Paper Canoe, and Tami, Too: NeverEnding Story's Childlike Empress and Her New Adventure

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Tami Stronach

Sometimes a person appears on the big screen in an unforgettable moment, then disappears from the public view. Most of them are never heard from again. Maybe the film was a flop. Maybe they decided the life wasn't for them. Maybe they were too identified with the role and couldn't be seen as anyone else afterward.

One of those shining stars is Tami Stronach, who captivated audiences in THE NEVERENDING STORY as The Childlike Empress. Several years would pass before Stronach would again grace the screen, but she's been far from idle in those years.

With a new venture, and some new projects in the works, Tami took a few moments to speak with us about where she came from, and where she's going now.

You were barely 11 when THE NEVERENDING STORY came out, and obviously younger than that during all the filming. What do you remember most vividly from that experience?

I remember most vividly the filming of it, being directed by Wolfgang Peterson and being in the scenes. For me, that was absolutely the best part of the whole thing. 

When one looks at your acting credits, it starts with NES, and then has this several-year gap until the next appearance. Most people would look at that and say, "Well, she's done nothing since NES," but you've actually had a long and successful career in dancing afterward.

I did! After The NeverEnding Story, we discussed whether or not I would try to stay working in professional film, and we agreed as a family that that probably wasn't the best path for us as a family, in terms of navigating Hollywood, being a child. So I redirected my energies toward dance and fell in love with it, and ended up becoming a dance choreographer in New York and running a company for over twenty years here -- which was amazing!

But I was actually sort of "secretly acting" always. I had joined a theater company in New York for seven years, and we created four original plays together -- a wonderful theater company called SoHo Rep. I did some acting in some other off-Broadway shows.

So a lot of the dance work I did would be categorized as dance theater, which is not something that people are that familiar with, but it's dance that does blend some theatrical elements into it. It does have you act. There was a lot of singing involved with certain projects. So I've always been kind of interested in hybrid forms and blending my love of dance and theater together. So I was working throughout the time that I was away, but just live on stage in New York.

How has your dance career informed the recent film projects you've worked on?

I find that they're very related. I think, for me, the reason that I spend time making art is I think that there's something really valuable in staying connected to your emotions, and it's this wonderful excuse to keep that part of you alive, and not become numb.

I'm terrified of becoming numb. I think the world inspires us to become apathetic. It's my greatest fear, and I feel that that's the true mission of art, to keep us awake emotionally. And dance is something where you have to be incredibly sensitive to how you're feeling, and to what your body's experiencing -- and that connects to what your emotions are experiencing. It's just a slightly different door to enter into, but it's about being present, and about being emotionally available to whatever you need to be doing.

You mentioned how, after NES, your family decided it wasn't the best path for you. Was there any specific incident or event that influenced the family's decision on that?

Yes! The scripts that I got after The NeverEnding Story were not scripts that I was interested in being in. There were some really violent scripts. There were scripts with nudity. It really just felt like they were not appropriate for a kid. I was eleven, and I was like, "Mom! Dad! This is not appropriate!"

For me, it was always about the quality of the story, and The NeverEnding Story is such an incredible piece of art and work of literature, and it has a beautiful message, and I think if I had had scripts come to me as a kid that I was excited about I probably would have continued, or at least considered it.

I think it's a really useful conversation that's happening right now in Hollywood about who's making the scripts, who's behind the cameras, who's producing the stories -- and I think it's time to consider what kinds of people are not just in front of the camera but behind the camera and behind the typewriter...there aren't typewriters anymore! I'm showing my age!

For me, the real issue was I wanted to be in charge of the content that I was bringing into the world. Somehow, in dance, that felt possible. It was a slightly smaller scale. You don't have to raise millions of dollars to make a dance; you have to raise twenty thousand dollars to make a dance. The whole scale of the operation is really manageable. So I was able to direct, and I was able to be in charge of the narrative. That was really important to me. Even as I get back into acting -- which I'm really eager and excited to do -- it's still important to me that I continue in addition to that, to drive my own content. That's always the one part of my life that I'm in charge of: the content that I'm bringing into the world.

Your path took you from Hollywood to New York -- and then the next time we see you acting on film, you're in the Czech Republic! And then you're back here, starring in ULTRA LOW. How did you go from here to there and back here again?

Well, I love Prague. It's mostly accidents -- none of it is really engineered. The filmmaker, Tomás Krejcí, reached out to me while I was in graduate school, and asked me if I would come and choreograph the dances and the fight scenes for his new fantasy film. And he sent me some clips of the artwork, and I just loved the artwork. It's this sort of Czech/European fairy tale style; it's just beautiful.

I'd never choreographed fight scenes before, so I thought it would be a really fun thing to go to Prague and spend a couple of weeks choreographing in a completely unknown arena. And it was great! I had stuntment that I was working with, and a big sound stage to work on. And in the end they threw me into the film, which was fun.

So, it's a Czech film. I don't speak Czech! So they let me do what I'm good at -- which is apparently crying -- and they threw a rock at my head, and I cry and I die. You don't really need to speak Czech to do that.

But it was fun, and it was my first piece back into [acting]. It's definitely awoken my appetite to get back into it. At this stage in my life I'm also just really excited about the kinds of roles that I will be allowed to play. I think in some ways that's very, very atypical. It probably goes against every rule Hollywood has. I wasn't that excited about playing the ingenue in Hollywood. That wasn't that interesting for me. It's really about being part of interesting stories. I think as an older actor I can probably play parts that are a little more ideosyncratic and interesting and juicy. So I'm really curious about what would be available at this juncture. So that's why I'm happy to let go and try to get back into it.

What's the big thing happening with you right now that people should know about?

I have a company called Paper Canoe Company that I just formed recently, and it's creating family content for families. I put the company together after I had my daughter, and I wanted to bring all the different kinds of things that I've been doing over the past couple of years under one umbrella -- movement, theater, singing -- and kind of see what kind of content that could create that would be a little bit... the best way I can put it is, our motto is "We want to make kids feel like grown-ups, and grown-ups feel like kids." Don't underestimate the intelligence of children. I have a seven-year-old and she is so, so smart. And I feel the kind of content we feed our kids is so critical in terms of the world-view that they develop. It's often really under-valued, the sort of stories that we smash into kids' heads. I think that if we feed kids' brains really exciting and "nutritious" stories, it's going to serve them really well.

I'm worried about entertainment being used to turn the brain off, as opposed to art, which can also be entertainment, turning the brain on. And I think it's really up to how we utilize it which way it can go. Being a mom and being an artist for so many years, it felt important for me to get involved in that conversation.

So we released an album recently, Beanstalk Jack, which I'm really proud of. It won three awards -- a Parents' Choice Award, a Family Choice award, and a NAPPA award. We're interested in developing that into a series of audio books, where it would be kind of narrative interspersed with song. And we definitely have a very decent short film in the works, which I'm really excited about. We were doing mostly live things in New York, plays, because that's what I know how to do. And now we're moving into the digital world, so we started with a CD, and video, and now we're working on the short film.

I feel like it's exciting to come back home to acting, still within that style of magical realism with a sort of a different angle, from the angle of an adult. So that's what I'm launching -- I'm launching Paper Canoe, with a nod to where I came from and with an interest in recognizing the imagination of my daughter and the next generation of kids to come.