KICKING BUTT AND TAKING NAMES
an interview with cynthia rothrock
(from the archives of Ziggy's Video Realm)
A five time undefeated World Karate Champion in both Forms and Weapons, Cynthia Rothrock had already firmly established herself as a formidable figure in the world of martial arts before turning her attention to the screen. Now she’s one of the world’s the most well-recognized female action stars, having earned her reputation both in Hong Kong and North American films. In this early 2004 interview, she talks about martial arts, her career, and the state of action on the screen.
Ziggy’s Video Realm reviewed more action films than any other genre, even beating out horror, much to my surprise. This interview with Cynthia Rothrock made a lot of fans very happy, and several of my colleagues jealous. I was very surprised to see Rothrock’s film resume come to a complete end after this interview was conducted (her final film was already in the can), especially since she stated flat out that she was "ready to kick butt again." [This commentary added September, 2011.]
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When you're done here, you can visit Cynthia Rothrock's official website at www.cynthiarothrock.org.
Ziggy: How did you become interested in the martial arts?
Cynthia Rothrock: My girlfriend’s parents were studying Tae Kwon Do. I would watch them practice and thought it would be something different to learn. I was quite young, so the idea of wearing a Karate uniform appealed to me. At first I didn’t like training. It seemed like the class was mostly all men, and I felt very uncoordinated at the movements. I decided to practice and started getting better. After four months of training, my instructor put me in a Women’s form competition. At that time, they were not divided by rank or age, so being a White Belt, I had to compete with Black Belts. I took second place, besting many Black Belts, so I thought I may be a natural at this sport. I started really liking martial arts at that point.
Ziggy: Aside from a career, of course, what do you feel that you have personally gained from your practice of the martial arts?
Cynthia Rothrock: I have gained confidence in myself and the strength to set a goal and strive for it without a negative attitude or a fear of failure.
Ziggy: You have mastered many different martial arts disciplines. Do you have a particular favorite, and if so, what makes it so?
Cynthia Rothrock: My favorite is the Northern Styles of Kung Fu. I like the long beautiful movements and intricate applications of movement. I also love the weaponry in the Northern Chinese systems.
Ziggy: Over the course of your career, you have held countless titles in both forms and weapons competition. Do you have a preference between the forms and the weapons competitions? Do you approach them differently, or the same?
Cynthia Rothrock: I love both form and weapons equally. I would approach the weapons with a little more caution because some of the ones I have learned were very hard to master. I once hit myself in the head with the double steel whips and had a lump on the side of my forehead the size of an egg. They were very challenging for me, and made me practice hard on a daily basis.
Ziggy: Of all of the weapons that you have used in competition, do you have a particular favorite, and if so, why?
Cynthia Rothrock: My favorite has always been the Double Hook Swords. I liked this weapon because it was very dangerous to perform. The hooks were very sharp at the ends. I would hook them together to form one weapon and spin them around my body, jump over them, and figure eight them. Every time I used them I hoped they would come apart. The fact that they are very rare and not too many people knew how to use them was also a factor in my love for them.
Ziggy: What is your greatest memory from martial arts competition?
Cynthia Rothrock: My greatest memory was winning the Number One title for Weapons Competitors back in 1982. I had to compete with the men, because there were not enough women to have their own division. It was very hard for a woman to win the overall points for the year defeating all the men. I had to work twice as hard to win. It was the first time in Karate Illustrated history a woman dominated the men’s division.
Ziggy: Both as a competitor and then as an actress, you’ve had the chance to work with so many other martial artists. Of all of those you have worked with, who do you feel has influenced you the most as a fighter, and how?
Cynthia Rothrock: I would have to say Richard Norton. We have done about eight films together. I loved working with Richard because I knew that the fight scenes would be great. He hit me hard, and I hit him back very hard. They were realistic. We did a movie, Lady Dragon, and the end fight scene was brutal. We were sore, hurt, and bruised all over, but we had a great time.
Ziggy: Excepting yourself from consideration, of all the martial artist/actors working today, who do you feel is the top true martial artist (or, if you prefer, the top few), and what makes them so?
Cynthia Rothrock: I always liked Jackie Chan. When I was a young girl, my Kung Fu teacher would take me to Chinatown in New York City and we would watch his movies. I would get so excited watching them and go home and try to do all the moves he did in the films. I think he is very versatile. I also feel Jet Li is an excellent martial artist. I have never met him, but from seeing his films, I can tell he is excellent in Wu Shu.
Ziggy: On a level of entertainment, as a member of the audience, who is your favorite to watch?
Cynthia Rothrock: Jackie Chan.
Ziggy: Who do you think has influenced you the most as an actress?
Cynthia Rothrock: I worked with Brad Dourif in a film of mine called Sworn to Justice. He was so good that he made my acting much better. They say the better your partner’s acting is, the better you will be. I later became friends with him, and he has helped me with some of my recent films. I respect his work and see all the hard work he puts into his roles.
Ziggy: What made you decide to make the leap from just competition and into acting?
Cynthia Rothrock: I was on the West Coast Demonstration Team out of Northern California . The team leader, Ernie Reyes, got a call from the then-editor of Inside Kung Fu magazine to bring his guys down to Los Angeles to try out for a role in a Hong Kong movie. They were looking for the next Bruce Lee. The girls on the team went, and they decided to use me instead of a guy. In June, 1985, I set off for Hong Kong to do my first film.
Ziggy: You were a megastar in Hong Kong even before your North American film career took off. What do you feel are the biggest differences between the two markets, first in the way the films are made, and second in the types of films being produced? Do you have a preference for either, and if so, why?
Cynthia Rothrock: I could write a book on the differences. But to make it short, in Hong Kong, we never had a script, and got the lines we were to say right before we were on camera. The action is much harder and more difficult in Hong Kong than anywhere else. The shooting days are longer. My first Hong Kong movie, Yes, Madam, took seven and a half months to shoot. My first American movie took three weeks. In Hong Kong, the director always says “hit harder”, and in America, they say “don’t hit so hard”.
Ziggy: You are one of the very few women working in a field that is rather thoroughly dominated by men. Have you ever found that this has been an obstacle to getting where you wanted to go, or has relatively sparse competition made opportunities easier to come by? And again, do you find there to be any difference in this respect between Hong Kong and North America ?
Cynthia Rothrock: It has not been an easy road for me being a woman. I was lucky that I was one of the few women to be a lead in action movies. If you think about it, mostly all the men martial artists turned actors have done “A” budget movies. I still have not. I think women are not dominant in the movie industry in general [compared] to men. I came up in a man’s world, and very slowly, it is starting to change, but I don’t think it will ever be equal.
Ziggy: Do you subscribe the to Jackie Chan philosophy of doing all of your own stunt work, or do you on occasion let someone else take the falls off of buildings and leaps from the explosions?
Cynthia Rothrock: Well, here’s a little secret: Jackie doesn’t do all of his own stunts. Granted, he does most of them, and some very dangerous ones. No one does, even if they claim to do it. I do all the martial arts moves and some very hairy stunts in Hong Kong, but you will find a few outrageous ones that were done with a Hong Kong stuntman. I have jumped off burning buildings in heels in Lady Reporter. And yes, I have been hurt quite a few times in Hong Kong, also.
Ziggy: What do you think are the essential elements to a good martial arts action sequence on film, and can you think of any examples of something that you feel really works and of something that didn’t?
Cynthia Rothrock: I think whatever action you do has to look realistic. If you are doing wire work, it shouldn’t look like you are on a wire. Sometimes, in a low budget film you do not have the stunt people like the Hong Kong guys to fight with. Many times they use anyone that is a martial artist in the city [where] the film is being shot. No matter how good you are, if your partner isn’t, you will not look good, either. An example would be Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 4; he isn’t a martial artist, but doubles and fighting Jet Li made him look great. I think some of the fights in Charlie’s Angels weren’t too realistic, but then the movie wasn’t suppose to be a great fighting one; more of a comedy.
Ziggy: What ’s the best filmed fight you’ve ever seen?
Cynthia Rothrock: I am biased. I like the fight scenes in Lady Reporter; the one on the ropes.
Ziggy: Over the past several years, there has been an increasing trend in action films toward creating tricked up fight sequences that rely heavily on wire work, camera cuts, post-production computer trickery, and changes in frame speed that either make the action unnaturally fast or really slow it down. How do you feel about this trend? Does it take away from the purity of unadulterated martial arts action?
Cynthia Rothrock: Living in Hong Kong for three years, I have seen a lot of wire work and loved it. When it was introduced to the US market, it was great at first, but then it was overkilled. It started to become boring, and you have seen it in every possible movie with action. I think since people are bored with it at the moment, regular good fighting will be dominant once again. It is a lot easier for someone to have a double and fly around than to do a perfect high jumping wheel kick. I think a bit of wire but a lot of good traditional fighting is a perfect combination.
Ziggy: How do you feel about the trend of filmmakers taking actors untrained in the martial arts and giving them crash courses in swordplay/kickboxing/what have you so that they can play action roles? Do you feel this is taking away opportunities for true martial arts champions and professionals such as yourself to get movies?
Cynthia Rothrock: Well, there is a positive and a negative to this. First of all, I would love to see a real martial artist act and do all their own fighting. Not all martial artists can do this. Just like some actors cannot fight, even though their stunt doubles are doing most of the work. You can tell that it isn’t them, and what they do do is very weak and doesn’t work. I think if a person looks right for the part and can act, the movie would be much better than having an actor do this type of film. If it is only a few movies, fine, but when you take someone that learns martial arts for six months and you put them into the lead in a really strong action picture, it becomes a joke, and I myself will pass on a flick like this.
Ziggy: From a behind the scenes perspective, of all of the films you ’ve worked on, which one was your favorite to make, and why?
Cynthia Rothrock: My favorite to make was Outside the Law. I felt the story was good and the character was not me, so I had to do some acting. I feel the fight scenes were rushed, and if we had more time and discussed how the fight scenes were shot, it would have been one of my best movies. I loved working with this group of people, and we shot it in Puerto Rico . I had a blast, and will always remember a lot of fond memories from that shoot.
Ziggy: Which was the most challenging, and why?
Cynthia Rothrock: Well, you can pick any Hong Kong movie. But if I had to pick, I would say Lady Reporter was the most challenging. The fight scenes were extremely difficult. Many fighters got hurt on the rope. I went home every day with rope burns. I had to jump off the building with a fake baby in my arms to a mattress with cardboard boxes on it. There was an explosion behind me, so if I didn’t jump the thiry feet or so on “action”, the flames would hit me. I fought a champion Thai boxer in that movie who hit so hard none of the Hong Kong stuntmen wanted to fight him. The scene where I was hanging out of the truck on the end was very challenging. Not only was a fan blowing a ton of dirt in my eyes, but I had to hang on with my calf out the window upside down. I was not strapped in; it was all on my own strength. The first fight scene in a basket was really dangerous, also. I was not strapped in there, either. I survived and loved every minute of it.
Ziggy: Is there anyone you haven ’t worked with or competed against yet whom you would like to?
Cynthia Rothrock: I would love to work with Jackie Chan or Jet Li, because I know the fighting would be amazing. I would love to work with Johnny Depp because he is cute, and I would love to work with Tim Burton because I think he is a brilliant film maker.
Ziggy: Who, in your estimation, would you consider to be the greatest action movie star of all time, and why?
Cynthia Rothrock: I would have to say Bruce Lee. He still portrays the power and charisma that no one has been able to duplicate after all these years.
Ziggy: Is there anyone working or competing today whom you see as having the potential to break out and be the next big thing in action movies?
Cynthia Rothrock: Yes; I have met a very talented man from Italy named Paolo Cangelosi who is one of the best martial artists I have ever seen. He has a presence that I think would explode on the big screen. Perhaps he will work in a film with me some day.
Ziggy: What’s next for Cynthia Rothrock?
Cynthia Rothrock: I took some time off to play mom for a while. My daughter is now four, and I’m ready to start kicking butt again. My last film, Sci-Fighter, with Don Wilson and Lorenzo Lamas, should be out this year. One thing I’m really excited about is the opening of my new school in Studio City, California. I have a partnership with United Studios of Self Defense. I can now do films and teach martial arts, which are two of the things I love to do most, other than being with my daughter, Skyler.
Ziggy: What was the worst movie you’ve ever seen (of any genre), and what made it so?
Cynthia Rothrock: Oh, I’ve seen a lot of bad ones. One that comes to mind was Dudley Do-Right. It was a bad script and bad acting.
Ziggy: Final question I always ask... What are your favorite movies?
Cynthia Rothrock: I just saw Last Samurai, and I loved it. I loved everything about it. It was the perfect package - perfectly cast, great acting, a brilliant script, great direction and camera work. Some of my other favorites are Moulin Rouge, Miracle on 34th Street, Young Frankenstein, American Wedding, Henry V with Kenneth Branagh, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
- Interview conducted by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2004
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