Yes! Cynthia Rothrock is back in full-swing, energetic, adventurous and ever-smiling, having distinguished herself as the queen of martial arts movies and starring in 45 martial arts/action movies over the past three decades!
The star of such films as China O’Brien, Undefeatable and Martial Law, the ageless forms champion is now a 7th Dan in her native discipline (Tang Soo Do), a mother and now spends her time in endless world travels, giving seminars, making movies, teaching workshops… the list goes on!
I caught up with her recently and found this remarkable talent, with all her star power, alive and kicking just as ever before!
Hi Cynthia! We’re really pleased and honoured to have this opportunity to interview the legendary queen of martial arts cinema herself!
Hi Raj, well, I’m glad we got it together!
Let’s kick-off (mind the pun!) by asking how you actually got into martial arts in the first place and at what age? Vital stats and so on.
Well, I’m 5ft 3, (1.53m) 114lbs (55 kg) It’s funny someone just said they read somewhere that I was the most dangerous person 5 foot 3 and under, really amusing!
Well, one of my friend’s parents were actually setting Tang Soo Do classes up and they owned a fitness centre. On Sunday’s the fitness centre was closed so they would come in and clean the studio. On one of those days, as a thirteen year old, I happened to be there with my friend and actually got to try out a little Tang Soo Do! I was really impressed by it, I thought, ‘wow, that’s something I want to do!’ and my mom signed me up to some classes!
So, before that weren’t you doing some kind of sport anyway?
No, not at all, that was my first. Even at high school it was the only sport I ever did.
So who else influenced you when you were getting more exposed to the martial culture and perhaps movies in those formative years?
I kind of grew up with Jackie Chan and I have to say that he was a big influence in my life. Bruce Lee was a little bit before my time but I would say Jackie Chan. When I used to train with Shum Leung in New York City, after class we would always go to China Town and watch movies and that’s when I was first introduced to Jackie Chan and I just went crazy watching his movies. I just loved the way he could take anything, even a domestic item and use it for self-defence, so I would always come home and copy his moves!
Which of his movies impressed you the most?
It would have to be Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, I remember that well and Drunken Master! Those are the two that come to mind where I was just amazed at his talent.
So aside from Jackie Chan, who were the most influential mentors or teachers that left their mark on you?
I would have to say my first formal teacher Frank Trojanowitz because that (Tang Soo Do) was the first style that I took. You know being a young girl at that time there weren’t that many women in the class and I felt pretty intimidated, I felt that I couldn’t shout, I couldn’t punch hard. When we were learning forms I couldn’t make this or that turn and so I was ready to quit and my mom said, ‘I signed you up for four months, you have to stay!’ Then one day Frank gave a speech. I thought he was directing it at me and it was basically ‘if you don’t practice this you’re never going to get good, and there’s nothing great about a quitter, you just quit everything in your life’, so that speech actually kind of made me start training seriously again and I started thinking ‘this isn’t as hard as I thought!’.
Then, when I was an orange belt, which was my first belt in Tang Soo Do I entered a forms competition and it was black belt and under. It was just women. They didn’t even have it divided into ranks and I took second place, beating many black-belt women and at that point I got all excited and thought ‘wow, I could be a black belt in competition and I’ve only been studying five and a half months, maybe I could excel in this sport!’ So that fuelled my fire more to train hard. I have to say that the second biggest impact was training with Roger Tung because he did wu shu. When I first saw that, I flipped out! I loved it! I said I want to learn how to do that. Then he brought me to China to study. So he was like the second big influence going from Tang Soo Do into wu shu.
Great experience! Now tell us about your daughter, Sky, did she follow in her martially adept mother’s footsteps, how did it go in the early days, getting her started in the arts?
It’s been an interesting, interesting road! Basically when she was five I started teaching her and it was very hard for me because I was never looked on as the instructor, I was mom! I would find myself getting frustrated with her, more frustrated than if it was someone I didn’t know and I thought, ‘OK, I can’t do this, I need to get someone else’, and I had someone else train her. So she trained for about a year and made her first belt and then she lost interest. I didn’t want to be the kind of mom that would force her. She wanted to dance and sing and that’s where her talent was and I told her that, then she’d go, “I’m not you!”, and I’d say, “of course you’re not me, you’re you!” I said, ‘if anything, I do want you to learn self defence.’ Right now she’s heavily into dancing, so instead of like traditionally teaching her I’ll just throw things at her and say what do you do here? I find that as she’s getting older, she’s picking it up!
Turning our attention to movies now, can you tell us a bit about which actors in the arts you’ve most enjoyed working with?
I’d say as far as actors go probably Richard Norton because we’ve done so many films, about nine together. Whether we’re fighting against each other or not, we’ll have some really good strong, hard-hitting fight scenes -and he can be a real character- so I know we’ll always have a lot of laughs on the set! .
Colourful person I bet, he certainly comes across that way! Cynthia, you mentioned many years ago that one of the most talented martial arts players you’ve ever worked with was Yuen Biao, do you still view him as being one of the best?
Yes I still do! Out of anybody I’ve fought, I think we had the best fight scenes together. When I did Above The Law, I blew up my anterior cruciate ligament right before we were going to shoot so I could not do any kicks on my right leg. I had to reverse every fight scene so that I was working on my left side. I found that our timing was so close to each other’s that it was quite easy to do, we didn’t have to do as many takes and we could do all these complicated moves. Other than having a good fight chemistry together, I saw him do stunts that were incredible, like doing a flip and landing on a rocking chair. The guy was phenomenal as far as stunts and what he could do. Still holds true!
So Richard Norton, Yuen Biao and, who else would you say, you’ve really been impressed by?
Well recently I fought with Don Wilson as I was doing a film with him and that was a lot of fun. I also liked working with Kevin Sorbo, and Hwang Jang Lee!
Awesome! What’s Hwang Jang Lee doing these days?
Actually he’s still doing movies! I went over to Korea and they were testing me for my seventh dan and who was there on the board, none other than Hwang Jang Lee! I was like, ‘Oh my God!, I thought he was only Tae Kwon Do, I never knew he was Tang Soo Do and he’s like, ‘No no, I’ve always been Tang Soo Do!’ Then I had an event in Pennsylvania and he came to it with about seven other Korean masters, he said he’s working on projects again. So, you never know, you might see us doing another film together!
That would be incredible! You starred with him in No Retreat, No Surrender 2, Raging Thunder…
Yes, also in Millionaires Express.
I know he’s extremely experienced after so many years, what’s his level?
He’s definitely over 7th dan because he was there testing me so he’s really high up there.
Total legend! Now for off-screen fighters Cynthia, we talked about the on screen ones, who would you say is most notable off-screen?
Cung Le! I saw him fight a few times and I was really impressed. I saw Oliver Gruner fight recently and I was impressed that he could get in the ring and mix it up pretty well! I saw a fight with him in Russia, I don’t go to a lot of live fights, so I don’t know all the details, but they sure were impressive!
Reflecting back to your first role of course with Michelle (Yeoh) in Yes Madam (1985) if we may…?
Ah yes, my first picture – I had no idea what was going on! It took a long seven and a half months to shoot and you know Michelle and I were really good friends, we hung-out together, and the movie was phenomenal! In listing my own top three that would be one of them. It’s funny when you look at it, we shot that in 1985, a long time ago, but the fight scenes still hold up today. It’s not a film that makes you go, ‘oh wow that’s so old!’. You could still watch it today and go ‘wow!’
What was your most memorable on-screen duel?
Oh gosh! Let’s see…I would have to say it was in a movie that I did in Hong Kong, called Lady Reporter with a Thai Boxer. That was probably the toughest fight that I’ve ever done because he was so strong and so hard that when we first started the fight scene it would hurt my shins and my forms so they made me metal guards to put on my legs and my hands and then we fought and it hurt him, so they made him metal guards and we fought metal against metal and it was funny every time we fought you’d hear ‘clink, clink, clink’! It was such a strong, tough fight and another reason was that I wore a dress in the ending so I had nothing to hide my legs and there were scenes where he would just kick my shins and knock me down you know! I just remember dreading that because I don’t like to get kicked in the shins! That was probably the most memorable duel!
When it comes to women I really haven’t had a whole lot of fight scenes but if I was to name a significant one, it would have to be the one I did with Karen Sheppard in Above The Law.
She’s trained in Al Dacascos’ Wun Hop Kuen Do, isn’t she?
You can read part two of our exclusive interview here!