Even while living in lockdown, actress Jasika Nicole is still finding ways to be happy. "My family has remained healthy throughout this, which honestly is the most stressful to me because they all live in a different state," she says. "Other than that, I've just had a lot of time to be with Claire [her partner], which, I've got to be honest, I've been very thankful for that."
Like many people, Jasika and Claire had a lot of time to think about who they are when they don't have to present in front of other people, and they've discovered new things, some big and some smaller. For Claire, that meant coming out as nonbinary.
For Jasika, it meant discovering a passion for pottery, a hobby she had tried before but never fell in love with. "Since I started doing pottery at home with this wheel, the stuff that I make now is so different than what I was creating at the studio, because I was confined to this box and worried about what other people were going to say," she says. "And so now the stuff that I'm creating, it looks so much like me, you see it and go, 'Oh, that looks like something Jasika would have made.'"
Apart from that, Nicole's big news has been joining the cast of Peacock's new Punky Brewster reboot as Lauren, Cherie's girlfriend who we meet about halfway through the season. The new take on the classic series debuts Wednesday.
"She's very smart," Nicole says about her character. "She's very funny, because I don't think that Punky or Cherie would ever invite anybody into their lives that didn't have a great sense of humor."
"The first time you meet her is at a club when they're going out to see this band or something," she continues, "but the very second time that you get to see her, it's at Punky's house with all of Punky's kids and Punky's ex-husband. And so that was one of my favorite things about the show: immersing this queer character into this other family dynamic and not having to have an explanation for it. There isn't a special episode where they teach Punky's kids what gay means or what queer means."
Of course, as an '80s baby, Nicole was a big fan of the original show. "I loved Punky Brewster! I thought she was really cool," Nicole says. "I keep telling everybody when I was a kid, I was a Cherie because I was such a rule follower, and I wanted to be a Punky because she was cool, she was dynamic, and she marched to the beat of her own drum."
Nicole was drawn to the show largely because of its themes about chosen family. "It was about challenging the ideas of what a nuclear family is supposed to look like and showing that you can find family anywhere," she says, "and obviously, that is a really important tenet of the LGBTQIA community anyway."
But she also got the chosen family message from her own home. "My parents weren't married, and they were separated since I was really little, and my dad was Black and my mom was white, and so I always felt like I was, for so many reasons, I just felt like such an outsider," she says. In Punky and Cherie, she saw other kids who were in families like hers.
Nicole loves being part of such an iconic show that's helping to normalize nontraditonal families and queer relationships to such a broad audience. Punky's "family already knows that there are lots of different ways for people to love each other, and this is just one of them," she says of her character's relationship with Cherie. Lauren is "Cherie's girlfriend," she says, "but is a little bit of a surrogate auntie to the kids, I would say, because she's with Cherie and Cherie's their auntie."
It's not just her character who was welcomed as a part of the family. Nicole says she was greeted on set by the cast the same way. When asked what it was like working with Cherie Johnson, the actress who plays the character of the same name, Nicole's voice light's up. "I really racked my brain to think if I've ever met anybody like her before; she's so nice, and not in a fake way," she says. "She is just so warm and it's just very sincere."
Most of all, she's excited to get to play a queer character on a family-friendly and family-centric show. "Queerness is not just about adults and their sexuality," she says. "Queerness exists in kids' lives. Whether they identify as or not, there's going to be queer adults around them. ... It should be as normalized for people around the world as it is for me in my actual life."
All episodes of Punky Brewster debut on Peacock Wednesday.