance on the long-running crime procedural, along with her upcoming book about her experience in motherhood and adoption, among other topics.
On what drew her to this role:
Nia Vardalos: I never get offered things like this. I never get roles where I get to say lines like there is a presupposition. The perpetrator is in that lineup. Never. The roles that I’m offered are usually I stand on a cliff with wind blowing my hair and I kiss a guy way out of my league. Those are my roles.
So this – it was delightful for me to get to go and do something nerdy again. You know I’m from Second City. And Second City girls – we like to, you know, black out a tooth and play a character, so that was extremely freeing. And I got to work with Mariska [Hargitay], and Raul [Esparza], and Ice-T. Like it was just a dream. Like every day, I was calling my husband going “No way!” It’s awesome.
On her most memorable moment from filming:
Nia Vardalos: It happened off camera, actually. Raul Esparza leaned into my ear and sang his – the song that I love so much from [Stephen Sondheim musical] Company, and I melted and Mariska absolutely cracked up laughing. I mean … I just loved them. They were really welcoming, and really warm, and I told them all what a fan I was of them, and they just let me gush. It was really a nice set.
On her perception of her character, upon first reading the script:
Nia Vardalos: I actually wondered about that as well. [The description of the character] said, “Disheveled,” and I wondered, “Am I walking into a room surrounded by a mess, like the character Pig-Pen Charlie Brown?” You know, I really wasn’t sure, but the costumer is so good at keeping things from being costume-y, and she and I found this really great look that just – it was just a person who is absolutely more focused on her work than her appearance. And we, and the producers and I agreed that I would be kempt, but just sort of nerdy. So not slovenly, but … the case is the most important thing to this person. And I just felt that was so freeing. I’ve never worn more flammable polyester in my life!
You know the clothes, the shoes, the everything were just really forming for me. Like it helped me create this sort of slouchy walk and stuff like that and so that was great, and also, I love that about the show. That things are never what they seem to be. I think the writing is inspired in that way that you think things are going one way and then they go the other.
On joining a cast with such a great rapport:
Nia Vardalos: Sometimes, it can feel a little clicky. You know how sometimes you don’t realize, when you are walking into a new job, you are the one that no one knows. … I tend to be a little tentative in new situations, and sort of see what it’s like. … As soon as I walked on the set, Mariska was walking the other way and she went “Hey, I’m so glad you are here!” and hugged me before I had even gone into hair and makeup, or costumes, or anything. Just was so warm. And then when I got to the set in my sort-of nerdy outfit with the glasses, they all started laughing and were just like “Yeah!” and really fun, so it was a very warm environment.
On how she connected with the character, and who she used as inspiration:
Nia Vardalos: I have a cousin to illustrate any situation. You know, with the 27 of us – 28 – that there is always somebody. And of course, I have a cousin who is a prosecutor and now a judge in Cook County, Illinois. … When I worked at Second City in Chicago, on my days off, I would go and watch her in the courtroom because it was just fascinating to me. And I also, when I was teaching classes at Second City, had a few lawyers taking improvisational classes because they felt that it would make them a little quicker on their feet. So I used my cousin, Anna Demacopoulos, as the inspiration for this character. Not the look, but for the fierceness and the tenacity.
On preparing for a role that is much darker than her comedic roles:
Nia Vardalos: That’s what I just loved about it. In every script I ever read, I am looking for how to make it funnier, how to make this comedy. Is that a comedic line, am I serious here. With this script, it was such a relief to know that we weren’t mining the material for laughs. It was just about the veracity of the lines and the authenticity of the scene. It was so interesting to just be in the moment.
On transitioning from stage and film to television:
Nia Vardalos: For me, it’s the same because I’ve only done low-budget films, so I never get the luxury of several takes. We are usually going very quickly and, you know, the camera barely moves. Whereas now, in a TV show like this, with multiple cameras, a very experienced director, a crew with DP, if anything, it’s almost a step up for me from the productions. Like I remember when we were shooting My Life In Ruins in Greece, we were so independently financed that we were afraid we were going to be shut down at any moment. That film was a negative pick up for FOX. … My movies are always on a wing and a prayer. When I shot I Hate Valentine’s Day, it was so low budget. An 18-day shoot. My camera never moved. I’m sure you noticed. I had so little. For my directorial debut, I had so little footage to cut from that during John Corbett’s speech, if he fumbled a line and I had to cut away from him, I had to use my stupid expression staring off camera.
Like I had nothing. I had nothing. My God. It was terrible. I couldn’t even cut to a lamp. I used every – there was nothing for outtakes even. I used every shred of film on that thing. So anyway, then I get to a set like Law & Order SVU that has been – you know, it’s a well-oiled machine.
On whether her SVU character will portray a tougher side to Vardalos:
Nia Vardalos: Yes, I love the character because I get to be pretty intense in a couple of the scenes and come right up against Raul Esparza’s quite condescending character. And I don’t know if he normally plays it condescending, but he really played it so well. in some scenes, he was so sort of abrupt with me that it made me blush. I just – he’s just so good. Because you know, no one wants to feel that way, and he just made it so real.
So yes, I mean it’s one of those roles that I just could not believe that was offered to me. I always say it’s a sign of the Rapture when the skies part and a role gets offered to me that’s not a romantic comedy, so I was delighted.
On her gay following:
Nia Vardalos: Actually, I have a book coming out, it’s called Instant Mom. [It's] the story of how I became a mom. … [Our] daughter was a preschooler when we adopted her and it was – with 14 hours’ notice, she walked in our door. And one of the things that I talk about is how I am trying very hard to play musicals constantly, because I love musicals so much I think I actually am a gay man. And I play them in the car, and the moment I turned around and she was singing the lines to Funny Girl, I was like “My work is done.”
More on her upcoming book, Instant Mom:
Nia Vardalos: I wanted to write the book that I couldn’t find when I wanted to adopt. I couldn’t find the one source for how to do it internally, domestically, infants, foster, adoption, and so that is what I wanted to provide. The whole back of the book is an appendix on frequently asked questions and then the answers I was looking for. … But then my agents and I slowly decided that I would go public with my story. And then as you can see, I am so terrified that my throat is closing. … I cannot believe that I’m telling this story [with this book], but I just realized that I don’t want to hide anymore. And the stories that I’ve told before have just sort of glossed over the facts, and this is the absolute true story of how I became a mom.
On how being a mother affects her choices in roles, or the method by which she plays them:
Nia Vardalos: I’ve always been attracted to roles that speak to my sense of comedy, which is “come laugh with me” as opposed to “hey let’s laugh at them”. I feel that I am really a product of my parents and a very kind and compassionate upbringing, and being from a very large family … that is always gently poking fun at each other, but never making fun of each other. … And so I have not changed that way in terms of my taste, but what happened when I became a parent is I had to willingly step back from taking roles that would take me away from my daughter, until I could settle her. I have absolutely no regrets about doing that, but it was difficult to do, and I chronicle that in the book.
What my husband and I did to settle a preschooler into our home was – probably some people would disagree with it, some people would agree with it, but we had guidance from social workers, we had therapists, and we had a lot of help from my family and friends. And it was the most interesting thing I’ve ever done.
And then roles come up that are interesting, like this, and occasionally I say “yes”. I always hear the surprise in my agent’s voice when I go “yes, I will do that” and they are like, “What? Really? Okay”, because you know I’m sorry, but I do say “No” quite often. And I know the result is that the phone will not ring as often, but it makes me happy that I’m here for every milestone of my daughter.
On what she hopes her daughter will learn from her as she grows up:
Nia Vardalos: I hope that she is happy in the career path and life path that she takes, because that’s what I was encouraged to do by my family. And so when she says she is going to be an animal rescue worker, I say “great” even though I hope she’s a doctor.
But it’s up to her…[The] other night she said that a boy at school wants to marry her. And I said, “Hey, listen. Tell him you don’t have to get married. You don’t have to – sorry. Tell him you won’t have time to get married until you open your animal rescue group and buy your parents a house.”
On what’s next for her:
Nia Vardalos: TV-wise I don’t know. I’m just sort of, I guess, making it loud and clear that I am interested in doing TV. Because I have had people come up to me at TV events when I’m there with my husband and say – producers will say, “I had this role a couple of months that you would have liked doing, but I know you don’t want to do TV.” And I’m like “Yes I do! I do want to do TV!” So I’m trying to send that message as well.
And I don’t know what’s next in terms of TV, but I’m writing a movie now for Paramount about three women who throw an all-night party to find out why they are single, and it’s called Leftovers.
“Criminal Hatred”, the latest episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, airs tonight at 9:00 PM/8:00c on NBC.