In 1984, Soleil Moon Frye wriggled her way into the hearts of millions of Americans as the precocious character Punky on the NBC series, “Punky Brewster,” and although this much beloved sitcom about a quirky orphaned 7-year-old girl and the old man who befriends her was pure fiction, the series didn’t shy away from tackling tough issues that real kids face.
One such memorable episode addressed the 1986 loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The series producers assembled a special episode centered around astronaut-wannabe Punky’s fear and despair, which aired just six weeks after the tragedy. Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin even made a cameo appearance.
Like her character Punky, Soleil Moon Frye has also dreamed of one day going to space but for now, she’ll have to be satisfied with reprising the role that made her famous, Punky, on the continuation of the beloved sitcom currently streaming on the Peacock streaming service.
Soleil grew up in Burbank, California, the daughter of actor Virgil Frye, a former Golden Gloves boxing champion, and manager turned movie caterer, Sondra Poluce. Now a proud mother of four children of her own, Frye is also an accomplished published author, television writer, producer, director, Target Ambassador, and a film maker, most recently of “kid 90,” a brand new Hulu documentary made using footage, journals and audio tapes teenage Soleil and her friends shot in the 1990s.
She also is involved with CORE, a nonprofit started by Sean Penn and Ann Lee to respond to the humanitarian disaster in Haiti after an earthquake struck there in 2010. The community organized relief effort has since expanded beyond Haiti and is actively involved in helping communities respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
We spoke with Soleil about her two latest projects, as well as her desire to travel to space and her fascination with the wonders of the Universe.
RocketSTEM: The past year has proved to be a very productive one for you, even despite the pandemic raging across the planet. You’ve had the revival of “Punky Brewster” on the Peacock streaming service, as well as premiere of the documentary “kid 90” on Hulu today. Both are a throwback to your childhood years when you wrote journals, carried a camera, tape recorder or camcorder with you nearly everywhere. What did you learn about yourself by being able to see your childhood through that perspective years later?
Soleil Moon FRYE: “This has been such a life-changing journey. I really believe that my teen-self left this chronological blueprint for me to really find my way back home and to the artist that I once was and I’m so grateful for that. It really changed my life in so many ways by being able to reflect and go back into the past. It was so cathartic and inspiring.”
RS: You were fortunate to be able to chronicle your own life and those of your close friends, who just happened to be many other child actors of the 80s and 90s. But you were also able to keep those moments private for more than two decades, stored away in plastic bins. The youth of today – and even many adults – are obsessed with sharing everything on social media. How has your childhood within the industry influenced how you approach social media being used within your own household?
FRYE: “It was really incredible to be able to go back and reflect on these tapes, diaries and audiotapes that had been stored away in my vault for all of these years. I think on a subconscious level, I wasn’t really ready to go back and to relive it. I really wondered if everything happened the way I remembered it. I remember us being so joyful and so full of bliss and love and life, and then losing some of our very dear friends really early on. In uncovering all of the joy and the light and the love, I also uncovered a lot of the pain from the past.
“It was really an incredible opportunity for me to look within and to really piece together so many parts of my life. I think it was also so moving to see that stage of being a teen and insecurities, and the way in which I was trying to fit into the world around me.
“I look at my daughters who are now 13 and 15 and I look at the world in which they’re living in and it’s magnified so much. I look at what young people are going through now and the lens and filter of it all and I can only imagine what it’s like to be going through puberty at this stage with everything being under this magnifying glass.
“I have such empathy and also such deep love for teens growing up today and I think it’s also a reminder that we need to continue the conversation around the fact that one size doesn’t fit all. I felt so many of those insecurities, so many of us did as kids, and those same insecurities are surrounding us today under a whole other level of scrutiny.
“The point is that we continue to go through so many of the insecurities of adolescence and I can only imagine the effect that it will have long-term and I think it’s a dialogue that we have to have around compassion and love for young people growing up today.”
RS: So many kids want to be an actor/actress when they grow up, but you lived that life while dreaming of becoming an astronaut. What was is about space exploration that so attracted you as a child?
FRYE: “I wanted to be an astronaut since almost as early as I can remember, and I’m still determined to go to space one of these days. I’ve always loved quantum physics and am fascinated by space. I remember all of my early years wanting to be an astronaut so badly.
“When the Challenger explosion happened, we were watching it all together in our classroom on the set of Punky and I was so devastated, we were all so devastated, as the rest of the world was. They ended up writing an episode that dealt with it where Buzz Aldrin came and visited us because they all knew how passionate I was about being an astronaut and it stuck with me my entire life.
“As a teenager, people said that I didn’t meet the height requirement or whatever it was at that time.
“Over the last ten years in studying space exploration and meeting so many incredible people who I have so much respect for that are really exploring space, it just feels so within reach.
“I am constantly in awe of the cosmos and the incredible astronauts who are exploring space travel and I’m also constantly exploring physics and quantum physics.
“I’m ready to go! I have big dreams of space. I have this concept in my mind in however many seasons down the line of Punky, Punky and Elon Musk go to outer space and she goes to photograph it and I plan on going with her.”
RS: You’ve stated often that you do not know where Punky ends and you begin as the character contains so much of your own effervescent personality. How do you think that you – or Punky – would handle the three-month journey to Mars trapped within such a small confined space?
FRYE: “I’ve always leaned into Punky to discover my own inner spark and inner Punky power and Soleil power. I always feel like as long as Punky can do it, I can do it too.”
RS: Punky Brewster, the show wasn’t afraid to tackle issues that generally were not portrayed on kid-friendly programming or sitcoms of the day. The second season finale dealt with the death of the Challenger crew. In order to help Punky deal with her grief and fear, Buzz Aldrin appeared on the show and spoke to her about the event. Was the episode inspired by your own reaction to the loss of teacher Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the crew?
FRYE: “Absolutely it was completely inspired by the experience of living it with the rest of the world. I think so often we were able to deal with these topics and traumas that were happening around the world that were also happening in our internal lives. I’m so grateful that they stay true to that authenticity of sharing our stories because that was genuinely how I was feeling, and to be able to take that pain and turn it into art and a message that others can connect with was really one of the great gifts of Punky and the heart and DNA of the show and who she is.”
RS: When Punky aired, the first landing of a rover on Mars was still nearly a decade away. Since then, we’ve landed five rovers on the mission of increasing size, including the arrival of the Perseverance rover last month. Have you been excitedly following all the robotic missions to Mars over the years? If so, which rover mission has fascinated you and your kids the most?
FRYE: “I have been studying over the years and I’m constantly inspired by these missions and by the cosmos, galaxies and discoveries along the way. I feel so grateful to have met some of the most innovative, brilliant, creative geniuses who are a part of these missions and I think that is something that excites me so much because I really believe that space travel for someone like me is within reach. My son who is now 7 will say, “Mommy, are we gonna go to outer space someday?” and I believe we will.”
RS: The Hubble Space Telescope has been taking amazing images of distant nebulas, galaxies and more for a quarter of a century. Do you have a favorite object that has been imaged?
FRYE: “I had a dream in the last year about the Starburst Galaxy. I believe so much of our dreams are connected to these incredible experiences we have in life and explore our subconscious. So I had this dream about the Starburst Galaxy, and then I searched it and started learning about it and I just thought, this feels so in alignment and beautiful and so dreamy and connected to me and the cosmos. I hadn’t studied about it before this dream so I think so much can be discovered through our dreams.”
RS: Why are you excited about space exploration? How have you shared that excitement with your children?
FRYE: “I’m excited for so many reasons. I am so inspired by quantum physics and by studying Einstein and Tesla and philosophers and poets that have inspired me over the years, and my desire for space exploration lines up so much with the discussions and discoveries around frequencies and vibrations. I just feel that is all-encompassing so I think I was born into this feeling that I have and this knowing that someday I will be able to reach the stars.”
RS: Have you and your kids every gone outside and watched the ISS or other orbiting items gone overhead?
FRYE: “We go outside on a regular basis and study the stars and the Moon and the Moon cycles. We are constant stargazers. We embrace it all. I love space so much, the mystic and the magic of the universe, and I really believe in the experience of how we are all interconnected to the energy forces and I feel a constant pull towards it.”
RS: When you gaze at the stars at night, how many constellations can you point out and name?
FRYE: “A lot. I am completely inspired by the constellations and by the stars, and the Moon. Being named Soleil Moon Frye, I’m constantly awe inspired by the Sun and the Moon in addition to the stars and the galaxy and the constellations. I don’t think my name was an accident, let’s put it that way.”
RS: Favorite fact about space?
FRYE: “I look at space in so many ways and in a deeply metaphysical way. I think that Nikola Tesla has this incredible quote that says, “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” Einstein has this quote about setting the frequencies to that which we want to receive and that’s what comes back to us. I think of space the way that Tesla speaks about the secrets of the universe.”
RS: Time for a few rapid-fire questions. Favorite astronaut, scientist, engineer, or inventor?
FRYE: “Nikola Tesla. Albert Einstein. Diotima of Mantinea. Christina Koch.”
RS: Star Wars or Star Trek?
FRYE: “Star Wars.”
RS: Favorite space mission?
FRYE: “I’ve been so inspired by the progress all of these decades that I can’t pick one.”
RS: If you could travel aboard any spacecraft (fictional or not) which one would you be?
FRYE: “I think I would have a really amazing journey going with Elon Musk on one of his adventures.”
RS: Aliens or Robots?
FRYE: “I think there are words that would be more respectful in describing aliens vs. robots, which is a force that is beyond what many can see. My point is that I think there’s a more articulate beautiful word.”
RS: Favorite space movie?
FRYE: “There are so many I love, so it’s hard to name just one!”
RS: If you could travel to any single place in the solar system where would you go?
FRYE: “I want to dance on the Moon and travel around. There’s a lot of places I want to go to.”
RS: What food and beverage could you not live without on a long space journey?
FRYE: “I’d really love to have a vodka soda up there. Some Grey Goose and soda and I’ll be happy.”
RS: The Universe; will it end in fire or ice? The Great Contraction or The Great Freeze?
FRYE: “I would say expansion. That’s my philosophy in life.”
Soleil Moon Frye’s personal documentary, “kid 90” is available to watch on Hulu now. The first season of the 2021 continuation of “Punky Brewster,” is available on Peacock. The first four seasons of “Punky Brewster” from the 1980s are presently viewable on both NBC and Peacock.