'The Neverending Story' Empress Tami Stronach Shares Behind-the-Scenes Stories From the '80s Fantasy Film

Gwynne Watkins
·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Tami Stronach in The Neverending Story
Tami Stronach as the Childlike Empress in 1984’s “The Neverending Story.” (Photo: Warner Bros./ Courtesy: Everett Collection)

The Neverending Story is one of those dark ’80s fantasy films that makes a generation of parents wax nostalgic, even as they’re horrified at the thought of showing it to their own young children. Tami Stronach, who played the Childlike Empress, is now one of those parents. At age 10, Stronach was one of three American children cast in the lead roles of Wolfgang Petersen’s 1984 film, which was produced and filmed in Germany. The Neverending Story tells the story-within-a-story of a 10-year-old outcast, Bastian (Barret Oliver), who discovers a magical book about young warrior Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), who must save his kingdom of Fantasia from a malevolent force called The Nothing. The more of the book Bastian reads, the more he becomes a part of the story — until the climax, when the Childlike Empress of Fantasia (Stronach) pleads directly with Bastian to save and rebuild Fantasia.

Though she only appears at the end of the film, Stronach’s memorable character was prominently featured in promotional material for the worldwide hit, and the child actress found her ensuing celebrity hard to handle. Eventually, Stronach walked away from film entirely and grew up to become a professional dancer. Following the birth of her daughter, she launched a new venture with her husband: Paper Canoe Company, a Brooklyn-based children’s theater company. For the first time since Neverending Story, Stronach is working with puppets and conjuring children’s fantasies.

“All the stuff I’m doing now kind of oddly refers back to this very meaningful experience I had with The Neverending Story,” says Stronach. She might even show the film to her daughter one of these days. Yahoo Movies spoke with Stronach, 44 — who is also returning to film in the indie feature Ultra Low, now shooting — about her experience working on The Neverending Story, the empowering message of the Childlike Empress, and how she’s come to embrace the film and its fans.

Yahoo Movies: I grew up watching The Neverending Story, and I remember thinking, “This movie has one girl in it, and she’s the prettiest girl in the entire world.”
Tami Stronach:
Thank you! [Laughs] You know that I was almost not cast because Wolfgang didn’t think I was pretty enough.

Yes! Well to be fair, it was the first audition, and I went really scruffy because I wasn’t really a Hollywood gal, so I didn’t really understand the game. I went with greasy leftover pig makeup because I was playing Piglet in a play. So he was like, “This girl’s good but she’s just kind of … really not that … Empress-like?”

Tami Stronach (Photo: Tami Stronach)
Tami Stronach (Photo: Tami Stronach)

You filmed The Neverending Story during this rare time in the 1980s when practical special effects got really good — right before computer effects took over — so the sets actually looked like the movie looks.
Totally. Everything was handmade on that set. There, a human being with their hand put the feather there and put the mud there, and I think you can feel that. In some ways at the time, I didn’t even understand how extraordinary it was, because when you’re a kid, you kind of experience the world as it is given to you. But yeah, they had this huge circus tent with the Swamps of Sadness, which I remember going in. And it was insane when you were inside this enormous tent where the mud was up to my hips — it was really, really, really deep. Trying to walk over to the camera people was really hard. And once they got the fog machine rolling, you couldn’t see the edges of the curtains. You were absolutely in an endless swamp.

Wait, the Empress wasn’t in the Swamps of Sadness!
No, I watched. I went in to watch the day that Atreyu kept getting sneezed off of Morla, the turtle. I thank God I was not there for the Swamps of Sadness eating the horse, because that would have been not a good idea for anybody to have me on set at that time. [Laughs] I probably would have stopped filming — “Stop! Stop the cameras!”

What was the Ivory Tower set like?
So the Ivory Tower was in a sound studio; it was a little bit different than the huge tent for the Swamps of Sadness, and also the huge tent that housed the Rockbiter and the bat and all those guys. They were in a different, huge, beautiful tent outside. My set was inside of a building and a little bit of a smaller set. And the bed was in the middle, and then the walls were this pearly white. I never saw the outside of the ivory tower; I was like the inside of the oyster. So it was just this beautiful, creamy white room with this big, kind of cake-like bed in the middle.

Tami Stronach plays the Childlike Empress in the Ivory Tower in the climactic scene of “The Neverending Story.”

You didn’t have a scene with the puppets; were you still able to watch the puppeteers work?
I did! I was super interested in that. I feel like it was hard because I was little. As an adult, I could probably have more easily infiltrated in and out of sets quietly, behind people. I had to request permission to go and be on set and promise that I wasn’t going to make any noise. [Laughs] So I did do a fair amount of that, and it was really fun to watch the puppeteers. It’s funny; I didn’t really do anything with puppetry [as an adult] because I was so involved with dance for so long. But now, getting involved in theater again, I feel that that did make an impact on me — that watching that and seeing it was actually something that infiltrated my brain and left an indelible impression. And oddly, I think that dance is really excellent training for puppeteering, only because the precision of movement required in dance translates really well to puppetry.

How much of the movie’s emotional weight did you understand as an 11-year-old actress? Re-watching your scenes as a mom now, it’s really hard for me to see this little girl seeming to be in so much pain, even though I know your character is supposed to be very old. You’re crying directly into the camera!
I was such a sensitive little girl. The idea of crying was so not a big deal. You would tell me, you know, “A turtle in Cambodia got a splinter in its foot,” and you would have waterworks from me. It was in my nature! I feel like for me, the theater and film were such a joy and such a gift because it was a place where emotions were valued. And to some degree, I felt like in the real world my overly emotional, perhaps hypersensitive nature was a little bit of a liability, but in theater and film it was an asset. And it was such a relief. It was so incredible to know that this inescapable part of who I was held value in a certain context.

How conscious were you as a kid of trying to play older in that role?
Super conscious. I was 300 years old in my mind. I was a really serious girl, and I had my notebook, I had my specific age that I was, and I had the adjectives that I was cycling through my brain to make sure my body language was right. I took the whole project very seriously. But that’s where my passion was — that’s where my joy was.

Not all child performances age well, but you very convincingly played a little girl who’s not actually not a little girl. And I think I connected with that, too, since I was a kid who felt like I could relate better to adults.
There weren’t that many amazing role models for little girls in films. Little girls are frequently cute, frequently underestimated in terms of what they’re going to bring to a story. And I think that’s changing now which is super exciting — obviously there are a lot of girl heroines in films today — but that wasn’t so much the case back in the ’80s.

And then also I do think that there’s this notion [in the film] of what power is. And her power was wisdom and her power was patience and her power was compassion. Which is just a really different form of power than brawn. And yet it was more powerful than brawn. And I think that’s so exciting to tell little girls: There’s a way for you to be really, really powerful with all the attributes you currently have, because you have courage, you have wisdom, you have compassion. You don’t need a karate chop. And so I feel really lucky that I fell into this role that in a way sort of turned the notion of strength upside down.

Tami Stronach and co-star Barret Oliver on the 1984 German press tour for ‘The Neverending Story:’

You communicate with fans through your Twitter handle @NeverendingTami. Was there a point at which you tried to separate yourself from The Neverending Story before coming around and embracing it?
Absolutely. I completely tried to retreat from it. Pretty much upon coming back from filming, we were really overwhelmed with the response, and I definitely felt really overwhelmed by what it meant to be a celebrity at 11 years old. I didn’t feel like I was very good at it! I really loved acting, but I didn’t love celebrity. So I was faced with a complicated choice because they sort of come together. So I decided to immerse myself in dance, and then if I wanted to return to acting as an adult I would do that. And then coming to New York as a young dancer, I really wanted to see what I could do in the world as Tami and not as a former child actor. And so I really never talked about it, I never brought it up. And if it did come up, I’d sort of smile and try to quickly change the subject.

How did you end up coming back to it?
With the birth of my daughter and with the birth of Paper Canoe Company, I suddenly realized that it really did have a kind of seminal impact on me, and that it really was a rather wonderful experience, and that maybe it was time to engage with it. Also it felt like fans of The Neverending Story might be more interested in Paper Canoe than, say, dance theater. And so I ended up going to Comic-Con because I was lured there with the prospect of seeing Noah [Hathaway] after 30 years, which I thought would be really fun. But then he never showed up! [Laughs]

But it was great, because I’d never been to a Comic-Con. I didn’t even know about them! So suddenly I was like, omigod, there’s all these people who still really have so much affection for this film. It really created this opportunity to connect with people. … In some ways I felt sort of silly that I had been not participating and not engaging with it previously. And I started to realize how lucky I was and to feel really grateful for it. So that’s when I got the Twitter handle and started to engage with it. At this moment in my life, in my 40s, there really isn’t anything but a kind of sense of shared bonding over the fact that I was in this thing and somebody else really liked it. And now I’m getting some scripts being sent to me in the mail, and some potential movie and TV offers, so it feels kind of like a new chapter where maybe I will do some acting again.

Has your daughter seen any of The Neverending Story yet?
She has not. She’s super scaredy-cat. She’s really sensitive — she’s totally a chip off the old block. She looks exactly like me, and all she does all day is sing and dance. I’m waiting until she’s 8. She’s 6 and she’d just run screaming from the room and be traumatized. [Laughs] And I want it to be this fun shared experience! I want her to be happy about it. I don’t want her to be like, “Don’t ever show me that film again!” I’m waiting a little longer. But she has my action figures. In Germany, they made little Neverending Story action figures! So I have a little Empress action figure that my daughter plays with.

Watch a trailer for ‘Neverending Story’:

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