A lot has transpired personally and professionally for Nia Vardalos since audiences took the big plunge with her in 2002 with the blockbuster romantic comedy "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- and without question nothing more eventful than in 2008 when the acclaimed actress and screenwriter adopted a daughter with her husband, actor Ian Gomez.
Needless to say, Vardalos' latest role is of a mom of a precocious young girl in "An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars," has a meaning that goes beyond words on a page and images on a screen. Longing to become a mom before the adoption, parenthood has changed Vardalos' entire perspective on life -- and work.
"I'm sure that you can see that there's such a difference in the role that I would chose to do," Vardalos told me in a recent interview. "I would have never had played a mom role -- it was such a painful thing for me, and now I just jumped at the chance."
Vardalos said the leaping began when she saw prolific film producer Debra Martin Chase ("The Princess Diaries" and the upcoming "Sparkle") at a party, who dropped a big hint about a potential role in an upcoming "American Girl" movie.
"She said, 'You know there's a mom role in this movie I'm shooting,' and I jumped across the room. I was like, 'Please, please, please give it to me. 'An American Girl?' Are you kidding?' I just want to be a hero to my daughter," said Vardalos of her almost-7-year-old.
New on Blu-ray and DVD Tuesday (Universal Home Entertainment), "An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars" stars Jade Pettyjohn in the title role, a precocious young girl whose passion to make the regional competitive gymnastics team supersedes her responsibilities as a student. At the advice of her teacher and urging of her parents, (Vardalos and Ian Ziering), McKenna reluctantly starts studying with a tutor, but is embarrassed by it and tries to hide it from her friends.
McKenna's attitude starts to change, though, after a bad fall during gymnastics practice sidelines her in the weeks leading up to the regionals. She forms a bond with her tutor, Josie (Kerris Dorsey), a wheelchair-bound fellow student who proves to be an inspiration to McKenna both in her schoolwork and desire to get back into the gymnastics competition.
Directed by Vince Marcello, "McKenna Shoots for the Stars" also stars Ysa Penarejo as McKenna's best friend and famed Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby as McKenna's coach.
When it comes to the quandaries a young person faces in life, "McKenna Shoots for the Stars" has it all, from peer pressure, parental conflict and perceptions of children with handicaps, just to name a few. The great thing is, Vardalos said, the movie layers in lessons but not in an overbearing sort of way.
"Vince did an excellent job of directing the film without an iron fist. The messages are there in the script, but he didn't pound them down because kids can sense artifice," Vardalos observed. "Once they feel they're being preached to, they just turn off. But with Vince's direction the messages just sort of float by you."
That's not to say the film candy-coats some of the most pressing dynamics in the parent-child relationship. It does so, and in a meaningful way.
"This is why I give this movie my mom's stamp of approval," Vardalos enthused. "I like a movie that addresses relatable conflict for kids and shows a true, familial approach to it and how people will resolve it."
In fun sort of way, Vardalos said, Marcello brought to the production the key personal characteristic all parents -- and filmmakers -- should have: patience.
"He was such a joy to be around. He pulled this off with adults and kids chatting, and with a lot of background actors -- who were related to me, by the way, because we shot this in my hometown in Canada," Vardalos said laughing. "There was so much going on, but he has such an even personality."
A native of Winnipeg, Vardalos said the wonderful thing about the "An American Girl" franchise is that no matter where you're from, every parent and child can relate.
"Let's face it, as parents we look for messages in things that are going to be positive and in this case, its role models for our children," Vardalos said. "For this girl who is not doing very well in school, and who's a gymnast who breaks her leg, there are so many things there we can completely relate to."
Better yet, Vardalos noted, the brand isn't exclusive in its attitude.
"What I really love about the 'American Girl' brand is that it's pro-girl without being anti-boy," Vardalos said. "As much I feel about the sisterhood, and how I write these female characters because I want to hang out with these fun women, I'm not anti-boy. I have a great husband, great brother and great dad, and I don't want to create an 'us and them' situation. The 'American Girl' brand tells girls, 'Be the best you, you can be.' And I think that's admirable."
Ten years after I interviewed Vardalos for the first time for "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the Oscar-nominated screenwriter told me exclusively that a special edition 10th anniversary edition Blu-ray and DVD of the film is on the way in September -- and fellow star John Corbett joins her with new reflections of the film and the events around it.
Until then, if you happen upon Vardalos in the street, don't be afraid to bring up the film to her. She still very much loves talking about it.