Today, sleeper hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) turns the big 2-0. That’s right: it’s been two decades since the little-indie-rom-com-that-could shattered box office records, nabbed an Oscar nomination and taught us that, yes, there is a Greek root for every word in the English language — well, if you try as hard as Toula’s father does.
In celebration of the 20-year anniversary of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, we’re revisiting Nia Vardalos’ breakout role (and script!) to understand just how it became the highest-grossing rom-com in film history. So, slice a piece of Bundt cake — you know, the cake with a hole in it — and join us for this stroll down memory lane.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Recapped
If you’ve somehow never seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding — or you haven’t watched it enough to quote its most memorable exchanges and jokes — we’ll give you a quick recap. Nia Vardalos stars as Fotoula “Toula” Portokalos, but she’s also the screenwriter behind the film. Using her own Greek family and comic experiences as inspiration, Vardalos penned a script about 30-year-old Toula’s search for love — and, more importantly, a life of her own.
Toula’s family is rather… invasive. Everyone is constantly in each other’s business. Everyone is loud. And, as Toula explains, her family is big — “just 27 first cousins alone!” big. Perhaps her biggest obstacle is her father, Kostas “Gus” Portokalos (Michael Constantine); not only does Gus believe Toula is getting old, but he also forbids her from marrying anyone who isn’t Greek.
After all, every word in the English language can trace its roots back to Greek, and the Greeks invented pottery, among dozens of other things. Luckily for Toula, her mom, Maria (Lainie Kazan), just wants her to be happy, even if that means being a little non-traditional. As Maria puts it, Gus may be the head of the family, but she’s the neck — and she can turn the head whichever way she wants.
Eager to break out of her shell, and the job she has as a seating hostess at her family’s diner, Toula signs up for computer classes with her mom’s help. When she lands a job at her Aunt Voula’s (Andrea Martin) travel agency, Toula bumps into an attractive teacher, Ian Miller (John Corbett). Of course, Toula has met Ian before, while waiting on him in her family’s restaurant — back when she was a self-described “Frump Girl”. Really, Toula was lacking in self-confidence. As Ian puts it, he doesn’t remember a frumpy person, but he does remember Toula.
For Toula and Ian, it’s pretty much love at first sight. (Or, technically, second sight.) The only problem? Gus. After all, Ian’s family is Protestant, not Greek Orthodox, which means Toula can’t marry him in the Greek church. And, on top of that, Ian is a vegetarian — not great news for a family who roasts lamb on their front lawn.
But Toula stands firm; she’s going to marry Ian, even if that means getting him Greek-baptized in a kiddie pool. We won’t spoil every little detail, but let’s just say the clash between the uptight Millers and the boisterous Portokalos clan causes quite a bit of hilarity to ensue. The bottom line? The film was an instant classic upon its release. If you’re looking for a feel-good rom-com that never gets old, you can count on My Big Fat Greek Wedding to make you laugh every time.
At First, Hollywood Didn’t Realize Nia Vardalos Wrote a Sleeper Hit
After honing her comedy chops at the famed Second City, Nia Vardalos came to realize that there were very few roles about explicitly Greek people in Hollywood. Eventually, she decided to write a script that would capture her lived experience — and the experience of so many Greek Canadian and Greek American folks.
In an early interview with Robin Rea, Vardalos revealed that she called her friends to ask them which stories about her family were the funniest. “I shoved all of the stories together and hooked them around my wedding, which had happened the year before,” Vardalos explained. “And I had a [story].”
But, initially, Vardalos encountered agents and managers who not only told her the would-be-Oscar-nominated script wasn’t good, but that actors shouldn’t write. When life gives you oranges (and apples), you find a way to make the best of it. Surprised by the anger she encountered, Vardalos took a different approach and changed her material into a solo stage show.
Reflecting on this experience two decades later, Vardalos tweeted about the film’s origins, her post-My Big Fat Greek Wedding successes and her efforts to help others share their stories. “Some people who don’t create anything[,] including jobs to make situations better, will tell you that what you do is wrong,” she wrote. “You can’t make anyone embrace change, marginalized voices or new ideas. So love yourself. And write your story.”
So, What’s the Rita Wilson (and Tom Hanks) Connection?
For Vardalos, that very determination and insight paid off over 20 years ago, too. Once the solo show was ready to go, she sent out flyers to every Greek church in Southern California to get the word out. And the marketing play worked wonders. One of her audience members ended up being fellow Greek actor Rita Wilson.
Not only did Wilson end up loving Vardalos’ show, but Wilson went backstage afterward to tell Vardalos the whole thing would make a killer screenplay and movie. And, as it would turn out, Wilson wasn’t the only one who thought so after seeing the solo show. Vardalos had already gotten a call from a production company affiliated with Disney, which was eager to buy the show’s movie rights. But there was a catch.
Rather than allow Vardalos to star in the movie adaptation, the production company wanted to replace her with Marisa Tomei. Eager to pursue authenticity, Vardalos bowed out of the deal. The silver lining, of course, was that Wilson ended up convincing her husband, Tom Hanks, to see the one-woman show.
Completely taken in by what he saw, Hanks called Vardalos to express his interest in producing a film adaptation. At first, Vardalos assumed it was a prank call and hung up on Hanks. Once Hanks convinced her that he was, in fact, the real deal, he and Wilson helped Vardalos secure the film’s $5 million budget.
And Just Like That… John Corbett Was Cast
Based on Vardalos’ real-life husband at the time, Ian Gomez, Ian Miller would prove tricky to cast — at least at first. While Vardalos always wanted Sex and the City’s John Corbett to play the role, he wasn’t able to even attend the audition because he was working on Serendipity (2001) at the time.
But as, ahem, serendipity would have it, Vardalos and her producer overheard Corbett talking about the script in a bar in Toronto. It was obvious he had loved it, so Vardalos and her producer went over and struck up a conversation. In the end, they ended up offering him the part on the spot.
As for Vardalos’ then-husband, he ended up playing Ian’s best friend, Mike, in the movie. And, yes: IRL, Gomez did agree to be baptized in order to win over Vardalos’ Greek Orthodox family.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding‘s Mega Success
While it may sound like a huge amount of money to most of us, $5 million is actually a relatively small budget for a feature film. But My Big Fat Greek Wedding ended up being quite the indie darling — and pulled in a next-level return on investment.
By the time all was said and done, the film grossed $368.7 million, which made it (and still makes it) the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time. Given its small budget and huge returns, the film actually ranks as the second-most profitable movie of all time, just after Paranormal Activity (2007). While it opened in just 108 theaters initially, by the end of its 88-week run My Big Fat Greek Wedding wound up playing in over 2,000 cinemas. Not to mention, Vardalos earned an Oscar nomination for her sharp writing.
Where to Watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding
While there’s never a wrong time to rewatch My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there’s no better time than its 20th anniversary. So, where do you tune in? Like most beloved movies, it tends to travel around to various streaming services. At the moment, it’s available on HBO Max, or rent it on Google Play, Amazon, or Vudu.
Can’t get enough of Vardalos and her hilarious cast? My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016) follows Toula and Ian as they explore the challenges of marriage and parenthood. And things get even more interesting when a family secret comes to light, bringing the whole clan together again for an even bigger wedding than before. Recently, Vardalos also revealed that My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 is in the works.