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Freddie Prinze Jr. on Punky Brewster, Star Wars Rebels, and Hacky Sack

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Punky Brewster is back and fans can see where she is in her life now, as a single mother of three who meets a young girl in the foster system that very much reminds her of her younger self. Trying to reclaim her Punky Power and get her life back on track, Punky Brewster (Soleil Moon Frye) still has an infectious charm and love for all in her life, including best friend Cherie (Cherie Johnson) and ex-husband Travis (Freddie Prinze Jr.), that makes you root for her to succeed.

During a virtual press junket to talk about the Peacock revival of the ‘80s sitcom, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with Freddie Prinze Jr. about what drew him out of retirement for this show, how much he sees his own father in his Punky Brewster character, his wild meeting with Soleil Moon Frye on the Universal Studios backlot, finding his acting groove again, and what he hopes this show will bring to a new generation of viewers. He also talked about what it’s meant to him to be a part of Star Wars Rebels, seeing some of his previous hit projects make the rounds again with various remakes, and whether he can still hacky sack the way he did in She’s All That.

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Collider: Watching this show put a smile on my face. What were you most drawn to, with this character?

FREDDIE PRINZE JR.: He’s pretty cool. There were days where I’d be like, “This is the greatest job, ever. I just get all of the jokes and none of the responsibility.” And then, when you really look at it, he’s my dad. He was in the entertainment business – my character is in the music business, though, not comedy – and started messing with drugs to the point where Punky no longer feels that he can be a safe father, which is exactly what my mother went through with my old man. She had to have the strength to divorce his ass, excuse my language, because I wouldn’t be safe with a drug addict who had a ‘75 metallic blue Corvette Stingray. That takes a lot of guts. And this guy’s journey is not only trying to earn that trust back with Punky, but with his children, as well. Now, the younger the kid, the easier it is to rebuild the bridge. He has one girl who’s much older, and in a later episode, she starts to pull this card on a couple of things, so it wasn’t just all jokes for Travis. I was like, “Oh, man, this is my pops right here. That’s brutal.” But it’s an old school show. In the ‘80s and late ‘70s, that was the kind of storylines they told bac then. You can look at my dad’s show (Chico and the Man), if you want a brief example. You can look at Sanford and Son. All in the Family is the extreme. All of those shows back then, until studios were publicly traded, were willing to tell a lot more of those types of stories and not solve the world in 22 minutes.

Freddie Prinze Jr Punky Brewster
Image via Peacock

Did you know all of that would be there, going into this?

PRINZE JR.: No. I was retired. I wasn’t even gonna do the show. My buddy, Brian Austin Green, called me. I don’t know this for certain, but I believe he was offered the show and couldn’t do it because he had booked something else. He called me and was like, “Hey, man, they’re remaking Punky Brewster and they really like you for the lead role. I know you’re lazy and don’t read anything anymore, but read this script.” I said, “Okay.” I hung up the phone and played Call of Duty for about nine hours straight after that and forgot. Two days later, he called me back and cussed me out and was like, “I told them you were gonna read the script. Are you ever gonna read the script, you lazy son of a bitch?” He cussed me out again. We’re good friends, so he’s allowed to. Even if we’re not, you can cuss me out. He was like, “Read it. It shoots in L.A.” I was like, “Oh, why didn’t you say that?” I

became a stay at home dad. After I quit the business, I went to work for Vince McMahon and started writing for wrestlers and giving them acting coaching. I was giving them the same kind of exercises my coach would do for me and my group of peers, who were all working actors. When Sarah [Michelle Gellar] had a baby, I left and just wanted to be a stay at home dad. Everything is shot in Canada, and I didn’t wanna be gone six to nine months a year. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Respect to those who can, it’s just wasn’t within me. So I was like, “All right, I’ll read it.” I was reading the script and laughing and Sarah went, “What are you laughing at?” I was like, “You wouldn’t believe me, if I told you.” She went, “Don’t be a jerk!” She says that all the time. I told her that I was reading the Punky Brewster pilot, and she just went, “You’re doing the show.” I said, “I haven’t read the pilot yet.” She was like, “Freddie, Soleil is the sun. You’re gonna fall in love with her.” Everything Brian said about her, Sarah was saying about her, and they didn’t talk.

So, I read the script and was like, “I’ve gotta meet this girl.” She goes, “We’re gonna have lunch in front of the Back to the Future clock tower.” She brings these two bags of In-n-Out and I was like, “Is this the only actress, besides my wife, that eats a Double-Double? That’s gangster. I already love this chick.” I married my wife because she can handle a Double-Double. So, we were talking about the character and how he’s similar to my father, and this girl walks up in a Universal Studios uniform. She had sick hair, and all I could do was stare at her hair because I wish mine looked like hers. It was cyberpunk, short and cool. She was trying to get us out of there. She was like, “There gonna be a proposal here in the next five minutes. Can I ask you guys to leave?” Soleil, who’s the nicest person ever, was like, “Oh, my God, don’t even ask. Just throw us out of here.” So, if you’re facing the clock tower on the tour, to the left, you’ll see some adobe steps that lead to nowhere. We go up there, so that we can watch the proposal and eat our lunch while it’s still warm, and the same girl who ushered us out with the sick hair brings her girlfriend out, gets on one knee, and starts proposing it. A tram car pulled up – this was pre-pandemic – and it’s full of tourists, it’s playing the Back to the Future theme music, and the people start clapping and cheering. I was like, “This is unreal.”

I looked back at Soleil and was like, “I know Brian told you that I was retired, but I’m all in. This a sign. I know I’m supposed to do this. If you guys want me, then I want you.” And she was like, “We want you.” So, I went and did it. I was only supposed to do two or three episodes. The pilot was such a great, perfect experience. It was the opposite of my show. My show has good moments, but I wasn’t ready for all of that responsibility. I had 10 titles on that show, and I wasn’t ready for any of them. During the pilot, I thought, “If they ask me to be a regular, I’m for sure saying yes.” I called my manager, just to tell him that. That night or the next day, they called and were like, “Do you wanna do every episode?” I didn’t even negotiate. I was like, “Yeah, I’m your guy.” I just knew it, and I was right. And we had to shoot during a pandemic, so there were challenges there. There’s no hugging, and none of that. It’s a very isolating, and not organic to what you’re used to getting and receiving. But I loved going to work, every single day. It was just a pleasure to be there, and to be the fifth lead on a show. You don’t know how good it feels until you’ve never been allowed to be one. It was just amazing. I hope I get to keep this job forever.

What did it feel like to actually get into the whole acting groove again? Did it feel like something you had to find again?

Image via Peacock

PRINZE JR.: It was so weird. I used to have a photographic memory. I could look at the script, have it, and be able to roll. All of a sudden, that skill was just gone. Video games melted that away, never to come back again. So, I had to reapproach it and break down the scene, moment by moment and beat by beat, the same way they taught me in acting class, all those years ago. It was about, what’s the motive behind each and every single line? I would write it out on the side of the page and the young actors would be like, “What is all the chicken scratch?” I was like, “Don’t worry about it. I’m just figuring this stuff out again.” But it definitely helped me. By the end, I started getting my rhythm back. It was definitely way more prep work than I was used to having to do, but it was worth it. I really enjoyed it. It was fun.

What do you hope that Punky Brewster brings to a new generation?

PRINZE JR.: I hope that it inspires other writers. If it’s successful, it will. I hope it inspires other streaming services, other networks, and other audiences to embrace the old school again. I think we’ve gone too far away from it and we need some shows like this to bring us back into that middle a little bit. Like Bruce Lee said, balance is key. Too much technology takes away our humanity. You become a metal man. On the flipside, to deny science would be very unintelligent. You’ve gotta have a balance in between, and I think shows like this can do that. It’s not the kind of show that solves all of the world’s problems in 22 minutes. In fact, they fail at the problems they’re trying to solve in Season 1, way more often than they succeed. That’s very reminiscent of the old shows, even back in the day when my dad was doing it in ‘75.

It feels like being a part of the Star Wars universe in any way is a dream come true for anybody. What did it mean to you to get to be a part of Star Wars Rebels?

PRINZE JR.: I’ve gotten to be a part of three legacy projects now, with Scooby Doo, the wars in space and Punky, and I’ve always treated all three of them with the level of respect that all three of them deserve. I have a familiarity with all three. I’ve been a fan of all three. I like Star Trek too. Getting to be a Jedi, the first moment is the best moment. It’s like a drug. The first moment was the audition. When I went in, I didn’t know it was Star Wars because they’re so stupidly secretive about everything. Who cares? Just tell people you’re making a Star Wars cartoon. I was in the parking lot and there was this legend voice actor. I won’t say his name, but he was smoking a joint in the parking lot, and he went, “Oh, you’re here for Star Wars?” I was like, “No, man, I’m here for something called Wolf Pack.” He goes, “No, man, it’s Star Wars.”

I went inside and saw the artwork on the wall and I was like, “Oh, wow, this is Star Wars. They’re just lying.” So then, I was looking at the role way different. I knew what they wanted. It was like Han Solo with a lightsaber. And I walked into a room and saw [Dave] Filoni with his goofy cowboy hat on that. I love that he’s so committed to it. Even when it’s not the coolest hat, if you still commit, it becomes cooler than it could have ever been, and I love that. So, I was one hundred percent certain what the show was, I read the lines and gave a real strong audition, felt great going out, and they called Seth Green to see if I was a good guy. Disney did not want me. They wanted someone else, but Dave wanted me. So, later that day, I got the call saying, “Hey, you’re gonna get the role.”

There were great moments, but no moment ever felt as good as that first audition that I got to do, to earn the role in the first place. The “Trials of the Darksaber” episode was my favorite episode out of all of them. Dave and I talked about me dying at Maul’s hand, at the end of Season 2, but then the same people who didn’t want me for the project suddenly said, “No, he can’t die. He has to be in every episode.” So, I guess I won them over, at some point. There were definitely some stand-out moments in there. The fight with Maul getting blinded was special. Teaching Sabine was special. The death, which everyone gives me the most credit for, has nothing to do with me. There’s no dialogue there. That’s all Dave, the animators, music and people more talented than me that made you think it was me. But nothing will top the audition. The audition was still the best part.

Image via Peacock

Is it strange to also be at a point in your life where projects that you were a part of, like She’s All That or I Know What You Did Last Summer are coming around again?

PRINZE JR.: I think it’s normal, but I have a different perspective on the business because my pops was in it before me and I’ve known people in it since I was a kid. I remember when they first announced that She’s All That was getting redone, I was hyped for it because my buddy Mark [Waters] is the director. I’ve worked with him on two other movies. He gave me my first break, so to speak. And I love Rachael [Leigh Cook] so much that I’ve taken all of the years that were supposed to age her and I’ve placed them on my hair and beard and these wrinkles, so that she can remain young forever. I love both of them, but people started getting angry. I was like, “It’s okay. We’re not the first. We’re good, you guys.” To me, all stories should be retooled and no legendary type fiction should ever age with its audience. It should constantly try to inspire the next generation, so that it doesn’t die with its audience. I love it. I heard they’re making an I Know What You Did Last Summer TV series. I don’t know how they’re gonna make it scary because James Wan, who I love, made those movies not scary anymore because he did Saw and changed the whole game up. Now, my movie is a comedy, but whatever, it’s cool.

So, can you still hacky sack, or do you hope to never see a hacky sack again?

PRINZE JR.: I feel so bad saying this, but I never could. We got there and I remember that first day, I was speaking to (director) Rob [Iscove], “I don’t play soccer and I don’t know how to hacky sack. I grew up doing martial arts. I don’t know what to tell you.” He was like, “Oh, don’t worry about the soccer. And for the hacky sack, we’ve got this world champion who’s gonna come in and do it for you. He looks just like you.” So then, I meet the guy. They were like, “Hey, your double is out there. He wants to teach you how to hacky sack.” I was like, “But I can’t. That’s why there’s a double.” They said, “No, we need you for the first couple of hits.” So, I meet this guy, and he’s six foot six. I’m six foot one or six foot two with shoes on. I’m a tall guy, but this guy was pro wrestler tall. He was dressed in the same clothes as me, but other than that, there was nothing the same about us. I was like, “We’re just gonna work on four taps, right?” And he was like, “Yeah, I’ve got you.” So, the first four taps in the movie are me, or maybe it’s only three. And then, from that moment forward, anytime it’s a full body shot, you’ll see me grow and then shrink and then grow and then shrink. The way to tell is just to look at the microphone. You’ll see chest at microphone, and then you’ll see face at microphone.

Punky Brewster is available to stream at Peacock.

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