Exclusive Interview: Tami Stronach, Childlike Empress From 'The Never-Ending Story'

When I saw the Spotify ad with all grown up Atreyu flying around on Falcor listening to Limahl's theme song to The Neverending Story, I tweeted about it. This caught the attention of Tami Stronach, who when she was 11 played the Childlike Empress in the film. She's been engaging fans with Falcor drawing contests and news about her current activities, so I arranged an interview with Stronach by phone out of New York.

The Neverending Story was a childhood favorite with all the animatronic and puppet creatures, Atreyu's quest and Bastian reading all about it alone in the attic. Later I discovered it was a Wolfgang Petersen film, and he became a director whose work I liked, and the song rocks.

Currently, Stronach's Paper Canoe Company (www.papercanoecompany.com)  has three projects for families in the work. Their sock puppet show for children is currently performed in New York. They are releasing an album called Beanstalk Jack, and developing a show for tweens called Light. So you can see Stronach star in another epic fantasy on stage. Here is our full interview with Tami Stronach where you can find out about her experience on The Neverending Story and how busy she's been in the decades since.

Tami Stronach interviewThe scene where you explain The Neverending Story to Atreyu, I didn't fully get it until I saw it as an adult. We're watching Bastian read about Atreyu and then we're part of someone else's story, and they'll impact someone else's story and that's how it never ends. Did you fully understand it when you were doing that scene?

I did, actually. I read Michael Ende's book before we did the film. So I was reading the script and I was reading Ende's original simultaneously. I had a lot of conversations with my mom about what it means and was very invested in understanding the mechanics of it. I loved the story. I didn't understand the film was going to have the impact it did at all, but I understood that the bones of the story were really special.

So when smart alec kids said, "It's not true because it ends," did you tell them, "No, you don't understand."

[Laughs] I think maybe I lived it so the principle of imagination impacting life and creating reality being the founding principal of how things work stayed with me.

And now you're a part of my story and I'm telling your story.

That's very poetic.

You're not in this scene, but did you cry when Atreyu's horse sank in the swamp like everyone else?

Of course I did, yes, of course. That's the litmus test. If you don't cry in that scene then some serious therapy is in order in my opinion.

Never-ending StoryDid you get to play on Falcor when they weren't filming?

No, everyone thinks that I was riding all the puppets and there was some kind of puppet party going on, but no. Because everything's done in pieces, I saw his head in one studio in front of a green screen. Then I saw his body somewhere else. I saw him being operated with puppeteers but they didn't really let us ride the puppets.

There are a lot of creatures in your scenes. Did you get to see the puppeteers work and learn about what they do?

I did actually. I went in while they were filming some of the other scenes and I wanted to watch the mechanics of how things were being done, so they let me just sit quietly on the side. One of my favorite things to do was watch the puppeteers.

When did you first hear the song by Limahl? After the movie was done?

Yeah, it was after. I loved it. The whole thing was much more epic and much more connected than I could have imagined glimpsing bits and pieces of it. There were so many parts to the film that I had never seen. The scenes with Bastian and his father were shot I think in Canada, not even in the Bavaria Studios in Germany. So there were scenes that had been filmed that I wasn't aware of, so it was really fun. The only thing is that it premiered in German so I saw it for the first time in German.

Was it dubbed in German or did Wolfgang Petersen actually film scenes with German dialogue?

It was dubbed. In the '80s, every film that went to Europe was pretty much dubbed into the language of the country in Europe. I don't think they do that anymore because everyone speaks English now. Maybe they do. I don't really know but in any event all the films would be dubbed including this one. I knew what was going on but it was all in German.

tumblr_mnzjl4WSY61rnzp88o1_500The Childlike Empress wasn't supposed to be an actual child, so were you playing her older?

Yeah, I was trying to play her like she was 400 years old.

You've only had a few credits long after Neverending Story, so was acting not your dream to continue on and pursue?

Well, I was from Berkeley, California and it was very much a fluke that I fell into the film. A casting agent saw me in a local acting class, the casting agent who was in San Francisco casting. Her friend happened to be my acting teacher and she set up just a lunch visit with her friend to catch up and happened to come 10 minutes earlier before lunch and happened to see the tail end of the acting class. That's how it happened. So there was no plan really for me to try to be a professional actress as a child. It really was sort of a fluke. Then when we were offered the script, we were told it would be a two month gig in Germany. My mom was like, "Sure, we can go do this little independent film that'll premiere in Bavaria and no one will ever see it, sure." I think we really didn't understand, A, that the film was going to be as popular as it ended up being or have as much circulation as it had. I think in some ways, we just got incredibly lucky. We were also completely unprepared for the Hollywood machine that started coming at us after the film. We got a lot of really strange scripts with nudity for an 11-year-old.

What? That's illegal!

Yeah, well, there some European films where the child labor laws are a little different. So we just felt like you could probably navigate all these waters if you had a really good manager and you really knew what you were doing and you were connected. It kind of made sense to me why so many children of Hollywood actors become Hollywood actors, because it's not even about the acting. It's about understanding the mechanics of the system and how to navigate it so that you don't get exploited. I actually think that takes a lot of savvy. It's a real business skill. I really love dancing. I love dancing and acting equally, and when we were thrown a lot of these odd scripts, we just looked at each other and said, "We're not going to play this game right." I made a decision that I would throw myself into dance and that if I really missed acting, I would return to it as an adult when I was in charge of my life and I wasn't upsetting my parents, who both had really active full careers and couldn't just give over all their time to pursue being my manager. So that's what I did and I ended up dancing for 20 years professionally in New York.

I did end up acting quite a bit. I just didn't do it in films. I was in a theater company for seven years called The Flying Machine and we toured all over the United States. We made four original plays. We were the resident theater company for SoHo Rep which is a very reputable downtown theater company in New York. We enjoyed residency and created a lot of original work and some of our designers won a bunch of awards for them. So the Flying Machine, we had Yo Yo Ma's manager. We were doing very well. Unfortunately, the director of that theater company quit after 10 years at the height of our glory days and moved to L.A. to write scripts. [Laughs] So I was out of my acting company.

But then I did a couple of other plays and then started to really miss acting. I actually ended up approaching some of the people from that company who are in the theater company with me. That's who I've collected to reform as Paper Canoe Company. So we created a play called Light that's still in development. We got a residency through the New Victory Theater to start that and we finished draft two of it. Now we're talking to Lincoln Center Institute about finishing there with them. We made a sock puppet show for my daughter that's super fun and sweet. My husband and I are making a folk rock album called Beanstalk Jack. We're doing a show at Stuytown on the Oval June 16 where we'll be releasing some of the songs.

If Spotify licenses your music that'll really be full circle. 

Oh, there you go. Beanstalk Jack starts in a kind of bluegrass shack by the river musical landscape. When he goes up the beanstalk, he enters the sort of rock n' roll fancy mansions in the sky, electric guitar world. Instead of stealing the giant's goose and his harp, he steals the giant's daughter. He steals her heart and they run away and start a band.

It's been an exciting year. It's been a year of returning to acting. We did three months of shows this winter every single Saturday and Sunday, Light and the puppet show. I feel like this year, a particular part of the reason that I've come out on Twitter and part of the reason I'm doing interviews is I am really invested in coming back to acting, but in making high quality family products that I feel really good about sharing with my daughter, things that I want her to see, things that I want other kids to see, my friends' kids to see. It feels like a really nice way of integrating all the various things I've done for the last 20 years, 30 years if you count The Neverending Story. Just kind of completing a circle, weaving in all the various experiences from all the various areas.

They didn't use any of the same actors in Neverending Story II but did anyone try to contact you for the sequel?

They did try to contact me for the sequel. When I initially signed the contract, they wanted me to sign on for the sequel, but my mom did not want me to sign on for the sequel because she wanted us to test the waters and see if we were comfortable with this whole world and move on from there. I should have signed on for the sequel because it would have been a lot more money, and I was already like 25 when the sequel was released. So I don't think they would have used me. It was really quite a long time later.

1990, but yeah. 

I would have been an adult-like empress.

Did you keep up with Wolfgang's movies since The Neverending Story?

Yeah, of course, I did. He's an amazing filmmaker. He was great.

Before the Spotify ad and getting on Twitter, did Neverending Story keep coming up for you on video and DVD and all the different times it's been shown?

Yeah, it's been really fun. It's been popping up all over the place. One thing that was very funny that happened is in our neighborhood, I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and they had a vote for an outdoor screening. The neighborhood voted for The Neverending Story and I just had had my baby. She was one year old or maybe two at this point. It was crazy, there were 1000 people there, it was a huge outdoor park. My husband looked at me and he's like, "I can't believe this is going on 30 years later. This is just total madness." We started watching the film with Maya there and then my husband started being cheeky and told the people next to us that I was in the film. It was really fun and they said hi to me and I said hi to them. It was a really sweet interaction. I feel like there was not a lot of volume about it for many, many years. People liked it but it was under the radar. Somehow with the 30 year anniversary of it, it seems like suddenly at this moment in time, maybe it's because a lot of the people who watched it as kids are finally parents with kids who are at the appropriate age to watch it. So it's returning to their lives kind of like how you started the conversation, where suddenly you see it 35 years later and you understand the depths of it and you understand the metaphor. Many people are sharing it with their kids so I think it brings their childhood back to them.

Does Spotify know that their ad inspired you to come on Twitter?

I don't think so, no. That's literally a block from my house.

You should be in their next ad.

I should.

How has your experience been on social media?

It's been great. I think for a long time, it a really important thing for me to establish myself as an adult who has credentials beyond The Neverending Story. I really didn't want to spend a lot of time talking about it or tweeting about it. It was really important to me to create my own trajectory beyond The Neverending Story. At this point, I feel like it's just a pleasure to do it. I've danced for 20 years. I was in a theater company. I became a full time university professor. I don't really feel so concerned about establishing myself. I'm in my 40s, I have a kid so this moment in time suddenly feels very different and it feels like a really lovely opportunity to connect with people all over the world. I feel like it's just been fun to connect with people and thank them for enjoying it and hear their messages. It's lovely.

And Maya has seen the film now?

She has not seen it. She's five and I'm waiting and waiting and waiting to show it to her. I think it's going to be scary for her. She's really scared of scary movies. She has six Pixar movies she watches and they're the only six Pixar movies we get to watch. I'm desperate to expand the library but I can't wait to show it to her. She knows I was in it and she's seen the pictures from it. She very much wants to act and dance. She's jonesing for a part in the puppet show. She's got her eye on several roles. She knows all the lines.

You're right. Even the Rock Biters, even though they're nice, they're so big they can be scary too.

A little bit, yeah. I think seven is the right age to see it. I don't know, maybe six but she's five.

So we'll look for Beanstalk Jack and people can go see your puppet show in New York.

Absolutely. Light will probably premiere in 2017. We'll have all the information on the Paper Canoe website. My dance company is still going. We have a tour to the Czech Republic in September, BC and New York. Also some other opportunities with the Israeli Consulate coming up so it's very busy. People have suddenly started sending me some scripts out of the woodwork and that's also exciting. If I find a script I like, I may just do that too.