Actress who played Childlike Empress in 'The NeverEnding Story' recalls disturbing aftermath of film's success

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Add Tami Stronach, who played the Childlike Empress in The NeverEnding Story, to the group of entertainers saying that childhood stardom isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Stronach landed her role in the big budget 1984 fantasy film accidentally when she was 10, she told Vice. She was taking theater classes at an acting school in San Francisco and a casting agent for the movie visited her teacher, catching Stronach performing. But when the film based on the Michael Ende book came out, Stronach, then 11 and having resumed her normal life and schooling, experienced a disturbing aftermath, with men camping outside her home and offers, from marriage proposals and nude film roles, rolling in. She's since spent decades away from Hollywood.

Stronach, who spent her early years in Iran, beat out Poltergeist actress Heather O'Rourke of the Childlike Empress, monarch of the fictional world of Fantasia (or Fantastica in the book), in the movie. Though she appeared on-screen for just minutes in the role, with her character described as "an indescribably beautiful young girl," adult men tracked down her address (in pre-internet times) and camped outside her family’s Northern California home hoping to get a glimpse of her after the film came out.

BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 19: Tami Stronach attends the premiere of children's show 'Spiel mit der Zeit' at Friedrichstadtpalast on November 19, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Christian Marquardt/Getty Images)
Tami Stronach enjoyed making The NeverEnding Story at age 10, traveling to Germany with her mom during her summer break. But the release of the film resulted in unwanted attention from grown men. (Photo: Christian Marquardt/Getty Images)

Then came the marriage proposals, including one from a German man who mailed her an expensive engagement ring, and the inappropriate offers from producers, some who would show up at her door.

"They came to our house and pitched it, and I'm like, I'm not doing a nude film,” Stronach recalled. “I’m not Lolita.”

DIE UNENDLICHE GESCHICHTE / The Neverending Story D 1983 / Wolfgang Petersen Bild: Die Kindliche Kaiserin (TAMI STRONACH) / Überschrift: DIE UNENDLICHE GESCHICHTE / D 1983. (Photo by kpa/United Archives via Getty Images)
Tami Stronach playing the Childlike Empress in The NeverEnding Story, which filmed in Germany and came out in 1984 when she was 11. (Photo: kpa/United Archives via Getty Images)

As for the ring, “I found someone who was traveling to Germany and sent it back because I didn't want to take this person’s money. I felt so guilty," she said. "I took everything way too seriously and really to heart. I wonder if there could have been a way to not be as freaked out.” (She recalled interviewing Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown at a fan convention when someone ran on stage to give Brown, now 17, an engagement ring. "She was so much cooler than I was at 10. She just was like, ‘Well, thanks.’ And that was it," Stronach said.)

In light of what was happening, Stronach's parents — who were archeologists, not Hollywood types — decided they weren't able to help their 11-year-old navigate child stardom, so she stopped pursuing her professional acting career. That included declining to sign for a possible NeverEnding Story sequel.

“The bottom line is my parents just weren’t equipped to be managers," she said. "We weren’t in it for the money, and we certainly weren’t in it for the fame. I think if I had moved to L.A. and they had decided to help me hunt for projects, we could have found those. But that was just not a step we as a family were going to take.”

And she was generally OK with walking away from Hollywood stardom because, “I did not desperately want to be a star," she said. "I desperately wanted to act. Those are two different things.”

Stronach said she packed away her NeverEnding Story role — “I didn't really talk about it and it just kind of melted away” — and concentrated on being a normal teen. When she moved after high school to become a professional dancer in New York City, where she still lives, she "didn't put The NeverEnding Story on my resume. For me, it was like, I was a dancer, it didn't seem relevant.”

BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 19: Tami Stronach and her daughter Maya Steinbruner attend the premiere of the children's show 'Spiel mit der Zeit' at Friedrichstadtpalast on November 19, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Tristar Media/WireImage)
Tami Stronach and her daughter Maya Steinbruner attend the premiere of the children's show 'Spiel mit der Zeit' at Friedrichstadtpalast on November 19, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: Tristar Media/WireImage)

Stronach spent two decades dancing and doing theater in NYC. She has her own dance company, is a professor of dance at Marymount Manhattan College and teaches yoga. Along with her husband, Greg Steinbruner, with whom she shares a daughter, she made an ’80s-esque fantasy film called Man & Witch, with a star-studded cast.

Her daughter, Maya, 10, has a role in the film, and Stronach said she'd be “thrilled” if she continued acting.

“You asked me if I wanted to be a star as a kid. I’m such a complicated case because I really love doing the work, but I really don’t like the lifestyle," she said. "I had to navigate this alternate path, and I just feel so lucky.”

She still looks back at the making of The NeverEnding Story with fondness, calling the three months filming in Bavaria — with her mom as her chaperone — “summer camp."

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Tami Stronach and Noah Hathaway attend Comic Con Liverpool 2020 on March 08, 2020 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)
Tami Stronach and Noah Hathaway at Comic Con Liverpool 2020. (Photo: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)

“I did not have stage parents who were like, ‘Great, we're just going to put our careers on hold and chase her around,’” she said. “They had really full, exciting lives and said, ‘Sure, we can do this for a summer, then you're going to go back to school.’”

Stronach recalled not having a lot of time to hang out with fellow child actors Noah Hathaway (Atreyu) and Barret Oliver (Bastian), despite all living in the same hotel. (She said Oliver was more into playing with his Army men than hanging out.) While she was filming, she lost some of her teeth, she recalls, and director Wolfgang Petersen and his team had to scrambled to get fake teeth for her to wear on camera. And she said her tears were real, as she was emotional over what her character faced.

She also recalled promoting the film in Germany during production. While appearing on a German talk show, she randomly sang a song — and was offered a record deal on the spot. Her mom said OK, as long as it didn't impact their return flight to California in three days. Overnight, the songs were written and she recorded them the next day — even making a music video.

“We made that so fast," she recalled. "It was insane. And then literally that was it. We didn't change the ticket."

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