Interview With Tami Stronach: Life in the NeverEnding Arts

We, at PopHorror, don’t often venture too far outside of the horror genre. However, when presented with the opportunity to speak with royalty from the pop culture of the 80s, exceptions must be made. Best known for her role as The Childlike Empress of Fantasia in Wolfgang Petersen’s 1984 childhood classic, The NeverEnding Story, Tami Stronach went on to explore the entertainment industry through live performance arts. Recently, Tami took a break from her busy schedule to speak with PopHorror to revisit The NeverEnding Story, and talk about her work in live performance arts and her exciting upcoming projects.

Tami Stronach

PopHorror: Hi, Tami! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me!

Tami Stronach: Sure! Thank you for the opportunity.

PopHorror: To start, let’s go way back to the beginning. Have you always wanted to become involved in the entertainment industry?

Tami Stronach: I think that I always wanted to be involved in something creative and artistic. I was sort of flexible on the form that would take, whether it was in the entertainment industry or through other artistic mediums. But yes, from the beginning, I always felt like being around art was where I belonged (laughs).

PopHorror: Artistic expression is a great thing, for sure. Was The NeverEnding Story your introduction to the film industry?

Tami Stronach: Yes, absolutely. I didn’t have an agent, and I wasn’t a kid necessarily looking to break into the film industry. I was just very involved in local theater and local dance, which lead to me falling into the film.

PopHorror: How did you become involved with the film?

Tami Stronach: It was a happy accident, actually (laughs). My acting teacher, at the time, was friends with the casting agent for the film, who happened to stop by the class that I was attending. The casting agent noticed me and asked if I would like to stop by and audition. I said, “Sure,” not knowing what I was auditioning for, and I didn’t realize that it was going to be a significantly larger production than any of the other ones that I was currently doing around town.

PopHorror: Was it a shock when the film became what it was and still is?

Tami Stronach: You know, to be honest with you, it was and it wasn’t. It was filmed in Germany at the Bavaria Studios over the summer. Even when I got the part, which I was super excited about, it was framed in my mind as this European film that maybe some people would see (laughs). I think what really surprises about the film is the sticking power it has and, so many years later, it still means so much to people. I think it is remarkable about how the film has managed to endure over the years. None of that was something I could have foreseen as a kid.

Poster artwork for The NeverEnding Story

PopHorror: It sure has stood the test of time. It was a part of my childhood as well as many other people I know. What was your favorite part of the production?

Tami Stronach: My favorite part was working with Wolfgang Petersen. He was a very serious and inspired director. He was very professional with me as a kid. He didn’t treat me so much like a child and put on that weird voice adults tend to put on when they’re talking with children (laughs). He was just very straight with me, and I loved it! I felt like he took me seriously, and I enjoyed being treated that way. For me, just having to work with a director like that was the best part.

PopHorror: That sounds like a great experience! What were some of the challenges working on the production?

Tami Stronach: Well, I lost some teeth, because I was 10 years old. So I had to go to the dentist for about two weeks straight while he made the most uncomfortable denture (laughs). So, it was just hours and hours holding my mouth open while the dentist sculpted this denture making these huge red lines on the sides of my mouth. Dentistry has improved dramatically since the 80s (laughs). But after two weeks, the dentist produced these false teeth that fit over my real teeth to fill what was missing. It was super uncomfortable and it made me lisp. It made saying my lines very difficult. Because saying, “Bathtian, say my name,” just isn’t the same (laughs). But I figured it out in the end, and I was lucky enough that the dentures weren’t necessary for my second scene. Wolfgang just told me to avoid smiling wide and no one will see the missing teeth.

PopHorror: I never would have guessed! (Laughs)

Tami Stronach: (Laughs) If you go back and look at it, it’s actually pretty funny. The dentures are very adult looking teeth, in my opinion.

PopHorror: That is funny, but I’m glad it worked out! So, after your work with The NeverEnding Story, you continued with theater and dance. What prompted you to pursue the arts from this direction?

Tami Stronach: I think that with the #MeToo movement that is going on now, the cover has come off of Hollywood a little bit. I think in many ways, it can look very glamorous from afar. But when you get a little closer to it, you start to recognize that there are some real adherent dangers in putting a young girl inside of that machine without a lot of experience and knowledge about how to navigate it. I think it’s very interesting that many actors have parents in the industry. It makes a lot of sense to me because you really do need a strong hand to shepherd you through it with grace.

My parents are academics and the film industry was such a foreign world. We all agreed that we probably didn’t have the savvy or the experience to be able to navigate the industry without hitting some serious bumps. So, we just decided to refocus what I did back into live theater, which was very fulfilling. I also think that fame for a young person is very tricky. I think it takes a team to support you and help you stay grounded, authentic and not get too caught up in image and other things that can really derail you growing into a strong and stable person.

PopHorror: Oh, absolutely! I could see how that could be difficult for someone so young.

Tami Stronach: Some people can do it very successfully, and that’s great for them. For my family and I, it was very important to stay in love with the act of creating, which you may lose along the way. I think that navigating the business side of things is quite a bit easier as an adult. As a kid, when you’re still learning who you are and going through major life changes, there’s a lot to be said for having the right to privacy. Some kids do this very well! But I’m excited to see how Hollywood is changing as more information is coming out about the problematic side of all this. This is an exciting time in Hollywood. There are more females who are directing. There are more people bringing a wider spectrum of stories. And I think television has gotten really good recently. It seems things are sort of shaking up, and I think the industry will become a better place for young girls.

Tami Stronach

PopHorror: That is very true. What productions were you involved with on the dance and theater side of entertainment?

Tami Stronach: In terms of dance, I went to a dance conservatory in New York, and then I founded my own company, Tami Stronach Dance. We’ve performed annually in New York for about 20 years. I was making an evening long piece every season, and then I was dancing with other professional companies in New York and acting in a theater company called The Flying Machine. So, my day consisted of about eight hours of rehearsal, rushing between three different companies with which I was heavily involved. I did that for over a decade.

More recently, I became a professor and a mother, which started reframing what I wanted to do. Not so long ago, I formed my entertainment production company, Paper Canoe Company, with my husband to bring my 20 years of art making experience into a family friendly content arena. Mostly because that is the sort of thing I have been doing at home. I’ve been cuddling up and reading stories to my daughter. That inspired me to become involved in creating that kind of content.

Even now, whenever I meet people at conventions and we talk about The NeverEnding Story, you can see that the stories that hold a lot of meaning to people are very formative, and they create a sense of possibility, a sense of moral compass and a sense of priorities. We often treat kids’ stuff as maybe not that important or less valuable. For me, I feel just the opposite. I feel that the stuff we pour into our kids’ brains is like the ground floor, and I think it is important to invest in that foundation. So, as a teacher, a professor and a mom, I really wanted to refocus the art that I am making back towards family-friendly content… at least for now, when my daughter is a kid, that is authentically where my brain is. I mean, who knows where it will be in 10 years. But it feels like a very good time to connect with that sort of entertainment, since that is where my heart and head are.

Logo artwork for Paper Canoe Company

PopHorror: That makes sense. Speaking of Paper Canoe Company, what can you tell me about it?

Tami Stronach: This concept was born out of a conversation with a few artist friends of mine. We were all new parents, and we were all craving the idea of applying our art to family content. The first show that Paper Canoe launched was called Light, A Dark Comedy, which was part of a New Victory LabWorks program. This gave me the opportunity to return to intense acting, which I hadn’t done in a while, by starring in a role for an hour and a half. That was fun and exciting!

I also fell in love with the process of storytelling and, for me, it was important to have a female protagonist, partly because I wanted my daughter to be able to connect with it. Another thing that was important to me for a female protagonist wasn’t just that she could punch someone out (laughs), but that she was more curious than everyone else around her. It’s this extreme curiosity that overcame fear, doubt, and ultimately saved the day. So, that’s a story I’m nursing, and we want to turn it into a podcast, a film script or maybe even a graphic novel. We’re still exploring the right form of expression for taking this story beyond the stage.

We also created something called A Sock’s Fables, which was hilariously fun. It was a live sock puppet show, and we had a blast! It was formed in the local neighborhood. We did it really just for fun, and it just took off. We ended up running the show for months and months in Brooklyn, New York, and it was sold out! We had all kinds of funny ideas. For example, if you bought a ticket, you received a sticker with a sock profession on it rather than a ticket. So, you could work for Sock du Soleil. Of you could be a Sockretary (laughs). It was a really fun world we built, and it was for very young audiences of three to five year olds.

We also did sock puppet workshops with the community. Doing all of this, I saw that parents really need a place to where they can engage with their children creatively. We didn’t want our shows to be something parents could take their kids to and just tune out. We wanted our shows to be something that would engage the parents as well as the kids. And there was a great response! People kept coming back with their kids every week! It created this great community and time to be together.

Cover artwork for Beanstalk Jack

From there, we decided to commit to this and explore storytelling for families further. We created an album called Beanstalk Jack, which is based on the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. But I gave it a modern twist. As I told the story of Jack and the Beanstalk to my daughter, she literally looked at me and asked what the moral of a story is where Jack goes up and steals the guy’s stuff and kills him. She thought that even if the giant wasn’t very nice, it really seemed extreme (laughs). So, we reimaged this for the modern times.

In our version, we gave the giant a daughter called Harmony, and we made Jack a little older. The idea is that Jack goes up the beanstalk and meets Harmony who has everything, but doesn’t have any friends. When Jack shows up in the clouds, it’s love at first sight, and they run away together to form a band. So, Jack doesn’t steal the giant’s stuff. He steals the heart of the giant’s daughter. It was very funny passing the idea by other kids. My daughter was very pleased with this ending, and there were a lot of other kids who really needed to know that the giant was dead (laughs). It’s a very interesting question as to how you go about reimagining these old Grimm fairy tales.

PopHorror: It’s sort of like how Disney took all these darker Grimm’s fairy tales and made them into these modern kids’ stories (laughs).

Tami Stronach: Yes! You don’t want to water it down too much, but even at three years old, some kids just really want to know that the giant is done. He’s toast (laughs). It really brings the question as to what role stories should play in our life. In my opinion, we are sometimes turning storytelling into more of a distraction rather than giving us something to chew on, contemplate, pour ourselves into and interact with in some way. I get worried that storytelling is becoming a way to just turn your brain off. I think the best stories really captivate us and get our brains turning. After the show, there’s something to think about and continue to engage with.

It’s really interesting to find that realm. The goal I think The NeverEnding Story had, and something that really inspired me, was finding a way to keep the imagination alive and avoid having apathy take over as we turn into adults. Recognizing that our own imagination is something very precious and shouldn’t be underestimated can be key to unlocking solutions.

PopHorror: That is very insightful! On the film side of things, I noticed that you are involved in a feature that is about to release called Ultra Low.

Tami Stronach: Yes! I did a small cameo in this independent feature that is about how hard it is to make films (laughs). I would very much like to get back involved with film, and I’m working on doing that right now. I’m looking at some scripts and speaking with some people. So, there’s definitely a push to move back into professional acting, and Ultra Low is sort of like a little teaser on my end.

PopHorror: It sounds like you have quite a bit going on! Are there any other upcoming projects that you would like to mention?

Tami Stronach: Sure! Right now, I’m working on a video for Beanstalk Jack, which will be the title song for the album. The song has won three awards, which I’m super excited about! So, we’re creating more materials to get this story back out there. There are plans for a coloring book, and I’m developing a lesson plan for teachers who might want to use the album for an arts and education program.

PopHorror: That’s a very cool idea! To wrap things up, I have one more question in regards to The NeverEnding Story. When Bastian yells the new name for the Empress out the window, are you suppose to know what he says or was it intentionally obscured?

Tami Stronach: In the book, the name is Moonchild. But I think that Wolfgang very much obscured it intentionally. My interpretation is that he wanted everyone in the audience to insert the name they believed the character should have. So, in the same way that the story is saying that The NeverEnding Story is Bastian’s story, there’s another level to where the film is trying to make it the audience’s story.

PopHorror: That actually makes perfect sense. Thank you, Tami, for taking the time to speak with me!

Tami Stronach: You’re very welcome!

Beginning her career at a very young age and appearing in one of the most beloved and inspiring classics of the 80s, Tami’s career has truly come full circle with family entertainment. Surrounding herself with the arts, she continues to inspire and keep imagination alive by applying what she loves, which is more than anyone can ask for. As she continues to explore new ways of apply her passion, it will be exciting to see where she goes from here!

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