Interview: Cynthia Rothrock

Posted in Interviews by - April 30, 2012
Interview: Cynthia Rothrock

The original ‘blonde fury’ talks about motherhood, martial arts and returning to the movies after an absence of seven years.

After a break of seven years, Cynthia Rothrock is planning her comeback. With a movie in development and two more scheduled for 2012, martial art cinema’s leading femme fatale looks set to resume her head-kicking duties. Now 54, Rothrock has settled into a role of simple, if hectic, Californian domesticity, voluntarily entering a state of semi-retirement to single-handedly raise her daughter and run her own martial arts seminars. “I juggle a lot,” she tells me over email. “Single Mom, movies, seminars, travel, photographer, teacher, [and] I have three dogs and one cat.” Her daughter, Skyler, is already showing promise on the stage, spotted by an agent who was sitting in the audience at her school’s talent show. “Her dream right now is to be on Broadway. She wants to move to New York and go to Julliard,” she says. “We’ll see what happens as time goes on… I feel she is only 12 and there is a lot of time for that.”

Rothrock’s move to motherhood prompted a rekindling in her passion for teaching. As a martial arts coach she is in demand across the globe, offering weapons, fitness and forms training, as well as advice on getting into the movie industry. Her travelling seminars are in many ways a return to her roots – she once ran two schools in her home town of Pennsylvania, and opened another when relocating to California in the 1980s. “My students range from five to 60, all shapes and sizes,” she says.

This may all seem like a world away from her former life as the western actor who, in the space of only three years, stormed the Hong Kong action movie industry with memorable roles in Yes, Madam! (alongside fellow debuting starlet Michelle Yeoh), Righting Wrongs and The Blonde Fury. She fought Sammo Hung in his all star runaway train movie Millionaire’s Express (1986), and befriended Australian fighter Richard Norton on the set of action caper Magic Crystal (1986), which sparked a fruitful onscreen marriage which would see the two performers appear in nine films together, both in Asia and America. A British magazine nicknamed them the “Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire of martial arts films.”

Rothrock’s popularity was such that when British stuntwoman Sophia Crawford tried to break into the Hong Kong film industry, she was told to ‘perform more like Cynthia Rothrock’. Actor Cynthia Khan was given her stage name as a ploy by marketers to cash in on the Rothrock bandwagon. Even the Sonya Blade character from the original Mortal Kombat arcade game was based on a look-alike of Cynthia Rothrock.

Unsurprisingly, Rothrock’s background was more physical than theatrical. Born in Wilmington, Delaware, she was a forms and weapons champion training across the east coat of America in the systems of Korean Tang Soo Do and Chinese Pai Lum kung fu before deciding to open her own schools. Clocking up a number of black belts (six so far) and prestigious titles along the way, a lack of women’s divisions meant that Rothrock was often forced to compete in the same categories as men. “My parents wanted me to stop,” she says. “The training was really hard back then. I remember going for my black belt and three Korean masters came in for two weeks to work with us. They said we didn’t know how to fight and beat the heck out of us. I would go home every night sore and bruised. From that time on I was never afraid to fight another woman again, because I felt no one would hit me as hard as they did.”

When discussing Rothrock’s achievements, the topic of gender is almost unavoidable, especially considering her achievements in a predominantly male-dominated sporting arena and movie industry. She calls the idea of martial arts being male-dominated a “fallacy”, something which is further validated by her gender-smashing movie roles, particularly in her Hong Kong work, which favoured skill over sex and helped to champion not only Rothrock but many of her contemporaries – Yukari Oshima, Moon Lee, Michelle Yeoh – as more than equal to their male counterparts.

This gender balance translated both on and off the screen, with Rothrock expected to do all of her own hair-raising stunts. “I jumped off a 30ft building, with a fire explosion behind me, in heels, with a fake baby in my arms, jumping to a mattress with boxes on it,” she said, recalling a scene from Righting Wrongs. “[Corey] Yuen Kwai says jump on action or you will get burned. I was so nervous – 30ft looks different looking up and saying, ‘yeah, I can do that,’ but when you get to the top and look down it is quite a different perspective. I did it and landed hitting my knee on my nose. My nose got big and Yuen Kwai said it looked better than before, but there was something wrong with the film and I had to do it again! That night I felt like I was going to pass out. They took me to a doctor who said, ‘your insides are all jumbled’. What the heck does that mean?”

Rothrock landed an audition with Hong Kong producers thanks to her connection with Ernie Reyes Snr. While working as part of Reyes’ West Coast demonstration team, Hong Kong movie scouts were originally looking for a Caucasian version of Bruce Lee for an upcoming movie, but on the back of Rothrock’s weaponry, sparring and self defence skills, they decided to change the character’s gender. Yes, Madam! (1985) would also star another girl in her debut starring role: Michelle Yeoh. “I went over there not knowing anyone or knowing what the movie was about. I thought it was going to be a period picture and I would be in a Chinese dress with long black braids. I was surprised I was playing a cop from England.”

“The first night I did a fight scene (the airport scene) and worked really hard and did all they wanted. I earned their respect and was treated with respect as well. I didn’t know the language and hardly anyone spoke English. I later started to learn the language and developed my own language of expressions and hand movements… Yuen Kwai would ask me to translate for all the foreign actors that worked on the film.”

Rothrock and Yeoh became close friends on the set, and during her three year stint in Hong Kong, Rothrock would end up fighting alongside some of the industry’s greatest names in some of their greatest movies. Like Sammo Hung. “Sammo is a genius and at first I was afraid to fight him because of his size, but as powerful as he was he was very smooth to work with and never hurt me.” And the great Yuen Biao. “He was my favourite to work with,” she says. “Our fighting skills matched and our timing was the same so it was a breeze to fight with him.”

Scheduling conflicts were to blame for her absence from the film Armour of God, which would have seen Rothrock fight alongside her idol, Jackie Chan. “My first influence was Jackie Chan,” she said. “I was studying with Master Shum Leong in New York City and would go to Chinatown after class. Here I would see Jackie doing all these amazing moves in the movies. My favourite was Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, and I would go home and try and practice what I saw.”

After leaving Hong Kong to pursue a career in Hollywood, Rothrock starred in a succession of films which would earn her the moniker of ‘Queen of the B Movies’ – formulaic, cheap yet endearingly undemanding fare like the China O’Brien and Rage & Honor films (both co-starring Richard Norton and both huge video successes). Despite notable TV appearances in ‘Hercules’ and ‘Dukes of Hazzards’, the closest Rothrock came to mainstream movie attention was upon her return from Hong Kong in the late 1980s and a proposed action movie project alongside Sylvester Stallone to be called The Executioner. The film was shelved after Stallone’s decision to concentrate more on comedic fare.

She considers her best American films to be Sworn to Justice (1996), Outside the Law (2002) and Sci-Fighter (2004), although she freely admits her English language films have never come close to replicating the sheer excitement and entertainment value of her Hong Kong work.

“I always thought it was a great movement [but] I didn’t know any better. It was the time that action pictures were very popular and I had a lot of work… I was respected for being a woman that could fight hard and take a lot of hits, and do some outrageous stunts.”

It may be seen as something of a cruel irony that Rothrock should start her action movie career at the same time as Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh would later be nominated for a BAFTA for her role in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, while Rothrock’s career has enjoyed an altogether different trajectory. But despite the lack of acting accolades, she has no regrets. “Many people said if I stayed in Hong Kong I would have been in bigger films like Michelle. The truth is I missed home and I couldn’t wait to get back to my family and friends. I do miss doing Hong Kong movies, though. In my mind they are the best ones I have done as far as fighting goes.”

But with scheduled movie projects and an autobiography in the pipeline (“it’s more of a comedy of all the crazy stuff that has happened”), there is still time for the aptly named Queen of Martial Arts Movies to reclaim her throne.

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Originally commissioned for Martial Edge. Interview conducted in August 2011 and updated by the author March 2012.

This post was written by
Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a laptop in London, UK.

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