April 19, 2002 wasn’t a particularly auspicious day at the box office. Among the new releases: "Murder by Numbers," a modern spin on the Leopold and Loeb story; "The Scorpion King," the Duane Johnson-starring spinoff of the popular "Mummy" franchise; the Kate Winslet-starring thriller "Enigma"; the Christianity-fueled "Joshua." But one other movie was about to blow them all away — "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," an indie rom-com written by and starring the mostly unknown Nia Vardalos and featuring a cast of names like Lainie Kazan, John Corbett and former N’SYNC member Joey Fatone. The film did have some serious muscle behind it, like director Joel Zwick and producer Tom Hanks, but it was made for about $5 million and IFC originally only released it into just 108 theaters.
The film went on to make over $240 million in North America alone, becoming the highest-grossing independent film of all time (at least until it was dethroned by "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004, as noted by The Hollywood Reporter), effectively making it the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time. For everyone involved (with the possible exception of Hanks), it was a total life-changer. Even Lainie Kazan, who starred in the film as the larger-than-life matriarch Maria, found her career reinvigorated from the film’s success — even though the enduring star of stage and screen had been through plenty of reinventions before.
Now, nearly 15 years after its initial success, the film is finally getting a sequel, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2," which reunites the family for more wild, related adventures (and, yes, another wedding), this time produced and distributed by Universal Pictures. Despite the backing of a big studio (and a release that will see the film hitting over 3,000 theaters this weekend), the sprit of the first film remains strong. And for Kazan, that sense of being an all-hands-on-deck family operation is what’s most important.
Indiewire recently sat down with Kazan to reflect on her experience with the first film, what it was like to return to such a beloved character and the one role she really wants to play (again).
"And We Have No Money"
Kazan was initially a little hesitant to get involved with the first film, but was encouraged by Hanks’ involvement. "I was invited up by my agent, who said, ‘Tom Hanks is producing this movie, and he really would like to see you for the mother,’" Kazan remembered.
The experience was immediately familial: "We all sat around the kitchen table. He just puts everybody together and all of a sudden, you can’t help but be intimate with these people. He gives you things to talk about. So I thought, ‘Well, this is okay.’"
Kazan, however, couldn’t channel her newfound excitement immediately, as the film was still months away from production. "As I was leaving, Tom said to me, ‘If we ever do this movie, I’m so glad you came, because you’re like having’ – and he mentioned some great baseball player – ‘a great baseball player on my team.’ I thought that was lovely and I was very flattered," Kazan said. "I didn’t hear from him for a year."
That did, of course, eventually change, and Kazan was offered the role about a year later. "They said, ‘We’re going into production in Toronto, we would like you to play the mother. And we have no money,’" Kazan said.
The actress remembers being offered about $750 a week for the role, but despite the relatively slim payday, she couldn’t help herself: "I thought, ‘All the actors are doing it, why not? Why shouldn’t I do it?’"
It paid off. "We became fast and intimate friends, all of us. We partied together, we ate together, we drank together, we acted together. It was incredible. I don’t know of a company that’s like that," Kazan said. And you can see that onscreen, as Kazan still believes that bond "kind of transmits itself to the audience."
But despite a rollicking production and a happy company, the "Big Fat Greek Wedding" team had no idea the film would be such a hit. "We were shocked when the movie came out and it was so highly recommended," Kazan said. "It was great. I never thought it would be a hit. I never thought anybody would see it…Usually you can tell when a movie has legs, but we didn’t know that."
The Right Time
As for the sequel: She has no complaints. "I think it’s the right time for the movie," she said. "The country is in trouble. We don’t know who we want, Democrats, Republicans. We’re not sure about what’s happening in the world…I think this Greek family make everybody feel better. They’re crazy, but they’re wonderful."
Kazan’s film credits stretch all the way back to 1962, when she made her debut on "Car 54, Where Are You?" in a small role as "girl at the bar." Over the years, she has built up a very sizable career, from film and television to stage performances and her number one passion: Singing. These days, she also teaches, which speaks to her steady belief that performances of all stripes require training. "I believe in training," Kazan said. "You can’t build a castle without a foundation."
Kazan has never balked at changing up her career, and she’s never feared the hard work that comes with it. In the late seventies, the actress and chanteuse turned her attentions to her singing, even building two different jazz clubs (along with Hugh Hefner and Playboy) in New York and Los Angeles. But even that didn’t hold her attention for long. "I thought, ‘What am I going to do? I have to reinvent myself. I have to think of another product.’ And I did. Every time," Kazan said.
The big change? Her casting in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1981 musical drama, "One From the Heart."
"I knew that it was going to have to be successful, I made it successful," Kazan said. "And then I started getting bookings again. I worked again, all over the world. I had this unbelievable spin on my career. The rest is history. I never looked back."
"A Little Music Thrown in There"
Still, singing remains her biggest passion. "It’s who I am. I enjoy acting, but I act when I sing. It’s just that the medium of acting is a little more dry," she said. "I’m so comfortable as a singer, so much more so than acting. I’m so comfortable to do anything that I want to do, and my voice will take me there."
She’d like to join her passions together again, however, as Kazan says she dreams of big roles in both movies and on stage. "I’d like to play a leading lady in a very dramatic role, a little music thrown in there. I want to do that," Kazan said of her cinematic aspirations.
After that? "I wouldn’t mind doing Mama Rose in ‘Gypsy.’ I did Mama Rose, but where I did it, it didn’t mean anything. It didn’t satisfy my dream. I wanted to be on stage," Kazan said. More than anything, she wants to bring her own emotion to the classic part: "Mine’s tragic. It’s tragic."
Kazan, however, is anything but.
"My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" is in theaters nationwide.