“Call my name! Bastian, please! Save us!”
The Childlike Empress appears for just a few harrowing minutes in The NeverEnding Story. Two scenes at the end of an epic fantasy filled with luck dragons, giant snails, and a horse death that scarred a generation. She's also one of the only female characters in the 1984 cult classic. Yet, the whole movie is essentially centered on her, as Bastian reads the story of Atreyu’s quest to save Fantasia and its baby-faced ancient ruler.
But after The NeverEnding Story, the young girl who played the Childlike Empress virtually disappeared. While other kid actors of the 80s went on to be teen stars of the 90s and megastars of today, Tami Stronach retreated from the spotlight. At least, the spotlight most people were focused on.
“There’s that whole thing of, like, did you peak at 10?” Stronach mused via Zoom from Scotland, where she's currently shooting. “But that's so silly. What is ‘peaking’? Is something that you do [later] that is really meaningful and artistically fulfilling for you but only 500 people see it any less valuable?”
Here, Stronach opens up to VICE about her iconic role, the creepy aftermath of her childhood fame, and how she’s playing an integral role in children’s fantasy films once again.
Growing up in Iran
Stronach’s early life sounds like something out of a novel. Her Scottish dad and Israeli mom met in Iran after her dad won the lottery in Scotland and used his winnings to move to Tehran and become an archaeologist there. They married after a whirlwind 48-hour romance, and Stronach arrived soon after in 1972. She spent her early years speaking both English and Persian, watching archaeologists scrub bones with toothbrushes and expats swan about the city.
“It was a very, very cosmopolitan place,” she said. “[Archaeologist] Max Mallowan was Agatha Christie's husband, so she was there writing her novels. And there were all these different diplomats coming in and out and young people with guitars by the pool and philosophy students. It was wonderful.”
During the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Israeli government evacuated Jewish residents, and Stronach and her family hopped on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv where they briefly moved in with her maternal grandparents.
“We were without a home and without any idea of what we were going to do in the world,” she said. “It was really challenging for my father to plant roots there, so then we went to England, and it was really challenging for my mother to plant roots there.”
Eventually, they settled on neutral territory: a faraway land called Berkeley.
Becoming ‘Moon Child’
Once Stronach arrived in California, where her dad had taken a professor role at UC Berkeley, the self-described “huge ham” immersed herself in musical theater classes at an acting school in San Francisco. And one fateful day, a casting agent for The NeverEnding Story came by to meet her teacher for lunch and happened to see Stronach performing.
Stronach jumped at the chance to go on her first actual audition and proudly arrived in full Piglet makeup from the play she was currently rehearsing. The significance of potentially joining the cast of the most expensive film ever made outside of the U.S. or Soviet Union at the time escaped her.
“I showed up at the audition with really heavy grease paint and big black lines on my face. Everybody else looked really polished,” she said. “I think I had an advantage in that I was just completely naive. I had no idea what I was auditioning for.”
Her cluelessness paid off. After several additional rounds of auditions sans pig makeup, Stronach beat out actresses including Poltergeist's Heather O'Rourke to win the role of the Childlike Empress. Soon, she and her mom were on a flight to Germany for what she now looks back on as “summer camp,” three months filming The NeverEnding Story in Bavaria.
“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.’”
For a month before actually shooting her scenes, Stronach worked with director Wolfgang Petersen and other creatives to perfect the look of her character. Then, being a child, she lost some of her teeth and they scrambled to create a set of dental implants for her to wear on camera.
“We shot in chronological order, and by the time I came back to do my second scene, my real teeth had grown in a lot,” she said. “So, Wolfgang was like, ‘Just don't smile. Just do little gummy smiles, a little lift of the lips.’ You can see in the second scene, my mouth significantly shrinks in size.”
Stronach’s onscreen tears were real, so distraught was she at the scripted end-of-the-world scenario her character faced. And while the Empress’ quasi-British accent is of indeterminate origin, that was just Stronach’s natural speaking voice at the time after having bounced between Iran, Israel, the U.K., and America.
“It was definitely weird because it didn't sound like my mom,” Stronach's now 10-year-old daughter, Maya, told VICE of watching The NeverEnding Story for the first time. “I was like, it looks like Mom and doesn’t sound like Mom. I was a bit confused at first, but I did really like it.”
Stronach celebrated her 11th birthday while filming, and busy schedules meant she and fellow child actors Noah Hathaway (who played Atreyu) and Barret Oliver (Bastian) didn't have much time to hang out apart from filming and promoting the project.
“We lived in the same hotel, and we’d go up and down the stairs and knock on each other’s doors,” she said. “I’d be like, ‘Hey, Barrett, whatcha doing?’ And he’d be like, ‘I’m playing with my army men.’ And I'd be like, ‘Alright, I'll see you later.’”
A budding pop star
Because the book version of The NeverEnding Story by Michael Ende was so beloved in Germany, the actors were sent on various German talk shows to hype the project during production. During one such appearance, the hosts asked Stronach if she’d learned any German while there: “I said, 'I don't know any German, but I know that song ‘99 Luftballons.’ So, being a ham, I sang it for them.”
The next day, a German music producer reached out offering her a record deal. But Stronach's mom was adamant that he’d have to work around their flight home, which was departing for California in three days.
“He's like, ‘Okay, I'll write the songs tonight. We’ll record them tomorrow. And then we’ll do a music video and one TV show,’” Stronach said. “We made that so fast. It was insane. And then literally that was it. We didn't change the ticket.”
The result is an LP of catchy pop songs and the above music video for “Fairy Queen,” a certified bop which samples some of The NeverEnding Story’s signature riffs and features Stronach jubilantly skipping around to 80s beats as she transforms a homeless person into a millionaire and a bird into a fish.
“I’m not Lolita”
It’s clear Stronach had the chops to be a star, but she wrestled with her love for performing and the invasive nature of fame at a young age. “I did not desperately want to be a star. I desperately wanted to act,” Stronach said. “Those are two different things.”
When Stronach returned to school that fall, her life went back to normal. And even after the film’s release the next summer, her routine didn’t change. In a pre-internet and social media world, Stronach’s only public exposure was her on-screen performance.
And yet, adult men managed to track down her address and camp outside her family’s house in Northern California hoping for a glimpse of her. One German man mailed her an engagement ring. Producers even showed up at her front door offering her a nude film.”They came to our house and pitched it, and I'm like, I'm not doing a nude film,” Stronach said. “I’m not Lolita.”
Her parents, being completely removed from the industry, weren’t up to the task of helping her navigate the world of showbiz and made the decision to stop pursuing her professional acting career.
“The bottom line is my parents just weren’t equipped to be managers. We weren’t in it for the money, and we certainly weren’t in it for the fame,” Stronach said. “I think if I had moved to LA 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.”
Decades later, Stronach interviewed Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown at a fan convention and marveled at how the young actor handled her success—and the creepy encounters that came with it.
“Somebody jumped up in the middle of the convention and ran to the stage and gave her a wedding ring. And she was so much cooler than I was at 10. She just was like, ‘Well, thanks.’ And that was it,” Stronach said.
“When [I got sent a 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. 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.”
Instead, Stronach packed away her NeverEnding Story role and never brought it up as she navigated her teen years and transitioned into adulthood.
“I didn't really talk about it,” she said, “and it just kind of melted away.”
Making her own way
After high school, Stronach decided to move to New York to become a professional dancer, which she saw as a way to perform without the pressures of stardom.
“I didn't put The NeverEnding Story on my resume,” she said. “For me, it was like, I was a dancer, it didn't seem relevant, it was a different category.”
She spent the next two decades dancing and doing live theater in New York. She became the director of her own company, served as a professor of dance at Marymount Manhattan College, and also teaches yoga.
“There was this really important notion of defining for myself what value is, defining for myself what artistic success is, and defining for myself what kind of stories I want to tell,” she said. “I was constantly doing plays in New York, so I didn't actually stop acting. I just moved to theater.”
Man & Witch
After swearing she’d never date an artist, she met her now-husband, actor and writer Greg Steinbruner, through the theater. And following the birth of their daughter, Maya Steinbruner, in 2011, Stronach looked for a way to bridge her creative pursuits with motherhood.
“We live in a society that often asks professional women to pretend like they’re not parents. I think it's so painful and so cruel,” she said. “I wanted to say: I am a mom, and I’m a mom who works and has a brain and can use being a mom to make my work better.”
Inspired by actors turned producers, like Reese Witherspoon and Robin Wright, Stronach and Steinbruner decided to launch The Paper Canoe Company, a child content company dedicated to children’s theater, film, and education.
“I think feminism is constantly evolving, and nobody really has it figured out,” she said. “But it did feel significant to me to take a stand and say, ‘I’m making being a mom an important part of the kinds of stories I make.’”
When Stranger Things ended its third season with a sing-along tribute to The NeverEnding Story, Stronach realized there was still so much love for the film and vintage fantasy stories, in general. So, she and and Steinbruner threw themselves full force into creating a new 80s-esque fantasy film called Man & Witch, starring and choreographed by Stronach, written by and co-starring Steinbruner, and featuring an additional cast of beloved actors including Christopher Lloyd, Sean Astin, and Rhea Perlman. The Jim Henson Creature Shop is providing puppets for the talking animal characters, and Stronach's daughter Maya also has a role in the film. (Stronach said she'd be “thrilled” if Maya wants to keep acting.)
“It’s a modern film in the sense that we're not trying to make it look like an 80s film. It’s not going to be grainy and on VHS. It’s really more about the storytelling devices,” she said. “It’s not cynical. It’s a heartwarming story.”
In an update from many vintage fantasy films, Man & Witch (currently filming in Scotland) also hopes to “celebrate complex, middle aged women” and show that “love is not just for the beautiful and the young and the straight,” she said. “We’re also dealing with some of the ways in which those early movies were a little bit sexist, and giving a bit of a modern twist.”
It's a full-circle journey for the now 48-year-old Stronach, who landed the role of a lifetime at age 10 but then chartered her own quest for happiness and success separate from her origin story. She and her family still live in New York, and, when not in the throes of a pandemic, she often meets up with her old co-star Hathaway on the convention circuit to interact with fans and reminisce about that fateful summer shooting The NeverEnding Story.
“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,” Stronach said. “I had to navigate this alternate path, and I just feel so lucky.”
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