Kungfu's Screen Queen - Cynthia Rothrock
by Marian K. Castinado
- any Sunday afternoon after martial arts class. Scranton, Pennsylvania, a few years back. A girl sits in a Chinatown movie theater watching a Jackie Chan film. As the martial arts maestro combines kungfu with Buster Keaton-like physicality, Cynthia Rothrock studies the moves, wondering what it would be like to take her style to the screen. So what if she is female, American, blonde? After all, the martial arts teach you to face up to challenges - challenges that began when she faced taunts of "How can you do martial arts?" as the only female in her class, and continued through a competitive career that set a record-breaking five years as top forms and weapons competitor...
"I was not going to let someone talk me into the idea that you can't win because you are a woman," says Rothrock. "I just tried harder and harder and did not give up. That is an attitude that martial arts has given me. When I started martial arts, I was ready to quit. I was a kid. It was tough and I felt uncoordinated because I was not practicing - when I put my mind to it, I became good and my whole life evolved from it.
"Ever since I have been opening doors, like I was the first woman ever on the cover of one of the national magazines. In 1982 I was number one in weapons - and that was against all the men, because then they did not divide them into men's and women's divisions. It was hard for a woman to win. You had to just be so amazing that all the judges would like you."
She was, and competing against the guys became a specialty. When an audition was held in Los Angeles for a male martial artist, Rothrock accompanied the men from her demonstration team. After the producers recognized her from the competition circuit, they let her try out.
"They said to do some forms. I did some forms. They said do weapons. I did some weapons. They said fight. I fought. Self-defense. I did that. They said, "Well, we are going to sign her up instead of a male," Rothrock remembers.
"I always said I would love to do a Chinese movie. It was just an idea, not something that I really thought I would pursue. My main goal was to be number one [in competition] for five years. When I did my first movie it was during my fifth year. It was not really on my mind to be a movie star. It was just an adventure. I did a movie, I had my picture on a poster - something to show my kids. After my second movie I realized I wanted to do it as a career."
Yet in spite of successful films in Hong Kong and in the United States, Rothrock continues to face those challenges. "I still get that to this day," she exclaims. "A female action star? No, we'd rather go with a man. Women action pictures don't sell. Sometimes it drives me crazy because I feel I am as good and more versatile. I feel that if I had a studio picture behind me then I would really do well."
Asked what quality makes her appealing to audiences, she responds, "I don't know. I'm just very thankful that I have it, because it is something that you can't learn - some sort of charisma. People either like you or they don't, because I have seen phenomenal martial artists that just do not do well in films."
Cynthia Rothrock, clearly, is not one of those martial artists. She continues to appeal to a growing, wider audience - and to play increasingly varied roles. In her next film, entitled Blonde Justice, Rothrock plays a woman shot in an assault in which her sister and nephew are killed. Upon waking in the hospital she has partial amnesia, and can't remember who the attackers were. She learns that she was a martial artist, and she becomes a vigilante, going into the seedy parts of town and fighting drug dealers and murderers, because each time she fights she has a clearer image of the attacker. Though not billed as a kungfu movie, Rothrock's fighting skills will be on display in Blonde Justice. More important to her, it's a chance to put her acting skills on display as well.
"It's a good story; that is what attracted me to it," she says. "The character is a lawyer, so it is a more intelligent and mature role for me compared to what I have done in the past."
Though Rothrock promises that she isn't moving away from martial arts movies, she is also excited about a project called Dead Man's Curve, a non-action picture, commenting, "It is a little scary [to try a non-action role] but I am really eager to do it. Some of the distributors said they might put some fight scenes in it, but the director doesn't want to make it an action picture. He feels it is a crossover film for me and that I can handle this acting. I felt really good that he had so much confidence in me. I'm going to put a lot of time and study into it, because if I fail then it will be like going back to action pictures for the rest of my life, wheras if I do well, people will say, 'yes, she can act.'"
Don't worry that you'll never see Rothrock throw a flying kick again, though. She is quick to add that "I love doing action pictures and that is where my strong point is. A lot of martial arts actors try to turn into actors because it's easier and you don't get hurt, but I know that martial arts is what the audience likes. Of course I'm going to get people [seeing my non-action films] who say, 'No, I want to see you fight,' but my fingers are crossed that they will like it and can enjoy me as an actress."
Passing the Dream On
Yet as Rothrock begins to try her hand at non-action films, martial arts are more a part of her personal life than ever before. After conducting seminars recently, Rothrock "realized that I really missed teaching," and began taking on private students. And while the film career takes up the majority of her time, she is clear that opening a school is "a dream that I have," she says. "If I had someone who could teach and I could trust them to run the school while I was involved with doing films, I would. I would like to keep it small - just open up one school, maybe in Santa Monica [California]. It takes so much tome to have quality instructors who will teach everything the way you want."
Rothrock's face became more animated as she adds, "I just really love seeing people progress and getting stronger and being able to defend themselves, especially children - watching their confidence grow."
Rothrock has confidence to spare, a trait that she can pass on as she trains competitors. Her abilities have always been admired - to the extent that while undefeated in forms and weapons from 1981 through 1985, imitation became the most annoying form of flattery: "I would put on my uniform and everybody's uniform would look like mine. I had to stay on top, I had to keep thinking of new movements. Then it got to the point after a couple years where everybody was just out to beat me. I trained fanatically when I was competing. If I went anywhere, I would go to a school and study with the instructors. I would never go shopping or sightseeing. Then, when I retired from competition, I did everything that I had not done for all that time. But I think if you want to be a champion, then you have to put one hundred percent into it. It was never big money, but in the end it paid off because I have gone into the film industry."
Chinese Style's Advantages
Rothrock holds five black belts; however, the Chinese arts have always held a certain fascination for her. Following her first belt, in tang soo do, she was introduced to Northern Shaolin kungfu. Then, after watching an eagle claw student executing a double spear form, Rothrock "just went crazy. I said I wanted to learn that style. I sought the teacher out and he lived in New York City. I traveled every Sunday, two and a half hours on the train and two and a half hours back." She was later introduced to wushu and moved to California to further her training, as well as taking a six week sojourn to China to study the high flying art. In the interim she earned her second degree black belt in tae kwon do from Ernie Reyes. Over her twenty years in the martial arts, she has also trained in tai chi in Taiwan, and studied a bit of Japanese karate.
And with three years of her life - 1985 to 1988 - spent in Hong Kong, one can only imagine the incredible exposure Rothrock must have had to the Chinese martial arts...
"Actually no," she says. "It was really funny. When I went over there, I thought it was going to be 'kungfu city.' [I thought] I'd see all these teachers and get all these weapons and uniforms, but it was not like that at all. Actually, more tae kwon do was taught. I was surprised. There were some teachers there; nobody was really comparable to the instructors I had. I studied bagua in a park there and that was it. I couldn't find wushu; I could not find Northern Shaolin. I am sure they had it, but if they had it, it was underground. It was not easily accessible."
But it wasn't only the martial arts that Rothrock missed.
"I got homesick a lot," she admits. "Hong Kong is such a busy, hectic city. I would come back home [to the United States] where I could sit in my car and put the radio on and drive where I could see trees. I would go to the supermarket where I could see a whole aisle of cereal boxes where you have maybe ten brands to pick from. There were just a lot of things I missed."
Wanting to broaden her appeal to the U.S. film market - and perhaps enticed by the choice of corn flakes or Wheaties with her American breakfast - Rothrock returned to the United States, but she continues to praise and practice the Chinese styles. Having first become involved in a Chinese style when she started dating a Chinese stylist, she found the Chinese forms "a lot more advanced than the karate forms - a little bit more complicated and challenging.
"I think all martial arts styles are good; it is an individual preference as to what you want to do and what your body is capable of doing - I was very flexible. I liked moving fast and fluidly. That is what the kungfu styles offered. I used to have a school that taught karate and kungfu - a partner handled the karate. I would try to put most of the women into the kungfu because I felt it was a little better style for self-defense. I'm not saying that karate is not effective for the streets, but you have different choices [in the Chinese styles]. You are not just doing a knifehand strike or a fist; you can also do claws and other techniques - there are just so many techniques that seem a lot easier than punching someone in the face. Maybe instead of blocking force with force [women] would be better off using evasive techniques where they could get out of the way of the attack and then counter."
Asked if the Chinese style will be emphasized in Blond Justice, Rothrock explains, "I think so, because that is how I move, but I never do a film saying 'I'm going to do karate' or 'I'm going to do kungfu.' I just do the moves that fit the situation the best." Though she works with the fight choreographer, Rothrock doesn't attempt to choreograph her own films, noting that "some people will try to do it, but they repeat the same moves in all their films. I try to be versatile and do all different things."
Back to Beginnings
"I am very physical," Rothrock states - a fact that is clear after watching her execute even a few simple moves. "Every day I work out and try to do as much as I can. When I get to a point where my body can't be jumping and kicking, then I'll go more into the tai chi. When I was in Taiwan my teacher was in his seventies and he ran over to a tree and put his leg up on it and said, 'Can you do that?' He is just so limber. If he told me he was forty-five I would have believed him. So that is something you aspire to. That's why I think I was good as a martial art teacher, because I totally believe that everyone should know some self-defense. It is like a double bonus: At the same time you are learning defense you are getting your body in excellent shape. A lot of times people think, 'I am too old to do that,' but it's a mental thing, because I see these really old people, Chinese people getting out there. It is all in your mind as to how healthy your body is.
"Society is so much more dangerous now, and people feel they have to learn something. My experience is that more people need to go into traditional martial arts. A lot of people are not learning the forms, the specific self-defense, or the meditation that is so great about the traditional martial arts."
Tradition's whole purpose is to create a sense of stability, and Rothrock clearly keeps a place in her heart for the traditional martial arts - forming a circle that will always lead back to her martial arts beginnings. Martial arts have "always been a love of mine and a passion ever since I was thirteen, and probably always will be," says Rothrock. "You start off and end up back where you began. It's true. That's how life works."
Written by Marian K. Castinado for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM