david j. moore chats with The NeverEnding Story star Tami Stronach…
Based on the rich fantasy novel by Michael Ende, Wolfgang Peterson’s The NeverEnding Story has endured and flourished as a favorite fantasy film for more than 30 years. In the pivotal role as The Childlike Empress, Tami Stronach embodied ancient, timeless beauty in her performance. Stronach, who was only 10 years old when she was cast in the role, left acting behind to pursue a career in dance and choreography, but she’s recently begun to connect with fans of the film, and in this interview she talks about her very special experience of making the film and what she’s been up to lately.
I can’t believe I’m about to have a conversation with The Childlike Empress!
I’m not really an all-powerful, ageless being, though, right? (Laughing.)
I know, I know. It is what it is.
Here’s the thing: The NeverEnding Story has been a favorite film of mine since childhood. It’s always had a very dear place in my heart. I actually saw it again recently in theaters, and I was stricken by how deep and adult it is. It’s a powerful movie. When you were cast in it years ago, you could not have known how it would have impacted so many people over the years, right?
No, I had no idea. Honestly, because it was filmed in Germany, we were under the impression that it might not even make it to America. We didn’t understand the scope of the project. Of course no one can predict what movies people respond to or don’t. It’s really surprising and amazing that so many people still have so much affection for it.
How old were you when you were cast in it?
I was 10 when I was auditioning. Over the course of the summer, I turned 11.
Did you have any idea that it was based on a novel?
No, I sort of stumbled into it blind. I loved acting, I loved singing and dancing. I was in a theater school in San Francisco, and I was taking a bunch of acting classes. The casting agent from the film was friends with my teacher at the time. She was on a break from auditioning girls for the role, and she came to have lunch with my teacher, and she was there 10 minutes early and caught the tail end of my class. She saw me and said, “Why don’t you come audition tomorrow for this film?” I said, “Sure! Okay!” I told my parents, and they were used to having me do community theater and I was doing ballet recitals, and my mom sort of absently asked, “So I’ll pick you up at the play you’re doing, and I’ll take you where?” I said, “I don’t know, but I have the address.” We really didn’t know what we were getting into. I got the sides and ran them over in the car, and then it turned out to be this incredibly rich and amazing project that was far greater in scope than I could have imagined.
Your role in the film isn’t huge, but it’s integral. It’s special when you’re on screen. The audience is so drawn to who you are and your character. Did you get to observe much of the filming even though your role was relatively small?
I had a small role; it’s true. The screen time is minimal. It’s just a couple of minutes. The story sets you up to wait and meet this character, so it lends itself to positioning that character to kind of have more weight than the actual screen time that was allotted. I was there for two months. They wanted to work on the look of the character. We had two weeks of different kinds of hairstyles, different kinds of make-up, different kinds of costuming. It was amazing how much time it took to prep for that tiny little bit of screen time. Then, also, there was the unfortunate fact that my teeth fell out. When you’re 10, your teeth fall out. (Laughing.) We had to create dentures. The Childlike Empress wore dentures! They were custom made. If you look at it closely, you’ll see that my teeth are different in the first scene to the second scene. Because in the second scene my teeth started to grow back in. I was not allowed to smile widely. It’s funny. There was a lot of rigmarole to get everything the way Wolfgang Peterson wanted it to look. But I was on set and walked around and saw things. Some of it was shot in Canada. I did get to see some things, though.
This character is very original. She’s the “Childlike Empress.” As a kid, I always assumed she was a child. As I’ve gotten older and have read the novel and seen all the sequels and the TV series, I’ve realized that she’s an ancient being. You played that part with such depth and such intensity. You can’t help but feel for what she’s going through with what’s happening to Fantasia. She’s the only thing surviving in that world. This isn’t a question. This is a statement.
Thank you so much! I definitely understood the depth of the character. I was a very serious little girl. I had a journal where I was writing down all of the adjectives that described her. When I was playing the character, I was definitely playing a very old and wise person that’s been around for a thousand years. I was trying to channel that. But also, Wolfgang was an amazing director. When you have a really good director who sets the stage for you, it’s so easy because you fall into the role and into that world.
Over the decades, The NeverEnding Story has become an enduring classic. It must be kind of strange, kind of special – not very many people can feel what you feel – to see that this film has become a part of pop culture. What would you like to say about that and to fans of this film?
Well, it is really special. I have to say that I kind of ran away from the film after we did it because we were a little overwhelmed with the … we didn’t expect it to be as well loved and well seen as it was. At the time, I was not interested in being a celebrity. I wanted to be an artist and make things and be in stories and perform. I didn’t really know how to navigate celebrity with grace. We made a decision as a family that I if I wanted to get back into it as an adult, I could make that choice for myself. Then I sort of put it to bed. I became a dancer and a choreographer in New York and spent the last 20 years performing and working on pieces in that vein. It was really the birth of my daughter that I started to become interested in family films again. That’s what The NeverEnding Story is: It’s something that the whole family can get something out of. Then, I started to reach out to fans at Comic Cons. I sort of stumbled into the Comic Con scene. I was struck by how meaningful this film still is to people. That was a wake-up call. I sort of realized that it would be lovely to engage with it and to celebrate it. I should be so grateful for this very special opportunity, as you say. I recently started interacting with people on Twitter, and that’s been fun. Just giving people hugs. We have this shared experience. It’s a very special moment, and I’m celebrating it with people.
Growing up, I always wondered what happened to you, and I’m glad that you followed your dream and were able to accomplish that. I noticed that you did a Czech fantasy film recently.
Yeah, it’s interesting. When I did that film, I was in grad school, and I was asked to come and choreograph the fight scenes for this fantasy film. They sent me artwork, and I have a real soft spot for sci-fi, fantasy, and whimsy. It was exciting for me to think about how to choreograph the fights for that. So I went over there, and it was amazing. They had all these strange weapons. I wasn’t thinking of getting back to acting at the time because my dance career was still going strong. Then they threw me into the film, but I don’t speak Czech. My role in that is really minimal in terms of acting, but I have started reading scripts again. I feel like there’re so many people rooting for me now, but with the birth of my daughter and with the growth of my company, which is called Paper Canoe Company, I do have a feeling that it’s time to get back into acting.
All right, Tami, I’m going to leave the floor to you. If there’s anything you’d like to tell me or say, now’s your chance.
We just released a folk rock album called Beanstalk Jack. It’s downloadable. It’s one of the Paper Canoe Company projects. I’ll be making some music videos for that. It’s a fun retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk with a boy meets girl twist. I sing on the album. I also did some work on it to bring the fairy tale into a modern era. You can go to Bandcamp and get that. The best way to follow me is to go to http://www.papercanoecompany.com/ where all of our projects will be listed. If you want to interact with me you can find me @NeverendingTami.
Many thanks to Tami Stronach for taking the time for this interview.
david j. moore