A ‘Let’s play it for real’ approach keeps ‘Bel-Air’ dramatic — and fresh

Jabari Banks and Olly Sholotan stand atop a table and look down at the camera for a portrait.
“It was really authentic. It felt really pure, the relationship Olly and I formed offscreen,” says Jabari Banks, left, with his costar Olly Sholotan.
(Yuri Hasegawa / For The Times)

Surprise, “Bel-Air” fans: Will and Carlton like each other IRL.

“I remember sitting across from you in the table read and thinking, ‘Yo, I really like this dude,’ ” says Olly Sholotan (Carlton) to Jabari Banks (Will) in a video conference call joined by showrunners Rasheed Newson and T.J. Brady. “That Saturday, we drove around L.A. for, like, 11 hours; we did not stop talking.”

“It was really authentic. It felt really pure, the relationship Olly and I formed offscreen,” says Banks. “We’re re-creating these iconic characters; there’s no impersonation, people would see right through that. We had to be honest.”

“Bel-Air” sprang from filmmaker Morgan Cooper‘s trailer for something that didn’t exist: a dramatic take on the ’90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” That comedy, of course, launched the Hollywood career of then-rapper Will Smith as a character named “Will Smith.” In both versions, a fight on a Philadelphia basketball court leads to street-smart Will relocating to the toniest of L.A. enclaves to live with wealthy relatives — among them, cousin Carlton, who is extremely assimilated into the overwhelmingly white, privileged social environs.

“It’s different than a role you’re just creating yourself,” 23-year-old Banks says of reimagining the beloved sitcom that bowed in 1990. “Eighty percent of the people watching this show probably came with their arms crossed. We had to be authentic.”

"Bel-Air" star Jabari Banks poses with his eyes closed.
“It’s different than a role you’re just creating yourself,” Jabari Banks says of playing the Will Smith-originated role in “Bel-Air.”
(Yuri Hasegawa / For The Times)

Considering recent events, a show about “Will Smith” risking his future because of a senseless, violent altercation takes on unexpected resonance. But audiences have been able to separate the show from the headlines.

“By the time [the Smith-Chris Rock Oscars slap] happened, our season was done,” Newson says. “When you watch ‘Bel-Air,’ you’re watching the work of 200 people over several months; it has no relation to the Oscars. I just didn’t want anyone to look at us through the lens of that event.”

What the fans have gotten instead is a drama built on the premise, “What if key moments in ‘Fresh Prince’ actually happened? How would people really react?” For instance, the inciting incident on the basketball court has been updated to include Will handling a gun and finding himself on the business end of drawn police weapons. “Bel-Air” doesn’t gloss over that life-threatening moment and move on; Will is haunted by PTSD flashbacks throughout the first season.

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“That comes from, ‘Let’s play it for real,’ ” notes Newson. “It’s the most frightening night of his life, and he’s not just going to shake it off on the flight to L.A.

“I was stopped by the police going to the post office once, and handcuffed — it had nothing to do with me. There was a robbery in the neighborhood. I was fine, but if you are Black and you are having an encounter with the police, it’s a near-death experience,” he adds.

Two men stand against a tree
“Bel-Air” sprang from filmmaker Morgan Cooper’s trailer for something that didn’t exist: a dramatic take on the ’90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
(Yuri Hasegawa / For The Times)

Taking the characters seriously means Will isn’t the only fish out of water on the show.

“In the original series, they definitely address Carlton’s otherness from other Black people, but something I don’t think they quite get into is his otherness within his white cohort,” says Sholotan, 24. “What happens when a Black kid sacrifices his identity to become the ‘It’ guy? How does he pay for that later on?


“And Will coming into his life shows him all the things he’s sacrificed. It’s also not as simple as that; we address the fact that Blackness is not monolithic. There are so many ways to be Black.”

Sholotan cites the anxiety that eats at the character, which manifests as a substance-abuse problem and bitter hostility toward easygoing Will. Sholotan is so good at being bad to Will, he gets blasted by fans.

Newson says, “TJ and I have worked on a lot of shows; he’ll tell you, it’s not uncommon for an actor to say, ‘I feel uncomfortable saying this line. I think it makes my character too unlikable.’ Olly pulled back from nothing.” All four laugh.

“It’s not an illegitimate thing for an actor to say, ‘Wait a minute, this is the biggest show I’ve ever been on; this is the thing I’m going to be known for … and people are going to hate me for the first seven or eight episodes?’ ”

Instead, says Sholotan, “There were scripts I’d get where I’d say, ‘I feel like I could be more of a d— in this situation.’ ” The others laugh. “There’s this very specific Carlton look, and it’s the most condescending thing ever. I don’t know where I came up with that. It’s one of those things, you see it and you go, ‘Oh my God, I hate this guy.’ ”

“By now, people are generally like, ‘OK, you won me back at the end.’ But I definitely still get a lot of, ‘I don’t know, Carlton, I still don’t like you.’ ”

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Brady says, “If you can make somebody angry, that means they care. Our enemy is apathy. If you can make someone angry enough to send Olly an angry tweet about a person who doesn’t exist, we have gotten through.”

The show dramatically revisits — and revises — some famous moments from the sitcom.

“Will’s temperament is definitely different in this one; he’s a very prideful young man,” says Banks. “I think about [‘Bel-Air’] Episode 10, that iconic father scene [from ‘Fresh Prince’]; what we created was vastly different, but it holds weight in itself. This Will’s not afraid to say what he feels, and some people don’t like that: ‘He shouldn’t be cussin’ in front of his aunt and uncle like that!’ ”

“Jabari’s Will is emotionally available; he’s open-hearted and honest,” Newson says. “There’s also that part of him that says, ‘You did wrong and I’m gonna hold you accountable.’ We learned to follow what the actors were doing. Jabari is that open and honest, and that made its way into the character.”

Sholotan is so good at being bad to Will, he gets hate notes from the series' fans.
(Yuri Hasegawa / For The Times)

Sholotan has done some very limited TV work, but Banks is completely, er, fresh: It’s his first series.

“I knew I had to learn the language [of TV production]. Little things like, ’10-1,’ ” he says of the on-set walkie-talkie code for “bathroom,” laughing. “Learning to work with the camera as a scene partner … a lot of things, I’d be watching Olly. I’m grateful this is my first show. So, so grateful.

“There was a moment we were all hanging out — me, Olly, Simone [Joy Jones, who plays Will’s love interest, Lisa], Jordan [L. Jones, no relation, who plays Will’s friend Jazz] — and I started to cry because they were like, ‘This doesn’t happen on every show.’ I hope all my experiences are this positive.”