Appearing on Tuesday’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, former and forever Punky Brewster Soleil Moon Frye came off as a blessedly normal, well-adjusted, and still-enthusiastic champion of her own self and career. That might seem like a low bar to clear and make note of, but the phrase “former child star” all too rarely fails to be followed by serious heartbreak and sadness, so good on her. And why shouldn’t Frye be happy? The let’s-just-try-it NBC offshoot that is Peacock has just handed the actress a decades-later “continuation” (in Frye’s words) of the life and spunky times of her iconic 1980s character in the new series Punky Brewster, with the now divorced (but ever spunky) mom of four Punky still bopping along with unbowed optimism and, well, spunk. Plus, she’s got a new documentary coming out that seeks to explore how she dove right into the grinding gears of the Hollywood child star machine without getting damaged—too badly.
Kid 90 (premiering on Hulu on March 12) saw Frye opening up the carefully sealed “Pandora’s box” that were the hundreds of VHS tapes and audio recordings she made when she was a young actress. As Kimmel confirmed, Frye was right at the center of a truly varied and impressive scrum of some of the biggest young TV and music stars of the time, including the likes of Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Brian Austin Green, Stephen Dorff, Mark McGrath, Jenny Lewis, Perry Farrell, David Arquette, Tobey Maguire, and Leonardo DiCaprio (who serves as the film’s executive producer). The documentary also includes footage of some of Frye’s friends who didn’t escape unscathed, such as the late Jonathan Brandis and Kids stars Harold Hunter and Justin Pierce. Says Frye of her eventual return to those recordings, “There was so much joy and bliss, and there was also a lot of pain. And I had lost some people that were very close to me.”
Describing her found-footage excavation (which, she claims, drew inspiration from a viewing of Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, of all things) as an exercise in finding out “if my life had happened the way I remembered it,” Frye told Kimmel that, ultimately, the sometimes painful experience was a liberating and illuminating one. Noting the “pre-social media” freedom for her group of famous friends to be themselves with a deal more privacy than today’s young actors, Frye explained that, while her Punky-like enthusiasm often made her the focus, it was only in seeing her old tapes (and sharing them, sometimes emotionally, with her old friends in the film) did she see that, “I didn’t realize how loved back I was by those people.” For the now 44-year-old Frye (seen in a candid period photo crushing hard on both Mark Wahlberg and Will Smith), the long and disillusioning road of child stardom has, for all its ups and downs, seemingly turned out at least better than most.