Soleil Moon Frye says making the Punky Brewster revival 'felt like lightning in a bottle'
Holy macanoli, the '80s were hard! From the horrific hair to real-life horrors like the Challenger explosion, precocious foster child Punky Brewster steered kids through it all (and away from abandoned refrigerators) with gumption and heart on the popular Reagan-era sitcom of the same name.
Now she's all grown up with a family of her own in Peacock's Punky Brewster revival (launching Feb. 25), which will tackle today's complex and sometimes difficult issues with Punky's signature spirit. As Soleil Moon Frye, 44, reprises her iconic role for a new generation, she reflects on where Punky's been and where she's headed.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It's been more than 30 years since we last saw Punky. Why bring her back now?
SOLEIL MOON FRYE: I always say I don't know where Punky ended and I began. I feel like my child self and adult self are coming together as I've rediscovered my inner spark, my Punky Power. So much of what this show is about is coming of age again and rediscovering ourselves. It's an exploration into what family looks like today and what this incredibly beautiful blended family is like.
In the new series Freddie Prinze Jr. plays Travis, Punky's ex-husband. What went into the decision to make Punky a single mom?
In the original Punky, she was abandoned by her father and her mother leaves her in a parking lot. In bringing Punky back, [we stayed] true to the fact that life can be complicated and messy. [She's] this unique person who is going through all of these experiences and is constantly looking at the light and love in the most painful situations.
The '80s show was very much ahead of its time insofar as the diversity of the cast, as well as the heavy topics it covered, from child abandonment to drugs and alcohol. As the star and executive producer this go-round, did you feel pressure to match the weight of the original?
I knew that the people who grew up with Punky would want me to capture the life experiences that we go through in an authentic way, so we really tried to keep that through-line throughout. The writers were so incredible in seeing experiences that were going on in our personal lives and bringing them into the episodes. I can truly say some of my proudest moments in watching the show with my kids, who span the ages of 4 to 15, is that they tell me, "I just wish I had this sooner." If we can create programming that is entertaining, but where you can have conversations around the dinner table and be able to talk about important topics in our lives, it's the greatest gift.
There's no doubt that Punky fans will be delighted with all the callbacks, but there is also a delicate balance of nostalgia and updating needed when bringing back something that was such a vital part of so many childhoods. How did you find that perfect formula?
You gave me chills with that question. I really think because of the heart and soul that we were all coming to this with, we looked at this as such a labor of love and passion. I think that love really carried over, and you see it in scenes with Cherie [Johnson, who returns in her original role]. It felt like lightning in a bottle, and that was throughout the writing process and in working with the design team. Every wallpaper, every photograph, there were things that were really personal to me.
When it came to your own family, had you ever thought about fostering and/or adoption?
Yes, and I'm still very open to it. [Laughs] I tell my mom that I wanted 100 kids. She's like, "Okay, well, you know, someday, somewhere it could happen."
You've spoken about "perfectly imperfect" parenting your four children. How are you applying that these days?
If I'm being really honest, I'm just trying my very best to get through it. When I look at the fact that this has been a year in which my boys [Lyric, 7, and Story, 4] have not had a play date with kids their own age or the girls [Poet, 15, and Jagger, 12] being teenagers, there's the day-to-day of trying to get them outside and create a world of imagination and play. And then I've seen my daughters becomes such advocates — their interest in politics, their interest in the world around them, their interest in safety over fear — seeing the span of it has been amazing. In a time when there's been so much transition and what historic times we're living in, I feel like I'm on a magic carpet ride, just trying to hold on tight as I can, and I go, "Okay, I can get through this and we can get through this together."