At about 9.30 most nights, Leonidas Giannopoulos would call it quits. The milk bar he ran closed at 10, but for the final half-hour, his son Nick, then aged about nine, was left in charge. A weary Leonidas would cross the road to the All Nations Hotel in Richmond, in the heart of working-class Melbourne, and have a drink.
Back at the milk bar, Nick – standing on a milk crate so he could reach the cash register – had the run of the place. He was happy wearing the boss’ hat: handling large notes, counting out change, balancing the till, tracking the ups and downs in the day’s takings – even filling in cheques for his dad, who spoke English OK but struggled writing it. Father and son, by love and necessity, were partners. Nick Giannopoulos the businessman was born.
But there was more to life at the milk bar – it was the family’s second; the first, in Fitzroy, was destroyed by fire – than just bloody hard work. Nick was also witness to the comedy and drama of 1970s Australia: the eccentric local characters, the breezy debates between neighbours, the alienating footy tribalism, the dry humour that pricked, with exacting precision, any displays of conceit or affectation. There was another, darker Australia, and Nick saw that, too. “I used to watch my dad giving away food for nothing to people, because their cheque hadn’t come through, or they had lost it all at the TAB,” Giannopoulos remembers. “I got to see people struggling. And I got to see people, whether they were Vietnamese or Turkish or Greek, being abused and victimised.”
So Nick the businessman became the artist as a young man – a comic entertainer, a broad-smiling champion of the country’s wogs and underdogs. The role suited Giannopoulos perfectly, like a favourite black T-shirt. With his combination of talents – a creative mind plus business smarts – success followed success: four long-running stage shows (all with the word “wog” proudly in the title), five years of the top-rating sitcom Acropolis Now and, of course, a movie, The Wog Boy, which took an incredible $12m at the local box-office.
After The Wog Boy, however, Giannopoulos found himself at crossroads. What next? Could the country’s most recognisable first-generation Australian go on making wog jokes forever?
Smartly, though with a considerable degree of risk, Giannopoulos has opted for reinvention rather than replication. His new movie, out this month, is not a sequel to The Wog Boy (despite the obvious pressure on him to do one), nor does it rely on the wog humour that made Giannopoulos a star. Yes, The Wannabes is a comedy, but go along expecting jokes about hotted-up Monaros, tzatziki and skippies and you’ll leave disappointed.
“Sometimes the choices you make in life aren’t based on monetary or financial reasons alone – sometimes you have to do things for your own sanity,” Giannopoulos says. “And you’re not doing your fans a service if your heart’s not in it. And for every one of the past 15 years, my heart was in it; I had a terrific time doing the various mutations of Wog. But it was time to move on.”
Whether film-goers agree with him remains to be seen. The word so far on The Wannabes is positive. In May, it became the first Australian feature film to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival, Robert De Niro’s annual schmooze for New York cineastes. (Giannopoulos met De Niro and Martin Scorsese, but a bigger thrill for him was the day-long festival workshop run by Al Pacino: “What an experience that was!” Giannopoulos beams, unsure whether to trust his memory that it happened.)
The Wannabes tells the story of Danny (played by Giannopoulos), a second-rate teacher at a talent school who is one day asked to instruct a bunch of wannabes in a few entertainment basics. Danny takes them on, unaware that the guys are actually crooks, cunningly disguised as a children’s song-and-dance group, with plans to stage a heist. (Confused? Imagine The Wiggles meets Ocean’s Eleven and you’re warm.)
Giannopoulos has high hopes for the film – as, indeed, he has about most things in life. The man is a pleasure to meet: handsome, lively, ambitious, but relaxed and generous with his time and opinions. He loves the industry he works in, and it shows in his wide smile and the way his thick, dark eyebrows dance around when he’s talking. He has the easy self-assurance of an only child – which he was for a decade: a sister joined the family when he was 10.
Giannopoulos was born in 1963, about three years after his parents came to Australia from Greece on the ship Patris. Leonidas worked on the Ford assembly line before becoming a milk-bar proprietor. Nick’s mother, Petroula, put in long hours as a machinist in a sweatshop.
Nick’s school life was an education for all the wrong reasons. He was called a wog, and teased about the rich food in his lunchbox, the cut and crease of his home-stitched jeans, the smell of his lustrous hair. At a time when every kid at Abbotsford Primary barracked for Richmond, Nick turned up in an Essendon jumper – a shopping mistake by his mother (“Red, yellow – same,” said Petroula. “No same, no same!” cried her traumatised boy.)
By his teens, Nick’s torment had morphed into something more functional – rage. And in this, he enjoyed safety in numbers: Richmond High was full of Greek-Australians. “We were angry at everyone,” he says. “Angry at being called wogs. Angry at our mothers being made fun of. Angry we couldn’t get Australian girlfriends – they were all after surfie guys. Angry that the Big M milk ads only had blond-haired, blue-eyed guys on them – that the media in general was not acknowledging the true state of what Australia was.”
In a few short years, Giannopoulos would do something to change that, but not before his anger exacted a toll. He was thrown out of high school, thrown out of Rusden College, where for two years he studied drama and media, and almost thrown out of the prestigious Victorian College of the Arts. Indeed, if not for the support of a VCA teacher, who could see the potential of the young acting student, Giannopoulos might never have graduated.
Star potential or not, like most drama school graduates, Giannopoulos soon found himself in the dole queue. His first year out, 1986, was a particularly rude awakening: casting agents, it seemed, just weren’t looking for Greek-looking actors. (One told Giannopoulos he couldn’t be cast in a show set before 1960 because “there were no people of ethnic background here before then”.) And so Giannopoulos, ever the businessman, created his own work. He saved up his dole cheques, and with $2000 – every cent he owned – staged a little show called Wogs Out of Work at the inaugural Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 1987. The show was a smash and Giannopoulos was on his way.
Sixteen years on, and Giannopoulos is still his own boss, still generating his own work. He has a production company, Third Costa, with a successful movie arm, GO Films. He put his own money – “a lot of it,” is all he’ll say – into The Wog Boy and now The Wannabes. He also maintains a range of other investments: equities, property, even a vineyard. But for all his ambition and business acumen (“my work is my hobby”), Giannopoulos is not hell-bent on international success. He’d like to see The Wannabes find an audience outside Australia, but his smile won’t go anywhere if it doesn’t. He’s got a new apartment that overlooks the MCG (where his beloved Bombers play: “I had the jumper, so I just started supporting the team!”), and a steady girlfriend to share time with. At 40, he’s comfortably well off and content. The past – with its anger and frustration – is a foreign country.
“I’m not one of these guys that has regrets,” he says. “As a true Greek, I believe in my fate. And I believe you are presented with the obstacles and challenges you are for a reason. And so far in my life, I’m really happy with the way I’ve responded to those challenges.”
Nick Giannopolous has built a successful stage and film career on the migrant experience. But it's wannabes not wogs at the heart of his new comedy. BY SIMON CASTLES