In her more than five decades on screen, Lainie Kazan has played many Jewish mothers in movies such as “My Favorite Year,” “Beaches,” “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” “What’s Cooking?” and “I Don’t Buy Kisses Anymore.” But the Jewish actress’s most famous role is Maria Portokalos, the matriarch of a large and boisterous Greek family in the 2002 comedy hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
Fourteen years later, she is reprising the role in the sequel, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” which finds Maria at a turning point. “Her marriage is rusty and she tries to fix things and make it better,” Kazan said, unable to say more about a plot twist the filmmakers want kept secret.
Kazan was eager to reunite with her fellow cast members, including the first film’s star and screenwriter, Nia Vardalos, as well as co-stars Gia Carides and Joey Fatone, with whom she has remained close over the years. “Every time I saw Nia, I’d say, ‘So?’ And she would say, ‘Not yet, I’m not ready,’ ” Kazan said of getting a sequel off the ground. When Vardalos called to say she had a script, “We were so thrilled. We celebrated at a Greek restaurant on Larchmont,” in Los Angeles, she said.
For Kazan, shooting the sequel felt “like coming home, really special and lovely. And I think the audience will feel the connection that we have.”
She said she found playing Maria for the second time “so easy, like wearing an old shoe. I knew who she was, and I could embellish it. I love her joy in life, in everything. She loves her children and her husband in the most generous and warm and fun way. Even the troubles get lost in the laughter.”
The original, much-loved “Wedding” made $245 million at the box office domestically, but Kazan said she didn’t think about matching that success when making the sequel. “I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I had to just be in the moment, and it was a very comfortable place to be. I didn’t have any expectations, and I still don’t. I hope it’s a success, I hope we did a good job — that’s all I can do.”
Kazan also felt comfortable in an ethnic milieu that she finds quite familiar. “There are a lot of similarities between the Greeks and the Jews,” she said. “The way they deal with their families, the emphasis on education, a great love of family, and they give their children a lot, like we do.”
Widowed since 1989, Kazan has a daughter, Jennifer Bena, and grandchildren Isabella Blue, 16, and Grayson, 1. She grew up in a Conservative but not particularly religious family in Brooklyn, celebrating the traditions of both her mother’s Sephardic family and her father’s Ashkenazic one.
“We had big Pesach dinners. We had a huge family. It was very celebratory,” she recalled. “I knew I was Jewish, and I was very proud of my Jewish heritage and the fact that my grandparents were from Israel.” They made their way to Manchester, England, before moving to Brooklyn, and remained active Zionists.
Kazan has been to Israel herself, including her few months there making 1986’s “Delta Force.” “It was fabulous,” she said. “I looked up relatives and spent time with them. I’ve been back several times since. I sang at the jazz festival there.”
Today, she considers herself a “holiday Jew,” attending synagogue for the High Holy Days. But it was important to her to pass on Jewish traditions to her daughter and her grandchildren. “My granddaughter is very curious about Judaism and what it means,” she said.
Kazan’s grandmother, Jennie, born in pre-Israel Palestine, would take her to the Yiddish theater to see Molly Picon and other greats of the time. It created a special bond between them and sparked young Lainie’s interest in the stage.
“I didn’t know what they were saying, but I understood. They made me laugh, and they made a big impression on me,” Kazan said. So did her parents, particularly her father. “He was very funny, like Abbott and Costello rolled into one. My mother was very dramatic and gorgeous, always the first one in the neighborhood to do this or that. She always took me to museums and put me in a little theater group at the Metropolitan [Museum].”
Kazan’s own triple-threat talents as a dancer, singer and actor have kept her in demand on stage and screen over the years, but as much as she enjoys acting, she said, “There’s nothing like singing. The joy and fulfillment that I get is so complete. It’s also about the physical experience of singing. It’s No. 1 in my life.”
She will perform in concert around the country this spring through October, with a stop in Las Vegas at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz on Oct. 28-29.
Since 2012, Kazan has also been an adjunct professor at UCLA, teaching a class titled “Acting for the Singer,” and producing and directing her students in an end-of-semester show. Last December, they did a tribute to Frank Sinatra. She also is on the boards of her alma mater, Hofstra University, the Young Musicians Foundation and the California Jazz Foundation, and loves the opportunity it gives her to help young people launch their careers.
As for herself, she hopes a juicy dramatic role is in her future, although she gets comedy offers more often. There’s an as-yet uncompleted independent movie called “Tango Shalom” with Renee Taylor, who Kazan shared screen time with in the television series “The Nanny,” and she believes there will be a third “Greek Wedding.”
“Nia is talking about it,” she said.
Kazan also is active in raising money for B’nai B’rith, AIDS organizations and other charities, and will be honored at the Visiting Nurses Association’s “One Enchanted Evening” gala on May 7 in Palm Springs. She likes going there, or to the beach, to “just be quiet and read a book,” she said.
“I’ve reinvented myself over and over again,” Kazan said. “It’s hard work but I enjoy my career, and, now, teaching. I’m proud of my ability to survive.”
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” opens in theaters on March 25.