Tami Stronach – The Childlike Empress Has Grown Up But is Still Neverending
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
The Childlike Empress Has Grown Up But is Still Neverending
by Bonnie Paul
I was 11 years old when The Neverending Story premiered in theaters in 1984. I remember, vividly, that as soon as I returned from the theater, our family pulled out paper and started writing and illustrating our own neverending stories. We were not going to be responsible for the demise of Fantasia; we were not going to let the Childlike Empress down.
If you are reading this interview, then chances are good that you remember or have shared in this sentiment about this cult classic film. Maybe at that time, or like my family countless times since the movie reached VHS, DVD, and now digital. The film is rich with indelible characters – Bastian the human boy, Atreyu the warrior, his trusted horse Artax, Falcor the luck dragon. And, most iconically, The Childlike Empress. Rich in wisdom, her eyes so expressive with despair and hope, she became a symbol of strength and beauty and leadership.
Tami Stronach was just a little girl when she played The Childlike Empress. Years later, we find she has lived her life with grace, creativity, and passion outside of the Hollywood limelight. She remained in the arts through a career in dance. Since the birth of her daughter, Stronach has returned to her roots in family entertainment (and storytelling) through her still-evolving company. Paper Canoe is dedicated to breaking media rules and combining art in a way that keeps both children and parents engaged.
The Neverending Story was never just a story. It was interactive and a jumping off point for every story thereafter. Every time you watched it and believed in it, every time you created something new after watching it, you were part of the story itself, helping to keep the world of Fantasy alive. Stronach was and remains a dedicated global citizen of our world and Fantasia. Today, I find myself fangirling out more than ever, as I have gotten the chance to speak with Stronach about her movie and her life.
My sister and daughter and I have been watching The Neverending Story, FOREVER.
Oh, that sounds so nice!
And obviously, you are one of our very favorite characters of all time.
That’s awesome. I think that the Empress is such a good role model for little girls. You always feel good about showing little girls that role.
Yeah. My daughter was like three or four the first time she saw the movie. We’ve watched it so many times, we can recite all your lines, word for word and try to channel our inner Childlike Empress at the same time. Do you remember doing those lines way back when and (remember) what you were thinking to make your face look like that; your eyes look like that?
I do. I remember the lines. I remember the text, it’s such a short amount of text. It’s actually really a very condensed scene in some ways. I was like you. I just loved the story and bought the character. I felt the world was so magical. For me, as a human being, I tend to enjoy dissolving into imaginative spaces; I love dropping away from reality. Entering imaginative spaces feels cathartic and really exciting. So, for me, just like you, I just dove into the story and believed it.
So, you were channeling your inner “The whole fantasy world is going to fall apart without Bastian?”
Definitely, yeah. Also, I think that for a lot of kids, the adult world can feel really frustrating. They make all the rules, they tell you what’s right, they tell you what’s wrong. Often your own kid gut is telling you something different. There is something really exciting about being in a position to represent kids, to be the face of “actually, kids are smart and have solutions; kids are compassionate and wise.” For me, this notion that somehow, the Childlike Empress was both incredibly old and incredibly wise, but the thing that was special about her was the part of her that’s a kid never died. She never grew up and withered that part of her away. She personifies that by being a kid on the outside. That was such an important thing. I really believed that, as a kid, that adults were in danger of becoming grumpy, apathetic creatures. Kids had all this play and wonder in them. That was something really valuable.
Has your daughter, Maya, seen the movie yet?
You know, I am listening to you and I’m like, wow, my daughter is so afraid of interpersonal drama in movies. It’s the wildest thing, I almost feel like she is a little like me, in that she falls into the story so deeply. She’s so emotionally invested that it is very intense for her. We took her to a couple of movies when she was younger and she literally ran out of the movie theater screaming.
The Neverending Story
(Laughs) Like, funny movies, penguins, things that are supposed to be really fun kid movies. So I have been incredibly cautious with showing her The Neverending Story. It’s special to me, and I hope it will be special to her. I don’t want to show it to her before she would enjoy it. I didn’t want her to go run screaming from The Nothing or the horse dying. There are some things in the film that are pretty intense. Knowing my daughter, who will run out of the movie screaming, I’m just kind of waiting. We’ve been talking about it and she’s decided on this arbitrary age: “I think when I’m eight I should watch it mom.” So, I said, “Great, we’ll watch it when you’re eight!”
So, yeah, not yet.
Well I will be following on Facebook to see your post when she has watched that…
We should record her, so if she does run out screaming, that could at least be funny.
There’s no way. She might cover her eyes during the Nothing. But it is just so magical. My daughter wanted to know, while you were filming, did you think to yourself, what would you do if you had a luck dragon? And then I would like to know, as a follow up, what would you do with a luck dragon now?
Hmm. To be honest, when I was filming, I did not think so much about what the Empress would do with a luck dragon, because I was really very focused. It’s funny, but I was focused on the parameters of my role. I wasn’t jumping over to other roles. To me, her power was meditation. She sits on this lily pad bed and practices being calm and practices being empathetic. Her power is really derived from “not action” – not jumping on a dragon and flying places. It’s the opposite of that, you know? So, no, when I was little, that wasn’t really what I was thinking about.
I get that…
However, now, after watching the film, I would LOVE to have a luck dragon. The whole concept of a luck dragon feels so much more necessary to me. Like, boy, growing up, becoming an adult, all the things in the film, you sure could use a luck dragon. I would keep my luck dragon, and I would have tea with it, spend as much time with it as possible if I could have one now.
Sounds pretty good. Here’s a question, and it can be off the record, if you want, there have been so many urban legends about Artax and the swamp of sadness…
Did the horse really die in filming?
Of course not!!! (You should really have heard her voice… priceless)
No! Actually, the horse was promised to Noah Hathaway (Atreyu) at the end of the filming, but then he didn’t have a place to keep the horse in LA. In the end, he didn’t get it. I think he was pretty upset about that. But no! Never! Of course the horse didn’t die. There were hundreds of people on that set. No! (laughs) it wasn’t some shady “let’s kill the horse.”
The myth, the urban legend is that the lifts/the levee’s that were lowering him down broke, and there has been no dispelling of that.
People really want drama! No. I remember being incredibly jealous because I was told that Noah was going to be gifted this horse. I thought, geez, that’s a big gift. Honestly, I wasn’t there the day they filmed that, but I think it would be very strange if there were then all these subsequent conversations about “Is the horse going to be gifted to him?” “How could it be gifted to him?” Then it was known he was mad that it wasn’t gifted to him. If the horse had in fact, died that would be a real level of subterfuge that I don’t think that many people would be capable of. (laughs)
Well that sounds incredibly definitive to me! That makes me really happy. The scene is sad enough.
I’ve never even heard that. I’m sort of shocked and still recovering, like, No! (laughs)
That’s so funny.
No, no, no. On the record!
On the record! Phew. We have been super excited reading about what you’ve done since The Neverending Story. We’ve got “The more coffee you drink” mug off of Etsy. My sister has bought the Beanstalk Jack soundtrack and I am going to pick it up for my nephew. It’s just so adorable and fun, your Paper Canoe Company.
Thank you! I am really excited about returning to my roots as it were. I didn’t pursue acting after The Neverending Story, partly because we were really not a Hollywood family. I fell into the film through luck. I guess I had a little luck dragon sort of. My parents are literally the sweetest, most adorable people on the planet, but I would say that Hollywood savvy is not their strong suit. They are academics, they were archeologists. My mother’s Israeli, my father’s British. We lived in Iran for a long time, so America was new to us. Hollywood was new to us. We were really like, “Whoa, where are we?”
When you were in Iran were your parents doing archeology?
Yeah. My father was the head of the British Institute of Archeology in Tehran. My mother was also working there as an archeologist. So, I grew up on dig sites with the dust, living in little tents out in the desert…
Oh, how fun!
Finding pottery shards. So, the switch to the Hollywood machine is sort of a big one. We all looked at each other as a family. You can see people like Natalie Portman, who transition from being a child actor to an adult actress so gracefully. [They] clearly retain a very strong sense of self and understanding of how to navigate the business gracefully. It’s kudos to her. It’s fabulous what she has achieved.
Yes, it is.
But, for every one of those stories, you hear like 10 horror stories about people who somehow lose their identity, or tie their sense of self-worth up too much into celebrity. It derails them, because you’re fragile when you are little. It’s the time you are forming who you are, and you want to be, in a safe environment to bolster that as much as possible. Given all of that, we agreed we wouldn’t continue pursuing that.
I can understand that.
I was always just mad about arts and mad about everything, so I channeled my energy towards dance. [I] had a long dance career, which was really exciting and fun, in NYC. But, then after the birth of my daughter, I don’t know, something just shifted in me. Also, maybe, after my body turned 40 and didn’t want to dance as much anymore. It was like, wow, this just really hurts now…. So, all of these different organic forces conspired to like re-funnel my focus back towards family entertainment. I found myself reading stories to her, and listening to music, and just falling in love with stories for kids. In particular stories for kids when there was a strong recognition that parents will be reading that story to their kids or listening to those songs with their kids.
So that inspired you?
I just got really interested in the kinds of art forms that could straddle ages 2 to 102. There are some stories, like ET, some classic stories, that really find a way to do that. I think those are really exciting stories. In a world where stories, or electronics content, can sometimes pull people apart and everyone’s watching something different on a different screen, my interest was in “What can you make that, instead of pulling people apart into their own separate worlds, everyone wants to be together in a shared world?” So, the fact that you said you and your sister and daughter watch The Neverending Story together, that’s the kind of art that I want to be a part of. That’s how Paper Canoe was born. Then, basically, I started responding to the projects that we were making and found myself acting again. We made a really beautiful steampunk play, dystopian sci-fi play…
Tami Stronach in “Light: A Dark Comedy.”
“Light: A Dark Comedy.” It looks so good!
It was really a labor of love and for me. It stemmed from the fact that I wanted to create a heroine character for my daughter to have in our house, floating around in her brain. This whole question of the stories that we tell kids – sometimes we underestimate how impactful they are. We really are setting up a foundation in kids for what’s possible. They are so open as kids. The stories we tell them define what’s possible or not possible for them. I think we have to be really mindful that we are feeding them really nurturing stories that will unlock their potential and their imagination and compassion without being preachy or overly annoyingly moralistic. But, I do think that inside the best stories there is the capacity to stretch people’s compassion.
Studies prove that compassion is contagious and something you can work on and get better at. You aren’t born with a finite amount of it. If you practice it, it grows, and like a muscle, gets more evolved. With kids, that is how stories function. It’s where they practice bravery. They practice being kind. It’s where they practice growing and exploring. So, that all seems very important to me and not at all kid stuff. It’s really important. I wanted to be a part of creating content and material that’s super fun on the surface that unlocks the child in me; an opportunity to play and laugh and be silly. But, at the heart of it also gets to being a part of creating foundational content that is really nurturing for kids, and that felt like something really worthwhile.
That’s how Paper Canoe was born. Then “Light” grew out of “what kind of heroine, young, female protagonist could we create who would be exciting?” While I love superhero movies and will grab a big popcorn tub and binge out on them – this isn’t to say I don’t like them, because I think you can like several things at the same time – I totally think that is possible, but in the case of “Light,” I wanted to create a heroine who saves the day because of her insatiable curiosity and that she just doesn’t accept the answers that the adult world gives her. You know how kids say, “Why? Why? Why? Why?” We all laugh and think it’s annoying, but it’s also amazing and wonderful. For Moth, that’s why. No one shuts that down in her. She just keeps asking it and asking it. Through that insatiable curiosity [she] does uncover the big mystery of the play and solves it. That’s the kind of questions about how to create stories that would enliven the lives of my daughter. And of course, other kids. That’s how it all started.
When you turn “Light: A Dark Comedy” into a children’s book, I will totally buy it!
(Laughs) Yeah, well, what we are looking at now, we are definitely looking at publishing. We have several projects that were all theatrical, so the question is: do we turn them into videos? Do we turn them into short films? Do we turn them into books? What’s the format? I think the place we are at now, which I am really excited about, there’s been a lot of movement now in the audiobook world. There’s a lot of audiobooks out there, there’s also podcasts out there, and there’s been a little bit of a resurgence in curiosity around storytelling that’s on tape.
Yes, there has been.
What would be exciting would be to create a slightly-hybrid form of that, where all the theatrical background that Paper Canoe has could infuse those. It’s a story told with actors, but it’s got foley in it. It’s got music like a film score, so you really enter it the same way you would a film. But, it’s in the audio format, so your brain is also kicked into imaginative gear in a way that’s really active, which I think is an exciting place to present stories with kids. So, we have an idea for turning “Beanstalk Jack” into an audio book, where there is narration with the songs punctuating things. The same thing with “Light,” where there is this story in chapter form inside of a foley universe. We have plans for books as well.
That’s so cool, I look forward to seeing that. When I was reading about it, it sounds like a story that needs to be told again and again, especially nowadays.
Definitely. The heart of “Light,” on a nutshell level, is that through hubris, the sun is stolen. Light is taken away. Society forgets that there ever was light. People tell Moth, the protagonist, that this is just how things are, but she can feel that something is missing. She is always questioning the system. Eventually she uncovers the machine that did it and saves the day.
Good for her!
The issue with us forgetting history feels really pertinent to me. I mean, it’s obviously a fun, adventure story for kids. It’s really goofy and funny sometimes, but underneath is this notion that it doesn’t take a lot of time for people to forget history. That’s something I feel is a really important thing to discuss with kids. To talk about history and the way it is alive within the world today, so that we don’t take the structures around us for granted. We do understand that they are the result of people building them and a result of historical processes that brought them into being. It’s really useful to approach that through fantasy or sci fi, because we can all feel a little less scared of that. “It’s not real” – we can examine things like that at a cursory level and start to build awareness for how to think critically about the world through stories. Eventually that will grow into more critical thinking in adults.
You grew up in a global family, a world traveler. Are there any stories that you remember from your childhood that you will be exploring further with Paper Canoe?
Oh, that’s such an interesting question! I think that the fact that I grew up with so many different kind of people around me and in different countries does really influence my world view. My mother was Israeli and Jewish. My father was British and Christian. My nanny was Iranian and Muslim. I loved all of those people. It didn’t occur to me that sometimes the world will make up these arbitrary borders and try to say that contradictory things can’t co-exist.
I think what’s really special about kids is that they don’t know that yet. They are flexible and able to take seemingly contradictory things and with dexterity weave them together into a coherent whole and accept it. I am really interested in harnessing that power that kids have. In some ways it goes back to where we started… with what’s special about kids that we sometimes underestimate? What sort of things about being childlike does the adult world forget has value? That capacity to be imaginative, about how to accept and see a lot of different seemingly contradictory things as coexisting comfortably, [that] is something beautiful that kids have the capacity to do.
While I haven’t thought specifically about a story of my past that would necessarily translate into a narrative, I think the values of living in a hybrid space, even the art that I make, all seems to have some hybrid element where I am doing forbidden things. I’m blending theater with audiobooks. I’m sticking dance with theater. Whenever I see a category, I immediately want to go to the border and take a big eraser and say “No! No! No!” We can stick these things together. I think that impulse to find new spaces – and open up third spaces where something magical is possible through erasing borders – is a drive for me that relates to my back ground.
I love that. It’s really nice to speak to somebody with a global perspective, particularly in their view of art and the world. It’s exciting and I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me this morning.
It was my pleasure. It’s so funny that you said that, because we are working on one song right now, called “All the Colors of the Rainbow.” It’s just a really sweet, sweet song – very percussive. We are going to record it in a bunch of different languages. Hebrew – because I speak Hebrew – and French and Arabic. I don’t know if I can pronounce the Chinese well enough, but I am trying…
It’s good to try.
One of the things we are playing with is recording the song straight in English, but also creating a different version where the choruses are sung in different languages. I think it is really exciting to create spaces where the global perspective is appreciated.<