For more than a decade, Jasika Nicole has been a prolific presence on television, with acclaimed performances on “Fringe” and “The Good Doctor,” among other hit shows. Still, it took the revival of a classic 1980s franchise to deliver what could be her most personal role to date.
The actor appears opposite Soleil Moon Frye and Cherie Johnson in Peabody’s “Punky Brewster,” which debuted last month. Like “Fuller House” and the “Saved by the Bell” revival, the new “Punky Brewster” is fan service for audiences who grew up with the original, which aired from 1984 to 1988. But with the once-child stars now playing adult versions of their characters, the show’s creators have incorporated modern themes alongside the nostalgia.
Halfway through the 10-episode season, audiences subtly learn that Cherie (Johnson) is queer and in a relationship with a biracial lawyer, Lauren (Nicole). And without giving away spoilers, Lauren seems likely to be granted more screen time in Season 2.
“I’m always excited to go in for queer roles,” said the 40-year-old Alabama native, who is also an illustrator and sculptor. “Historically, though, they’ve tended to go to straight actors. It’s like they want to have a queer storyline represented, but they don’t want to go too far and make it ‘too gay’ or something like that. So I wanted to make this very, very gay. I’m so happy ‘Punky Brewster’ is as gay as it is right now.”
In an interview with HuffPost, Nicole spoke about her connection to the “Punky” universe and its emphasis on unconventional families and why she sees playing her first queer role as both a responsibility and a professional milestone.
What was your relationship with “Punky Brewster” like before you joined the revival?
I grew up a biracial kid in Birmingham, Alabama, so I stood out just walking down the street and I hated it. So in order not to stand out, I was very by the book and really into rules and restrictions ― I was a real Cherie, a real rule follower.
But at the same time, I admired Punky. There was a part of me that felt like it was a privilege to be able to be Punky, to be able to go out and be your own person and not care what other people thought about you. So now that I’m an adult, I realize I can be a Punky now. Of course I’m also a Lauren. (laughs) I’m my own character in the “Punky”-verse, which is such a thrill to be able to say.
Both the original series and the revival speak to the power of chosen families. How did that message speak to you as a queer woman?
Within the LGBTQ community, chosen family is a huge theme in the way we live our lives, the way we create the group of people we surround ourselves with. The original “Punky” showed that families could be whoever makes you feel supported, wherever you find the love. Now that we’ve come back to the show a few decades later, we’ve incorporated queer people.
Also, Punky and her ex-husband, Travis [played by Freddie Prinze Jr.], are no longer together, but they’re still friends and are co-parenting. That’s a huge way that families exist today ― parents might not live in the same house as their children. So that’s just another way we’ve expanded the idea of what a chosen family can look like. I’m hoping audiences will see this and see themselves in it, whether they identify as queer, whether they’re married or they’ve gotten divorced. There’s no one way that a family looks anymore.
What gave you the confidence to overcome the adversity you faced and succeed as an artist when you were growing up in Alabama?
I had lovely parents who were encouraging and supportive. But I still lived in a place where everybody wanted to put you into a box. I went to a mostly white school and lived in a mostly white neighborhood. I think when you grow up different in whatever way you are different, you learn to have compassion for everybody. And I feel like a lot of queer people of color, we’ve grown up learning to adapt to our circumstances and find the humanity in other people. Whereas those other people who haven’t really grown up as different, it’s like a muscle that they haven’t worked very often so they don’t understand how to find the universal truths in people who are different from them.
I can’t imagine having gotten to this place without having experienced everything that I did, for good or bad. It’s interesting to be an adult and look back and say, “Oh, that wasn’t great” or “That wasn’t healthy.” When you’re a kid, you’re just trying to survive it. You don’t really think about how traumatizing or scary something might be until you’re an adult, but I don’t feel those things anymore. I feel very comfortable with who I am and how I present myself to the world, so I guess it wasn’t all terrible.
Lauren is your first queer role. As a queer person yourself, did you feel any responsibility to portray her in any specific way because of that?
As a kid in the ’80s, I didn’t have people I could look to and see what [my] life might look like. I didn’t realize, until I was an adult and I had come out, that I could have been the representation I needed as a kid. So that’s why I feel like I do have a responsibility. I want to feel proud of the characters I play, and I want other people to feel proud, too, because there are not a lot of Black queer women in this industry. I’ve been one of a handful for a really long time.
I recently came to the decision that I don’t want to play a police officer, because I don’t support the narrative that the police force can be a force for good. I think there are good people who are police officers [but] they are unable to change the way the institution works single-handedly.
I want Black and brown audience members seeing me and knowing I’m trying to be a good representation of them and their values and what’s important to those communities. And if it’s just some version of me who’s living in Birmingham, Alabama, who is seeing themselves for the first time … I can’t tell you how powerful that is to me. It’s a responsibility I’m happy to have.
Assuming “Punky Brewster” gets picked up for Season 2, how would you like Cherie and Lauren to continue to evolve as a couple?
It would be really exciting to follow a same-sex couple as they try to adopt. That would make sense within the “Punky” universe, obviously, and it’s always different when same-sex couples are doing things many heterosexual couples do. I’d be interested to know if things stand in the way of Cherie and Lauren trying to bring a kid into their life.
As thrilled as I am to see a queer couple normalized on a family show like “Punky Brewster,” I think it’s important to really talk about the things that make us different. Queer people already know what it’s like to be queer, but straight people don’t always understand that. So that’s my wish.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
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