PopGeeks.net recently had the chance to sit down and speak to a geek icon in the form of Tami Stronach. Fans will remember her as The Childlike Empress from the 1984 classic The NeverEnding Story. She was just 11 years old when she was cast in that iconic role. However, since that time, Stronach turned her focus onto a career in professional dance and choreography work. Recently she and her husband, Greg, have started a new theater brand called Paper Canoe Company. The focus for the brand is to create unique and live children’s theater experiences. She’s also planning a live theatrical show that will be touring later this year across the United States and internationally in theatrical concert venues with video projections, puppets, and Tami performing the role of Harmony, the Giant’s Rock Star Daughter, for the show Beanstalk Jack. Here is what Tami had to say about her experience working on the classic film and also her current projects:
PopGeeks: We’re going back over 30 years now, but how quickly did you go from learning about The NeverEnding Story to getting the role of The Childlike Empress?
Tami Stronach: So, it was an involved process. I auditioned for it in San Francisco, really by accident. Somebody saw me a — the talent scout who was looking for girls for the role — was having lunch with my acting teacher, and she showed up 10 minutes early for the lunch date and happened to see the tail end of the [my] class and asked me to audition. It wasn’t something that I had really been pursuing or thinking about. It was sort of a fluke that I was invited in the audition. And then there was one audition in San Francisco, but I showed up very unprepared. I was playing Piglet in Winnie the Pooh. So, I had pig makeup *laughs* still smeared across my face, and I still really didn’t quite get that sort of importance of the moment. So, I was invited for a second audition in LA where it was requested that I wear a dress and potentially show up without pig makeup just to see if there isn’t more Empress-like facade under there. And then, a third audition happened in Germany about several weeks later. So the whole audition process was lengthy. It was three different auditions in three different cities over a period of a month.
PopGeeks: Through any of that process were you tested by director Wolfgang Peterson?
Tami Stronach: Only on the final one. The first two, I was reading with a prompter and it was taped. The final audition in Germany was with him.
PopGeeks: What an amazing story. But just just by going by the whole thing with Piglet in Winnie the Pooh, you can kind of see the parallels right there. Don’t you think? I mean Winnie the Pooh and The NeverEnding Story. I definitely get it. To have this sense of you know wonder and imagination.
Tami Stronach: No really. I mean I hadn’t made that connection, but it’s true. I mean those are the kinds of stories I was immersed in. And even though it was on a community theater level, and the film was on a broader scale, it is just telling whimsical, lovely stories.
PopGeeks: This was a huge production and your first movie. This movie cost 60 million dollars in 1984, which is probably close to what some of these 200 million dollar productions we have now. So, what was it like to suddenly be on a movie set with all these amazing production elements, those amazing sets, the amazing costumes and puppetry and everything else?
Tami Stronach: I mean it was incredible. It was incredible. I think that the fact that you would into these huge circus tents and each one of them is its own world — its own ecosystem — with just one enormous world that were housed inside of these tents. It was completely magical. My breath was taken away. I was such a theatre child. And for me I felt most at home when I’m performing and when I’m immersed inside of a story. And so, it was like that but on steroids.
PopGeeks: From what you remember about those days, did Wolfgang Peterson do a good job of immersing you and the cast into this into this world?
Tami Stronach: I loved working with him. I felt that he — he didn’t treat me like a child. He talked to me in a very adult and kind of professional voice. He was commanding, and he wanted the lines to kind of land correctly, and I loved it. I loved it when adults didn’t kind of assumed that somehow I wasn’t going to get it, or that I was just too little to understand what was happening. So for me it was just the fact that he sort of had this respect for kids and demanded a kind of professionalism from them — I just I don’t know that everyone would love that — but I loved it.
PopGeeks: What is your favorite thing about this character you got to play and got leave your leave your mark on with such a classic film?
Tami Stronach: I think my favorite thing about this character is that she’s a contradiction. She houses all these contradictions. She’s really, really wise and kind of embodies an old spirit, but that spirit is housed inside of a little girl’s body. And she’s really, really, really powerful, and yet she just sits on a bed and doesn’t actually maneuver through the world with brawn. I find those contradictions really, really interesting. And for girls out there, it’s really lovely to find a character that’s a female character that sort of embodies strength and wisdom and power, but in this subtle way that is through being so compassionate you’re strong and through being so patient you’re strong. And it sort of turns the idea of strength upside down a little bit, and I think that’s really interesting.
PopGeeks: Do you still do you still own any props or anything from the film?
Tami Stronach: You know, I feel a little bad. I gave away some props that I had. After the film, I didn’t think it was going to have the staying power that it did. I mean I just I’m still sort of incredibly amazed and surprised that there is this much affection for the film today, and I had these wonderful luck dragon stuffed animals that were enormous. They were like four-feet, big, huggable Falcors. But, I did give those away to some kids that came to the house when I was in my teens. What I kept was these four figurines from the film. They were made in Germany, and so I have my own little action figure of the Empress which is pretty amazing. And my six-year-old daughter players with her now.
PopGeeks: So has your daughter gotten to watch the film yet, or you want to just bring her along slowly?
Tami Stronach: She’s too scared. She’s like running out of the room screaming *laughs*.
PopGeeks: I was very scared when I first watched the movie not just because of the Nothing but that wolf pretty scary.
Tami Stronach: So I’m waiting until she’s eight because they don’t traumatize her with the film. I want her to enjoy it *Laughs*.
PopGeeks: I see you and your husband started a theater company called the The Paper Canoe Company and I guess the main type of content for the company is family friendly productions?
Tami Stronach: Yes, absolutely yeah. I started Paper Canoe Company when my daughter was born. And I have been spent the last 20 years dancing professionally in New York and choreographing and something really shifted for me when I had my daughter. I think it’s partly because you start listening to kids albums. You start looking at kids’ content again, and I suddenly wanted to make modern fairy tales. It was what I felt like doing and bringing all the things that I was passionate about under one umbrella; telling stories; being a mom; incorporating movement; but also theater that I missed. And music that I missed. All of these things where I could kind of create a situation where I could connect with my kid and connect with other family. And it occurred to me at that time that that really was the never ending story was it with a film that the whole families. And it occurred to me at that time, that’s what The NeverEnding Story was. It was a film that the whole family could get something out of. And so suddenly I started to appreciate you know the significance of that moment in my life. And in some ways, how informative it was in terms of shaping the kind of stories I’m interested in telling. So that’s what Paper Canoe is.
PopGeeks: I think that’s interesting because I think that can be a type of performance in theater that maybe we’re not getting enough up these days, especially for children.
Tami Stronach: Yeah. You know feel like there is a kind of movement afoot where the quality of children’s theater is starting to creep up, and you could see it in some ways in children’s book. You know people didn’t take children’s literature seriously, and then suddenly there was this renaissance where a really beautiful illustrated, beautifully told a story you know becomes really appreciated. I feel like there’s a movement right now to elevate the content of children’s theater. I think assuming that somehow kids are not deserving of high aesthetics and really nourishing stories — that we know we don’t need to overly simplify things for kids. They really want a good exciting story that is you know also aesthetically high caliber. So, that’s kind of our mission with you want to feed your kids food, and you want to tell your kids a good story.
PopGeeks: The Fairy Queen project is where you’re you doing some videos and some concerts. Can you tell me about what the plan is for this project and how and how you came up with it?
Tami Stronach: Well there was actually a single that I recorded in Germany when I was 11. So that’s an old project. And then I didn’t really do anything with singing for a really long time. And then, when we started Paper Canoe with two live shows, and that was sort of my medium and the medium I was most comfortable with. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. But then we created a folk rock album called Beanstalk Jack, and it was an opportunity to get back to singing, which I had just touched on as a kid. And that was really exciting and new, and you had a big learning curve. And we took the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and we tell it all through music. And we’re developing that show into a live experience with sets and costumes. Right now, it’s just a concert. But, we have plans to expand it, and it was also the first time that we flirted into making digital content. So, the album is downloadable. You can get it at band camp or stream it anywhere music is sold. And now, we’re going to make some music videos, which I’m really excited about because it brings my dance and choreography background back into the mix. And we’ll be releasing those on our website at Paper Canoe Company.com. And then, my husband and I were like, “Why don’t we do a little digital content?” So now, we have a bunch of ideas in the works for you know moving more toward digital content, which is also new. It’s really a kind of exciting new chapter all inspired really by the birth of my daughter and that’s bringing me back to my own childhood and kind of revisiting those things that I loved then and kind of coming home.
PopGeeks: And it’s going to have puppets. Can you tell me about the puppetry because I’m all about puppets?
Tami Stronach: I love puppets, and I think maybe that is another NeverEnding Story connection. I mean seeing these incredible puppets. But, puppetry and dance are really kind of related because good dancers make really good puppeteers. We’re kind of interested in the specifics of the gesture and the implications of how you can execute a movement. So for me, this foray into puppetry has been really fun. We did a whole show called Aesock’s Fables, which was based on Aesop’s Fables, but all told through sock puppets. And that was my first taste of really putting on a whole puppetry show. And it was really fun. We started it in our house for our daughter during a blizzard, where we couldn’t leave the house for three days. And then her friends came over, and we did it for them. And then a local community theater was like, “Can you please do it here?” Then it moved to a bigger theater, and then last year we were doing three months of it in Brooklyn for just you know all these families. It was so fun. Kids really are at an age at that particular age where the line between fantasy and reality is still a little blurry for them. And the way they respond is just so fun watch. It’s so much fun to watch. They think it’s actually alive. So, we just had so much fun with that that we’re developing some ideas for Jack and the Beanstalk where there would be a like a mini stage on the side where there could be some puppetry that would get protected behind the scene. But, we have a whole bunch of ideas for how to transform the concert into a concert play and to return to the state of really experimenting and playing, which can really be privilege to be able to be in that space.
PopGeeks: You’ll also be doing our promotional shows preparing for a full live theatrical experience later in the year. So when I guess when will you be doing the live concerts, and where can we learn more about the live events?
Tami Stronach: I am currently booking all of the touring stuff for Beanstalk Jack, and we’re going to have a touring calendar coming out next month and you can see it on our website, which is just PaperCanoeCompany.com. So, we’ll be updating people on what’s happening there. And also, I started reading some scripts again. So, I’m actually looking at some TV and movie possibilities because something funny happened a year ago. I was invited to Comic-Con, and I didn’t really have a lot of experience at Comic-Con. I know I sound like an alien from another planet. I was immersed in my dance life and my teaching life, and I didn’t know that there was this whole wonderful world out there. So, they said that Noah Hathaway was going to be there. And I thought it would be so fun to connect with him. I haven’t seen him in thirty years. So, I thought that would be really fun. So I was like, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” And then, he ended up not coming to the Comic-Con that I went to. But it was great because it afforded me the opportunity to see that there were all these people that still had affection and interest in the film. I was really kind of overwhelmed by it. It was so nice. Hugging all these people that really like film, and it meant so much to them. It really occurred to me that there were a lot of people rooting for m. So, I decided to do my best not to disappoint. This is a good moment paired with Paper Canoe and also returning to theater and acting to also investigate some of those doors.
PopGeeks: Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been so great to speak with you.
Tami Stronach: Thank you.
Thank you to Tami Stronach for taking the time to speak with us. You can learn more about her theatre brand, Paper Canoe Company, and her upcoming projects at PaperCanoeCompany.com.