Photos Randall Slavin | Words Tamara Rappa
We sat down with actor, director, writer, and all around creative soul Soleil Moon Frye for an exclusive interview during an exciting time in her life: one we're calling her 2021 renaissance. Two Soleil-soaked projects released within a month's time marked her return to the spotlight, including her return to Punky Brewster, the 80’s pop culture icon she’s known for, with season one now available on Peacock TV. Kid 90 on the other hand, the documentary she produced, directed, and created, is a visual and audible feast of found footage and intimate interviews paired with music by Linda Perry and stylish graphics that not only provides a close look at the earlier lives of Soleil Moon Frye and her circle of friends, but paints a picture of 90's style in Hollywood. The documentary is loaded with too-many-to-list notable contributors---both on and off screen---that Soleil is both in awe of herself, and deeply grateful for. Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and his production company, Appian Way, the documentary is an incredibly candid and bittersweet love letter to Soleil's younger self. It took years of stockpiled diaries and recordings to create this piece of art that, in the most magical of ways, has served up an undoubtedly unique perspective while at the same time creating connection, resonating deeply with everyone from friends to fans and viewers far and wide, because of its universal topics and messaging, We got the exclusive backstory on her reconnection with former boyfriend Danny Boy O’ Connor of House Of Pain, and how footage of their time together was found and added mid-production, Soleil is extremely candid about the darker experiences in her life depicted in the doc and how she’s still learning to piece it all together, we talk about the theme of acceptance woven through all of Kid 90's stories, what she learned about herself as an artist during the process of creating it, and more.
How are you feeling emotionally, in reacquainting yourself with Soleil the child star through the making of Kid 90, your documentary on Hulu? It's as if I've come of age all over again. Through the course of this documentary, Kid 90, and reliving my life as Punky, I'm getting so much more in touch with that artist that I once was. It was this rediscovery of that spark, and it's such a gift.
What ages are you during the span of Kid 90? I started keeping a diary from the time I was five years old. I got an audio recorder for my 12th birthday, started video taping soon after, and then carried that video camera with me all the way up until my early twenties. Then I just locked all the footage away, and had never looked back at it.
In the documentary, you open by saying maybe you, as a younger you, knew that you'd have a story to tell, and that's why in some ways, you were prepared for this moment. Can you recall moments of having the maturity and presence at that time to look around and say, "My life is pretty extraordinary. This is a story to tell." I think it was the teen journalist in me, constantly curious about the world around me, and the people in it, looking at this colorful world and wanting to drink it all in. My parents were both activists. My father was a Civil Rights activist. My mom was an activist. They had always encouraged us to take our painful experiences and turn it into art. There was so much bliss, and love, and youth, and innocence. There was also some pain. I think for me, the camera was this extension of myself. I really also believe that so much of our journey is ingrained within our subconscious. I really, truly believe with all of my heart that I left this chronological blueprint as a way for me to find my way back home, to who I once was. It's this incredible healing of both the little girl in me and the adult in me. The little girl me who experienced feelings of shame or insecurities, all of those kinds of things that we go through growing up--- I was able to wrap my arms around that little girl, hug that little girl, and tell her, 'Everything that happens in your life, the messiness, the roller coasters, the emotions, will lead you right to where you were meant to be'. I had to really look within myself and think, 'Am I making that little girl proud? Am I doing all of the things that she believed that I could accomplish?'
When did you know this documentary was going to get made? How did things come together? I think that it was very much this subconscious experience having to do with turning 40. I have these incredible kids. I was living a beautiful life in so many ways; as a mother, and wife at the time---all of that. I think part of me, in turning 40, was questioning who I once was. Who am I in addition to this beautiful thing? I remember my life being filled with so much love and light and so much artistry. At the same time, I had lost some of my best friends and I was wondering if things happened the way I remember them. Some of my best friends died so young. I think it took twenty years to be able to go back, because I think somewhere inside I must have known that there was also a great deal of pain that I'd suppressed. I think it took that time for me to gain the courage to go back. Of course, what I discovered was true self love and the sense of self.
With years of video footage and journals, was there ever a moment that forced you to say, 'I should really go take a look at these items', but then you stopped yourself? I think there were different times where I would go, 'Let me pick up that one diary', but I had never listened to all the audio tapes. I'd never watched the video tapes back. I didn't really know all that was on them. It was all just stored in my subconscious. And then I became really curious if life happened the way that I remembered it. When I started to put the documentary together, though, I tried to make it about everyone but me. The found footage was going to be more like B roll, and the first iteration of this documentary was going to be about the death of privacy and the last decade pre-internet explosion. It started out as a film totally, completely not about me. I tried to make it about everyone else. I love this quote. I don't know who said it, but it's essentially, 'If you set out the documentary that you set out to make, exactly as you set out to make it, then you weren't really listening along the way.'
At one point in the documentary, you were talking about someone that you lost, and said you didn't see the signs, you no had no idea that they were in pain. DID things happen the way that you thought they did? Is it 50% the way you thought it did? Is it 80%? So much of it happened the way I remembered it. One of the most profound experiences in this documentary, an incredible example of that, is Danny [Boy O' Connor, Of House Of Pain], who I was so crazy about as a teenager. I was crazy about him, he was bigger than life, I was so in awe. All the years after, and we didn't speak for around twenty years, I knew how much I loved him. But I did not know how much I was loved back. All of these experiences; with Brian, with Danny, with my male friends, with my female friends--- I had this incredible realization that not only did I love these individuals, and I get emotional thinking about it, but I was loved back. It made me realize how many of us, and I say this in the documentary, are walking around not realizing that we are loved, because we're looking at it from one perspective that is our own. I watched the tapes 80, 90, 100 times, 179 times. On the 180th time looking at a tape, I would begin to see the way that I was looking at someone, and the way they were looking back at me. It was like blinders coming off. In that moment I thought, 'If I've been looking at the world through this one perspective this whole time, what else have I been missing all around me?' So much of the beauty of this experience was looking at it from a different perspective. My dream of all dreams was and is that people would look at it through their own lens and that it wasn't just my story, it was a universal story. What is more universal than coming of age? I remember Sean [Penn] saying that to me at one point, and thought, that's so true and so profound. The outpouring of love for this documentary and the amount of people who have shared their stories, makes me so emotional because they are watching it through their experience. That is the greatest gift for me as a being, as an artist, as a filmmaker, as a documentarian, as a journalist: to have that shared experience, that collective experience.
What did Leonardo DiCaprio have to say about Kid 90? It was produced by Appian Way, his production company. He's been amazing. I love him so much. I mean this from the bottom of my heart. I'm so grateful. I've had the incredible honor for many years to work with the phenomenal Ann Lee and Sean Penn on CORE, which is so incredibly close to my heart. Sean was pretty much one of the very first people to see it. He's been such an incredible champion of it, and he told my childhood friend, Leo, about it. Then Leo connected me with the amazing Jennifer and Phillip at Appian Way. Really, it's been such a dream. Appian Way came on board, and had so much insight, were so amazing, and gave such phenomenal feedback. Sean has been such an incredible support system. He's an executive producer on it as well. There are no words to describe how much gratitude I have for him in this. It's been this dream team of amazing creative artists. The brilliant Linda Perry, created this stunning score; so amazing, so awe inspiring. This brilliant score by Linda; she put her love, her heart, her sweat, her tears into it. Then I had other friends come on board, additional musicians supporting and being so kind and loving towards it, like my dear friends, Jill and Eddie Vedder. I wrote a letter to Trent Reznor. Liz Fair, the Cranberries---the soundtrack is so phenomenal. It has been this culmination. I don't mean to sound name drop-y. My point is, these artists who I respect so much as artists, as humanitarians, as people who are so important in my life... to have their support has been so incredible.To also have the world's support, from people that I've never met physically that are sharing their amazing stories; doctors, that are nurses, people who work in restaurants, in shops, people who are writers, are creators, are musicians. The outpouring from people of all walks of life has been so amazing. Teenagers...adults.... I get these messages, and I'm in tears of gratitude.
How long did it take to make? How many cuts were there? It took my entire life, and then I've been working on it for the last four and a half years. I turned in an early cut and it was amazing. Belisa Balaban from Hulu, who's been so incredible and such an inspiration, said 'What's the glue that holds [Kid 90] together?' Then I realized I had never watched all the footage. So I said to Sean at one point, 'What if I was to cut a full found footage documentary?' He asked me if I'd ever seen Sherman's March. I went home and watched it, and I decided, I'm going to do my teenage Sherman's March. So we cut an entire found footage version and turned that in. They were like, 'Are you going to add narration? Are you going to add some interviews?' I then showed it to my very dear friend, Greg, who used to be at Warner Brothers. I spent the next few years really living with it, and breathing it, and in an edit bay every day, all day and night, really looking within. I have a very dear friend, Neal, who had cut Wild Country. He kept saying, 'When are you going to do an interview? I told him, 'I'm not doing an interview. This is not about me," I kept saying that over and over. At one point I was having an emotional experience in my life, some stuff was going on personally. Finally I thought, 'You know what? Let's do it.' I turned to the woman that was in the bay with me and I said, 'Let's do my interview this week. I'm going to let you ask me anything you want to ask me. You've been in here long enough with me trying to put together the pieces of my life.' Then we went in and I spent another year working on it. It has been a four and a half year journey. One of the things that I find so fascinating is that throughout the process, it's helped me to gain the courage to be in a place where I could finally share it. We were cutting, and in sound, and color correction up until the week that it premiered. It was so wild, and just such a testament to the experience.
The documentary shines a light on your group of actor and celebrity friends. Countless recognizable names appear in Kid 90, whether it's a voicemail recording from Mark Wahlberg, to in-person footage from a given time period. There was this pack of people, teens into their 20's, working in Hollywood, living life and experiencing growing up together at the time. How did that come to be? There was a really small group of us growing up that grew up in the business. It wasn't like today, where there are so many child actors. At that time, it was a much smaller group, so we would hang out. We would have these fun experiences. We'd all go to San Diego together, or Magic Mountain. There would be a photo shoot for Teen Magazine or Teen Beat. There were perks of being able to have these fun experiences together. We would see each other on auditions, some of us went to school together. Jonathan Brandis and I went to high school together. There were these very authentic relationships that were really genuine, wonderful, beautiful friendships. My house was Camp Soleil. My mom was a chef, so she always was cooking, and she was always inviting everyone in. She created an environment that was a really safe place for people to come to. I think so many people found comfort in our home. So we would all spend holidays together, and birthdays together. Brian Green and I grew up together, from when we were 12. We would go through our growth experiences together. I definitely felt so cool when he picked me up from school in his Bronco! We all just happened to be doing this wild thing that was really fun for so many of us: playing make believe and acting.
What was the process like for gathering your contributors? How did you approach who would be on camera for commentary, like Brian Austin Green, Mark Paul Gosselar and David Arquette. What were those conversations like? They've stayed in my life for so many years, so many of them. For Balt and I, our kids have gone to preschool, and have grown up together. He's been in my life consistently. Brian and I reconnected through the doc, but we had stayed close for many years. David Arquette has been such a part of my life for so many years. Stephen Dorff and I had gone to summer camp together and we reconnected after the passing of his brother. When his brother passed away, it was at a time when I was opening up the tapes. So, that really bonded us. For each person, it was a different experience. Of course, I've been talking to Tory every day since I was 2, as well as Heather, and other friends. Then of course there was Danny, who I hadn't spoken to.
That was really an incredible part of the documentary... This might be the first time I'm sharing this. Halfway through the doc, I found another box of tapes. That box of tapes was from my entire time with House of Pain and going on tour. When I found that box in the middle of making the documentary, I was like, 'Oh, my God. I need to go and talk to him.' So I called him up and we had this beautiful conversation. It was so emotional. I was crying. He said, 'I'll love you until we're grains of sand'.
How would you say the idea of acceptance is imparted through the doc? I think so much of it is. It's a great question. I think that so often we look for acceptance from the outside, from the people around us. There's so much programming that goes into our heads as we grow up. People say, 'You're not good enough,' or, 'You're not pretty enough'. Your voice or whatever it is that gets in our head, each one of us has our own programming; our own experiences that then fundamentally affect who we are. I think as a teenager, I was looking for acceptance so much from that outside world. For so many years, whether from family or from friends. So much of the journey now has been self acceptance. I really see myself now, in the mirrors that reflect the best of me. And the mirrors that don't reflect the best of me? Those are not people I choose to spend time with. That comes with growth, and looking inside of one's self to release enough of ego to not make everything about ourselves. There's this quote that I love, 'The first half of our lives are building a healthy ego, and then the second half is letting it go.'
In Kid 90 you read from a journal about a someone who raped you, and you say that you locked that away after it happened. What I perceived in watching it was perhaps you didn't know at the time that it was a rape. I think it's a really powerful question. I'll be really honest with you. I'm still wrapping my head around it. This is all so fresh in my experience. I want to be really clear. I didn't have just one experience in which I'd suppressed. So much of this has not been about the who or the what of those experiences. I know there are pieces of it that I can't really put together. That's why I tried to be as authentic as I could in what I found, what was in the diary, and what was on the tapes. There are parts I can't fully explain because it's all still very fresh in my experience, my mind is uncovering it. Because this was not one experience, and there were a multitude of experiences that were darker, I still have been trying to make sense of what I can piece together. What is depicted in the documentary isn't about the details of each experience. It was about forgiving the little girl inside of me that in some way, felt shame attached to the experiences, and that they made her not pure, or no longer innocent. I can only speak to my personal experience. It's been about forgiveness; forgiveness for myself, forgiveness for the experiences. When I say forgiveness for myself, it's that part of me that somehow felt I put myself into these situations, these situations that in some way affected my view of my purity. It's been about releasing that. Through my faith and through meditating and through looking within, and working from a spiritual place, it has allowed me to do a great deal of healing and to try to live with compassion and empathy for myself, and for others who have had similar experiences.
At the end of the documentary, you recognize those in your circle who have passed. Why did you choose to end the documentary and this piece of pop culture history that way? For me, so much of this experience was the incredible honor of being able to live with these ghosts of my past and to be revisited by them. It felt so right to want to honor them, and really dedicate it to them in a way. And also to recognize that there are people all around us that touch us, those relationships that authentically weave into our lives. Through the doc, I hope I can inspire more people to be kind and compassionate and loving, and to listen more. It's been so amazing to hear people say that after watching it, they called their friend, or their mom, or their sister. It feels like a chain reaction.
There's a scene with you in a pool. It's one of my favorite scenes. You could almost see how much was going through your head, what you were trying to make sense of and think about. Oh! That's one of my favorites. I love that you said that. That's probably one of my favorite moments in the documentary. One of the most profound experiences for me was that I showed it to a few friends, and this incredible 27 year old young man turned to me after watching it and he said, 'I've been that teenage girl in the swimming pool'. It was one of the greatest compliments I ever have gotten. I saw him recently and I said, 'I have to tell you, what you said stuck with me throughout this entire process'. I'd shown the documentary to him early; I worked on it for another year and a half afterward. I told him, 'What you said about the teenage girl in the pool is exactly how I hope everyone watches this film'.
Are you that girl that we see in Kid 90, today? Are you writing daily and keeping journals? Yes! Best question ever. Of course, now it's in Notes app on my phone. I write in diaries. I've always loved writing in books. When I fill up diaries, I'll write in books. I have this Leonard Cohen book that I love from when I was a teen. As soon as I would run out of a diary, I would start writing on the pages of his books. Yes, I've started writing again. It has been amazing and incredible to be writing poetry.
What did you learn about yourself as an artist in creating Kid 90? Oh, so much. Much of what I learned is I believe so much of the foundation for our purpose there from the time we're so young. So often, we pick or go down these different roads because of circumstances around us. The heart of the inner child was what I was gifted in regaining. So that was incredible. Then, as an artist, to really stand in my truth, to really make it the way that I wanted to make it, and tell the story that I wanted to tell. There are things that are imperfect about it and they're meant to be imperfect because life is imperfect. It's messy. To live in my truth as an artist and then to have other people have a shared experience, watching it through their own lens, is the greatest gift. It inspires me to want to make movies for the rest of my life, and documentaries for the rest of my life, and be an artist for the rest of my life.
"One of my favorite places to get crystals is in Utah is at Bryson’s Rock Shop. I was filming there, and discovered their incredible selection. I still order from them."
"Chapstick is my jam, got to have original Chapstick. It makes your lips super, super lush."
"I've started writing again. Sharon Olds is a poet I love so much, a real inspiration to me recently, on the poetry front."
"My favorite shoes are my Doc Martens in black. Then of course, Mona May, the genius that she is, had a pair painted for Punky Brewster and I was like, I need to buy some of those.”
"I love sage bundles. My daughter @poet_siennarose makes these bundles with sage, flowers, and crystals. They’re beautiful."
"I love Egyptian Magic, my skin go-to for all things. I use it all the time, for everything."