When it comes to women in action, the first name rolling from your lips should be Cynthia Rothrock. Before becoming an actress, she set the martial arts world on fire by becoming a five-time World Champion in forms and weapons from 1981 to 1985. Before a Women’s Division had been implemented, she would compete against men in forms and took first place four out of five times. Rothrock is a trailblazer, an inspiration, an unparalleled talent who is idolized the world over for her contributions to the martial arts community and her work in film. I had the opportunity to speak with her near the end of last year and she’s ready to continue to show everyone just why she’s earned the title Queen of Action.
Corey Danna: You were already a highly decorated martial artist before you decided to get into film, what was it about film that drove you to take that leap?
Cynthia Rothrock: Honestly, I think it was destiny. I was on the west coast demonstration team and at that time I was very concerned about being the forms champion five years in a row undefeated and to do it I had to compete at least thirty times a year. Right around my fourth year our team leader got a call from the editor of Inside Kung Fu letting him know there was a Hong Kong film company auditioning guys trying to find the new Bruce Lee. Our leader asked if he should bring the girls and the editor said it was fine but they really weren’t looking for girls. We all went down, I auditioned, did some form fighting, self defense, and weapons. Well, Corey Yuen was doing the casting and he chose me instead of the guys. I did my first film and thought it was going to be my only one, I never thought it would be a career or something I would keep doing. That first one ended up breaking all box office records in Hong Kong and immediately received another offer which turned into a three year deal with Golden Harvest. On my second movie, I was still competing and won my championship gold so after that I decided to concentrate on being in film.
CD: The Hong Kong film industry during that time period, the early 80’s through the early 90’s, was so amazing. They were doing things I had never seen before.
CR: Oh yeah! It was so exciting!
CD: Can you talk a bit about being a part of that?
CR: When I went over there, I had no idea of what to expect. I just figured they were going to dress me like a little Chinese girl in a dress. I even thought they were going to put a wig on me that had a ponytail with blades in them. I just figured that if I was going to Hong Kong I would be entering Hong’s Island. I had no idea I would end up playing a detective from England and my name would be Cindy. My first day I shot all night, I had never done that before. I couldn’t sleep the night before because I was nervous so it was rough. My first fight scene was at four o’clock in the morning and it was just crazy and insane! I was jumping off walls and doing stuff but I had a hard time at first trying to get down the rhythm jumping off a wall and then kicking. When I got it, everyone was excited, including myself, then I just felt really welcome. I think they were a little unsure of this American girl coming in until they saw me doing all this bizarre stuff. Once I gained their respect I had so much fun, even though I might kill myself. I did about seven films there and each time the choreography got more brilliant, got harder, and there were more injuries. When I look back, those really were the golden days. You just don’t see films like that anymore. Nowadays, with these huge $150 million dollar movies, they do stuff like we did but they’re using special effects. We were doing it for real on a shoestring budget. It was just an excellent era for filming action movies.
CD: When you did finally come to the States to make movies, did you have a difficult time adjusting to the different style of filming action?
CR: Oh yeah, I totally did! First of all, it was easy, I didn’t even have to have pads on for these fight scenes. I was getting asked to not hit the stuntmen so hard. In Hong Kong, Corey Yuen was always telling me to hit harder so I was just used to hitting hard. That was just their style and over here, we weren’t supposed to even touch anyone. Until this very day, I still love that type of fighting. There’s been a couple of times where I’ve had a choreographer from Hong Kong on my American movies like CHINA O’BRIAN and SWORN TO JUSTICE. I still want to do that type of action in my films. Since I would have to bring an entire team over, it makes it a bit more difficult. I don’t even know if they still have teams now that China has taken over and everything is different.
CD: I still try to follow the action film scene there and they do have some good ones but it’s just not the same.
CR: Yeah, there’s a good on here and there but at that time there was just so many great films. There were all these really cool companies and they were producing brilliant stuff.
CD: You seem to always work with the same group of performers and I love seeing you onscreen with people like Don Wilson, Yuen Biao, and Richard Norton. What do you feel was the key to your chemistry with those guys?
CR: To this day, I feel Yuen Biao was the best person I ever fought with. Our timing was almost exactly the same and our fighting styles matched so it was easy fighting with him. With Richard, he was one of the first people I met when I first went to Hong Kong and we bonded together. We were two people who didn’t speak Chinese so we hung out a lot. Even now, people know that if they pair us together they can make a bunch of money. We were paired together so much we just became really good friends. The same thing happened with Don Wilson, my next movie is going to be with Don so it’s like a good, winning combination, the buyers will want to buy the film, and I’m shooting with my friends so I know I’ll have a good time. When a director or producer knows everything will go smooth on set because everyone is having a good time, then they can relax and enjoy themselves too.
CD: You rose to fame during the VHS boom of the 80’s and one of the greatest time periods for film fans. Can you talk a bit about that rise and how the eventual crash of the industry affected you and your career?
CR: I was working a lot and I was going from film to film to film, and I loved every minute of it. Even if I wasn’t getting paid I would still have wanted to do it. It came to an end at a very interesting point because I had just had my daughter. I stop doing it for ten years, eh, more like thirteen years, but my main focus was being a mom. I did a couple of things here and there but I didn’t want to do anything where I would be gone for a long time or have to leave the country. The hard part for me was when my daughter turned fourteen and she didn’t want to hang with mom anymore, she was my world, so I decided I needed to get back to work. Now, the industry really only wants to make big action films and the time where I would go from movie to movie was long over. It was a little hard for me because there just weren’t that many action movies being made anymore so I started to teach and do seminars worldwide. About four years ago, different means of distribution became popular and they were bringing back action films. They could distribute themselves, sell them to Netflix, or RedBox, it wasn’t the main studio market anymore. When it ended, I adapted, I was a mom, I did a lot of trekking, like up Mount Everest (laughs).
CD: Now you’re involved with Traditionz Entertainment, can you talk a little about that?
CR: Since Don Wilson and I were good friends, James, his brother, and I became good friends as well. He came to me wanting to do a family, martial arts picture called THE MARTIAL ARTS KID. He wanted me to play a mom which was something new for me since I usually just do hard-assed action pictures. I told him I was on board. We all worked as a team to put the movie together and James had a line of t-shirts so we did some Cynthia Rothrock t-shirts which morphed into more movies, producing, so my friends became my family, and now we’re business partners. It all works because we have so much respect for one another with no issues of ego or negativity in any shape or form. It’s just this really great family-owned company, you could say.
CD: I’ve watched THE MARTIAL ARTS KID a few times now. The story is familiar but it still manages to be fresh, fun, and exciting. What for you was the actual selling point of the picture?
CR: I loved the fact I was playing a mom and my daughter was about the same age as the girl playing the part in the film. It also has a really good message for kids. Most of the movies I have done in the past never really had a message, they were just meant to be escapist fun. We wanted this movie to be inspiring so kids can walk away from it wanting to stand up for themselves. It’s become one of my favorite films for that reason alone. We also wanted to keep it very realistic. Some people come out and say it’s like THE KARATE KID and in a sense, it is but he doesn’t go on to win a world championship, he’s only a green belt. We wanted people to look at it and realize he’s only learned basic self defense moves and not going around defeating world champions with a broken leg or anything. We portray the martial arts realistically and most of the people in the movie are real martial arts masters. There were unscripted scenes in the movie with teachers actually teaching different skills and you usually don’t get to see that in film. We’re about ready to start shooting the sequel, THE MARTIAL ARTS KID 2: PAYBACK. This one is going to be a little bit more gritty, more fighting, and a little darker. It’s going to have a few more adult twists but we are keeping the same message for the kids. It doesn’t matter if you’re an adult or a child, you should learn self defense and not take being bullied.
CD: With this sequel, who can we expect to see back from the first film?
CR: Most of the main characters will be coming back but we will have to throw a few twists in there. A couple of the bad characters have turned good, we’ll have some new characters, and I’m supposed to fight Marcus Taylor (PAYING MR. MCGETTY) which is going to be great! He’s such a big guy, he’s really strong, and he fights hard so I’m really excited about that. I can’t give too much of the story away but you will see a lot of the characters.
CD: It was great to see all these amazing martial artists coming together in one film. One guy I’ve been a fan of for a long time who never seems to get his due is T.J. Storm and it was great to see him have such a prominent role.
CR: Rest assured, he will be back in the next one!
CD: You worked with James Lew to choreograph the fight scenes in the original. How did you go about setting them up to look realistic and still be exciting?
CR: First of all, we were a really small picture and didn’t have much time to put together the big fight scene for the finale, not the Don vs. T.J. fight, but up to there. We only had something like six hours to shoot it. We didn’t have the time to choreograph all the intricate stuff so we kept it pretty basic. It didn’t need to be all the crazy stuff, which I love to do, as long as the kicks and punches look real on film we went with it. I would have loved to have had a couple of more days for that fight to add a few more things but when you’re on a tiny budget you just have to roll with it. The next film though, we will have a little bit more time and money to do the type of fight scenes I like to do so there will be a bit more of it for that one.
CD: You were one of the first women who was labeled an action star and you broke down so many barriers, what in your career has been most rewarding and is there anything else you would like to accomplish?
CR: I would still like to be in an ‘A’ movie! I love all the pictures I’ve done but they were all small budget affairs but I would love to do something like KINGSMEN or a Spielberg picture. I had a couple of close calls. I had a contract with Sylvester Stallone to do a movie but it never went. Then there was Adi Shankar who wanted to put me in a female EXPENDABLES movie but that never went so I guess if I had to say what I would like next for my career, it would be that, and to be on the big screen.
CD: I’ve noticed that most of your films have never been brought over to digital or Blu-ray, do you know if there are any plans to do so?
CR: I don’t know! At one point I tried to buy the rights because most of those action scenes were so amazing and we never used CGI. It was all real and done in camera, we were really doing all of it. A lot of them were just buried but if you look on the internet there’s this little Hong Kong movie I did that has thirteen million views. I would love to reunite with Corey Yuen now and do a phenomenal action picture to bring back that style of fighting.
CD: Aside from THE MARTIAL ARTS KID sequel, can you talk a bit about your other projects you have in the pipeline?
CR: Yeah, I have a few projects coming up. One of them is a documentary of my life and we’re trying to get the financing for that. It’s the first time I’ve really produced anything on my own so everything will be my call. I have this vision and I don’t want it to be like a typical documentary. I want people to tell funny stories, embarrassing stories, and I want it to be motivational. I was one of the first women to do martial arts and I had to compete against the men. In 1982 I was this young girl winning the men’s weapons championship so I want it to inspire people as well. I want it to have some adventure and spirituality as well. I also have a Christian action picture we are trying to put together and I’m about to do one with Don Wilson and Art Camacho that’s a bit like TAKEN. There’s a lot of things coming in the near future.