Traveling with the Stars: Nia Vardalos

Nia Vardalos, who received an Academy Award nomination for her first screenplay, the 2002 hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding, returns to her Greek roots to play an American tour guide in Greece in the romantic comedy My Life in Ruins, opening Friday. The Canadian-born actress, fluent in Greek, began traveling there when she was five and has made about 15 trips. She talks about the film and shares her knowledge of Greece with USA TODAY.

Q: How did this film come about?

A: I wanted to make the movie but I didn't necessarily want to be in it because I had quietly withdrawn from acting. I was going through a personal loss of mojo. I had to call uncle to a 10-year infertility battle. I found the script. Loved it. At the time I was writing a movie for Tom Hanks at Universal. I told him about the script. We brought in the writer Mike Reiss and (I) said, 'I'm going to layer in some authenticity.' But it's very much Mike's script.What I found myself layering into it was my personal loss of kefi (Greek word for mojo). I was just hiding in my office writing movies where everything turned out good. As I slowly started to mold the character, I started to admit that I wanted to play her.

Q: How were the locations chosen?

A: I wanted to tell a story about a very mystical triangle that happened in ancient times in Greece. It's this: The triangle of Georgia (Vardalos' character), Poupi (the tour bus driver played by Alexis Georgoulis) and Irv (a tourist played by Richard Dreyfuss). None of these people would have happiness without each other… Acropolis, Delphi and Olympia, in ancient times, were impossibly built exactly 121 kilometers apart from each other. It's a very mystical triangle. That's why I wanted those three.

Q: The film is the first ever to shoot at the Acropolis. How did you do that?

A: I had a lot of dinners and did a lot of handshaking. I have to credit my parents for making me go to Greek school, because after all those years I'm fluent in the language. I had a personal relationship with the Minister of Culture because of the first Greek movie and she was extremely instrumental. I also assured the government we would leave the ruins exactly as we found them.

Q: You shot mostly at actual sites. What was that like?

A: We were shooting in the Plaka (the main square of Athens) and people would walk right into our shots and say, 'Hey, Nia Vardalos." I was like, "OK, now you know the camera is running?' They would literally say, 'Turn it off. I want to talk to this girl.' Tour guides as well. It was so much fun. We had to shoot the interiors in a soundstage in Spain. We have soundstages in Greece but they're booked year round.

Q: How did you prepare? Did you hang out with tour guides?

A: Yeah, I did. I took tours in Los Angeles and in England. I studied them and watched how they said the same pattern. How they all tried to teach about culture and how sometimes it would just fall on deaf ears. The tourists were like 'Oh God.' They'd groan at the bad jokes.

One guy in England, I watched him show every site. This is Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. The tourists would nod, look at him and stifle a yawn. We'd drive past a completely non-descript building and he'd say, 'This window was once used in a Bond movie.' And they all took out their cameras and were like snap, snap, snap. I just looked at him. The look on his face was like, 'I see it every day.'

Q: The movie is very stereotypical. What are the Greeks going to think about a movie that shows their elevators don't work and the disgusting front desk clerk at the hotel hitting on the guest?

A: That's my real husband by the way. We turn anything into a vacation and that was our anniversary. We put hair in his ears… I learned with the first movie that Greeks have a great sense of humor about themselves. I was careful. Every time I would show a bad hotel, I wrote a line that Greeks have the best hotel chains in the world because it's true with the luxury hotels. We went to Greece for the premiere on April 3 and it was 1,700 people — all Greeks — laughing so hard. Thank God.

Q: Where do you like to go for your personal vacation in Greece?

A: We go to Athens. I have cousins there. We go to the islands. To me, tourism has not spoiled Greece. The most touristy island, Santorini, to me is completely unspoiled. We love it. I've gone to islands that are not so well known like Andros. It's northern and has beautiful evergreen trees.

Q: Do you see the movie boosting tourism in Greece?

A: I hope it does. Right now with the economy not a lot of us can afford to travel. But if you did not invest in Madoff, please go to Greece. Go to Italy. Not just for what it will do to that country's economy, but just for the cleansing of your soul.