Punky Brewster is back and fans can see where she is in her life now, as a single mother of three who meets a young girl in the foster system that very much reminds her of her younger self. Trying to reclaim her Punky Power and get her life back on track, Punky Brewster (Soleil Moon Frye) still has an infectious charm and love for all in her life, including best friend Cherie (Cherie Johnson) and ex-husband Travis (Freddie Prinze Jr.), that makes you root for her to succeed.
During a virtual press junket to talk about the Peacock revival of the ‘80s sitcom, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with Soleil Moon Frye, who is as undeniably charming and sweet as her TV character, about having wanted to bring Punky Brewster back for so many years, why it was so hard to say goodbye to this character when the original series ended, feeling like she’s coming of age again in her own life, working with this new young cast, and what she hopes Punky will bring to a new generation of viewers.
COLLIDER: How nice is it to have an acting job where you knew you wouldn’t have to audition and that they really couldn’t even actually do the show without you on board?
SOLEIL MOON FRYE: That’s very sweet. I have wanted to bring Punky back for so many years. Punky is such a big part of my heart and my love. It was such an honor and such a thrill to be a part of bringing this back to life, and the way that the universe and the stars aligned for having it all happen now when I feel like the world can really use some Punky Power. It’s really been a dream come true, truly.
What was it like for you when the show originally ended? How was it to say goodbye to this character the first time around? Were you ever glad to leave her behind or was it always sad to let her go?
FRYE: It was emotional because I’ve never known where Punky ended and I began because we were the same in so many ways. I was excited to go be a kid, but at the same time, I just always loved her so much. I always say, I can be 88 and if people still call me Punky, I’ll be thrilled because she is such a part of my DNA and such a part of my heart. To rediscover her again and to bring her back to life was also very much a cathartic experience, in really rediscovering that inner child within me and bringing that back to life. It’s been one of the greatest gifts, and I’m so honored and humbled.
Had there ever been serious conversations, at any point over the years, about bringing the show back?
FRYE: I had conversations with friends about it. I had been talking about it for a long time. And then, I worked on a show with the incredible Jimmy Fox [Hollywood Darlings]. We’d done a show together and he reached out to me one day, and I was like, “Are you kidding? Yeah!” He was so amazing at really going and figuring it out and reaching out to David Duclon, our original creator. We didn’t know where he was, so that was amazing. And then, the Armogida brothers, our amazing showrunners, came together, and we all had this common vision. Jim and Steve have written such incredible words, along with the brilliant writing staff, who are so immensely talented, along with our phenomenal directors, and our cast and crew. Just to be a part of the entire experience has been one of the greatest joys and honors of my life.
The thing that most surprised me about watching the return of the show is just how seamless it all feels. Were you ever hesitant about bringing back this character and what it could do to the memory of what you had already done?
FRYE: For me, it was just incredibly important to keep it authentic to the original. I felt like it was our duty to really honor their original and do it in a way that was genuine and that was staying true to the heart of it. That was immensely important.
There are a lot of reboots, remakes and reimaginings, and they seem to succeed when they also evolve. Were there things that you wanted to make sure that you added into the show and who Punky Brewster is now?
FRYE: A lot of the questions that I had were, where has she lived? What has she been doing? Where was she? We had to create a backstory. Was she on tour with bands and hanging out at a punk rock club? She’s had all of these different adventures. And also, she’s a photographer and I love doing photography and documenting. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time traveling and one of my favorite places that has such a special place in my heart is Haiti, so we have Haitian art in there and photographers that I love. I worked with everyone from our incredible team of set designers to our incredible costumer, Mona May, who is such an icon with Clueless and every other amazing film that she’s done. To work with some of the most visionary artists and to be a part of it, we would have these conversations. Mona and I would have these conversations about, what does it look like at the stage when someone turns a certain age?
I’m 44 now. As she’s rediscovering her Punky Power, it was important for her to also rediscover the things that make you feel sexy. She’s newly single. We wanted to make her cool and awesome and uniquely her because Punky always was so uniquely herself. A lot of times, in programming, we don’t always see that reflected in people as they grow up, and yet I feel like I’m coming of age, all over again. I feel more like a teenager now than I did 15 years ago, and I know that I have peers that are going through similar experiences. To represent that in a true way was incredibly important, also in the topics that we tackle and that we’re dealing with and talking through. That was so fundamentally important. Who did Cherie become? What are her relationships? What does that look like? And what do the kids look and feel like? It’s all been very important. That’s my long way of saying that every piece of it had to fit together.
What was that first day back in front of the cameras like, back in the multi-colored shoes and looking at Cherie Johnson?
FRYE: It’s been such a joy. From the moment that we walked on the soundstage when it was empty, to then having it be filled with Henry’s apartment, and then putting in the art pieces and getting the costumes on. We shot the pilot pre-COVID, and then we shot the rest of the series during COVID, so during the pilot, we were able to have a live audience. Right before going into the live taping, I started panicking. I was so nervous because I just wanted to make everybody so proud. I was with one of my very best friends and my godmother, and we were all sitting there, and they were like, “What are you afraid of?” And I was like the teenager that’s afraid to go out there because they’re afraid to fail. Once I talked through it, I was able to release it. And then, that night of the taping felt like lightning in a bottle. You could hear a pin drop in the live audience of hundreds of people. And at the end of the taping, Cherie and I both spoke and we just broke down in tears. I said, “These are not just characters for us. These are our lives.” That’s what it felt like and it’s been such a gift. And then, to be able to shoot during COVID and do it safely, what a gift that has been. This has been a real evolution of self that goes beyond a television show. I really hope that that comes across and I hope that people connect to it in that way.
Without a live audience, do you have a designated laugher so that you know if the jokes are working?
FRYE: One of my favorite parts of shooting is that I love our crew so much and when a take happens that they really love, it’s the most amazing thing because, in unison, they start clapping and that’s when you know that you’ve won over the crew. There were a few moments that were really moving, where some crew members actually were crying. When you saw the crew members grab the tissues, I was like, “Yes!” It’s so pure of heart.
It’s so fun to see Punky and Cherie back together, and it was great to see Margaux again. What was it like to get Ami Foster back on the show and to do scenes with the three of you?
FRYE: Cherie has been a dream come true. Our friendship is so authentically us and I just love her so much. It really is a sisterhood. We are truly spirit sisters and what you see on screen is a thousand percent how we feel about each other, authentically. And then, to have Ami come and join us and bring back Margaux was such a joy. Being able to share that history and that love, it was amazing.
Why was it important for you to bring Punky’s mother back into the story?
FRYE: I think it’s something that people have wondered about for such a long time, so it was really important for us to bring that into it. I’m very, very excited for people to see what happens.
How do you feel about Punky being a single mom and what do you like about that family dynamic?
FRYE: I think it’s such an amazing dynamic. There’s the family that we’re born into and there’s the family that we choose. It’s so beautiful how with Travis and Punky, there’s still so much love there. I don’t think it’s because of their lack of love that they didn’t make it through. Maybe one just changed more than the other. It’s a really wonderful way of looking at the dynamic. One of the most amazing parts of their original, when they were pitching it, was that it was a comedy yet we were dealing with abandonment. Her mother left her in a shopping center, and her father was no longer there, and then she finds Henry and they form this new family together and they choose each other and Cherie, and all of the amazing people that were a part of the original. And so, to modernize Punky, keeping that authenticity, families don’t always look the same. We’re all flawed and we’re all perfectly imperfect, in our different ways. We also go through so many trials and tribulations and emotions. I think it’s more reflective of so much of the world.
What’s it been like to work with this group of kids? I mean, were you ever nervous about having four young actors to visit?
FRYE: They’ve been great. I’m more of a kid than any of them. I’m the kid of the group. For me, as a kid growing up and doing Punky, we were all able to still be kids and that was so important to us. We were having the times of our lives. So, it was so wonderful to see these kids really being kids too, and yet they’re so amazing and such professionals. Little Quinn [Copeland], who plays Izzy, is so magical. She’ll be playing and she’ll have a Barbie, and then she’ll come on set and she’s so centered, so in her moment, so real and so authentic. You’ like, “Wow, that is incredible.” She has that ability of going from this magical little girl to still a magical little girl, but being in the moment and being present and being brilliant. All of the kids have that. Noah [Cottrell], Lauren [Lindsey Donzis] and Ollie [De Los Santos] are just so uniquely themselves and I think it sings on the screen.
What do you hope Punky Brewster brings to a new generation of viewers?
FRYE: I really hope that everyone that loved the original loves this and that I can make them proud, in some way, because it’s so important to me. Really, Punky brought up so many conversations and topics and issues that I hope we can really communicate through healing and laughter, have people talk around the dinner table with each other and share more, that she provides some healing and laughter to the world, and that we stay true to the original and bring in all of the people that loved her then and a whole new generation now.
Punky Brewster is available to stream at Peacock TV.
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