EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Cynthia Rothrock (Undefeatable, China O’Brien)

For our screening of Undefeatable, we spoke to queen of martial arts Cynthia Rothrock about working with Z-list director Godfrey Ho, being a female action star in a male dominated genre and why she wasn’t in The Expendables!

During the 1980s, Cynthia Rothrock was the sole female martial arts star of action cinema in the West. Starring in over 45 action films including China O’Brien, Tiger Claws and Hong Kong classics like Police Assassins (aka Yes Madam).

With black belts in seven forms of disciplines including Tang Soo Do, Taekwondo, Eagle Claw, Wushu, Northern Shaolin and Pai Lum Tao Kung Fu, she is a true action legend and it was a pleasure to talk to her about her career.

You were a five-time World martial arts champion in the early 80s – how did you end up starring in the movies?

At the time, I was on a West Coast team that traveled around the world doing all kinds of demonstrations.  Paul Maslak, who was the editor of Inside Kung Fu at the time, called the team leader and said, “There’s a Hong Kong company here auditioning. They’re looking for a guy to be like the next Bruce Lee.”

The team leader said, “What about the women?”

He said, “Yeah, you can bring the women too, but they’re really looking for a guy.” So we all flew down and did weapons, fighting and self-defence techniques.

Hong Kong action director Corey Yuen was there, doing the casting and went, “I’m going to with a girl instead of a guy.” So they signed me and that was the start!

One of your first films was Yes Madam (known as Police Assassins here in the UK) with Michelle Yeoh. What was it like being thrown in the deep end of Hong Kong filmmaking? After all the cast and crew were a who’s who of Hong Kong talent including James Tien (The Big Boss, Fist of Fury), Dick Wei (Project A), Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark.

I didn’t really know anything when I went over there. I kept envisioning in my mind when I was on the plane that I was going to Han’s Island from Enter the Dragon. I thought I was going to be in Chinese clothes, and they were going to put a wig on me with braids, and I’d be fighting around like that.

I’d only seen the old period Hong Kong movies, so when I got there, I was quite surprised that they were like “No. You’re playing a cop from England, and your name is Cindy.”

I didn’t really know anybody at that point. The only actor I really knew was Jackie Chan at that time. I wasn’t really familiar with who anybody was, but it was such a culture difference for me. It was crazy, but that was my first experience going, “Uh oh, what do I do?”

What was it like on set?  I’ve heard Hong Kong stunt teams are like a big family. Were you welcomed with open arms or was everyone a bit stand-offish as you were the newcomer? 

Absolutely, I was welcomed with open arms. The very first scene we did was the airport scene so once they saw me fight, I gained a lot of respect from everybody with them saying, “She can really fight. She’s tough, and she’s not afraid to get hurt, and she’ll do whatever we say.”

I think from that point on I was always treated 100% with respect.

Growing up with Hong Kong action films, I always noticed that female action characters were treated as equal by the men and that it seemed to be much more inclusive than it is in the West, where any strong female character is more often than not reduced to wearing skimpy clothing or being sexually assaulted in some way. I was wondering if you found that at all in the roles you had in both Eastern and Western films? 

Not really, no. You have to remember when I was coming and doing my movies there weren’t that many female action stars. It was kind of a rarity then. I felt the biggest difference was in Hong Kong we had a lot more time to shoot. We had a lot more time to do the fight scenes. In Yes, Madam, that ending fight scene was four weeks. It took one month from the beginning to end.

In America, we got anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to shoot the action scenes!

You’ve been behind some of the most notable female action characters of the ’80s such as China O’Brien, and you’re known as ‘The Queen of Martial Arts’. Why do you think there weren’t more female action stars during the 1980s or even today? 

I think back at the time they tried it. After my first movie Yes, Madam, was a big hit and I started getting more popular and my price started going up, they started introducing other women and trying to make similar films. Kathy Long did some, Karen Shepherd did some, Mimi Lesseos did some – but they didn’t really get that popularity and didn’t really make money.

What I recall is that it was decided that women action stars weren’t going to make money – maybe if they’re the victim and then the man comes and saves them.

I was lucky with China O’Brien ‑‑ that Golden Harvest had me as a lead character. Then I also did Lady Dragon, where I was the lead character as well, because they were like, “Cynthia’s movies make a lot of money.”

I think that was one reason; they tried with other people and they didn’t make money.

You still have that stereotypical movie thing that men make all the money. Take The Expendables, where they had all the guys in there – I was like “Oh, my gosh ‑‑ I was the only woman from the ’80s. Why didn’t they call me? Why am I not in there?”

I thought exactly the same thing!

Then they did the second one, and they used this woman (ed. – Nan Yu) who couldn’t even fight. I was flabbergasted because I should have be in there!

There are a few more female action stars these days like Ronda Rousey and Gina Carano. Do you think that there should be more of a drive to get female-centric action projects made, or do you think it’s a gradual process?

It’s gradual. What happens is they try some, and they don’t make money and the studios go “Oh, forget it.” Then they’ll do one that does well – it’s kind of like a cycle.

I think in today’s world, we’re seeing a lot more woman action, but  not really action stars. They’re mostly actresses that are physical and have a good stunt double. It’s kind of crazy. I’m still waiting to be in my first A-listed movie!

Let’s talk Godfrey Ho! After the success of Lady Dragon, he approached you to be in two of his films. The first one was Honor and Glory – we re-watched it recently and were surprised at how characters there are in there… and you’re not even the lead! The film (for the most part) focuses on Donna Jason who plays your sister, and then you come into the film every now and then. What was it like making that film? Were you aware of Godfrey Ho’s notorious reputation when you signed on?

No. I wasn’t aware of his reputation. I knew of him, and I knew he was a Hong Kong director. But honestly, when I did Honor and Glory, they offered me a lot of money. I was like yeah. I’m going to do this.

You don’t know how a movie is going to turn out. You just read it, and it’s all in the director’s hands how it comes. Sometimes they come out good, and sometimes they don’t.

I remember when I was shooting that and also Undefeatable, that most of the people on the set didn’t get paid.  They were like “We gave you the budget”, so many crew members kept having to leave to go to second jobs!

In Undefeatable, Donna played my sister and for the scene where I’m meant to be crying over her body, Donna wasn’t there as she had to go to work. So Godfrey had an empty coffin which I’m supposed to be crying over – so he put has his hand there.

He said, “Pretend this is your sister” and as I’m talking to his hand, he’s making a claw. I’m going “What the heck? Can’t you put a body in there?”

It was funny. It was kind of like that the whole time. I heard he shot an extra scene, and he turned it into another movie. He stuck my fight in another movie! I did meet some good people, some good friends that are still my friends today from that movie. I also had a good pay check!

I’m genuinely surprised to hear you say he paid you a lot of money. He’s notorious as kind of being quite cheap when he makes his films, shooting actors, and then putting all their scenes in ten different films. It’s good that he paid you what you were worth.

Yes. I did get paid, but nobody else did, and that was the problem. Nobody really wanted to work long hours. I remember actors couldn’t remember their lines, and they were sticking their lines on my forehead on a yellow sticky paper. I was standing there with their lines on my forehead!

With Undefeatable, did you have any reservations about the plot of that film as it follows a serial rapist who’s killing lots of women who look like his ex-wife?

No. I didn’t, because at that time, it was work and as an actor, you’re just glad to be working, but that’s kind of a funny movie.

The final fight has something like 12 million hits on YouTube. It’s like a weird cult thing. I don’t know if it’s because it’s so bad or whatever, but some of the lines were so cheesy. You just get there and you just try to do your best. That’s all you could do.

It’s not my favourite film, but they screened it in Beverly Hills, and they waned me to do a Q&A. I come out before the film, and it’s packed. There are questions like “When are you doing Undefeatable 2?” I was like “I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.” The film is so quirky, weird, bad dialogue, and the guys were typically macho. I think it’s kind of a comedy when it shouldn’t be.

I tracked down your co-stars John Miller and Don Niam and spoke to them about making the film. They agree with you that it was a very surreal experience. However, the fights are great but I put that down to the talents of you guys rather than his direction. 

I haven’t seen the film in a while, but you’re probably right.

You took some time off from acting and then you kind of came back a few years ago. You had that tiny role in Mercenaries, which was a low-budget female Expendables, in which I felt you were really underused. Why did you take time off from the movies, and what prompted you to come back?

I took time out because in 1999 I had my daughter. I did one little film with Don The Dragon” Wilson, I think it was Redemption, then I didn’t do a movie until she was three – Outside The Law in Puerto Rico. Then I didn’t really focus on film and was just happy being mom.

Then my daughter got to her teenage years, and obviously, she doesn’t want to be with mom. She just wants to be with her friends. I was divorced and I said, “Oh, well, since you don’t want to be with me as much, I’m going to try to get back into films and start working again!”

I was almost ready to open up a martial arts school because I wanted something to do, and then movie roles started coming in again. The market has changed and studios are doing more action pictures, which is great!

(click on the poster to watch the Mercenaries trailer)

Mercenaries was kind of interesting as I was on my way to the International Sports Hall of Fame hosted by Robert Goldman and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was the first person in the whole association to be a martial artist to get the award, so it was really a great honour in getting it from Arnold.

I was on my way there and I get this call saying, “You’ve got to turn around and come right back. They want you to play this role in Mercenaries.” I really wanted to do it because I was going to make enough to get my SAG insurance back.

Then I got another call saying, “No. You can’t go. Arnold’s going to be upset. You’re getting this award. This is huge!” So the production was called and told, “Arnold is giving her this.  We have hundreds of press here. It’s a big deal and great publicity.”

So they said, “Okay. She can do the show tomorrow, but as soon as she’s done and gets the award, she’s got to be back on the plane. We’re going to change her part. She’s going to get this other part.”

So, I was studying the other part frantically on the plane! First scene I had was with all the women talking all these technological terms and it was kind of a nightmare for me as I had just got the script and I had an eight-page dialogue scene!

Apparently, the reason they called me on short notice is because Rebecca De Mornay was supposed to play that part. That’s why there wasn’t any fighting in it. She dropped out at the last minute, and someone said call Cynthia Rothrock.

They weren’t even going to cast you in the first place, and then they cast you in a scene without any fighting?! That makes no sense!

Exactly. Because she dropped out at the last minute. I’m sure if they would have thought, “Let’s cast Cynthia, then someone would have said yeah, fight!”

The biggest problem with that film is everybody that saw it said, “Where’s Cynthia’s fighting? We went to see it because Cynthia was in it. Where’s the fighting?” So I had three days on it… and that was it.

They keep talking about making a proper big-budget female Expendables, The Expendabelles, so any studio exec worth his salt would probably put you in it. Who would you like to see in it if you were cast in it?  Would you like to get a reunion with Michelle Yeoh at all?

Yes. I would love to. I think they should do a Yes, Madam 2. Because we have such a big following together from Yes, Madam, and we can both really fight and we’re not using doubles, I think that would be mind-blowing. Especially if you get Corey Yuen to direct it and shoot it Hong Kong style!

Yes, Madam was done in 1985 and the fight scenes still hold up to any movie that’s ever been shot, high budget, low budget, whatever.

You said there are lots of action stars out there with stunt doubles. Are there any action stars out there that you’re impressed by?

I like Jason Statham. I like the way he fights. I’m really impressed because he didn’t come up as a martial artist, he was a swimmer!

I also liked it when Robert Downey, Jr. did the action in Sherlock Holmes. I thought that was really good and believable. Liam Neeson, I like his stuff… when he does it.

I did like Kingsmen. I would have loved to have been in that! I thought that was pretty good action in that movie. Being in the movies as an action star, it has to be really good or I don’t like it.

You’ve got some upcoming projects like Showdown in Manila and Death Fighter, that have been delayed for a few years, coming out soon. Is there anything you’re excited for the world to see?

I did a comedy that I’m looking forward to seeing, with Sean Stone, Oliver Stone’s son, called Enter the Fist. It’s a parody on 80s martial arts movies.

It’s really funny. I’m looking forward to that movie coming out. This year, we’re going to shoot The Martial Arts Kid 2, so they’re already in plans for that one. The part two is going to be a bit darker, a lot more fighting than the first one.

I have a couple of projects that aren’t completely financed yet. One is called The Peculiar Perils of Penelope Peacock, which has a good message for girls with self-confidence, and being strong, and just overcoming things that would bring a normal person down – just being the best you can be.

What advice would you have for any women who are trying to get into action films?

First of all, to get into martial arts, I think women should know some sort of self-defence, just to be able to protect themselves and the people they’re with.

If they want to get into movies, I would say hook up with a good stunt coordinator or stunt school. They’re the ones that will do most of the casting for the fighters.

Getting a good acting class, so that way, if you do have to go on an audition, you’re not only a good fighter but you can also do acting as well. Then it’s a lot easier to get the job.

Cynthia Rothrock, thank you very much!

You can follow Cynthia Rothrock on Facebook and on Twitter.

Special thanks to Mike Fury, author of Life of Action, for making this interview possible. If you’re a fan of martial arts cinema, check out Mike’s book (and website!) for some great interviews with the likes of Donnie Yen, Scott Adkins, Dolph Lundgren, David Leitch, Chad Stahelski and, naturally, Cynthia Rothrock!