Struggling actress hits pay dirt

Critical analysis: “Ms. Vardalos has clearly performed this material enough to know exactly where the laughs are, and she gets them.” –Dave Kehr, New York Times

Awards pedigree: Golden Globe actress nom for “Wedding,” as well as Independent Spirit Award nom for best debut performance

Upcoming: Co-exec producing, writing and starring in “Wedding” spinoff series to debut midseason on CBS. Also wrote and starring in “Connie and Carla Do L.A.” for Spyglass Entertainment.

Just as Nia Vardalos comes to terms with an unbelievable year — her self-written starrer, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” has become the highest-grossing indie and romantic comedy of all-time — the buzz surrounding her sincere performance as Toula Portokalos continues to grow.

Originally a one-woman stage show based on Vardalos’ family, “Wedding” has taken the actress from neophyte to kudos contender, thanks in large part to the film’s phenomenal box office success (more than $250 million worldwide and counting).

Flourishing initially on word-of-mouth, the little-movie-that-could picked up steam after bowing last April. It seemed audiences, Greek or otherwise, empathized with Vardalos’ portrayal of someone with overbearing, if well-meaning, relatives.

“To this day, people tell me, ‘I am you,'” she says. “There’s a really beautiful feeling of connection with absolute strangers, both men and women. So many of us walk that fine line between keeping ourselves happy and our families happy, which is really what the movie’s about.”

Vardalos’ stage play was received warmly, and she fielded offers from several producers who liked the story but wanted to tinker with it. She stood her ground and refused to sell — until Rita Wilson came along. Acting on instinct, Wilson spearheaded the effort to bring Vardalos’ vision of “Wedding” to the bigscreen.

“I just felt that she was a good person,” says Wilson, who produced the feature with husband Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. “She’s incredibly talented and just so funny. I could see that she was a hard worker and wasn’t looking for handouts. She just needed a break.”

Despite having performed the material for months on stage, Vardalos still got cold feet when it came to playing Toula on screen.

“I had to find the confidence in myself that Rita, Tom and Gary had in me,” she says. “I was stunned (when they said I had the lead role). It was like asking the cute guy to the prom and having him say ‘yes’! You just want to go, ‘What? Are you sure?'”

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