Bel-Air's Jabari Banks On Following In the Footsteps of Will Smith

CUL PS Jabari Banks
Irvin Rivera

Reboots are commonplace these days, but a reboot of a sitcom into a drama? That's rare. Newcomer Jabari Banks has the difficult task of stepping into the role of Will on Peacock's Bel-Air, based on the iconic '90s Will Smith sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. "There's no way that I could be the Will version of Will. That was lightning in a bottle." But Banks, who says Smith has been "a great mentor for me throughout this whole process," says the themes of the original series are well-suited to a dramatic retelling. "There are universal themes. It's about family, a fish-out-of-water story. That's so recognizable." But the new series does allow for the characters to grow. "A big theme we're touching on is what does it mean when you're successful and Black? Does that mean that you lose your Blackness? I think as a family, they're undeniably Black. So to see that perspective is going to be a big moment for the community." While Banks admits people were at first "skeptical" about the reboot, he says he gets why. "I think that's natural with something like this. People don't play with their nostalgia."

How did you handle the pressure of stepping into such an iconic role?

Pressure makes diamonds. But I did feel the pressure at first. Two weeks into the process, I was like, "Man, why me?" Then I had a really, really good, deep talk with the creator, director, and producer, Morgan Cooper. He was like, "The first time that I met you in Philly, I knew it was you." And this was mid-audition process. I still had to go through all the steps, and I had to prove it to the rest of the team, but Morgan knew it was me. He knew that I would bring myself to this role and lean on my own instincts. So that definitely took the pressure off. And talking to Will [Smith], he said similar things. He was like, just be yourself, because that's what he was doing when he was doing Fresh Prince in the '90s. He wasn't trying to be anybody else, he was just being himself.

Bel-Air’s Jabari Banks Gets Candid
BEL-AIR -- Season: 1 -- Pictured: Jabari Banks as Will Peacock

Considering the amount of similarities you share with Will Smith: you both rap, you're both from Philadelphia, etc., was there ever a moment in the audition process where you were like, "I got this?"

Oh, I immediately knew as soon as I got the call that this was me. I just had to prove it to everyone else. There's something that I always say, if you ask the universe or God for something, they're gonna send it your way. It just depends if you're ready, and I made the point to stay ready and just be focused about the work. So I definitely surrendered to the whole process. That was a huge part of me getting the role was me surrendering. There was a moment in Philly, actually, Morgan and one of the showrunners, T.J. Brady, were scouting and they were like, "Hey, we want to meet Jabari in person." I wasn't ready. Mentally I was there. But I was like, I gotta do things. But when the time comes, you gotta be there, and I showed up. That's a great day.

I read that you had a pretty interesting experience finding out you got the part?

So it was a crazy month for me. I was moving at the time, couch surfing and auditioning. So every callback, every audition that I had, was in a different friend's house. I didn't have Wi-Fi at the spot I was staying, and I needed a place to do my audition and have decent lighting. My friend Dante offered his closet. I got on the call thinking that it was an audition, and then Will surprised me. He was like, "Where is everyone? Go get them." And we were all in that little tiny closet. [laughs]

Rarely is a sitcom rebooted into a drama series. Why do you think the Fresh Prince likens itself so well to a new format?

That's a great question. I think it's the themes. There are naturally universal themes in the show. It's about family. It's about a young man coming of age and a fish-out-of-water story; something that's so recognizable. Whatever format you put it in, those are themes that we can all resonate with. So I think that lends itself to transform into a dramatic setting as well. There's a balance that you have to walk when you're doing something like this, but I definitely think that we found it, and we've run with it.

With that in mind, what sort of topics do you think are you able to explore more of because it's a drama?

One of my favorites, and a big theme we're touching on, is what does it mean when you're successful and Black? Does that mean that you lose your Blackness because you're successful? I think in the '90s, they played on that theme where it was like, Will is coming into Bel-Air, and he's teaching the Banks family how to be Black again and reminding them of their roots. And I think in ours, there are moments where he's teaching them how to be free, and Will changes each character's life in his own way. But I think as a family, they're undeniably Black. So to see that perspective is going to be a big moment for the community.

Bel-Air’s Jabari Banks Gets Candid
Pictured: (l-r) Jimmy Akingbola as Geoffrey, Akira Jolie Akbar as Ashley, Olly Sholotan as Carlton, Jabari Banks as Will, Cassandra Freeman as Viv, Adrian Holmes as Phil, Courtney Coco Jones as Hilary from the Peacock original series 'Bel-Air.' Kwaku Alston/Peacock

What sort of reactions have you gotten since the show started?

I think my favorite reaction was that they're skeptical. I think that's natural with something like this. I mean, it's a reboot. People don't play with their nostalgia, right? And Fresh Prince was one of the quintessential '90s sitcoms, and so they're like, be careful. Once they saw it they were like, "Oh, I'm really loving it." That just means that we did our job well.

You were born after the original series had ended. How did you watch the original?

My family had the box set. We had it on repeat in our house all the time. Fresh Prince really raised me. It was definitely a cornerstone for me. And I think that's something that's so special about Fresh Prince, every generation can find something in it, something that's recognizable to them.

How involved was Will Smith in helping you find this character?

Man, he's been a great mentor for me throughout this whole process. It's been amazing, talking with him and just working with him. Picking his brain. I think the biggest advice he gave me that brought me to the character was to just be myself and bring myself to the character, bring my experiences and my intuition to the character. So that's something that I definitely took with me throughout this whole ride, and that I will continue to take with me. There's no way that I could be the Will version of Will. That was lightning in a bottle.

What sort of new things are you bringing to the character?

I think my version of Will is a little more heated. He has a shorter temper. He doesn't like his toes being stepped on. And any opportunity that he finds to prove someone wrong, he will, even if it gets him in trouble. He's a very prideful young man. I think throughout this series, we get to see him break down those walls.

There are so many little Easter eggs throughout the series that fans of the original show will get excited about. Was that intentional?

For sure. The writers and the showrunners have done an amazing job sprinkling in some tidbits and Easter eggs from the original show into this one. So when you see it, you're gonna be like, "Oh, my God, I remember that, because this happened..." I think it would be too on the nose to just have the Carlton dance. They've been very nuanced with how they're placing some of the Easter eggs. So that's gonna be super exciting.

Considering this is your first big project, do you have other things in the works?

I'm currently writing a screenplay. I want to do movies as well. Excuse me. I'm going to do movies. I'm working on music as well. So a lot of different angles.

Considering how iconic the original theme song is, have people been singing it to you nonstop?

It hasn't happened yet. I think when it does happen, I'll just sing along with it because I love that song. I mean it's so embedded in our psyches.

Listen to the full conversation with Jabari Banks on the next Parting Shot Podcast with H. Alan Scott, out this Friday, March 11. Subscribe to the Parting Shot Podcast on Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.