There’s no doubt in our minds that Karyn Parsons’ Hillary Banks was the original “Bad and Bougie” girl back in the ’90s and we all watched young Tatyana Ali blossom into a sassy style icon over the years as Ashley Banks. After we said goodbye to some of our favorite characters, we always wanted to know what was in store for the fate of the Banks clan and Will Smith’s self-titled character. Nearly 26 years from the final episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, titled “I, Done,” the Oscar-nominated actor has revived the beloved sitcom and given it a millennial spin for its Peacock reboot, Bel-Air.
“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air played a role in [the] representation of a Black family, of love, of different storylines, different shades of beautiful Black people,” Coco Jones, who plays Bel-Air‘s Hillary Banks, praised to Girls United. “I think it also, personally, inspired me to see people that were looking like me, that also was doing something that I wanted to do. It further encourages you that it’s possible for you as well.”
While 16-year-old Akira Akbar was introduced to the Will Smith-starring series through reruns on television, she still appreciates the impact that her character Ashley Banks and The Fresh Prince has on Black culture today. “Watching a Black family on screen is inspiring in general. Especially with Ashley, I feel like a lot of people wanted to dress like her and be like her. My mom definitely said that she wanted to dress like Ashley and be like her,” the Captain Marvel starlet laughed.
Chiming in after her on-screen little sister, Jones described the Bel-Air reboot as “refreshing” in its reframing of Black wealth through the newly introduced Banks clan. “I think that’s something that we are also further perpetuating in Bel-Air is representation in different styles. You don’t have to be one certain type of Black girl. You don’t have to be put in any type of box. There’s such different storylines and there’s such a change of pace that we’re creating with Bel-Air that’s so refreshing and hopefully will encourage more people to be inspired and to create stories like this one,” the 24-year-old singer added.
Girls United had the opportunity to sit down with Jones and Akbar about the relatability of their characters, how they found out they scored the role of a lifetime, and what we can expect from the first season of Bel-Air.
Girls United: What was your audition process like, and how did you receive the big news that you’d be part of Bel-Air?
Coco Jones: For me, the audition process was kind of funny because I think I misrepresented what I thought they wanted for Hilary. I kind of played her similar to the OG Hilary. I had this conversation with [Bel-Air creator] Morgan [Cooper] that switched my perspective to make her more like me – driven, confident, go-getter type girl. I changed the way that I played my character in the audition. When I found out I got the part, it was after a couple rounds of auditioning and I was supposed to do a chemistry read. I didn’t end up doing it. They were like, they’re just going to use your most recent self-tape, and I was like, “I had some things I was planning to do a little different, but okay.” I got a call maybe a day or so later, my manager let me know that I got the part and I was screaming. Then I called my family; I was just super excited.
Akira Akbar: Honestly, the audition process was quick, but kind of not quick. I had an audition – not in-person because of COVID. The next day, I had a callback and then I was like, “Oh, I got this for sure.” I didn’t hear anything for a couple days and I was like, “Dang, I didn’t get this for sure.” The next week I got the call that I got the role and I was so excited. My mom picked me up from school and she told me to call my manager. I thought I was in trouble or something [and] I was like, “Oh my God, what happened?” And then she was like, “How do you feel about getting the role of Ashley?” I was like, “Are you joking with me? Is this for real?”
GU: I love that on Bel-Air, Ashley and Hilary are so different than when we met them on the original show. When you two ladies saw these new attitudes and these new approaches to the characters, what were your thoughts?
CJ: I was very appreciative that these stories get to be told because it’s so often that the issues that we go through are silenced and made less important. As Black people, we just overcome and we don’t really get to express all the emotions and not be okay at times. I’m really excited to have somebody who is going through a similar journey maybe just like Hilary. They’re feeling that they’re overly sexualized or feeling like they’re told that they need to dial back their culture to fit into a role. I’ve dealt with these things as well being in the industry and being dark-skinned. Having that voice to be able to be this is actually an important story, that to me is inspiring just to further make people feel heard. Also, it’s 2022. Life isn’t all beautiful and chocolates and sparkles. There’s real stories and they’re ugly sometimes, but they’re relatable. You feel them. And that’s what our goal is, to make people feel like we get you because we are you. We are all living a similar human experience, just in different ways.
AA: I feel like showing Ashley in this new way is especially good for this modern time. I want people to find something that they can relate to in Ashley. Showing a whole new dynamic of her is mostly just really cool.
GU: When it comes to the overall direction of Bel-Air, how involved were you in the writing process and the character development of each of your storylines?
CJ: There was a lot of openness, and that’s what makes this show feel so authentic. It’s hard to play a Black character when it’s not written by Black people or anyone who knows anything about Black history and Black culture. It feels very forced and fake, but because we have so many people who really walked the walk and talked the talk hands-on in our project, they gave us the opportunities to be like, “I really wouldn’t say that. I really wouldn’t wear my hair like this.” The things that are important to us as Black women, like beauty, feeling confident, feeling like we’re lit well, and feeling like we look good and we feel comfortable, all these things, we were heard for sure. I think everyone wants the show to be as well done as possible. When people don’t have a voice, they don’t really get to portray the characters to the best of their ability. I think T.J. [Brady], Rasheed [Newson], and of course, Morgan, give us the freedom to be authentic and the freedom to put our two cents in and not feel like we’re stepping on somebody’s toes and not feeling like, “You’re lucky to be here. Just say your lines.” It helps us help you. Help us help the world. What do you feel like you would really say?
AA: I feel like we all put a little bit of ourselves into each of our characters, and that’s what really makes our characters them. Especially being with the whole family, we’re all pretty close so nothing’s fake. I mean, what you see on camera is what you see in real life.
GU: There was a particular scene where Hilary took it upon herself to use her platform of 75,000 followers to talk about what she had experienced with Haute Cooking. What do you think was the significance of demonstrating the power of social media and the voice of Black women through that scene?
CJ: I personally relate to that scene so much because I kind of told my journey of being a child star in this industry on my social media – raw, real, and very transparent. It was super scary for me because on one side, I didn’t feel like people cared. Crying, sad Black girl, that’s not an eye-catcher. That’s how I felt. On the other side, I felt like if you talk too much, then you could possibly be counted out when it’s the next opportunity. Sometimes it’s intimidating to have a voice that’s not a popular opinion.
When I did take that leap and tell my truth, the amount of support that I got was overwhelming and super inspiring. It just kept me going. It’s important to tell these Black stories because you never know who’s really looking, who’s really watching, and who’s really rooting for you. Then you tell your story and somebody else is uplifted too. It’s all about passing on that motivation and working hard so that the people that are looking up to you who want to do the same things, they don’t have to work as hard. Opening doors and hoping that somebody else can walk in them as well.
AA: Hilary showing these not-so-perfect moments is just showing people the reality of being an influencer because people think that it’s all lavish and perfect and oh my gosh, I’m living life and stuff. It’s not really like that. Hopefully, people get the idea of how it’s really like.
GU: Without giving too much away, what else can we expect from Hilary, Ashley, Carlton, Will, and the rest of the Banks family on this season of Bel-Air?
AA: That’s a surprise. We can expect some unhidden truths, I guess.
CJ: I will say, all of these storylines are really risky in a way. I mean, it’s different from what people have known and loved with The Fresh Prince, but it’s different in a good way, in a way that I think people will be pleasantly surprised. You can expect drama. There’s a lot of drama, a lot of twist and turns and a lot of interesting predicaments that we find ourselves in that remind us of the situations we get in in life, a lot of relatability and definitely a lot of love and a lot of support and growth.
Haven’t watched ‘Bel-Air’ just yet? Take a look at the official trailer to see what Hillary, Ashley, Carlton, and Will are all up to on this reimagined spin on the classic ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’.
Photo Credit: Photo by Momodu Mansaray/Getty Images for Peacock