'Bel-Air' cast explores truth behind the sitcom

From left to right, Phil (Adrian Holmes) and Vivian (Cassandra Freeman) welcome Will (Jabari Banks) to Bel Air. Photo courtesy of Peacock
From left to right, Phil (Adrian Holmes) and Vivian (Cassandra Freeman) welcome Will (Jabari Banks) to Bel Air. Photo courtesy of Peacock

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- The cast of Bel-Air, premiering Sunday after the Super Bowl on Peacock, said the new series delves into the issues suggested by the sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

In the new series, Jabari Banks, 23, plays Will, a Philadelphia teenager sent to live with his aunt, uncle and cousins in Bel Air, Calif.


"There are so many parallels between my life and Will's life," Banks told UPI in a Zoom interview. "This is Will's first time in L.A. That was my first time in L.A. It's been meta for sure."

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air starred Will Smith, who incorporated his Fresh Prince rap persona with creator Benny Medina's fish-out-of-water story. Smith produced the dramatic revival series for Peacock when he saw filmmaker Morgan Cooper's short film portraying his sitcom as a drama.


Cooper writes Bel-Air and executive produces it with T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson. Smith told Banks he got the role of Will in a video call Peacock shared on YouTube on Aug. 31.

Banks graduated from Philadelphia's The University of the Arts in 2020. Bel-Air is his first professional job.

Although Bel-Air is a 2022 take on the story, Banks said he still incorporated some of Smith's '90s persona in his portrayal, including "the mouthiness, the wittiness, the swag, the freshness. We definitely had to keep those elements for the character to feel like Will."

In the sitcom, Smith's mother sent him to Bel Air after a fight on the basketball court. Bel-Air elaborates on the situations to show Will pulled a gun out of his backpack, incurred the wrath of a local drug dealer and spent a night in jail.

Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) and Aunt Vivian (Cassandra Freeman) take Will in. They keep Will's arrest a secret, but keeping him out of trouble still brings unwanted attention to their family.

"On the sitcom, they didn't reveal the consequences of bringing him there for the family," said Freeman, 43. "Some of those consequences are much more in the viewer's face in this version."


Will clashes with his cousin, Carlton (Olly Sholotan), who is a star lacrosse player and popular among the White students at his high school.

Carlton is embarrassed by Will's presence, and soon feels jealous that his parents are giving Will more attention. Carlton also adopts an affectation to his speech to fit in with his White classmates, which 23-year-old Sholotan said he studied.

"I always approach every character from a place of truth and from a place of research," Sholotan said. "There's definitely a certain extent of me putting on a little bit of a Bel-Air feel to it."

Carlton's sisters, younger Ashley (Akira Akbar) and older Hilary (Coco Jones), are more welcoming of Will. In the original sitcom, Hillary was spoiled and materialistic.

Bel-Air reinvents Hilary as a cooking vlogger. Jones, 24, said her Hilary is driven to build a media empire, and Jones co-hosts a comedic cooking show online called T and Coco on co-host Terrell's YouTube channel.

"I hope girls see the tenacity that she has," Jones said. "I know I'm inspired by it because there's a journey that you go through in this industry, and it is not for the weak."

Like the sitcom, Phil and Vivian have hired help who is a main character on Bel-Air. British actor Jimmy Akingbola, 43, plays Geoffrey, and calls himself a house manager rather than a butler.


"Geoffrey's life experience is that he's had experience on the streets but he's very experienced in mansions, boardrooms and social gatherings," Akingbola said.

Akingbola said Bel-Air's Geoffrey represents "a Black British character with an authentic East London vibe and voice that all my friends and family in the U.K. can relate to."

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air created a role for Smith's D.J.,Jeff Townes, as Jazz. He became Will's best friend in Bel Air, and Jordan L. Jones, 28, takes on that role in Bel-Air.

Jazz is a driver who picks up Will from the airport and stays in touch when Will calls him for more rides. Jones said Jazz becomes someone Will can rely on when he feels out of place in Bel Air.

"He is more of a confidant of Will," Jones said. "He sees part of him in Will. He's just trying to be a vessel in a way, Jiminy Cricket to Will."

Although Bel-Air explores Will's journey to Bel Air with a more dramatic tone, there is still humor. Freeman said Phil and Vivian's marriage includes "laughter, love [and] inside jokes."


Holmes said Bel-Air would remain faithful to the sitcom's portrayal of the love of Phil and Vivian's family and Will's extended family.

"They were such an example of love and understanding, connection, unity and respect," said Holmes, 47. "We don't stray from that. We keep that going strong."

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