If you’ve know me for a while, you’re aware of my past in martial arts. When I was around 9 I think, my brother and I did karate nearly every day, even went to Karate Camp in the summertime. I didn’t take it super seriously at the time, it was just fun, and it came naturally to the both of us. We were talented enough that our Sensei at the time used the two of us to demonstrate control to the adult classes, by having us spin kick a cigarette out of his mouth without touching him. If we weren’t practicing martial arts, we watched cheesy 80s martial arts movies. They were the best.

 One weekend, we rented a movie called Tiger Claws, and I discovered Cynthia Rothrock. I’d seen her in some of pictures before (Black Belt Magazines were all over the house) so I recognized her as a legitimate champion competitor. Seeing her perform on film however blew my fragile little mind. The movie was typical of it’s time, cheesy dialogue (which we learned by heart, naturally) and corny characters, with a plot focused around getting these actions stars to fight. The techniques displayed in every fight scene was impressive, even if shot a bit clumsily, Cynthia was fantastic.

Granted, this movie is a poor example of Cynthia as an action star if we compare it to the Hong Kong films she also starred in. Have a look at this video, it’s a montage of some of her most impressive fight scenes across several films. If you appreciate this sort of thing even in the slightest way, you’ll see why she’s been referred to as the Queen of Martial Arts for this long. Oh and bonus fact: She was the inspiration for Mortal Kombat’s Sonia Blade. So yeah, little Sophie was definitely a fan.

I heard she was invited to Fantasia International Film Festival this year, and I was granted the opportunity to meet and interview one of my childhood heroes. I panicked for a few days leading up, but through some miracle managed to keep my shit mostly together once I met her. I was a bit shy, but I think (hope) it went ok haha! Cynthia was so lovely to meet. She seemed genuinely happy to be here and chatting openly, I am so grateful for the experience. So here it is, an interview with Cynthia Rothrock, from a total fangirl.

Sophie: I was looking at the more recent things you’ve been up to this week, and saw you just launched a Youtube channel. And you’ve been posting some sort of wildlife adventures or something?

Cynthia: Yes, actually, we’ve been working hard on this. My partner actually has the Martial Arts History Museum, he called me and said “You know, you need to do this! We can do this together and make a bit of money for the museum.” But it’s like a full time job! We’ve booth been putting videos up, and it’s kinda fun. We’re at the mark where there should be money coming in, but the process is slower than we were expecting. We met the requirements a while ago, and they still say “We’re looking at it.” Come on now *laughs* We thought it was gonna be like, 4000 hours of view time, 1000 subscribers, there ya go, boom!

You also have some more traditional videos there, like your early Self Defense demonstrations, do you think you’ll be making some new clips along those lines as well?

Ah well those, we put on early on just to get us started on content. I do plan on putting up a lot of training videos. I did post one like that recently, and it turned out to have done better than the others so far, so I gotta do more! But honestly, I’ve been traveling and eating and and I gained a few pounds *laughs* I don’t want to film before I lose a couple of pounds, you know, that silly thing about image!

(trying hard not to gush about how fantastic she looks)

But yes, there will be more of those videos.

You don’t seem to be vulnerable to injury, like most of us humans. I don’t know how you managed to survive all the action and stunts. How do you manage that?

Oh I’ve had injuries! About 30 years ago I blew out my Arterial Cruciate Ligament, and I never got it fixed because I didn’t want to take the time off from doing films. I was doing a jumping kick and when I came down I heard a sound from my knee. My orthopedic surgeon said I shouldn’t be able to even stand without my ACL. So they did tests on me, to study why I could do what I could without this ligament. They sewed these electrodes in my leg. They came back saying my hamstrings and my quads are so strong, they hold my knee in place. Every so often it goes out, that’s probably the worse injury I’ve had. I mean plus a broken finger, and a million bruises.

I’ve struggled with injury as well, do you have any exercises in particular, or routine that you do to help recover?

Oh yeah. Recently I was doing a photo shoot and had to do like 1000 kicks, and I pulled or tore my hamstring, I’m not sure. I heard it snap, and then 2 days later my whole thigh was black. I was going on a hiking trip to Maine the next day. I went to the doctor and they said to just take it easy. So I iced and heated it, prayed about it *laughs* telling myself it was sure to go away. They told me it would take months… like “don’t stretch it for a month.” I wen’t hiking anyways, I did what I could do, you know. It’s been a month and it’s still a little sore. I can still kick though, and I started doing a lot of Hot Yoga. I think what it is, and I might sound crazy, but it’s positive mentality. I tell myself it is better, it will get all the way better. And I know the difference between good pain and bad pain. If it was a bad pain, I stop, but if it’s just a little, I know my body so well, I know how far I can take it to make it better. I stretch all the time, that’s how my body has been able to take a lot of the physical abuse it has, because it stays conditioned for that.

My brother wanted me to ask this here, because when we were kids, we discovered you when we watched the film Tiger Claws, which you did with Jalal Merhi.

Oh wow yeah!

We wore that tape through *laughs* We were curious to know how you feel about the 80s in general, your experiences through them and how you were portrayed in these films, compared to the more contemporary ones.

Well first of all, I think it’s the golden age of film. Because they were done on low budgets, and it was pure fighting. You take a movie today, with any of the popular actors that are not action stars, and have them fight without any doubles, or CGI, it wouldn’t work. These movies worked back then. And I mean, we did these movies in like 3 weeks, you know? No rehearsals. So to me, it was the golden age of action pictures, it was real and authentic. Back then was a bad time for me though, women were not as uplifted in the roles, you know like in Tiger Claws, Jalal was #1 and I was #2.

Yeah there’s a bit of an outrage online about that *laughs*

That’s what I went through a lot, through my whole career. Even in martial arts. Today it’s getting better, but back then it was more the mindset that the girl can fight, but they guy still needed to come in and save the day. The movies where I was the lead though proved to be quite successful and even got sequels though. There was a lot of egos… guy egos.

Despite this, you still were a pioneer. I mean, you were the first woman to be featured on the cover of a martial arts magazine. This sort of thing really made you stand apart, you helped set a path for others to follow. Did that make you feel like maybe things were going to change if you continued to push for it?

I think so. One of the things I feel great about is that I have opened doors for women. When I was on the cover of Karate Illustrated, the head of the company said to the editor women and minorities don’t sell! But the editor fought to put me on and won, and it sold out. So they started putting women on. I was just recently on the cover of Black Belt Magazine, and they told me I was the first woman to be on the cover since 1992… So it’s still like that, sort of a man’s world. Movies are getting better , with female actions stars. I think because of the fact that Wonder Woman did so well. A lot of people are trying to do things with women, but sometimes they do things that don’t really work, and it knocks us back down several steps. They have to keep going up for everybody to keep doing it . A man can do a movie that’s a flop, and people don’t care as much. If woman does a flop, then the whole “women don’t sell well” comes back.

And I feel I brought a lot of women into martial arts. A lot of the women were dragged with their boyfriends to watch my movies, and they thought “Hmm, if she can do that, then so can I.” Countless women tell me they started studying martial arts because they saw my films. And men too! That made me feel good, because not only was I just entertainment, but I inspired them to start practicing as well. I think everybody should practice martial arts.

I think I took that for granted, growing up. I saw so many women feeling helpless or scared walking alone at night, I didn’t get it. I took for granted that I didn’t feel scared because I knew martial arts and was prepared to defend myself.  It’s great that you were able to inspire on a global scale. Was it ever daunting or scary at times, thinking about your influence?

No *laugh* I think because I don’t really see that. I just take each day as it comes, it’s just in my life you know? Maybe if I look back at things I might think, oh yeah that could have been daunting, but it doesn’t really enter my mind on the spot.

Fair enough *laughs* I guess when you’re in the eye of the storm, you’re not really as affected. When I heard you’d be here, I noticed you started acting again and did a couple of recent films, one of which was Mercenaries. I watched it because you were in it, but I was sad to see you weren’t starring in it. That made no sense.

That was a weird deal. I was on my way to Ohio at the time, I was the first action person, male or female, to get an award at the International Sports Festival, from Arnold Schwarzenegger. That was a big deal! I get off the plane and I get a call saying they wanted me to do this movie, I had to turn around and come back right away. Rebecca De Mornay was supposed to do the part, but she backed out at the last minute. Someone recommended me, and I really wanted to do it, but there was the award thing from Arnold! We talked back and forth and finally they said “We’ll send you the script. Do the award tomorrow, come back right after and you’re on set at 6am day after tomorrow.” I agreed, but they didn’t send me the script! I got it around 1am the night I got home, and I tried to read the lines before going to bed. I get on set at 6am and they say “No, we’re changing your part, this is who you’re playing now.” It was the weirdest experience for me ever. I didn’t have time to study it. They put that one little fight scene in with Vivica, just to put something in for me. It was really strange for me not to be part of the action. In my mind I was like “No, I should be the one doing it!” It wasn’t planned, it was just something that happened at the last minute.

I was doing an interview with someone after that, and they said they’d talked to the director. They asked him “Why didn’t you use Cynthia?” They didn’t want to say anything, right, like ‘oh we should have’ or whatever, and he answered “Oh it’s because she’s too old.”

(I actually gasped loudly here)

Cynthia today. She looks freaking amazing.

I was like “What? Did you just say that?” I had just come back from hiking on Everest and I called the director. “Oh I just heard the funniest thing. Did you really say that?” He was stuttering and said he might have said it as a joke. Well, you know, it’s not funny. In my mind I’m still 30 and I can still fight as well as I could then. That pissed me off.

No kidding. Given that, do you have thoughts about producing your own projects, that would feature you properly again?

I am actually doing a documentary on my life.

(I gasped again, I am so lame)

We are just putting it together, we’re gonna do a crowd fundraiser. The vision I have is not a typical documentary. Number one, it’s gonna be funny. I want funny stories, about things that happened on set. I want it to be motivational. Because when I was competing, I was competing in men’s divisions. I want it to have a bit of adventure, because I challenge myself doing all these extreme things. Also a little bit of spirituality. We’re getting ready now to get the fund to shoot. It’s the first time I’ve ever been really behind a project, other than just being hired as an actor.

I have 2 other really great projects that hopefully will shoot this year. One of them, I can never think of the title, because it’s a weird fantasy type *laughs* I play a mother, the head of a tribe, almost cave-man days kind of deal. We fight fantasy creatures a lot. There’s a lot of fighting and interesting costumes you know? It’s exciting!

Wow! Well I’m really looking forward to this, particularly the documentary. Getting your life story from your point of you will be really interesting.

Yeah, and I see a lot of them on Netflix on guys! There aren’t that many on women, so there. I hope with it to inspire people. That they’ll stop saying things like ‘oh I can’t do that I’m too old.” It’s all mental. For me, it’s not even in my vocabulary.

I know you need for the crowd fund raiser, but do you have a schedule in mind already for it’s production?

No, just now we are putting together the video for Kickstarter. Once we do that we’ll take it from there. I hope to be shooting it in the next year, because my schedule gets a bit crazy for the next few months anyway.

Oh well I’m glad you were able to come to Fantasia then! If 9 year old me could see me today…

Yeah! Well this is one of my favourite Hong Kong movies playing tonight, The Blonde Fury. I haven’t seen it in 20 years! I think it will be fun to watch it again. It’s funny, there was this screening in Beverly Hills of this other movie I was in, with a Q&A after. It was the worst movie ever, I hated it! I thought, did you have to pick that one? At least, this one I like *laughs* This other one was so bad… It had 12 million hits on youtube, because it was so bad it became like this cult favourite. People were commenting like ‘when’s the sequel?!’ and I’d say “Never!

Was there anything salvageable, at least about your experience while shooting it? Was it any fun to work on?

No! Well I mean, they paid me quite a bit of money *laughs* But what happened was that they paid me so much, they couldn’t pay anyone else. In the film, my character’s sister dies. During the shoot she says “Oh I gotta go to work!” and I was like what? You gotta be in the coffin! The director had his hand there and put it in the coffin, saying “Here, this is her in the coffin, talk to my hand.” It was fast, it was crazy, it had stupid lines. Being an actor, you don’t know what the movie is going to turn out like sometimes. You can read the script and hope for the best, and then when you get there… different things happen. Oh god. I remember this one movie, the guy could’ t remember his lines, I had to tape them on my forehead *laughs* when the camera was looking over my shoulder.

I am looking forward to seeing Blonde Fury tonight, it’ll be the first time I see it in its entirety.

It’s been a while, but I remember the fight scenes in there and the choreography. When I see them now I kind of go “Oh my god, that’s me!” I get excited it too *laughs* I’m looking at the action and I don’t realize it’s me you know? I’m sure tonight will bring back a lot of painful memories.

Did you do all your own stunts in the movie?

All the fighting was me. There are a few things on wires and stuff. If it was something like, I had to jump 100 feet, I’d have a double that did half of it, and I’d just do the landing half. I’m remembering though… I shot some of it with Mang Hoi, and then Golden Harvest said “Wow, this is really good. We want to bring in Yuen Kwai and shoot 3 more fight scenes.” So I came back, but I looked totally different. I was already shooting another movie and I couldn’t change my hair. But they said they didn’t care! If you look at the beginning, I have brown-ish, kinda curly hair, and in the other scenes I have straight blonde hair. It’s really funny! We did a screening of this movie in England, and they gave whistles to everyone to blow whenever they saw a continuity error *laughs* It’s crazy, it’s scene to scene, I look totally different.


Cynthia’s website:

Her YouTube channel:

Sophie does all of the arts on 9to5 illustrated and blogs weekly about her adventures with beer in The Ignorant Beer Review.