Actor Soleil Moon Frye, who assumed the role of her pig-tailed alter ego Punky Brewster at the age of 8, revisits her younger self and along the way, discovers the importance of self-love with her documentary Kid 90
Words by NANDITA KHANNA
SOLEIL MOON FRYE was the childhood star of the sitcom Punky Brewster.
“I don’t really know where I ended and Punky began,” says actor and director Soleil Moon Frye, 44, in her autobiographical documentary Kid 90, the culmination of a four-year project that took her on a true trip down memory lane. The process of peeling back the onion began as she started to listen to every voice recording, watched found footage she’d meticulously captured with the same video camera she toted around throughout her adolescence (it was a gift) and poured through the diaries she’d kept since age five. “Everything was safely stored away, and once I opened it, there was no going back,” she says.
Inevitably, early in the process, painful moments crept in (the documentary touches upon the untimely death of friends including actor Jonathan Brandis, musician Andrew Dorff and Kids star Justin Pierce). But with great agony also comes a reckoning. “I realized I was uncovering all of these experiences that I’d just blocked out and not dealt with,” she says.
JONATHAN BRANDIS and SOLEIL MOON FRYE.
Amidst the sadness, there is also plenty of teenage sweetness: doodles in her diary of Mark Wahlberg’s name, voice recordings from Charlie Sheen, snippets of a young heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio and a mushroom trip in Antelope Valley — captured in a distinctly raw and unselfconscious way that could only be achieved in a pre-Instagram/TikTok world.
On the eve of the release of her documentary, we talk with the nostalgia-tinged actor about what propelled her to dive into a part of her life she’d locked away for two decades and what she’d tell a young Punky today.
When did you first decide to open up your boxes of audiotapes, videotapes, and diaries – Pandora’s box as you refer to it in the documentary?
About four years ago I started to wonder if things happened the way I remembered them. I think about that time and I remember so much love and bliss, but at the same time, I had just turned 40, I have these incredible kids and I was so focused on being a mom to them. I started to wonder if those memories were as I’d remembered them after all those years
Kids of the ’90s (like me) will remember gushing over many of your friends in the pages of Tiger Beat. What was it like reconnecting with people like Brian Austin Green, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Balthazar Getty, and Stephen Dorff — who were your real childhood friends — after all this time?
It’s incredible to think about these lifelong friends of mine who opened up in the way they did. What stands out to me most is the authenticity of the friendships. Reconnecting with Brian again — it was like not a day had gone by. Stephen and I rewatched the tapes of his late brother Andrew together. Balthazar has stayed in my life; his family is like my family.
It was really wild to reconnect with Danny [Boy O’Connor from House of Pain]. I always wondered it if was as real as it was for him as it was for me. We had so much love for one another. Through this process I really let the blinders come off and realized not only have I was loved so much but I also loved so much.
BRIAN AUSTIN GREEN and SOLEIL MOON FRYE.
Have your own kids seen Kid 90? What was it like to share this part of your life with them?
Yes, the girls, Poet (15) and Jagger (12) have — they actually helped with the research. It’s been an incredible way to connect with them, and talk to them honestly, and share some of my experiences. It’s one thing to say you’ve been through it and it’s another to be able to show them
“The best part was rediscovering my inner spark — that connection between my teen self and my adult self.”
SolEIl Moon Frye
Something that comes up again and again throughout the documentary is this idea of how memories hold up over time. How has relistening to old recordings and reading your old diaries altered those memories, if at all? What did you learn from it?
I think back to some of the most profound moments — like Jonathan Brandis and I leaving these long voicemails for each other. We’d spend 29 minutes joking around and then the last minute would be sharing the inner depths of who we are. Some of his most genuine feelings are expressed in the documentary — and it was so cathartic to hear — but also so much pain. There were certainly moments when I’ve asked myself if there was more I could have done. Could I have been a better friend? What the experience of losing Jonathan taught me was that it’s so important not only to ask people who they are but to really hear them back. To really listen to them.
My hope is that this story can also shed some light on the importance of mental health awareness and how we can better support one another as we go through the awkward stages of life. I hope we can allow young people to go through it and not shame them but empower them.
The actor/director as a teenager.
What was the best part about working on this project? And the hardest?
No question the best part was rediscovering my inner spark — that connection between my teen self and my adult self. The hardest part was also the most beautiful: Once you unlock Pandora’s box, you can’t put any of it back — nor would I want to, as it’s informed who I am today. At the same time, this process has transformed my entire life. The fact is my family has gone through it all with me. They’ve lived through my pain as I went through this process and watched me change so much along the way.
What would you tell teenage Soleil now if you could?
I would wrap my arms and wings around her and tell her it’s all going to be okay. I would tell her every moment of the love and light and the pain and the heartache will bring her to the woman she will become and she will soar.
And to my teen self, I would thank her for that letter she left for me, as it was a blueprint for a way back home. To the 15-year-old girl who asked me, “Who are you going to be? Have the journeys made you strong?” I’m so grateful for those questions. I had to look within myself. I want to make that little girl proud. She helped me rediscover that spark.
SOLEIL MOON FRYE today. Photo by Amanda Demme.
Where is that spark taking you now?
I’m drinking up life. I’m documenting everything. I’m writing again. I’m living the dream. Punky and Soleil. We’re coming of age again.
I was raised to be of service. It’s been a gift to be able to do my art and tell my stories. I’m on the board of CORE working with Ann Lee and Sean Penn, these incredible warriors who are creating meaningful change. And I’m going to keep on creating, loving, and being an artist and a mother.
Kid 90 is now streaming on Hulu.
Feature image: As a teenager in the ’90s, Soleil Moon Frye carried a video camera everywhere she went, documenting her group of friends as they grew up in Hollywood and New York City. Photo by Amanda Demme.
March 12, 2021
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