FRYE : Soleil Moon Frye a Long Way From Kid Who Played ‘Punky’ : Actress: Matured from her days as the ever-optimistic youth, she’s starring in ‘Orestes--I Murdered My Mother’ on stage and this July in a new film.
The house is like any other. It doesn’t stand out on the residential street in Burbank, except that outside the front door is a foot-high stack of scripts.
Inside, children’s photographs adorn the walls. It’s all very normal, except that the pictures are from magazine covers. The decor is eclectic, but tasteful. And on the couch, hugging a large, overstuffed pillow, is Soleil Moon Frye.
“I am just like a girl down the street. My life may be a little different, but I am a person,” she says. “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I haven’t been handed anything. I worked to be where I am. I’m a person, a teen-ager just like all the other teen-agers out there.”
Of course, other teen-agers out there weren’t “Punky Brewster” from 1984 to 1988. But you might not recognize her now.
She’s grown up. There is the same sparkle to the eyes and easy smile, but Frye looks more than five years removed from the pint-sized Punky cardboard cutout in her living room. And though she shares the character’s unshakable optimism, she sounds wise beyond her 16 years.
“I always had that sense of reality to never take it for granted, because fame’s great, but it doesn’t last forever. It’s here today and gone tomorrow,” she says. “And if you are fortunate, and you realize how fortunate you are and you give back, then usually it lasts a lot longer.”
Frye is currently starring as Elektra in “Orestes--I Murdered My Mother” at the Burbage Theatre in West Los Angeles (through May 15). She stars in “The Liar’s Club,” with Wil Wheaton and Brian Krause, a feature film due out in July. (“It’s sort of like ‘The Breakfast Club’ goes criminal.”) She’s also filmed several episodes of a teen-oriented talk show called “You Are Here.”
Yet she expects that when she’s 70 years old, people will still refer to her as the kid who used to be “Punky Brewster.” But that’s OK.
“The reason I don’t regret it is because I know what a positive show it was. . . . And it was amazing, growing up on a set, working with great people. Though there are times you get exhausted and you’re a little kid and you want to go out and play,” she says.
She calls hers a “fantasy childhood,” much of it spent on the back lot of Universal, where her older brother, Meeno Peluce, was acting in the television series “Voyagers!” Frye started acting at age 6, in the TV movie, “Who Will Love My Children?” The pilot for “Punky” came along a year later.
“I was always brought up to have my childhood and hold on to my youth. In a lot of ways, I’m very innocent, like the fact that I’m still a virgin. I still love playing football. I still love swimming. I love camp. I’m still a kid in a lot of ways. But I also don’t feel 16. . . .
“I’m half 16 and half an old soul.”
Her experiences, she admits, were not commonplace. In fact, she plans to write a book about her life.
“I’ve gone through so much for any 16-, 17-year-old--just things from spilling a Coke on Muhammad Ali, to being baby-sat by Michael Jackson, to hanging out with my dad (actor Virgil Frye) and Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. . . . Intermixed with it will probably be my poetry.”
She’s finishing school this spring, but is going to use the next semester to shop around for a college, likely one far away from Los Angeles.
“I think I need that time away from the city and away from things to just grow up and do what Jodie Foster did. I respect that,” she says in her raspy voice. “And since I know I have the talent, I know it will stay with me.”
While she’s interested in majoring in theater, she also wants a degree in child psychology.
“I want to start a program that’s hands-on psychology where it’s not like a shrink where you sit in their office and just talk to them. It would be where I would help children through expression--through writing, music, art, theater,” she says.
She got involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation while on “Punky,” where about once a week a chronically ill child would come to the set. She’s also been involved with the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. In January, rather than go to Washington for the presidential Inauguration, Frye stayed in Southern California and took a terminally ill child to Disneyland.
“You meet so many children out there that need a helping hand, that need a friend, that need our help,” she says. “I have a chance to reach out my hand and give to them. . . . it’s been a good exchange.”
After the “Punky Brewster” run ended on TV, she had to face a personal problem of her own. By age 15, the five-foot-one Frye had a size 38-DD chest, which caused her back pain and lowered her self-esteem. Yet she saw her highly publicized breast-reduction surgery as another way to help people.
“I didn’t go public for publicity reasons. After having my surgery, instead of saying, ‘No I didn’t have it,’ I wanted to turn a negative into a positive,” she says. She and brother Meeno are going to make an educational documentary about the operation.
With “Orestes,” Frye has ventured into live theater for the first time, and she loves it.
“Being able to get up onstage and have that audience in the palm of your hand, and being able to just move people or make them feel anything--it’s just so touching. It doesn’t matter if a critic likes it or he doesn’t,” she says.
A friend was in R. Jeffrey Cohen’s modern adaptation, so she auditioned and landed the intense role of Elektra, sister of Orestes (Joshua Miller, who appeared in the film “River’s Edge”). The role takes her from catatonic depression to insane rage, and a Los Angeles Times review said that “when the production hits the viewer where it should, it’s her doing.”
Taking the Elektra role was a big sacrifice, according to her mother, Sondra Peluce.
“She--at 16, not quite 17--had to give up so much (to) get prepared for this play. . . . For Soleil it didn’t mean just learning the lines; for her it meant really learning what the Greek trilogy of the house of Atreus was about. It meant taking a dictionary and looking up words, picking everybody’s brain who had studied Greek literature,” Peluce says. “But it also meant, at her age, giving up a big social life on weekends. You’re there, you’re rehearsing for weeks on end, then you’re performing every Thursday, Friday, Saturday night. That’s when kids go out and do their thing. But she’s not.”
Like any mother, she has high hopes for her child. She can visualize Frye at the London School of Dramatic Arts, or on Broadway. She might like to see her exercise that bluesy voice outside their living room, where Frye sings along with Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.
“I just have such respect for her. I mean, how many parents can say that about their kids? They love them . . . but to really respect someone at that age is really calling up an awful lot. I know the sacrifices she’s making.”
Peluce is sure her daughter is worthy of the praise. Why?
“She’s probably the only teen-ager in town who turned down the Amy Fisher story.”