Tami Stronach: A Childlike Empress All Grown Up
This week we interview actress Tami Stronach who made her acting debut as The Childlike Empress in the Neverending Story in 1984. The Neverending Story, which catapulted Stronach to stardom, has been a huge inspiration in pop culture and is just as popular today as it was when it was first released. She was studying acting in California, when she was chosen for her role as the Childlike Empress in the iconic 80s movie and the rest is history.
After a couple of decades of making dance and theater in NYC, Tami has now turned her attention to laying the foundation for a content shop that makes ‘family friendly’ work – not unlike “Neverending Story”. The brand is called Paper Canoe Company, which she founded with husband, Greg.
Tami made one album “Faerie Queen” that nostalgia buffs will remember was a sleeper hit in the ‘80s. This new project is the first in a series of collaborations with a notable crew of indie folk rock artists in Williamsburg. In the coming months she’ll be choreographing and performing in videos for the album and doing promo concerts in preparation for launching a full live theatrical experience later in the year, that will be built to tour nationally and internationally in theatrical concert venues with video projections, puppets, and Tami performing the role of Harmony, the Giant’s Rock Star Daughter.
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Where were you born?
I was born in Teheran Iran. My Father is a Scottish archaeologist and my mother is an Israeli archaeologist. They met on a dig site and I grew up in Iran on excavations looking for artifacts. It was much more boring than it sounds. After the revolution of 79 we bounced around the globe a bit until we found home in the US and we settled in the San Francisco Bay area.
Were you taking acting classes in California?
I was dancing and acting throughout my childhood. In California there’s a wonderful acting school in San Francisco. I used to take singing classes and acting classes and I was also in ballet recitals. That was my world as a kid. I came out of the crib hamming it up. I would actually carpool to San Francisco to those acting classes on my own. I was super determined to get to those acting classes.
How did the opportunity for The Neverending Story come about?
It was a happy accident. I was in an acting class and a casting agent, her name is Anna Gross, was in San Francisco looking to cast somebody for the roll and she was friends with my acting teacher. She wanted to have lunch and came to Fort Mason where the school is and happened to be a little bit early and saw the tail end of class and thought that I might be a good person to audition and she invited me to audition.
I had no idea what she was asking me to audition for. I still have an issue with taking on too much. At the time I was in a traveling troupe that performed at local schools. The morning of the audition I had a show and I arrived really disheveled. I was playing Piglet in a Winnie-the-Pooh show so I had makeup smeared all over my face.
Did you enjoy auditioning as a child?
I think as a child you have less fear. I really love to be inside stories and figured if I didn’t get chosen I would just do another one. I think I just got really lucky and the material really resonated with me. I really identified with the character, I fell in love with her. By the third audition in Germany I was like I really want this. It got progressively more nerve racking.
Did you understand the gravity of the Neverending Story at that age?
I don’t think I totally understood the gravity of the Neverending Story and don’t think my parents understood the gravity of the movie. Partly it was filmed in Germany over the summer. It was sort of like, let’s go take this family vacation in Europe and you’ll do this little European release and we’ll come home and no one will ever see it and you can do your next dance recital. We didn’t really understand what we were doing. Maybe I was blessed to not know it really because I just didn’t have any expectations for it to be seen or to become iconic in that way.
What was your favorite character in the Neverending Story?
I didn’t spend a lot of time with Falcor. The Empress and Falcor don’t have a lot of scenes together, any in fact. I saw Falcor once as a head with a green screen behind but I never saw the whole thing, he was in pieces whenever I saw him. For me the Bat, the rock biter and that little enclave of puppets, I was able to watch their scenes get filmed, and I was able to watch the people move the levers on the side. I loved the fact that it was a person and a puppet that they sort of mixed together. I also sat in on the swamps of sadness scenes which was completely amazing. I’m so happy wasn’t around for the scene with the horse.
What was it like working with the puppets and animatronics?
That’s a really interesting question. I know there is a difference between acting for film and acting for stage in the sense that you want to make your gestures larger for stage, body language is more important for stage and you want to be more subtle on film. But at the same time it was much more a kin to theater than a lot of films are today. The set was real in the same way you would have it like a set onstage. Everything was physically there and touchable.
I’ve been on sets with green screens where you’re imagining the whole thing and the director promises you that there’s going to be a lot of people. I had a really good acting teacher who always said that acting is 99% listening. It’s not how you’re delivering the line it’s how you are responding to the line you were given. I think that with a puppet you’re able to do that listening part where as if the thing gets filled in later it’s all your choices and not so many reacting to other choices.
What’s happening now is really cool because they are combining animatronics with CGI and there’s a better sense of when to use what aspect and why.
You might also like our interview about the short fantasy film The Lookouts
What was it like working with all the young actors on set?
We got along which is good. They were boys and I was a girl at age ten. I was all business “Does anyone want to go over their lines. Let’s go over the scene” and Barret would have his little GI Joes and be like let’s play with these. But I really liked them both, they were wonderful. I have fond memories, we definitely got along.
I have a funny story with Noah. We were at a German outdoor pub, there were these train tracks next to the pub. We spent all of our time off set at pubs. That’s where the camera people and the makeup people were. There was a train really really far off and he was sort of playing this hero. So out of nowhere he suddenly grabbed me and flung me across the railroad tracks into the bushes. I was like what’s going on and he was like a train is coming. And we sort had to wait for the train to sort of come for a long time. Then I had to be like thank you for saving me.
What is life like for you today?
Mostly theater work these days. I founded a company called Paper Canoe Company with my husband actually. After the birth of my daughter I wanted to start making family theater again. The Never Ending Story was sort of family oriented. For me, trying to bring all of my passions under one umbrella seemed really important. I was a mom and I wanted the stuff that I was making to relate to my kid and to my community and all of those things to exist together.
We created two live shows in New York. The theater show was a light and dark comedy my husband wrote. It was a story where a scientist with good intentions steals the sun. We were speaking about how everything’s faster and everyone knows too much. In this world people stop dreaming, stop sleeping, the lights always on and everyone’s trying to be super productive. People lost the ability to dream and relax. The scientist creates a slumber yard and took away the sun so everyone could relax and over time everyone forgot there were lights. All the actors wore self-cranking machines with head lamps and we generated all of our own light in the production.
My vision is to turn the story into a graphic novel and possibly a feature film. The story would come alive on a graphic novel page even more so than the theater. I’m a creature of the theater, live theater is my medium. As we developed Paper Canoe we are finding that we are more and more curious about diving into digital content. Our third project is a digital project and that’s Beanstalk Jack which is a folk rock album.