“Women have been doing martial arts movies, but no one has been that believably powerful, or you could easily tell it was set up, or they just taught the women about six months of martial arts lessons. There really hasn’t been anybody that has done this convincingly. I think I can be that person.”
— Cyndi Rothrock
Her true story reads like a plot for a rags to riches movie: Small-town girl moves to the big city and makes good in the movies. Cyndi Rothrock rose from obscurity in Scranton, Pennsylvania to international fame, first as a U.S. forms and weapons champion and then as a movie star in Hong Kong. Now she’s poised to successfully storm America again—this time paired with superstar Sylvester Stallone in an upcoming picture.
Cyndi Rothrock sits in the posh coffee shop of the Regal Meridian Hotel in Hong Kong. She’s in town to finish her current picture. The Female Reporter. before she returns to Los Angeles. The waitresses who wait on her titter together as they recognize her. too shy to approach her for an autograph. The constant glances and occasional stares don’t seem to bother Rothrock. She seems accustomed to the reaction. It’s part of being a film star. Its a long way from her hometown of Scranton. Pennsylvania. a territory not exactly known as a mecca for martial arts or artists. Her beginnings there were normal enough — like maybe 99°/a of us she was curious to see what the martial arts were all about. -When I was growing up in Scranton. my girlfriend’s parents started taking tang soo do.” she says. I was pretty young. about 13. and I thought the costumes were kind of neat. I was always into exercise. I liked sports. and I thought it would be a good goal for me to achieve a black belt.” Tang soo do was a challenge for Rothrock. but after training for three years and achieving her black belt goal. she yearned for something more. At a New York City tournament. she saw an eagle claw stylist perform and decided that that was the style for her. She immediately began studying with an eagle claw master in New York. Even though Scranton was two hours and 15 minutes from New York City. Cyndi made the trek every weekend to train. -I was really impressed with the weapons.” she says. “and I thought eagle claw was more performance-oriented and more beautiful. and something that I could see myself doing. So I switched from tang soo do. I’ve been doing eagle claw ever since. I’ve also in the past studied tae kwon do with Ernie Reyes [Sr.] and I’ve studied in mainland China” The Queen of Kata Soon Cyndi was winning local karate tournaments and her friends and fellow competitors urged her to take her show on the road.
She did, competing and winning nationally, and the Cynthia Roth rock legend was born. During her years in competition she didn’t give much thought to the movies, though she always kept it open as a possibility. “I’ve always had it in my mind that I would like to do movies down the road.” she explains. “While I was still competing. !did a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial. I liked being in front of the camera. and I made a lot of money. I thought to myself, ‘I can make a lot more money doing this than I can competing.’ From there, I thought I would like to pursue something in acting.” But first Rothrock had to leave her mark on the U.S. competition scene. As it turned out. she left a record-breaking legacy that still stands today. “When I started competing I wanted to be the women’s champion for five years. I figured that would be a record nobody could beat. In 1981. I decided to travel, and that year I became the number-one woman [nationally] in forms. I held that title for five years, until I retired in 1985. “Also, in 1982 I was number one in the weapons division, which at the time pitted men and women together. and that’s the first time in history that a woman ever won a men’s championship. That was quite an honor for me, a real achievement.- Rothrock proved a consummate forms champion. and the time had come to look beyond the blood, sweat and tears of martial arts competition. Her Showbiz Break When you think of starring in movies. you think of Hollywood. and so did Rothrock. During her competition career, she moved to San Jose. California to train with martial arts coach and entertainment pioneer Ernie Reyes Sr. It was one step closer to Hollywood. But when opportunity knocked. it didn’t come from out West. It came from the East. Hong Kong, to be specific. To launch a career. you take whatever chance you can get. For Rothrock. that meant moving to Hong Kong, the same thing Bruce Lee chose to do in 1970. Rothrock got her showbiz break when she was a member of Reyes’ West Coast Demo Team. They received a casting call to audition in Los Angeles for a producer from Hong Kong. This producer was looking for male actors, but Cyndi came along anyway, just in case. As it turned out, the producer, Ng See Yuen. president of Seasonal Film Corporation (No Retreat. No Surrender 1 and 2 and others) was very impressed by Rothrock. and signed her to a three-picture deal. Even though Seasonal Films now had her under contract. they didn’t put her to work. Reputedly. Ng couldn’t find the right vehicle for Rothrock. Then came another unexpected break. “Because of my [competition] titles. ABC World News Tonight came to San Jose to do a piece on me. They ended up the segment saying. ‘Look out Hong Kong. here she comes a blue-eyed. blond-haired Bruce Lee. When that news report aired in Hong Kong. Samo Hung. an acknowledged star and director in the British Territory. saw it and wanted to hire her. Yuen Kuai, who has since directed Cyndi in several films, struck a deal with Ng and Cyndi started filming her first Hong Kong movie.
In all, Rothrock has starred in nine Hong Kong-produced films. two of which were slated for American distribution in 1989. The others made the rounds of the Far East “action” circuit and Europe. The only appearances Rothrock movies have made in the U.S. have been in Chinatown theaters and video stores. Here’s Rothrock’s filmography to date: Yes Madam: Millionaire’s Express: The Magic Crystal: Righting Wrong: Inspectors with Skirts: The Female Reporter: Paper Dragons: China O’Brien: and No Retreat, No Surrender II. Rothrock started out as an oddity in Hong Kong. the blond-haired. blue-eyed foreign woman who could fight with the best of Hong Kong’s men. That ability made her a big hit with Hong Kong audiences. “They’ve really accepted me.” she acknowledges. “And it’s an honor. Most foreign actors come here and they’re usually a gimmick. They get the bad guy part and they fight in the ending. I’ve been accepted as a Hong Kong actress. I’ve become quite a good box-office draw in Asia, and I’m starting to have the same sort of draw in Europe. where people are calling and saying, ‘I want her films.’ “I get recognized in the street.” Rothrock adds, nodding towards the giggling waitresses and the people trying to discreetly stare at her in the coffee shop. (She is known there by her stage name. Law Fu Lok.) Of her work Cyndi says. “Women have been doing martial arts. but no one has been that believably powerful. or you could easily tell it was set up. or they just taught the women about six months of martial arts lessons. There really hasn’t been anybody that has done this convincingly. I think I can be that person. I’m hoping. and I feel confident.” China O’Brien. which is yet to be released. was shot in 1988 on location in Park City. Utah. It co-stars American weapons sensation Keith Hirabayashi and Australian Richard Norton. It was produced by Fred Weintraub and directed by Robert Clouse. a team that has served up a string of mediocre chop-sockeys since Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon in 1973. Rothrock. however, believes in the film’s potential. “I think that China O’Brien will be a really good film for me.” she says, “because there is a lot of acting involved with it. There’s a variety of actions and emotions in it. In Hong Kong.” she explains by comparison. “the pictures I’ve done have been very stereotyped. the very tough police woman that doesn’t take any flack from anybody. She’s very strong. knows what she wants to do. and doesn’t smile very much.” Spilling Her Fair Share of Blood Despite the fact that Rothrock doesn’t speak much Cantonese. the most common language in Hong Kong. she has become one of the bankable stars in this highly competitive film market. It hasn’t come easy. Action films are not the easiest movies to make, regardless of where they are made. but Hong Kong films are particularly difficult and dangerous.
Thus, Rothrock has taken her share of abuse and spilled her fair share of blood. “That’s one thing about working in Hong Kong — it’s very dangerous. So many times I’ve done Cantonese films and I think to myself. ‘This is my last one — why am I doing this to my body?’ But then I recover. I see it on screen and I’m really impressed. and I look forward to the next one. “When we film, we hit hard,” Rothrock says. “I hit hard and they hit hard. so. of course. we all get bruised up. You get bruises on your hands and your arms, and you have to take hits into your face. I think the most serious was when I was working on my first picture. I was fighting with a guy who is known to be a really tough and strong fighter. [In one scene] I had to duck under his leg. his leg would hit a wall, then I would rise up and he would kick my head off the wall. When I went under. I thought I heard the director say ‘cut’ because his leg hit the wall in the wrong position. so I came up. He [her opponent] didn’t hear ‘cut’ and he hit me right in the jaw with the heel of his foot as hard as he could. and I was almost knocked out. My ears started bleeding, and I thought I was going to die. I went to the hospital. He had hit me so hard that he had split open the internal part of my ear. “Then, after all the tough Hong Kong films I’ve done, I broke a finger on China O’Brien,- she laments. The action in China O’Brien was much easier than in Hong Kong [films]. because there we do all those intricate stunts. It was a freak accident. I was pulling a guy and the finger got caught in his jacket. He resisted and I snapped my finger –
Enter Stallone and The Big Break
After several years of sweating and straining in Hong Kong. you could say that Rothrock’s ship has come in — and on the side of it is painted a large Italian stallion. “While I was in Utah filming China O’Brien,- she explains of her big showbiz break. “Sylvester Stallone saw a video-tape I had made up about four years before. One night I got in from the set about 2:00 a.m. and I got a message that said. ‘Call Sylvester Stallone’s office.’ I looked at it and said to Richard Norton that I thought it was a friend of mine pulling my leg. “So I called him the next day and he introduced himself, told me the films that he had done, and said that he wanted me to co-star in a picture with him. This was on a Friday. and on Sunday they flew me out [to Los Angeles] and I met with Stallone, the producers and the writers, and everything went very well. I agreed to do a picture, The Executioner. And I also signed two options [for pictures] with Stallone’s company, White Eagle.” The Executioner. based on the spy novels of the same name, is set to start filming in the spring of ’90. When I met with Stallone.” she re-members with a smile. was riding in his car and [singer] Billy Idol came by on his motorcycle. Stallone said to me. ‘Do you know him?’ I said no. Then [the rap group] The Fat Boys drove by and started talking to him. Stallone asked me. ‘Do you know them?’ I said no. again. He looked at me and asked, ‘Who do you know?’ and I said, ‘ You!’ “I really like the story in The Executioner. and I think it will be a really great opportunity. It’s a co-starring role,” says Rothrock, in which she plays Stallone’s partner. She calls it “a buddy film” and she hopes it will crack the U.S. market for her. “To me it’s like a dream come true. I’m still flabbergasted by it. I don’t feel like I could ask for anything more. I’m really happy, and my mother [who still lives in Pennsylvania] is so excited. She knows that I’m really popular here in Hong Kong, but she doesn’t get to see any of my pictures because they only play in Chinatowns in the States. And she never goes to movies. She doesn’t follow actors or know much about the movies. But when I told her I was going to do a film with Sylvester Stallone. I asked her if she knew who he was. She said, ‘Yes! Rambo Ill!'” Making a Splash at Home Rothrock hopes that the American audience will accept her as the Hong Kong people have. It should be easier: after all. she is an American. Toward that end, she has moved from Hong Kong to live in Los Angeles. Recently, she also signed with Lou Pitt of International Creative Management, the theatrical agent who also handles Arnold Schwarzenegger, and she’s now reading some very good scripts. “The future really looks promising, and I’m very happy with the way things are going,” she says. “I see myself coming back to Hong Kong to do films, but not as many. I’ve had about six offers since I’ve been in town these past two weeks, because people know that my contract is up with Golden Harvest [it was for one-and-a-half years], but I want to concentrate on the U.S. market. I have a picture that I’ll be doing with Steve Carver directing, and then the film with Stallone. I’d like to work here; I might do a Hong Kong film this year if I have two months free. I’d like to work as much as I can, with only a couple of weeks off in between.” When she is accepted — there’s no if in the Rothrock vocabulary — she might want to move into more mainstream roles, but she’ll have to take things one step at a time. After all, that’s how she got where she is. Step by step, setting out to accomplish a goal and then getting there. That plan, and her talent and determination, have brought her from obscurity in Scranton to stardom in Southeast Asia. Now she’s poised to conquer Hollywood. “I don’t think it’s strange that a girl from a small town like Scranton would wind up making a film with Stallone,” she says. think that if you have the right ingredients — the skill, the ability, the determination — no matter where you’re from, you can make it happen.”
Photos courtesy of Inside Kung Fu
Published inside The Fighter March 1990