"I am the biggest kid of all": Soleil Moon Frye on the return of "Punky Brewster" & being a survivor

The actor appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss Peacock's sitcom about found families & directing her own Hulu doc

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
March 3, 2021 11:42PM (UTC)
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Soleil Moon Frye as Punky Brewster (Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)

It's funny how often, in our nostalgia for childhood, we forget how complicated and intense childhood really is. It doesn't minimize the sweetness, silliness, or innocence of it; it just adds another dimension to it. Take, for example, Ms. Punky Brewster. The character was in many ways the prototypical '80s sitcom kid, all wisecracks and brightly colored clothes and misadventures. She was also a homeless, abandoned child who had to find love and support with her new, found family, and the series "Punky Brewster" never shied away that balancing act.

Now, in the latest TV classic to get a reboot, Punky is back with a family of her own, in the new Peacock series, "Punky Brewster." While the show reunites her with her former costar Cherie Johnson and features plenty of shoutouts to the original, it also updates Punky's life to reflect the challenges of modern day parenthood. One thing that hasn't changed — she still knows how to rock mismatched sneakers.

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The actor, director, advocate and lunchbox icon Soliel Moon Frye appeared on "Salon Talks" recently about tapping back in to her Punky power, her new, executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio Hulu documentary, and what being a child star taught her about working with kids now. You can watch the "Salon Talks" interview here or read it below.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Bring us up to date and tell us what has been happening with Punky since the last time we saw her, when she was just a little girl.

Well, I love that it feels like a continuation. Punky, she's newly single. She was married to this incredible guy, played by Freddie Prinze Jr. There's still all this love there, but they're now divorced and they're raising their kids together. It's about the messiness of it all, and the perfectly imperfect. And she meets this little girl, Izzy, who really reminds her so much of herself.

Through this experience, she starts to really rediscover her Punky power. I love that it's really about how we can come of age at different stages in our life. I can relate to that so much. I always said, I didn't know where Punky ended and I began, because we were truly the same in so many ways. I can say that that is true today as well. So, it was really important for us to keep the authenticity of their original. Where would Punky be now? Who would she be? Where had she traveled? What adventures she gone on? It's just been a true joy to bring back.

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I'm sure over the years people have asked you, "Would Punky come back?" But also, "Where would she be now? What she would be like as a young woman in the '90s, and as a parent in the 2000s?" Did you think about that over the years? Is she who you thought she would be?

Yeah. I literally have wanted to bring Punky back for so long. The way the stars have aligned to make it happen now is just so mystical and amazing and wonderful. I think we probably had very similar experiences. I think she went on tour and was documenting musicians and doing her photography and probably living some punk rock lifestyle, going around New York and Chicago. I have all these ideas of where she went.

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And of course, then she met Travis [Prinze Jr.], and he's in a band. I think she really traveled the world and probably documented a lot. I know there are parts of the world that are so important to me. I love Haiti. I love spending time there, doing work with the incredible organization that I work with, CORE, and now across the world. I think there's just so many similarities. I always think about where she's been and the journey she's been on, and then the journey that I've been on.

Punky is a survivor. This show addresses that this is a girl who's been through difficult times, who has had trauma in her life. It feels like a really important message for this show to be telling, not just the kids watching it, but the people who grew up with you.

I think back to the original and the things that we dealt with and the ways in which we healed through laughter, but never shied away from topics that were important and going on during the time. To be able to continue with that same sense of heart means so much to me. To your point about the survivor within us, I think so much of even Soleil, that inner spark, I used to always associate with youth. I thought, when I moved to New York, the world was at my fingertips.

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I'm so blessed to have my four incredible children. I love them so much. And I found myself a few years ago wondering, "Who am I, Soleil, in addition to my children?" It was really this process of rediscovery. Often we get so absorbed in our lives that sometimes we forget that little girl within or that little boy within. The show has actually been this very cathartic experience of my rediscovery of self, and what it is to be a survivor.

And to show that you can go through difficult things in your early years and still be a warm, generous and playful person. That the bad things that happened in your life don't have to define you or be your identity feels really important.

Absolutely. Punky was abandoned by her father and left in a shopping center by her mother and had gone through so much, and yet was this spunky, full of life survivor. I think about the journey that I've been on. I've had so much love and joy and bliss, and I've also experienced heartache and pain. Yet I wouldn't change a thing, because every one of those experiences brought me to be the person that I am today — the pain included. I can only speak for myself, but for myself and my journey, I wouldn't change one part.

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When we think about older shows coming back as revivals, there is this deep sense of comfort and nostalgia. This is getting us in touch with our childhood, and it feels very cozy. And yet, watching this, I remembered that Punky dealt with serious stuff. This was a show that devoted an episode to the Challenger disaster.

And so much of our real-life experiences we went through. I've always wanted to be an astronaut. I still want to be an astronaut. We had watched the Challenger together and of course were devastated, like the entire world was. And I still wanted to be an astronaut. So, there was an episode that was dealing with both what we were going through in our personal lives and what was going on in the world. 

It was so important, and it was so fundamental to the experience. Amazing people throughout the years have come up and shared their stories of not having a home or going up through their foster system or not coming from a traditional family, and the way in which Punky connected to them and was their family. There's the family that we're born into and there's the family that we choose. I love that we were able to do that. I really hope that we have honored that in this continuation of Punky, because it's so important to me.

There are storylines that are very serious, and yet they're done with a real delicacy. Without giving anything about this season away, some of the most surprising turns have been just the acceptance and ordinariness of things that can be really hard to face.

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And to be able to talk about things around the table, as a family, or with friends or whoever you can turn to. There are so many things going on in our lives that often get brushed under the rug, or are sometimes difficult to talk about. I hope that in some way, it shed some light for people to be able to have an open line of communication with their families or their chosen families, or their friends, or to reach out to someone and express what it is that they're going through.

Soleil, I have to ask you, because you're now coming into this role where you are the adult on a set full of kids.

And yet I am the biggest kid of all.

We are having a cultural moment of reckoning with how we have treated our child stars, how they have turned out and what we have done better. Now, as that grown-up on the set, how much of your childhood experience — for good or bad — do you bring now to your interactions with these kids? What did you learn? Did you think, "I want to do that," or, "I don't want to do that"?

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To the point of what you were talking about, about growing up in Los Angeles, I hope you watch also the documentary that I did. It dives into so many of those elements. As far as the kids are concerned, I was so fortunate that I had such an incredible family and a single mom raising me, who always encouraged me to go to summer camp, always encouraged me to be a kid. I'd come home, I was rollerskating. On set, they also created an environment where we could still really be kids and where that was such a part of the weavings of our experience.

For us, our experience was that in which was created around us. We were on our pogo sticks and we were on our scooters and we were playing. Our experience really felt like playing make-believe. I can only speak to what my experience was through that, which was that we had really kind people around us that made sure that we felt safe and protected and loved. Certainly, I can speak for myself on that. I always felt that.

Working with these incredible kids, for me, it was so important to see them also having fun. It was wonderful to see them being kids, to see Quinn [Copeland] playing with her dolls and then stepping on stage and being this incredible actress. And the boys playing ball outside, being kids. I'm such a big kid at heart. 

I really hope that I was able to bring some of that, because I think of the kindness of George Gaines, who I feel is still completely watching over me. He had such a respect. He never spoke down to me. He was constantly treating me as an equal, which was so incredible at that age. It stands out so much.

Or someone like Andy Gibb, who I was so in love with and so crushed out on. He was so kind and gentle and loving. Those moments really shine and they leave an imprint. I can still smell his cologne when I think about Andy Gibb, which is a testament to the fact that he was so kind and loving. So, I really hope that I can bring kindness and love and nurturing. I have so much gratitude to the parents of those kids to share them with me, because that is such a big deal to share your children with another, in which I'm playing their mom. I think it's a real testament to the parents as well.

Your co-star Freddie Prinze Jr. is another person who grew up in Hollywood, who has been part of our lives for many years. It feels like that dynamic really plays into your interactions with each other, your chemistry with each other, in this shared foundation and the way that you interact with the kids in the cast.

It's really been such an honor. When we shot the pilot, it was pre-COVID. We were able to have a live audience and it was amazing. It was like, you could hear a pin drop in the live audience, and it felt like lightning in a bottle. I felt really mystical and just so beautiful. Because these are not just characters, these are us. Cherie and I constantly are on the phone. We're constantly FaceTiming. There's a real, genuine friendship. And I think it shows because we really genuinely love each other so much.

Those things come across on the screen when they're coming from a natural place. Then when we were shooting during COVID, that scene in the car, we couldn't all be in the car together. Each one of us was in the car by ourselves and we were each talking to tape. It just goes to show the chemistry that we had off camera to be able to do a scene like that.

You mentioned this earlier; tell me about the other big thing that you have coming out now.

 "Kid 90" is premiering on Hulu on March 12th, and really it's a true coming-of-age story. I had documented my entire life growing up in the '90s, in Los Angeles and then in New York. I had kept diaries from the time I was five years old. I had a tape recorder from the time I was 12 years old. Then I locked it all away at about 20 and didn't open it for 20 years. Had just locked it all away in a vault. And ultimately went on this incredible, life-changing journey.

I tried to make the documentary about everybody but me. As I peeled back the onion more and more and more, and really dug into the teenage journalist, it became this very personal coming-of-age story that I hope, when people watch, they can see through the lens of their own lives. It's changed me forever. I opened Pandora's box and discovered this self-awareness and sense of self-love that has been inspiring.

Soleil, blow your horn for a little bit. Tell me who is in this movie, because it's impressive. 

There's so much amazing found footage. Some of my dear friends that I got to sit and go back and interview, like Brian Green, David Arquette, Stephen Dorff, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Balthazar Getty, my girlfriend Heather McComb and my lifelong best friend since I was two, Tori, which was such a joy.

Also, I had lost some of my closest friends at a really young age. I think, on a subconscious level, I wasn't really ready to go back and watch the tapes. I just didn't realize it because there was so much pain to process through the course of it, because some of my friends hadn't made it out. It's really an incredible self-exploration into memory and the blueprint of my life. This teenage me left this chronological blueprint for me to rediscover who I once was and to bring me back home to the artist that I really am.

You are an '80s fashion icon for a generation. You are also '90s fashion icon. If you could bring anything back from that era, what would it be?

All of it. I'm serious. I am so obsessed with the '80s and as I've rediscovered my Punky power, I am all about the rock and roll t-shirts and the jackets. And I always have my crystals because I'm very much into looking within and the journey of self-discovery and awakenings and my faith.

So, it's a combination of rock and roll and '90s. I've got my Doc Martens and I've got my punk rock looks. And then of course my '80s love. And I think you see all of it on Punky's incredible Mona May, who is such an icon and creator. I mean, she did "Clueless," and "Romy and Michelle," just created so many incredible looks. I've had the honor and privilege to work beside her, and that's been just a true joy.

Can I just add one more thing? For anyone who wants to learn about an organization that is so close to my heart, CORE, please check it out. And we have now done over 300,000 vaccinations and over 4.8 million tests for COVID-19 across the country. I am so honored and humbled to be a part of it. I would really encourage everyone to check out the work that we're doing.

CORE Response was founded by the incredible Ann Lee and Sean Penn, and they have been true warriors with our incredible team. To see the frontline workers, to see the team doing this, next to my children, it is truly the work that I'm most proud to be a little part of. I'm just so grateful and humbled, and I know your amazing community is so incredible. I hope that they'll check it out.

The new "Punky Brewster" is now streaming on Peacock, and "Kid 90" premieres Friday, March 12 on Hulu.



Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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