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Interview: Actor Jabari Banks Talks About His Fresh Take On ‘Bel-Air’

Jabari Banks is one of the most exciting discoveries of this season in television. The actor, who made his acting debut as Will Smith in Peacock’s Bel-Air, put skeptics in their place when the pilot for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot debuted. As Will, Banks has a limitless sense of charisma, and even at only 23 years old, it feels like he’s arrived on the scene as a seasoned actor. Not only does he embody the beloved character we all know and love, but the actor brought his own style to the role, grounding him in authenticity for our current times.

Despite the huge task of searching for the new Fresh Prince, it felt like Banks getting cast in the role was meant to be. The newcomer, who hails from Philadelphia — just like actor Will Smith — grew up with the original series. “I grew up on The Fresh Prince. It’s literally my number one show… we had the six seasons box [set] and the Christmas sweaters,” said Banks. “The fact that I’m an extension of this legacy is a dream come true. Living in Philly, it just means so much to the culture of the city.”

While the show is clearly an ensemble piece, the nature of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s legacy demands that Banks not only matches his predecessor but exceeds expectations.

Jabari Banks sat down with Awards Radar to speak about the pressure of bringing a new Will Smith to the next generation and more.

Niki Cruz: When you learned you first got the role, was it intimidating? Just the Uncle Phil and Will relationship alone — it’s so iconic in the culture.

Jabari Banks: It was a bit intimidating but I really didn’t have time to second guess myself. I always say this but being in the space and recreating The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, there’s little room for error and no room for doubt. I had to lean into my instincts and upbringing. Morgan Cooper and Will affirmed that in me, so with those two by my side I felt like there was no way I could lose.

NC: What was the audition process like? I imagine it might have been long?

JB: I think about this process a lot. I think as artists where we always compare ourselves to other artists. Usually, when you go inside of a room, you’re in an in person audition. You see seven other guys that look like you. And you’re like, ‘Oh, this guy has done this. I’ve seen him in that,’ or he has more of the look or he’s more talented. And we start to tear ourselves down as artists, but it was interesting for this process because it was over zoom. And so it was me versus me, and that was a blessing…I had to go through the process of surrendering and releasing all expectations of what I wanted, how I was gonna get there, or what I wanted it to look like. And so it was a long process for sure, and I was moving at the time. It was kind of stressful, but we’re here now

NC: Moving and trying to capture the voice of an iconic figure in pop culture, it’s the little things.

JB:  I hate moving! It’s so stressful. I was living in Philly at the time when I sent in my initial audition. Then I moved to New York [and] for some reason, something just was not going right. I literally applied for three places in New York. And each one kept falling through and I’m like, “What is going on? I feel like something is working against me here.” I was staying with my friends at the time just hopping from couch to couch and auditioning. I was fortunate enough to land the role. I booked the job. Two days later, I flew to LA. And then five days later, I was back in Philly, so I was like, “Oh, this is where I was supposed to be.”

NC: Isn’t that funny? How life just puts you where you’re supposed to be?

JB: It’s so funny. He just sits you down like, “No, this is where you’re supposed to be.” I can’t fight against it, you know? So yeah, so it’s little things like that. It has been such a spiritual journey for me in this process.

NC: And there’s this video of you being told by Will Smith that you got the role that went viral. That must have felt like an out of body experience. How was that moment?

JB: Oh, it was it was draining in the best way. I got on that call and thinking that was an audition. I had my script ready, like “I’m gonna show [Morgan Cooper] everything I got.” I got on the call and Will was there and I was mind blown, and he told me I got the role. It was definitely surreal for sure.

NC: Bel-Air really feels fresh and updated for our times. And it delves deeper into issues that the original just really skimmed the surface on because it was a sitcom made for its time.

JB: We definitely wanted to lean into the authenticity of the story…we wanted lean into the authenticity of, what does it look like when a young Black man gets in trouble and he has to move across the country to a whole new lifestyle. There are issues dealing with PTSD, mental health, status, and class. It was dope that we got to touch on these topics. It’s important not only for us as a culture but for us as a world to see this coming of age story. 

[Jabari Banks and Olly Sholotan / Photo by Peacock]

NC: Did you have any moments where you’re like, “Wow, I can’t believe we’re actually going there with this line.” Or were you just game to just jump in and do it?

JB: No, I was super game to jump in. I read the script and I was like, “Oh, this has something to say.” When I saw the scene with Carlton and the N word, I was like, oh, that’s going to set Twitter on fire. And it did.

NC: Carlton sent Twitter on fire. Poor Olly Sholotan! He was getting some pretty strong feedback on Twitter for a long time.

JB: Yeah, he was! That’s just a testament to his talent and to his genius. It was amazing working with Olly and to be able to like take on that fire in your first recognizable role. He took it on and people respected him for it. And I respect him so much for it. By the end of the season, people were like, “Okay, we’re coming around the corner.” When we saw how angry they were at Carlton from the first three episodes, we knew that they were falling into our trap.

NC: Everyone really took a chance when they said yes to this because everyone has such specific ideas of what these characters are like because they’ve been living in our pop culture for so long.

JB: Yeah. Morgan always says, if we’re going to tell a story about a family, we’re going to have to build a family. It was important to not only cast people who fit the archetype of who this character is, but cast genuine people who would be beautiful to work with…each ensemble member of our show has something in their lives that is intertwined in the show…that’s why we’re able to blaze a path of our own.

NC: We were talking about the sitcom nature of Fresh Prince, but the episode that sticks out in everyone’s minds, of course, is the Lou episode, which is a really emotional arc for Will. How excited were you to have your own Lou on Bel-Air?

JB: I was frightened..Marlon [Wayans] joined the project really late into the season. Once I knew it was him, I thought, ‘Oh, this is interesting. Let’s see how it goes.” And he brought it! The scene where we’re arguing was the very last scene we shot in the season. It feels like everything we were doing was building up to that moment. 

NC: You really bring it, too in that scene. Will’s anger at his father abandoning him is palpable.

JB: Thank you. Yeah, it was so important for me, in general, to create the space to be vulnerable and to be able to bring it to my fullest potential without any judgment. I felt the need to really, really bring it and so did Marlon. There was a lot to learn for him, and so we really just gave each other the space to be able to take our time with it.

NC: What are you hoping for in season 2?

JB: I hope that we can dive deeper into who these characters are. I think we really tapped into the essence of these characters. In season 2, we can really let it fly and just create our own lane.

Bel-Air is available to stream on Peacock

[This interview was edited for length and clarity]

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Written by Niki Cruz

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