Nia Vardalos for BC Magazine U.S.
In her 2002 rom-com hit, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Nia Vardalos’ character finds herself enamored with a ‘non-Greek’–and has since become a household name with a string of movie hits. In 2010, she was named National Adoption Day spokesperson once again in the U.S., and this Canada-born mom looks like she’s come across her biggest role to date
It was one serendipitous day in LA when I was in a meeting with Soleil Moon Frye and her business partner, Paige Goldberg, at their eco-friendly family store when I met Nia, who was with her daughter at the time. I had no clue that she was not her biological child, since judging from their looks and chemistry, it all felt intrinsic. Nia chats with my husband and I for a bit as our girls excitedly played together with some toys on display. Some people you instantly feel a connection with—and Nia has that welcoming, trusting presence about her that makes you feel like you’ve been friends for a while—and this “girl’s-girl” aura resonates on-screen, which is why many women identify with her. This year, she embarks on many journeys. Career-wise, she co-wrote a movie with pal, Tom Hanks, which will be topbilled by the latter and Julia Roberts. On the homefront, husband Ian Gomez is one of the stars of the TV show Cougar Town, and has also taken to his daddy duties seamlessly. Nia shares stories of a love she never thought possible.
Kariz: In a nutshell, can you tell us how your seemingly endless wait to have a child was cut down to 14 hours?
Nia: I love your question because it shows how your life can change with one phone call, like what happened to us. We have been trying to adopt for a long time and domestic adoption, I found to be difficult. I wanna point out that other people find it very easy sometimes. They are matched with the birth mother and everything’s easy for them. For us, it didn’t quite work out that way, and we were waiting for a really long time for things to follow through. Then I found out about American Foster Care, which is the American equivalent of the orphanage, because we don’t have orphanages in the United States. What we have is—our kids are placed in foster care—and I found out that there are 129,000 kids that are legally free for adoption. So I met with these social workers…You click on childwelfare.gov/nfcad for your state, and they match you with something called a foster family agency. It is a 100%-free service. These social workers will then help you get fingerprinted, help you do the background check, and then you go into the system. What happened to us is, after years of waiting, I matched up with American Foster Care, and 14 hours later, our daughter walked in our door.
K: Amazing, I didn’t know it was that simple.
N: It was the easiest, most lovely process. They provided us with counseling before, during, and after the process. So when the phone rang and they said, “There’s a little girl, she is legally free, she is 3-years old. You have been matched with her.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay!” And they said, “She’s going to come and live with you.” And I said, “When?” And they said, “Tomorrow.” And 14 hours later, she walked in the door and we had nothing, no preparation. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t even have, you know, a pink bedspread in our house. But we had help bought mattresses because my nieces and nephews had slept over, and we put some Spongebob sheets on it.
K: Spongebob is always a good choice.
N: Thanks a lot! She walked in the door, the dog licked her and she giggled—and that was it. Suddenly, we were parents.
K: Literally your life changed in a few hours.
N: Yeah, it was just incredible. We had told the social workers there are a lot of myths about foster adoptions, like a child could be placed with you and then taken away as the biological parents could fight for them in court. This is not the process that I’m talking about. There are 350,000 kids who are living in foster care while their parents get it together. I am talking about 129,000 kids who are legally freed, that once they’re placed with you, they’re not gonna be taken away. If people are looking to foster, oh my God, go and get matched with one of these kids, the 350,000 kids who need, quite frankly, a loving home. That is a different process. I had told our social workers to please don’t match us with something that could fall apart on us—after everything that we’ve been through. They never, ever brought us into a situation that we weren’t emotionally equipped to take on.
K: How long were you trying to have your own biological child?
N: It was, from beginning to end, a 10-year process.
K: Wow. Pretty taxing.
N: I put a lot of pressure on the “real” feeling of parenthood, and you’d think that maybe I’d set myself up to be disappointed. The capacity for love and understanding is beyond anything I thought I was capable of. You know, I’m married, I have pets—I get love. But this is different. It’s just an incredible feeling of being responsible for teaching this child. She’s 5 now and she understands everything. We talk about how she was born in another lady’s tummy, and that woman wasn’t ready to be a mommy, but I was. I tell her that one day we’re gonna meet her [mother], and we’re gonna say thank you that she took the time to grow my daughter. We’re really honest about it because I think it’s good for her heart and mind, the closure.
K: How does a child actually become legally free?
N: There is a process called relinquishment. A lot of these children are relinquished into foster care because domestic adoption is for infants. Most people are looking for infants, so if a woman is pregnant and decides she wants to keep the child and then give it up for adoption, she is matched with a lawyer and then matched with potential parents. But sometimes women are in situations where they realize that they can’t do it—they’re single parents, or may be circumstances like a relationship doesn’t last that they thought was gonna last. These children are then relinquished to foster care, which means all biological ties to them are signed off, and they are put in the system and they live in really loving foster homes. Here’s another myth I wanted to stop—you know, about those people who take in kids just for the money and end up giving them…crackers and ho-hos to live on, while they eat the rest of the check. I never encountered those people. Sure, they exist—but I’m trying to tell the stories about these wonderful parents taking these kids in, and these kids are legally free and are available for people like me who wanna be parents.
K: Do you guys plan to adopt or foster any other kids soon?
N: We’re open to it, but I’m not pursuing it right now because she’s my project. But if the phone rang, I would not say no.
K: I understand. For the purpose of this story, what should we call your daughter?
N: Well, I am trying very hard to just to protect her anonymity…
K: We’ll just refer to her as your daughter.
N: Just call her my daughter. That would be great.
K: Greatest joys and challenges for you as a mom?
N: Definitely organizing. I used to have the benefit of—you know—the alarm would ring at 7 AM, and if I didn’t get to work out then, I could work out later or I could write when I wanted to, and do what I wanted to do through the day. The only time I had to be pretty focused on my schedule was when I’m shooting something. (Laughs) Now, my alarm is when she jumps on my face at 6 AM, so it’s a little different. I get up and spend as much time as possible with her, take her to school, come home, work out, sit down, write, finish writing, then get her from school. When I’m shooting something, I bring her with me. My husband and I try not to shoot things at the same time. He is on Cougar Town. If he is gonna shoot late, like he is today, I’m going home now to get her, and take her to work so that she can see him.
K: Aww, that’s so sweet.
N: We just try, everyday, you know? We have cellphones, we have ways of communicating. I wonder how my parents did it with four kids, but this is how we’re doing it.
K: When are you actually giving her, her own cell phone?
N: That’s hilarious! No way. (Laughs) I don’t even know how to work my iPhone! It is astonishing, and she just figured it out pretty quickly.
K: My 4-year old works the iPad like she’s been using it forever.
N: Can you believe the confidence they have on these things? I use the computer as reward time. Like if she wants to play a game on the computer in the morning and I’m like, “Ok, but get dressed first, brush your teeth, and then you can play this game.” It’s the best thing ever. I used to feel that way about chocolate.
K: Haha! It’s a different world after all. Most memorable mommy moment so far—this could be funny or touching.
N: I was wearing a top with a stretchy neck and she pulled it down and showed everyone my bra. In that moment, if I was filming it for film, I would have the actress in a good bra, but I was wearing my badly worn-out workout bra and I was like, dang, it doesn’t even have push-up!
K: (Laughs) That’s hilarious!
N: Also, I’m trying very hard so she won’t have body issues—especially in L.A.—so we’re naked a lot around the house. She takes a shower with me, and we’re kind of comfortable with each other. She asked me in front of a male colleague of mine about my boobs and I said, “Hey baby, we should talk about that later…” And she said, “No I just want to ask you something. When I grow up and I get my grown-up lady boobs, am I gonna have four boobs too?” I was like, “What? Do you think I have four boobs?” And she pointed to the nipple and the boob area and she had a feeling that it was a breast on top of a breast. So, yeah, I feel like she lives to embarrass me. We went to Sunday school last week and we were in Canada and it was Thanksgiving, and all the kids were drawing what they were thankful for. Our dog had just had surgery and he was on antibiotics which meant he didn’t go to the bathroom for a while. When he did, it was a great feat. So she drew in Sunday school, a picture of dog poop and without explaining it, said to the teacher, “I am thankful for my dog’s poop.”
K: (Laughter) Oh my God, children. What kind of dogs do you guys have?
N: We have a giant Labrador Retriever whom we found in a pound, and a little dog that’s like a mixture of a Schnauzer and Beagle, that we found in a street.
K: Nobody every claimed him?
N: No, we put notices up from Craigslist to Twitter, vets, shelters. Nobody claimed him and we adopted him.
K: I’m glad you did.
N: We adopted our first dog about seven years ago, and we felt like she needed a companion, so it’s just fate. I’ve just gone so zen about life after being matched with our daughter. Rather than even go to a pound, we found this dog running down the street with a queued up rope tied around his neck and a cut in his ear—like he’d been tied up in someone’s backyard and had been bitten and just went, ‘I gotta get outta here.’ And I thought, he’s ours now.
K: You have three kids, pretty much.
N: I do. The husband…make it four.
K: So how’s your ‘son’, Ian, like? How’s he like as a father?
N: He’s really good at it. He loves it, he is very attentive. He tries very hard when he’s with her, just not to study lines, not to be on his cell phone. We’ve really taken the advice of our friends who have college-age kids, who have said, it goes by so fast.
K: It does fly by. I have two daughters, and I feel the same way.
N: I’m trying to just memorize every facial expression in every moment. She is never gonna be exactly this age again, so that’s why we’re trying to be with her as much as possible.
K: You’ve been named the National Adoption Day spokesperson again. How did you manage such a wonderful feat?
N: I don’t know. When they asked me, I was really flattered, actually. It’s kind of my favorite topic right now, and I feel like I just got started in 2009. Last 2010, I made it a how-to tour, because I told my story [two years ago]. I’m going on these talk shows and I’m gonna say, here are the three steps. This is how you do it.
K: What are those three steps?
N: The first step is, in your state Google: childwelfare.gov/nfcad. Find your foster family agency. Step two, meet with the social workers. Step three, get your fingerprints and home study kit that they will help you with, and then you wait. And something amazing is gonna walk in your door.
K: Do you feel that you have a responsibility to inform people about the whole process? I mean, not just after the awards, and all that.
N: I do. Yes, there’s something going on that I kind of now understand what exactly couldn’t happen to me, I felt like I couldn’t make sense of it. I really wondered—and I’m not a fake humble person, I’m clearly grateful for everything that happened to me—but I kept thinking, why? Why me? Why does this extraordinary thing happen to—you know I consider myself to be a pretty ordinary person. Why? And at the same time that was happening, I was struggling in keeping my infertility problems a secret. Now I realized there’s a reason that everything happened when it was so easy to adopt from American Foster Care. I said to a social worker, “Why didn’t I know about this?” And she said, “Because we don’t have a spokesperson. We’ve been waiting a long time for someone like you.” And that’s when I realized, I do have a duty and responsibility to tell people how easy it is because why not? It takes so little of my time to just say, “This is how we do it.” And I would never push people to adopt, I’m speaking to the people who think, “Hey, I don’t have the means to go to another country. I don’t speak this language in this country. I don’t know how to do this.” And I fully, fully support adoption from another country, but if you don’t think you’re financially able to do it, or have the time to do it, I wanna tell you how to do it here.
K: So much kids here who need homes.
N: I know. People have fears about adopting from Foster Care and I understand that, and I never want anyone to feel foolish for asking the questions that I myself asked like, “Are these kids damaged?” The answer is no, they are not. There’s no damage done to a child that cannot be undone with love. People are more willing to take an abused dog into their home than a child.
K: That is so true.
N: These children are not all abused or have horrible situations in their background. You will not be urged to take on a situation that you’re not physically and emotionally equipped to handle because the social workers want it to stick. They will match you with a person that you are capable of taking on.
K: I took a quick look at one of the websites, and saw kids that have medical problems too. What happens to children like them? Forgive my ignorance…
N: It’s not ignorance. Don’t feel bad, honestly, it’s not. You’re only asking the stuff that, I’m telling you, I asked, too. When we were cleared, I would look through the websites all night. One time I saw a child that was clearly Down Syndromed and on a respirator, and you just think, they’re for the grace of God. These poor kids. About a month later, I went back on the website, came across that case: adopted.
K: Oh my goodness. That’s wonderful!
N: There’s one case that our social workers told us about, they had a child with cystic fibrosis that got adopted into a family who already had a child with cystic fibrosis. They felt it would be good for their daughter to have a sibling with cystic fibrosis that they could help each other deal with the disease. Isn’t that amazing?
K: I was just about to say…
N: Again, there’s a lid for every pot. I’ve met people who, when they die, will probably just go straight to heaven. They’re angels on earth, these foster parents and social workers, who would go out of their ways to give everyone the life that you and I had. They made me realize that there’s a reason. We’re all part of the social fabric and we’re responsible for each other, so if people are reading the newspaper and complaining about crime, these kids graduate out of the foster family system at 18, and are often handed a toothbrush and their walking papers. What’s gonna happen to them? I feel like we’re responsible. Oh, and here are the other benefits that I wanted to tell you about. Number one, it’s free. Number two, you’re not gonna have legal fees. Number three, the medical history of that child must be legally disclosed to you, as opposed to if you go to another country, you don’t know for certain what’s happening or what you’re getting. And again, I don’t want to discourage people from going to another country but I’m just saying that it’s better here in a language that you understand if you’re concerned about the history of the child. If that child hit another child in the playground, it’s documented. I even have our daughter’s ultrasounds.
K: My notion of foster care is that there would be some sort of trial period. Does that hold true?
N: It is true, and that’s good for everyone. What they do is that you have a few meetings just to make sure that everyone understands and feels good about each other. The reason our daughter was placed in our home right away is because we have been cleared by the foster family as well. So she came to us as a foster child and ten days later, we got the state stamp that we were also on the path to adopt her.
K: How do you and Ian manage your time as parents, with successful careers at that?
N: We definitely have less of a social life, and we’re okay with that. We’ve learned to entertain a lot at home so we’ll have movie nights at our house. We’re lucky we’ve had the same friends for 15 years, who were so excited about us being parents that they supported us in that. We’ve learned that she’s the most important thing for us and she feels secure when I’m home, and that’s what’s important.
K: Whose parenting style do you emulate?
N: Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks. Tom left a meeting very early in the development of My Big Fat Greek Wedding because it was his day to car pool. I remember him wrapping it up and like, “Okay, so we’re good here? Alright, I gotta go.” And he left because he needed to pick up the kids.
K: That’s a fantastic story.
N: That’s how Ian and I feel too. Our daughter does not know what we do for a living, which we both love. She has no idea. Because this is the age of You Tube and Skype so it’s common to see your cousin on a computer screen with Skype, and your cousin can make a little video and upload it on YouTube from Australia. So she happened to see on the plane just last week, my husband’s TV show was playing on the plane and I didn’t see it and over my shoulder, she pointed at the screen and like “It’s daddy!” and I went, “Oh my God!” and she kind of watched it and I said, “What do you think he’s doing?” She went, “I don’t know. I don’t know any of those people,” and opened a book and started reading.
K: How long do you think that’s gonna work out for you guys, the anonymity?
N: I’m not sure. I taught her, when paparazzi jumps out, just to turn and look at me because that way, it’s the back of her head. She calls them “the rude boys.” She doesn’t know why they’re trying to take her picture, she also knows that we only allow family and friends to take her picture because that makes sense, doesn’t it?
K: Of course. By the way, speaking of photos, I see how your style has evolved throughout the years. What do you think works best on you now?
N: I, because of Mad Men, am totally addicted to the ‘60s. My skirts cannot be short enough, and I’ve got platform wedges on right now and my hair is poofed.
K: As far as make-up is concerned?
N: I love big lashes and I love that red lipstick came back in. When that nude lipstick was in, I just looked like a corpse. Not good. I have a trick that I’ve used from doing so many kissing scenes in movies. It’s Stila Red Lip Stain. Put it on like lipstick, it stays on all day and you put a gloss over it.
K: Favorite designers for yourself or your daughter?
N: We both like Ella Moss and Splendid, coincidentally…Flowers by Zoe for her, she really likes those. I love Phillip Lim, Derek Lam, and Stella McCartney when I’m feeling kinda edgy. I live in Wolford tights because they suck everything in. I just got a pair of crazy, shiny, Louboutinboots that are gorgeous and I look like Catwoman in them. Sometimes for day, I’ll wear a lot of Theory or Banana Republic, and then at night, I go from Prada, Armani, K-Mart. I am a sucker for purses. That is actually my life motto: You’re never too fat for a new purse.
K: What’s in your mommy purse?
N: I have a black Prada purse today, the best thing about it is there’s three sections. On the left hand side is all her stuff and here it is, in a container that I’m unzipping. I have three cookies low sugar, Goldfish crackers, and three Purell sanitizing hand wipes that honestly, I don’t know if you noticed this but they look like condoms. You know what I’m talking about, right?
K: (Laughs) I do know what you’re talking about!
N: So that’s on her side. Then I have that Halloween book that I had from the plane, sugar-free gum and then, here’s my little trick. I have four colors of face paint crayons because if we’re in the area, if we suddenly go into Beverly Hills, where I know there are paparazzi, I face paint her, which she loves, and we’re trying to get away with it until she’s 18. I turn her into a cat or something. That’s really the best way for her not [to be photographed.] There are a couple of images of her on Wireimage. We went to a children’s event and my mom was visiting. So I said, Okay, I’m gonna take her. I was assured that we wouldn’t be photographed but I know that there are always long-range photographers so I face-painted her at the gas station and sure enough, it was fine.
K: What’s your family’s comfort food?
N: She likes macaroni and cheese, which I make, and I mince cauliflower and hide it in there. Meatballs that I chopped broccoli and spinach in and hide it in there. She does eat green peas, she likes them cold, out of the freezer. We eat all organic. I have so far gotten away with not giving her McDonald’s, except for once when she got stitches. We got her a Happy Meal. Other than that, I’ve since convinced her that McDonald’s puts poison in their food. I’m not anti-fast food, I’m anti-hormones because you see these articles about girls getting their periods younger and younger, and I think it’s pretty easy to figure out why. We cook a lot. She loves to cook with me. I think that that it can be empowering for a little girl to understand the cause and effect of what she puts into her body. We make cookies from scratch, instead of using mixes which is actually very easy—and her favorite of course is chocolate chip. Chocolate cures anything.
K: Pretty much channeling your inner Martha Stewart.
N: At the end of the day, I like to come home and make a meal. She eats before we do because Ian will shoot for longer sometimes, and I wanna eat with him. When we went to a beach house last summer, I let her stay up for what I call “grown-up hours,” which she was very proud of herself for. I taught her that you have to give and take at the dinner table because a lot of our friends slept over at this place, we all rented this beach house together. I wanted to show her that you just don’t get to monopolize [the conversation]. You tell a story, and then this person tells a story, and she really enjoyed that. Anyway, because of that, I realized how important dinnertime is so I don’t have the TV on at dinnertime now. We sit and we talk about the day. Also, I’m trying something that a friend with an older child told me. “Don’t chastise her for telling you anything. Turn it into a life lesson.” So when she’ll say to me, I had a consequence at school today, meaning like I spoke during nap time or somebody threw sand—or something like that—that is what the consequence is for, I just nod and then say, “And then what happened?” It usually works out, and then she’ll say, “I felt bad, I apologized…” It made me realize that then I don’t have to go, “Don’t throw sand.” She’s already figured it out.
K: You think that’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
N: The best advice was: Don’t blink, because they grow up so fast. The body image thing, I never ever talk food or weight—I just tell her to eat until her body’s full. I got her a queen-sized bed by the way, because then we could be comfortable lying beside her. We’ll read books and before she falls asleep, she confesses. She unburdens herself and tells me stuff that happened during the day, because she doesn’t wanna take it to dreamland with her. It’s a really special time that I’m hoping we can do for as long as she’ll let me. To me was the best piece of advice: just sit and talk.
K: Well said. Ok, let’s talk about your career. What inspired you to write My Big Fat Greek Wedding?
N: I was an actress trying to get a job, and my agent said, “The problem is that you’re great, and there aren’t any great parts.” I thought, Ok, if that’s the problem, I’m gonna make it a solution. All the stories I’ve been telling at parties for years—I squished them into a span of one year, hooked it on my real-life wedding to a non-Greek who had gotten baptized, and made the rest up. Just made-up a story about what would happen if the girl was 30, and still living at home and met this guy. I couldn’t get it read because I didn’t have the comfort of having a studio, and I jumped up on stage and did it as a one-woman show. I played all the characters, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had heard about the show, came to it and said, this should be a movie. I said, “I’ve written a screenplay, do you wanna read it?” Then Tom called me and said, “We’re gonna buy your movie and you’re gonna play the lead.”
K: That is such a fairy tale come true.
N: That was after 4 years of, I couldn’t get a job on-camera in Los Angeles. It’s a fairy tale, and it’s such a life lesson for me. Do the work, and a reward will come. If I had tried to write a blockbuster, it wouldn’t have happened. I was just trying to be creatively heard. When I talk to screenwriters—I speak at USC and UCLA, the Writers Guild, and to the Screen Actors Guild—I always talk about not letting anyone define who you are. And don’t wait for the phone to ring. Call yourselves.
K: That’s great advice, Nia. So is there anything you wanna talk about as far as Larry Crowne?
N: It is about a man who loses his job at 50 and has to reinvent himself. It’s a very relevant idea that Tom Hanks had years ago, before this country was in the financial situation that it is in. I’m so proud of it. It’s funny but it’s also more dramatic than anything I’ve ever worked on, and I’m so happy to work with my beloved playturners again. And then, I also was hired to write a movie about motherhood called Happy Mother’s Day. It’s about four women who run away from home on Mother’s Day.
K: Is John Corbett gonna be in them?
N: That’s hilarious! He just called me and asked that, because I Hate Valentine’s Day was a remarkably low budget indie that we shot in 18 days. They told me that I could direct my own script if I could shoot it in 18 days with John Corbett. I called John up and he said yes without even reading the script. We shot it in 18 days, got it released, and it is in profit, which is unheard of for a movie, to be in profit so quickly. So John called me up, because we are profit participants in it—John and I, and the chief producer. He was like, “Baby! We’re gonna make money off this thing,” and I was like, “Oh thank God, because it was really hard to shoot.” So [John] goes, “What are we doing next?”
K: Haha! And he is like your fictional soul mate, isn’t he?
N: I love him so much! Maybe we’ll just keep on working together because I know I can depend on him. He treats me the same way in front of my husband, as when my husband is not there. That to me is the a mark of a true gentleman. As a writer, I can rewrite [his script] on the spot and he can look at it and go, “Okay, no problem.” He walks away, memorizes it, ten minutes later, he’s shooting it with me. He is so easygoing and adaptable, and he makes my lines better. That is my kind of actor. It’s just something extraordinary happened to us and we know it. We’re so lucky to have each other. And you know if I had gone through it alone, if I wasn’t married, if I didn’t have that cast, it would’ve been pretty lonely. But it happened to all of us and it was a super fun ride.
K: Any resolutions for 2011?
N: My daughter is going to start first grade, and I made a pact with myself that I would let her experience it. In Los Angeles, you can choose the schools you can go to and I know what school I would want—but I don’t know what child she is yet. We morph, we grow, and we change, right? I will stay hands-on that wherever she goes, that it is a beneficial school for her so that if she changes into a child that the school is no longer right for—you know, progressive versus academic—that I would do the work that I am doing now all over again. Do the school tours, the interviews, the admissions process again for my child.
K: That’s fantastic, Nia. A shoutout to BC for the readers?
N: I would like to say, hi BC, thank you so much for bringing this magazine that shows us that when we become moms, it doesn’t mean that we have to shuffle around in our sweats and slippers.
BY KARIZ FAVIS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANNE MARIE FOX
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT BY STEPHEN SEIDEL
MAKE – UP BY ROBIN SEIGEL
HAIR BY SHANA FRUMAN
STYLING JESSICA PASTER