Nia Vardalos is one of the great cinematic success stories. She wrote and starred in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which was a film with mostly unknowns and a few C-list talents that never expected to do much more than art house business. And yet it became a runaway success and launched her into a number of projects that tried to reheat that success. Tom Hanks saw that  talent, and hired her to help him write Larry Crowne, which opens July 1. We got a chance to talk with Vardalos, check it out…

You guys started working on this before the recession which I thought was very clairvoyant of you. Did you start in 2006?

Nia Vardalos: It’s much earlier than that. It was Tom’s idea. He came to me. I think it was around 2005, 2006. I was at Playtone developing My Life in Ruins and Tom said “I have an idea for a movie. Do you want to write it?” I describe this entire process as a series of “be cool, be cool, my face!” “What?” “Be cool, be cool.” “Yeah, sure, oh yeah.” We sat down at his office and he laid out the entire idea. It was very clear in his head of what would happen if a man at 50 years old lost his job through no fault of his own, just downsizing, and had to reinvent himself. He wanted to keep it as a very quiet story and a very simple, streamlined idea. I think Tom’s approach is very much he is the everyman because the way things happen to him is what he wanted to do.

As you were writing it, did you realize things were starting to turn?

NV: Tom Hanks is friends with Barack Obama so I think that Tom and Barack have caused this economic crisis so that the film would be successful. (laughs) There’s a relevance to Larry Crowne that is fortunate and unfortunate, but this is not a downer movie. It’s what can happen if you keep your heart open. I certainly have lived that too. When we were trying to become parents, I thought the only way to become a parent was either to have a biological child or adopt an infant, and when I opened my heart and thought of different ways, we ended up finding our perfect daughter in American foster care. And that is what I think Tom has, this optimism and this way of looking at things and to stay open, and that’s what Larry Crowne does.

Why didn’t you write a role for yourself in this film and what are the personal notes and stuff you added to what Tom Hanks did as far as characters on a large scale?

NV: The way we wrote was the “no rules” way. Neither one of us had an ego or a feeling of ownership of the script. Sometimes we would sit in a room and write together. Sometimes I would take the draft. Sometimes he would take the draft and go on vacation and write and then bring it back. I loved that process. It felt like it was very honest in that we were just trying to write a story, but neither one of us was trying to force our own ideas into it. I thought he was incredibly smart to create a character for Julia Roberts that was interesting and had depth and was not perfect – you know, the romantic comedy heroine who falls a lot – I can make fun of it because I’ve done it. He wanted to create something much more real. I think I had a secret plan that I was going to play one of the sisters. We had a whole family in the first and the second draft, a whole family that’s up in his grill when he loses his job and wants to help or not help or whatever, and then we realized that maybe it would be better to cut the entire family so that Tom is just an island. When he doesn’t have an income anymore, what does he do? We felt it was more indicative of what is happening to people globally. The writer in me always fights with the actress. There’s always that. So, without thinking, I went “Okay, so the family’s gone” and then went back to the whiteboard and didn’t even think like “What are you going to play? Oh well.” But they’re so lovely to me that I play the voice of the GPS, so yes, I will be getting some SAG residuals from this movie, thank you very much. And my husband is in it, by the way. My husband is so naïve. That was Perry’s Pie Shop, and then, of course, Tom found Frank’s in the Valley and he cast my husband as Frank, and then we got there and my husband went “This is so lucky that you found a place called Frank’s!” I was like “Oh honey, no, we changed the name. No.”

You mentioned Tom wanted to write this for Julia. Was she part of the writing process the whole time and did you write to the voice of the other actors who had been cast? And at any point was Crowne’s ex-wife in the story?

NV: (Roberts) was on our wish list and then Tom sent her the draft. I believe they had a conversation after that and he did some tweaking for her. I remember just being so thrilled that she liked it, thrilled for my friend – because I knew that he wanted to please her and have her be drawn to the project. The reason that we cut the ex-wife was because Tom felt that it was a movie moment that you would expect to see and so we didn’t ever shoot it. She was never in the final draft.

Is there anything in your own life – with friends or colleagues – where you saw the effects of the depression and recession and unemployment in their lives which you were able to address in this script?

NV: I think what we both drew from is our years as actors trying to make a living. It’s not like when you suddenly become a working actor. All your friends are in the same lucky situation. I have friends who are still handing out flyers for their one-woman show and are trying to make ends meet by waitressing and doing all the wonderful jobs that we all do to try to make a living. Larry will do anything to make a living and that is indicative I think globally and much more so in this country. People are just trying to get by.

You mentioned your husband is in this movie and Rita Wilson is in this movie and you were recently on Cougar Town this last season. Can you talk a little bit about working with your significant other and how that is a process?

NV: When I’m writing in my office, it’s right by our daughter’s bedroom. I’m in there usually and that means that Ian is watching TV at night by himself. So, he’ll walk by and he’ll go “Who are you kissing now?!” That’s usually what he knows I’m writing. And then, I try to get him to be in everything because it’s a chance to see each other. We don’t necessarily want to play romantic leads opposite each other because we just don’t think that “Oh, we’re so cute!” and that people want to pay $14 to watch us kiss. Gross! But we do like to be on the set with each other, making fun of each other. In My Life in Ruins, he plays the hotel clerk. We shot that on our anniversary and his goal of the day was to get me fired by making me laugh on camera. Also, in Larry Crowne, I was really thrilled when Tom said “What are we going to get Ian to play?” It’s just so sweet and it’s nice to be around each other. On Cougar Town, they let us improvise actually which was a mistake with two Second City actors. We were like “Move the furniture!!” We had a great time.

You’re very fortunate to have two of the world’s biggest movie stars in this film which no doubt will be a boon in terms of getting audiences to come and see it. But in a summer where there are a lot of special effect films and blockbusters, what type of challenges are you guys facing with a film whose topic is not necessarily the most upbeat?

NV: Well this is where we would appeal to you. We are all saying the same thing. Reviewers say it, audiences say it, we all say we want adult movies and this is a movie that we strived to keep uplifting about a very real topic. It’s a romantic comedy about something that is relevant. So, the fine line that I think Tom walks so well is to keep it light and quippy and Tom Hanks-like and earnest and charming, which is everything that this man actually is and he imbued the film with. Why? Because otherwise you’re going to be reviewing and we’re just going to be acting in Transformers 12. I also will go to that movie. I love all movies. I went to X-Men. I went to Bridesmaids. I love movies. But, in order to keep a variety out there of movies that we want to see, you want to write about, and I want to be in, I’m asking you to support this film and help us out and get the word out and tell people it’s not a downer. We’re so proud of it, and what I was telling Rob as well, it’s a simple movie. It’s got almost a grace to it and that’s what I admired about Tom. He didn’t give into obviously what we know would sell – so boobs and car crashes, which I love! They’re not in this movie.

What are you working on next?

NV: I’m writing a Fox Studios pilot for television that I will probably direct and play a smaller part in, and I’ve written something for Walden Studios called Happy Mother’s Day about four moms who run away from home. I’m writing an script with Rob Riggle who is in Larry Crowne. We met on the set and made each other laugh so hard in the shoe aisle at K-Mart — I mean, U-Mart — that we decided to just write together. For my next project, I’m going to Winnipeg to play the mom in the American Girl Doll movie and you know why I took that part. You know it. I get to go home and I get to be a hero to my daughter.

Which would like to do more – write or act?

NV: I wrote an article for Elle Magazine Canada where I admitted that I really, really don’t like writing at all. It’s very lonely. It’s very daunting. I have a voice in my head the whole time telling me I’m a fraud and no one will buy it and you just click away and click away and just push through. I, like most writers, love having written. Love that. But it’s not that satisfying. This was the first time, on this project, that I felt grateful to be a writer on that set. I got to go to the set every day and watch and learn. I treated it like film school. I became very proud to be a member of the WGA. Again, I’m very grateful to be working always but it’s not what I want to do. I write so that I can act.

Larry Crowne opens July 1. Check it out.