Tami Stronach may not be a household name but she became forever engrained in the fabric of our childhood memories with her iconic role as the Child-like Empress in the classic 80s flick, “The NeverEnding Story.” Directed by Wolfgang Peterson, the film was a West-German produced English-language film that, at the time, was the most expensive film produced outside the United States or the Soviet Union. With a riveting storyline and a cast of larger-than-life characters the film quickly became a global hit, and even brought about the creation of Tami’s “Faerie Queen” album, which became a cult classic in it’s own right. Most importantly, “The NeverEnding Story” inspired a generation of kids around the world to believe in themselves and follow their dreams. Almost more amazing than the film itself, is the interesting impact the film had on it’s star! While Tami side-stepped a career in the world on film, she never truly left the stage and went on to forge a successful career for herself in the worlds of dance and theater. 30 years on, Tami is hard at work putting together a plethora of family-friendly projects with her multi-faceted company, Paper Canoe. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Tami to discuss her extraordinary career, the challenges she has faced along the way, the amazing work she is bringing to life with Paper Canoe and, of course, “The NeverEnding Story.”
You started acting professionally at an early age. Was it all your choice?
Yes. I was dancing at age 4 and I started taking theater classes because I begged my parents for it. By the time I was in San Francisco at the age of nine, I was carpooling with other people on the weekends to get to acting classes. I was really self-motivated! It was something that was very much something that I wanted to do. Of course, I didn’t have any sort of professional aspirations. I didn’t have an agent and I wasn’t looking at it as anything other than something that was really pleasurable. Then “The NeverEnding Story” happened as a happy accident! I was in one of my acting classes that I was taking on the weekend and the casting agent happened to be friends with my acting teacher. She was on a break from casting and came over to have lunch with my teacher. She showed up a little bit early and saw the tail end of the class. She asked me if I would come and audition the next day and I did, very much not knowing what I was going to be auditioning for! [laughs]
Obviously, “The NeverEnding Story” went on to become an 80s classic. What do you feel you might have brought to the character that wasn’t on the original written page?
That’s an interesting question. I think that’s what’s so fascinating about acting and what it means to bring a script to life. Certainly, you have the written page and all of this information from the author but, obviously, the way it as directed will hugely shape it and change the way that is perceived. The way it’s performed will also affect the way that it transforms. There’s something really strange and wonderful about and having a character because in a weird way you are bringing yourself and your emotions to the character. At the same time, you’re also inhabiting a character, so you’re stepping inside the skin of someone else, of course that character then influences you. I think there’s something really transformative about stories, storytelling and inhabiting characters. We bring them to life but they also bring something to us. We have an experience through being that character that is new and unique. I think I really brought myself to the character in “The NeverEnding Story” and I also got to walk away with a little bit of the Empress’ wise words of “Do what you dream” and “Follow your heart.” Those messages from her really sunk into me.
Building on that, I was curious to know what type of impact being a part of this film had on you and the career you would go on to have.
It’s funny, I think it was so successful in a way that we didn’t expect, especially in Europe. I got a little freaked out by it to be really honest! [laughs] I decided to walk away from celebrity, which felt really overwhelming for me as an 11-year-old girl. I just didn’t feel that I have the tools to be able to navigate that in a successful way. I think my parents felt that they didn’t feel they have the skills to steward me through something like that. I think it can be done and you definitely see examples but really balanced, absolutely wonderful, lovely people who acted as children and then blossom into great actors as adults. I don’t think it’s impossible and I think it can happen but I do think you need to have a little bit of understanding of how Hollywood works and some savvy about how to navigate that whole machine. I think it influenced me by turning me away from film and looking for celebrity based work. Obviously, if you’re going to be in film, that’s part of the package. It really focused me more on live performance. Initially I dove into dance, really, really actively, all through my teens and in college. After I graduated from college, I did really start missing acting. So, I was dancing, choreographing and I joined in acting troupe called The Flying Machine. I was with them for seven years and we performed all over the United States making really beautiful original works that we co-created as an ensemble. It was a very intense, close group of people making art together, very intensively for seven years. It was really special! So, I was acting even as I was doing a lot of dance work. I was definitely consciously avoiding getting an agent and in that arena and just giving myself a live performance as the main vehicle for creativity.
I have one more question about “The NeverEnding Story.” I’m sure you get a little tired of these…
No, no! I really don’t! I avoided it for so long that in some ways I feel like I’m making up for lost time! It really is such a wonderful, happy memory that I’m super happy to talk about it!
Cool! It’s interesting that we live in an era where people are really seeking out strong female characters and you played a great example of of this at 10 years old. How do you view this iconic character through 3 decades removed?
I was so lucky to fall into playing this part. Like you said, there are more strong female characters today and I think that’s super exciting but in the 80s there were less. It was a really unique experience and opportunity to have played that role. What I love about it is that strength is represented so differently than one would normally represent it. Obviously, my character is a tiny little girl with a tiny frame of a body, she’s sick and she’s dying. In many ways, she is weak but her strength lies in her wisdom, her capacity for empathy, and in her patience. I think that it flips the notion of what strength is, what being brave and what having courage is. I think, especially for little girls, to see an example of bravery and strength that is achievable for them is an amazing thing. It’s really through her emotional courage and wisdom that she has the gravitas that she has, as opposed to a powerful punch or something. I think it’s a really fun contradiction that the character presents the audience.
“The NeverEnding Story” is a childhood favorite of so many people who are our age. What are some of the films that impacted you as a child growing up in the 80s?
Gosh, that’s so funny! All of the really cheesy ones are coming to mind! [laughs] It’s the ones that are your favorite because you get a bucket of popcorn, turn your brain off and are like, “Yesssss!!!” [laughs] I’m thinking “Dirty Dancing” but that’s not a good enough answer! [laughs] Of the really hefty ones, my absolute favorite is “Blade Runner.” I still think that movie is incredible and everyone is still trying to copy that movie! There are shows like “West World,” “Humans” and so many others pulling from it because it was such a breakthrough film. I think I like a lot of slightly darker films that people might expect. I really like ‘Brazil’ which was a Terry Gilliam film. I also loved “Labyrinth” with David Bowie! I was a complete David Bowie nut and I just adored him. Anything he did I was really into. I loved “E.T.” and all the other classics from that era!
Let’s focus on life after the film. What were some of the other milestones that impacted you throughout your journey?
I worked with a woman named Neta Pulvermacher and dancers, also for 7 years. That seems to be the magic number for me! [laughs] She was really wonderful! I was really fortunate to be in New York at that time when you really could live as a dancer and survive as an artist. It was a much cheaper city years ago than it is now! [laughs] we made it a lot of work where she would ask the performers in her class to contribute material. I always got to be the girl who did the acting bits in the shows, in addition to the dancing bits. It was a really fun company for me to be in! I got to sing with The Jazz Passengers, who is a band that Debbie Harry of Blondie was also singing with in New York. It was crazy to be singing with that band! They are unbelievable! We also worked with John Zorn who is an incredible jazz musician in New York and we toured internationally. That was all very exciting. Then I was working with a bunch of other peers of mine creating a lot of dance work. I also have my own company where I was working very hard on creating my own blend of dance and theater. That was important for me as an artist because I wanted to come up with a signature language that I found as really compelling. For me, it was never just pure dance. There was always something about the poetry of movement. As an artist, working with the different companies I worked with really influence and fed my own creative exploration of how to create a unique dance theatre language for my own company which has been going on now for 20 years!
All of those experiences culminated with the creation of another project — The Paper Canoe. What can you tell us about it and all the cool things you guys have going on at the moment?
Paper Canoe is a new venture. I had a daughter 6 years ago and to sound like a total cliché, she changed my life! [laughs] It’s so amazing! You hear these people say it and you think, “Ahhh! It’s such a cliché” but then you find yourself saying exactly the same thing! [laughs] She really did change my life! With the birth of her, I just felt that I wanted to get back to family entertainment and tell stories that kids and their parents would enjoy together. In a weird way, I feel that I’ve come full circle and I’m starting to be involved in the same kinds of projects that I was doing when I was a little kid and did “The NeverEnding Story.” All of Paper Canoe’s stuff is much more theater based. I did a small record when I was in Germany when I was doing “The NeverEnding Story” and now I have released an album through Paper Canoe, so I’m singing again! It’s really kind of fun! I feel like a lot of the things that I was more heavily focused on as a young kid are coming back into focus. They are things that I missed and I’m excited about exploring again! Paper Canoe has a new album called “Beanstalk Jack” and we are doing a bunch of shows in New York City this month and next month. We are also going to be developing that during the course of next year into a full on theatrical production. I’m also doing some music videos for it. Normally, I choreograph on human beings but this is going to be a video that features my daughter and myself in stop motion. We are going to be doing a lot of dancing with toys on shelves, so it’s a whole new choreographic challenge!
What have been the biggest challenges for you in getting Paper Canoe up and running?
I think the biggest challenge for me has been to reconceive projects not just as live performances. For so many years that was my medium, genre and where I felt comfortable. I know theater directors, playhouses in New York and how to get audiences to see shows that are interested in that niche but, with that said, Paper Canoe is a new thing. “Beanstalk Jack” is digital and a music video is digital. One of the plays that we made, after putting it up, I think honestly it needs to come alive as a graphic novel. What Paper Canoe is doing to me is forcing me to consider other modes of expression beyond live performance. I think it’s great to push myself to think in terms of music videos, an album and in other ways. For example, I do have some ideas for a short film. It’s kind of challenging for me to broaden my frame in expand out into digital and print content!
That’s very cool. It’s exciting to see you continue to push yourself creatively. From what I have read, you are also getting back into film. What can you tell us about that aspect of your career?
I shot an indie film called “Ultra Low” last month, which was really fun. It’s funny, with the birth of Paper Canoe, last year we did 3 months of performing every weekend. So, the acting bug has sort of started to raise its head and I’ve been itching to do more acting. I think it also might be because of having so many herniated discs at this point! [laughs] I had a tour to the Czech Republic, where we were performing, and the next day I was in so much pain! I thought, “Tami, you are in your mid 40s. How long are you going to keep bending yourself into these impossible shapes?” [laughs] I think there is a natural evolution, and one has to be honest with oneself about where one is in one’s life and what the right mode of expression is for that time. I think as I hang up my dancing shoes, of course there are no shoes and modern dance, the need to find other ways and other outlets to perform are pointing me in the direction of acting again. It was really great and an awesome experience shooting “Ultra Low”. It was a really fun script and I had a blast doing it. I would love to do some more film in the future.
I wanted to talk about your musical side as well. Did music first come into your life through dance?
Actually, I think my love of music came from my father. He has a lovely voice and he is Scottish. I grew up singing Scottish folksongs with him. As I mentioned, my parents were archaeologists, so we did a lot of road trips and took Land Rovers out into the dirt to look for pottery shards. We would be driving for hours and hours and we would sing to pass the time. We still do! At all of our holidays, we sing for hours! That’s kind of what we do as a family. I think, in some ways, I never realized what a huge influence that was or that perhaps other families didn’t do that! [laughs] You somehow get blinded to the circumstances that you live in! Your like, “Don’t all families do this?” [laughs] My dad had this treasured, old Scottish folk song book that he got from his father and one of the projects I am itching to do is to record some Scottish folksongs with The Beanstalk Band, which we might do this summer. Now that we have this incredible group musician around, it might be a fun opportunity!
Are you involved with any charity work or causes close to your heart that we can help shine a light on?
Yes! I would love to talk about that! I am a mom and as a mom I think a lot about clean air and clean water, so I really like NRDC (National Resource Defense Council – www.nrdc.org). I’m also really passionate about animals. Since they don’t have a voice, I think it’s our responsibility to make sure that we treat them humanely. The Jane Goodall Foundation (www.janegoodall.org) is one I that I support annually as well! Those are some of the organizations close to my heart.
We can definitely look to you as an inspiration with everything you have accomplished in your career and the way you continue to create. What’s the best lesson we can take away from your journey as an artist?
The world that we live in can be tiring, difficult and full of challenges, so it can be really tempting to take the path of least resistance sometimes. I think it’s really important to fight for your dreams and to fight for the things that really fulfill you. I know it’s going to sound cheesy but “The NeverEnding Story” was about insisting on doing what you dream, placing value on your imagination and building a better world by having the capacity to imagine better things. I think it’s really our duty to ourselves to listen to our own creative impulses and where our hearts are telling us to go. It’s definitely hard, I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to do, but I do truly believe it’s worth it. There’s something in all of us telling us, “This is what you need to be doing.” The cost of not listening to that voice is very high. The greatest gift you can give yourself is valuing your own heart!
Very well said! That is a great outlook! Thank you so much for your time today, Tami! I’ve really enjoyed looking back and looking ahead with you. I wish you continued success and we’ll talk again soon!
Thank you, Jason! I’ve had such a good time talking to you! Take care!