TAMI STRONACH from THE NEVERENDING STORY
One movie that most thirty-somethings would have seen as a child was the cult classic, The NeverEnding Story: a German production that ended up taking the world by storm. Wolfgang Petersen’s family science-fiction film has since then made tens of millions at the box office and is a film that most hardened film lovers also have on DVD.
One of the most memorable characters from The NeverEnding Story was The Childlike Empress, played by Iranian-born actress Tami Stronach. HEAVY’s Dave Griffiths recently caught up with Tami to see what she is doing some thirty-three years after the film was released.
Much was made about the fact that Tami was a newcomer when it came to acting on screen when she was cast in the role of The Childlike Empress, but she says she was not entirely new to acting. “I was heavily involved in community theatre and dance as a child, but I was not a Hollywood kid and I didn’t have an agent,” she explains. “It was all a happy accident. The casting agent from the film was slated to have lunch with her friend on a break from casting. Her friend ended up being my acting teacher. She showed up early for their date and saw the tail end of the acting class and asked me to audition. I loved the script: I thought the story was really magical.”
Like many of the people who first saw the film when it came out, Tami also had no idea that the film would go on to be as popular as it did but she said the novel the film was based on did help her prepare for the role. “No, I had no idea,” she says. “But while I had no idea that the film would gain the popularity it ultimately gained, I did know right away that it was a really special story and that I was really lucky to be able to play this part. I collected adjectives that I felt described who she was from reading the script and the book and I scrolled through those adjectives in my mind to keep me rooted to the character. I also played her as if she was 300 years old. The nice part about playing this character for me as a young girl was that her inside and her outside didn’t match. The Empress was such a juicy role because redefined what strength was—she was powerful because she was wise and compassionate and empathetic. She didn’t have to move at all to exert this power. I love that it flipped the definition of strength on its head.”
Tami doesn’t keep in contact with any of her castmates from the film and while she isn’t recognised often by fans, it still does happen occasionally. “Fans don’t approach me today,” she says. “No one really recognises me in daily life—I leave my tiara at home. My most memorable meeting with a fan happened in my twenties when I stopped to check out a new theatre that was being built where I was living in Brooklyn. The man in charge of renovating the theatre was convinced he knew me and started naming various schools, weddings, bat mitzvahs to try to find a common link. This game of searching for ‘how do I know you?’ actually does happen to me quite a lot as opposed to straight recognition. But in this case, he was unrelenting and very sweet in his desperation to find out when and how we previously met. I finally asked him if it could be that he recognised me from The NeverEnding Story and his head almost exploded: it was his favourite film. I ended up spending a lot of time making work in that theatre and this fan turned into one of my best friends. In fact, I officiated his wedding. He, his wife and son are coming over for dinner this week.”
One of the things that most people found surprising after the success of The NeverEnding Story was that Tami never appeared on screen much after that. “I wanted to do my ‘own’ work,” she says. “I didn’t want someone well known to legitimize my work. I got into a ‘big’ dance company after college but I turned it down because I just didn’t love the work they were making. In terms of acting, I also chose to act with an ensemble theatre company called The Flying Machine in NYC – that I thought was just thrilling in terms of the quality of what they were making – instead of pursuing the opportunity to go to LA and work with a commercial agent. The founders of The Flying Machine were trained in Paris at a clown, mime and physical theatre school so joining their troop exposed me to a lot of new mediums. I liked the challenge of that as well as the visual poetry it produced. I wanted to be a part of an artistic community. I wanted to feel that weird mix of excitement and terror live performance provides and the team spirit that being a part of a company that works together for years makes you feel. In terms of dance, the standard for me when considering who and what to work on was do I like this product AND will the director of this project value and invite cast members to contribute their own ideas to the process. This led to many lasting artistic relationships I’m grateful to have experienced. Also being in NYC was important in terms of starting my own dance theatre company. It gave me access to incredible dancers and designers. For me, directing was important. I wanted to be in charge of the kind of content I was bringing into the world. Of course stepping into the uncharted territory is always really scary and being the one in charge also puts you at risk of being humiliated if it doesn’t go well. But it’s worth it. I think the greatest gift you can give yourself is to validate your own creative impulses. As a teacher, I tell my composition students that if they nurture their own idiosyncratic, creative nature and keep working hard then they will have already won what there is to win in life: the opportunity to grow. As a young person, the triumph lay in making my own oasis and defining my own values. Having said all that I feel a shift coming on. Film work seems really attractive again. I just did two days of filming on the indie film ‘Ultra Low’ and it was a blast. Maybe as I get older I am less anxious about defining myself. I’d love to have some fun doing more work like that now.”
That work that Tami is doing now involves a number of projects, including her own company Paper Canoe, that she is only too happy to talk to us about. “Paper Canoe stories all emphasise the importance of being inquisitive,” she says. “Our stories ask kids to consider the limitations of what adults tell them is or isn’t possible and our heroines or heroes find a way to build a better world for themselves through having unbreakable imaginations.”
“We just released our first album, “Beanstalk Jack”. I love the idea of telling a whole story solely through music. We also gave the classic tale a boy-meets-girl twist. I wanted the moral to be that Jack defeats the big bad greedy giant by stealing his daughter’s heart—not his stuff. In our version, we gave the giant a daughter named Harmony and she is the giant’s prized possession. She’s lonely living in a gilded cage with no one to talk to. But when Jack knocks on the door she falls in love and runs away with him to make a band. Both Jack and Harmony are characters that follow their hearts even when it seems crazy but it pays off.”
“It’s pretty funny… one 4-year-old girl who loves the album asked me last month why they don’t just kill the giant and move into his castle so Harmony can be a princess. I told her that Harmony doesn’t need to be a princess because she has music and love and her freedom and she’s pretty tired of living up in the clouds. She was not convinced that that was a good trade at all—she still wants Harmony to end up as a princess somehow. I suppose it is funny for me, the ‘Empress’, to be discouraging girls from wanting to be princesses.”
“I started Paper Canoe Company after the birth of my daughter. At the time I was a full-time professor of dance in addition to running my dance company. I was working insane hours and I felt my own creative life eroding. I asked myself how I might bring all my passions under one umbrella: being a choreographer, an actor, a teacher, and a mum. I also wanted to make things that would contribute to my community—which is now made up of a lot of parents with young kids.
“Like any leap of faith, when you take it, you feel nervous but I really do believe that you should ‘do what you dream’, and fight for that. I love The NeverEnding Story for delivering that message and took it to heart. It’s pretty much guaranteed that it will be hard at times… but things that are worth doing always are. Founding Paper Canoe has been like coming around full circle—I am acting, singing and making family entertainment again—which was a huge part of my childhood. Our first two Paper Canoe projects started out as live shows – a sock puppet show called ‘A Sock’s Fables’, based on Aesop’s Fables (ridiculous fun!) and ‘Light, a Dark Comedy’ which was a sci-fi dystopia play for tweens – but I’d like to take ‘Light’ to print in the form of a graphic novel and venture into making more digital media projects in the future too.”
And while there has been a rumour around Hollywood that there is a new The NeverEnding Story film in the pipeline, it seems Tami would not to take up the role of The Childlike Empress again.
“I would not choose to play the Childlike Empress because I am not a child anymore and I do think that an innocent fragile exterior that clashes with a wise and strong interior are key to the success of that part. I’d love to make a cameo as someone else though,” she says. “The Childlike Empress is still there in all of us – guarding the world of our imagination, watching over, and nurturing our dreams and wishes. And, just as she is protecting us, we need to protect her too… I’m trying to do that. My hope is that my story might inspire others to trust their own inner compass even if it doesn’t point in the most obvious direction.”
If people want to reach out to Tami they can on social media:
The NeverEnding Story is out now on DVD and Blu-ray and occasionally screens at cinemas like The Astor in Melbourne.
Written by David Griffiths