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Nia Vardalos on 'Company' musical, 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' sequel

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TORONTO - When Nia Vardalos first arrived at rehearsals for Theatre 20's "Company," she thought she had made a terrible mistake.

"I couldn't remember how to do harmonies. I had not sung live in 15 years, other than doing benefits, and moved around at the same time," she recalled.

"I went home and called my husband and said, 'I'm in over my head. I've made a huge mistake. I'm the remedial member of the cast.' And then I just remembered the old me — the fearless idiot that tends to just take stuff on."

Vardalos, the Winnipeg-born actress best known for writing and starring in 2002 surprise hit "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," is not one to be easily discouraged. She went home, put on her headphones and practised until she mastered the tunes.

"One day I could just hit the notes. Then it started to be fun, really fun," she said with a bright smile, sitting backstage after a weekday matinee at the Berkeley Theatre in Toronto.

Her bubbly performance as Jenny easily rivals her "Company" castmates, an impressive ensemble of Canada's top theatre stars: Brent Carver, Louise Pitre and Carly Street among them. A revival of a Stephen Sondheim musical that centres on an unmarried man's 35th birthday, "Company" explores attitudes toward commitment, happiness and what it means to be alive.

Vardalos said that she was drawn to the production because Theatre 20 — an artist-led company founded to present story-driven musicals — reminded her of her own humble beginnings.

"It's actors who have come together to create a company. How great. How smart. That appeals to me because I had to write my own movie to get into the industry," she said. "We are like-minded in that we can't just sit around and wait for the phone to ring. You gotta call yourself to get a job."

The show wraps on Sunday, and after a gruelling eight performances each week, Vardalos says she's headed straight back to work — selecting a director next week for the "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" sequel.

Vardalos, 51, said that her producers and mentors, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, wanted a sequel immediately after the original film became a smash hit, netting $200 million in North America alone and nabbing an Oscar nomination for her script.

But at the end of the first film, her character Toula becomes a mother, and Vardalos herself was struggling to conceive at the time.

"I was in such a struggle to become a mom that I just couldn't do it. I just could not do the sequel for the simple reason it would be difficult to write an experience that I was not having. And the American press was so invasive," she said.

"I thought, 'I can't do it,' and I hid, and did all these other fun movies that I wanted to explore. Now that I am a mom, there is just such a story that I want to tell. And although just like the first one there are things that have been made up, the script for number two is from my real experience."

Vardalos wrote about her experience adopting a foster child from the United States in her recent memoir "Instant Mom." She donated proceeds from the book sales to adoption charities, selected carefully by her daughter Ilaria, now 9.

"I welcome the lines around my eyes because I know that it's because I am ridiculously happy. She is a very special person. I know everyone thinks their child is amazing, but mine is," she said with a laugh.

The script for the "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" sequel has been in the works for four years now, but Vardalos said she felt stuck — until her parents recently stopped by for a visit.

"My parents came to live with us for a month during the winter months, and just watching their dynamic, one night I went, 'I got it! I got it!' and just went to my office and finished it," she said.

She turned in the script to Playtone — the production company created by Hanks and producer Gary Goetzman — on John Corbett's birthday. Corbett, who played her fiance in the original film and set many female hearts racing, was immediately back on board, said Vardalos.

"I texted John Corbett and said, 'Do you feel like kissing me again?' He was like, 'I'm in, baby,'" she laughed.

Although Vardalos says she's sworn to secrecy about the plot — "The producers in Los Angeles told me if I talk about 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' they will Taser me from there!" — she promised that the sequel will include a wedding.

The whole "big fat family" has been invited back, with some special surprise guests thrown in, she added.

Vardalos recalled how when "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was released, she went from being a starving artist to hosting "Saturday Night Live" within six months. Asked about her Oscar nomination, tears came to Vardalos's eyes.

"The phone rang and it was my best friend, Kathryn Greenwood ("Wind at my Back" actress)," she said, her voice breaking. "I had slept through the nominations. That's how bone tired I was ... She called and she was crying, and I said, 'What's wrong?' She said, 'You've been nominated for an Oscar!'"

Some things remain the same in her life since the film was released — she remains happily married to husband Ian Gomez and still pals around with old friends. But Vardalos says the biggest change has been in her perspective.

"I think I have more confidence and connectedness to a community at large. I think I was going through a very solitary experience of feeling that I couldn't get acting work and blaming myself," she said.

"I wrote the (first) script out of desperation, and this one I wrote out of joy."

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