Mega digital music service, Spotify joined Hulu to host an evening celebrating the highly anticipated original docuseries, RapCaviar Presents.
Exclusive: Jabari Banks, Coco Jones, Akira Akbar, Cassandra Freeman & More Talk ‘Bel-Air’ Season 2 [Interview]
During this year’s Grammy week, Primary Wave Music and the Estate of Whitney E. Houston celebrated her 60th birthday year, legacy and music presented by Sony. The week’s festivities included SONY’S 360 reality audio immersive listening lounge, a gallery of iconic Whitney Houston photos and gowns, artists showcases, and Whitney pop-up retail store. The gallery showcased several of Whitney Houston’s iconic red gowns she wore throughout her career. The W Hotel in Hollywood transformed into the Whitney Houston Hotel during the Grammy week residency. There were two nights of live performances followed by a pre-grammy party with a live DJ and red carpet.
Friday consisted of a panel hosted by Entertainment Tonight’s Kevin Frazier, Whitney’s Brother Gary Houston, Pat Houston Executor of Whitney E. Houston Estate, Music Producer Rickey Minor, Award winning Producer Narada Michael Walden; and award-winning songwriter Gordon Chambers. Shortly thereafter there was a brunch curated by Award-winning Chef Deborah VanTrece of “VanTrece Hospitality Group” followed by a showcase in the evening. We had the opportunity to attend Friday night’s showcase which featured emotional performances by Natalie Jane, Amber Riley, Kiana Ledé, Coco Jones, and Michelle Williams. Fans, guests and VIPs gathered at the Whitney Houston Hotel to honor Whitney’s memory through song.
Bel-Air Premiere Screening and Interview with Coco Jones, Olly Sholotan and Akira Akbar
On February 9th 2022, I attended the drive-in premiere of Bel-Air at The Barker Hanger in Santa Monica. We drove through an interactive Bel-Air experience after getting covid tested. While driving through the experience, we tuned into 87.9 fm. The one and only DJ Jazzy Jeff was giving a surprise DJ set and had everyone in their cars hyped for the start of the show. As we drove through the experience, we were able to drive by the red carpet. Star-Studded Attendees Included Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jaden Smith, OG cast members DJ Jazzy Jeff, Tatyana Ali, Joseph Marcell, Vernee Watson-Johnson.
The original cast of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air snapped photos with the new cast, Jabari Banks, Adrian Holmes, Cassandra Freeman, Olly Sholotan, Coco Jones, Akira Akbar, Jimmy Akingbola, Jordan L. Jones, Simone Joy Jones. The guest experience was curated from start to finish. We were treated to a real-world Philly experience with authentic Philly cheesesteaks from Big Daves, local Philly-favorite “Happy Ice,” quarter waters, a corner store filled with snacks, a BMX bike show from philly-native Chino Braxton, double dutch performances and a chance to “sit on the throne” as seen in the opening of the pilot episode.
Executive Producer Will Smith said a few words before the start of the show. The energy was pumping as peopled were excited by the overall experience. It was amazing to see the attention to detail the event displayed from top to bottom.
Prior to the premiere, I sat down with the cast and crew of BEL-AIR in December of 2021. I along with several other reporters were given the opportunity to interview the Banks Siblings. Played by Coco Jones as “Hilary Banks”, Olly Sholotan as “Carlton Banks”, and Akira Akbar as “Ashley Banks.” We got to ask them all things about their relationship with each other, how they relate to their characters, and what they’re looking forward for audiences to witness in this modernized version.
Question: When we think about, you know, Hilary Banks and the original series, you think about her being kind of like, you know, valley girl yea but like a socialite in a sense that like you know? I wanted to ask, was there any kind of conscious decision like “oh yeah so we’re going to kind of play a black designer and our you know our attempt to really kind of re-create really reconstruct Hilary as you know within her style Sense and her fashion sense. Are we going to see prominent black designers in the show? And see their style senses kind of develop throughout the series?
Coco Jones as “Hilary Banks”: Most definitely, I think even when we were prepping for the show we were having a lot of discussions about…. First of all just how I’m gonna be portrayed because it’s so easy to like get like overly sexualized but I really wanted there to be like a formula of you can still look good, you can still.. you know create these looks and it not be like you have to Wear nothing, you know? Like that was really something that I feel like was balanced that we were trying to find really relevant and modern. Without being, you know, overly sexual. And then I do feel like it was a conscious effort to include black designers. We have a lot of Brandon Blackwood. And I mean I think it’s a goal to try to include at least one piece if we can in every look. There was also some designers that was On the come up some heels were designed by this black designer I don’t have the name right now of course and then one of our stylist actually reached out to a couple of people who just create from scratch and they created some pieces specifically for Hillary for the scene so I think it was a conscious effort and um I I think everybody’s look is a conscious effort to just bring culture as well many in its many Ways as we can Since this is such a culturally iconic show but Um yes that was a Definitely like a part of the strategy was to give that platform to other black designers who create and you know deserve that spotlight as well.
Question: You each are embodying very distinct characters right you have Ashley Hilary and Carlton but in this series it’s a completely different show right? It’s more dramatized and then I know each of you individually come from a different background and I know personally I’ve been following your journey of music and like you know just really putting yourself out there and landing this opportunity how have you prepared for the roll to embody who those like nostalgic characters are but also bringing new life to it?
Coco Jones as “Hilary Banks”: I would say for me I think the goal is to make Hilary more of like down to earth relatable type of character because the background of Bel-Air is such like a high level of echelon type of background I think it was really important to keep my character grounded I think also the show does a really good job of that because Hilary is different in a sense of where she is a go-getter, she is a hustler, you know you guys saw she’s a chef, she’s a content creator, She’s a CEO. So I feel like she will gravitate towards those girls who are running their lip gloss companies and their lash companies because she’s one of those girls where she’s like my way is not the conventional way and this hasn’t been done before but it’s going to get done. And she’s going to look flawless doing it.
Question: I think it’s really interesting because you know especially in the original show Hilary was portrayed as kind of ditzy like not really having as much going for her. How excited were you reading like the pilot and seeing how much more they gave to Hilary and this kind of new version?
Coco Jones as “Hilary Banks”: I mean I was very very excited because I feel like in this day and age people can clock if you’re not authentic and they won’t be able to connect to that and I think it’s really important in this show to make sure that everybody can see themselves and all of the characters so I was really happy to have like more opportunities to like bring a bigger audience and make them fall in love with Hilary and I feel like also what I bring to it is like I’ve been in this business as well since I was a kid I definitely had my ups and downs as Hilary has in her journey of where are you know people are trying to get her to like do you know do this for a check you know what I’m saying? And I feel like that’s where me and her like me and Hilary did see eye to eye and I feel like other girls will get that same experience as well. And I feel like all of our characters have like the opportunity to speak to a completely different audience than if it was just like a stereotypical type of show.
Olly Sholotan as “Carlton Banks”: I was going to say like the backbone of Carlton in this version is the idea of, “What does blackness mean?” And the idea that you know when you get richer or when you dress a certain way or speak a certain type of way it’s sort of removes you from your blackness and how the world sees you know something that Carlton deals with is this idea that every black person that he interacts with including Will in the beginning at least as like “oh you ain’t really black.” You don’t you don’t talk like me you don’t whatever and I think that that’s something that I would say every black person every aspirational black person has dealt with at some points where someone says “oh well you don’t wanna be black like us anymore you think you are better than us” yada yada and I think that that speaks to such a universal black experience that is represented as what the show does as a whole.
Question: In terms of like all of your characters changes like what is the most like if you’re like pick one thing that you’re most excited about and your character being changed from the old show to now what would you say?
Akira Akbar as “Ashley Banks”: Honestly I I’m just excited for people to see Ashley in a new way she deals with more modern day problems that a lot of teenagers are dealing with now and it’s just different from the old Ashley because of the way that you know she deals with these problems…Yeah I um I feel like Ashley really is in tuned with the world and she cares about her environment and I think that really shows in the series you know we’re talking about climate change and her dealing with her issues um I just think it shows her coming of age.
Question: I wanted to ask you so I think Fresh Prince was well before your time was it something that you watched coming up? And also you’re kind of the demographic for this show in a way especially the way that they speak, the way that they dress, these modern kinds of issues, is this something that you kind of relate to in a way? And do you think that other viewers in your generation your age will be able to relate to this show?
Akira Akbar as “Ashley Banks”: Definitely, I feel like the issues that Ashley goes through is issues that teenagers deal with, you know and like 2021 I mean…
Olly Sholotan as “Carlton Banks”: That is actually really funny because we were talking the other day and didn’t realize we were all playing her actual age. And it’s like I’m playing 16 or 15 yeah like you’re playing your actual age.
Coco Jones as “Hilary Banks”: I’m not playing 16 I’m playing like 21. Also to speak to the demographic there’s an element of relevancy for like all ages I definitely think like Akira’s age will all of it the most because they’re in this social media and in this time the most but I do feel like there is areas that can relate like for me Hilary being like a young adult like who dropped out of college and who’s like trying to get it on her own. There are so many girls in my circle who are like didn’t go that conventional route that will be able to gravitate towards that even aunt Viv and her issues with her her family and the things they kept under the table like these are grown people problems that I feel will gravitate like what I think I loved about the original Fresh Prince and Bel-Air there’s something for everybody. There’s a storyline for everybody to follow so that everyone in the family can come and they can enjoy the show together.
Olly Sholotan as “Carlton Banks”: And something that is so cool about the way it’s being written is that it’s being written as an ensemble cast and that each episode there’s so many different story lines that’s kind of continuing that it is that you said. It is every demographic both from Will and Carlton figuring their stuff out to like Phil and Viv to Ashley. It feels like every generation has their own story which is really really dope to be apart of.
Coco Jones as “Hilary Banks”: And I think that’s a hard thing to do as well as tell a story like that they can coincide and you know and to like also keep it like authentic because we gotta play these characters and I think also too there’s a lot of openness like what do you like about this idea what would you do in this situation just to keep it like you know as authentic and relatable as possible. Which I think sometimes it’s hard when you have a black show. People think that it’s suppose to be like this but like we’re allowed to also include and contribute you know what I’m saying like the goal is to make the show feel as well rounded as possible and like there’s really no egos, it’s really about just making some making history you know and I feel like that’ll show if y’all saw the first episode yall know.
Olly Sholotan as “Carlton Banks”: And it’s like every couple weeks Morgan will text me and be like “Yo how’s your spirit? How you doing? How’s the show ?” And I think what’s so dope is that you between Morgan between TJ between Rasheed, they’ve given all of us ownership of show and so we all feel like we have a voice. We all feel like we be like “Yo, I’m not gonna lie to you I don’t feel like this works.” and you’ll be like alright let’s talk about it why what don’t you like what don’t you like ? And I think makes for a much better final product.
Question: Your character is probably the closest to be the most different from the sitcom and you know we asked TJ are you’ just gonna bring out the Carlton dance and he was like maybe the last episode of the season but in general how do you kind of navigate those differences and um how do you feel that that kind of elevates the character?
Olly Sholotan as “Carlton Banks”: I sort of approach it from the standpoint of if um and I’m totally stealing this from Cassie but if the original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the story from those perspective, this version is the story as if you’re reading each and every characters diaries. So the Carlton that we see is you know is you see a 16 year old kid that’s trying to navigate his place in a world that he is one of if not the only one of him and he has to fit in but still stand out. Um and he has a lot of pressure to do great and to do as well as his father if not better than his father. I think you know cause I’m a child of an immigrant. I’m a first generation American so a lot of my approach to the character is taking my understanding of my growing up and how I relate to success and how I relate to you know to ambition and how I relate to the idea of you know doing better than the generation that came before me. And a lot of that is kind of like I put into Carlton, um and obviously given different circumstances and what they written for me as far as his substance abuse problems but you know all of that comes from a place of truth. It all comes from a place of this kid trying to deal with the world and navigate it all
Question: Speaking of his substance abuse problem, when you first sat down and read the script, and kind of got to figure out who Carlton in the new age was, what were your initial thoughts?
Olly Sholotan as “Carlton Banks”: So the first audition that I got, it was just like oh something something something they’re partying and I was like cool. And then when I got the callback then all of a sudden I read the callback Saturday it’s like Carlton takes a bump then the party happens and I was like…I had a moment “is this what, oh my gosh. This is so interesting” I mean my first reaction was like “alright, go.” You know I was just, it’s dope from the perspective of okay I’m so excited to get to show the multidimensional nature to what Carlton can be. You know because in the original you know so much of his struggles were made for laughs hahaha and there are a few episodes that addressed it, actually a lot of episodes addressed it but it’s like “ahah Carlton doesn’t fit in with black people.” “He doesn’t get into a black frat.” But it’s like what are, you know what are what is detrimental to the development of a young black man who sees himself as an outsider in his own people? And you know, does he run from that? Does he embrace that? Does he .. yeah I think the version of Carlton that we see In the beginning definitely embraces his differences a little bit and he doesn’t try to run from it and he’s like OK if you don’t like me then I will I will do my own thing. Maybe that changes you’ll have to see.
Question: What is that dynamic like between Hilary and her mother?
Coco Jones as “Hilary Banks”: Yeah so, without giving too much away I feel like just like just like you were saying dealing with the pressure of being under your father and wanting to do you know not disappoint them I feel like Hillary has like her own issues and it’s kind of like power struggle with Viv her mom because I feel like Viv sacrificed a lot so that her daughter wouldn’t have to sacrifice as much. You know like and it kind of plays out in a way that like I feel like a lot of people will understand. Especially like young adults who went the unconventional routes to secure a bag. It’s like there’s a disappointment there and the lack of understanding because Hilary is not the type to go by anybody’s idea of what she has to be. I think because she’s this content creator and it’s kind of like a new career path over the last couple of years it’s hard for Viv to understand and it’s hard for her to respect so there’s a lot of there’s a lot of tension between them for a couple of episodes because it’s just a lack of understanding there and I don’t wanna give too much away about the dynamic but it definitely it causes some crazy events.
Question: How would each of you describe your character relationship with Will?
Akira Akbar as “Ashley Banks”: I think Ashley is really close with Will. You can see that in the original series. And I think you know and every episode we may not always have like always you know a lot of scenes together but you can just see them off in the not in the back but you know what I’m saying you can just see them have this little side moments.
Olly Sholotan as “Carlton Banks”: Y’all kind of like adopt each other as siblings in a way too.
Akira Akbar as “Ashley Banks”: Yeah yeah yeah that’s what I’m saying I think we really relate to each other because of the way we are kind of like both an outsider. I feel like Will you know he’s coming into this new family and he hast to kind of adapt to it to this new family in a way and Ashley she’s the youngest of the family so I feel like a lot of people don’t see eye to eye with her and just kind of like cut her out of things because she’s like young and they may think that she doesn’t understand.
Coco Jones as “Hilary Banks”: I will say for me I feel like me and Will instantly get along because I’m the rule breaker I feel in the role of the family. And also I’m the Bel-Air princess so I know how to run dad. And me and mom may not get along but I know how to finesse that situation too. So I think of me and will have a lot of really sweet moments where I’m like, all right here is the strategy: do you wanna win here or do you want it your way? You know what I’m saying like I kind of gave him like a long-term plan of how to survive in the house because you know I’m the oldest. I’m the one who’s been doing the most and I kind of gave him like the rulebook of how things work.
Olly Sholotan as “Carlton Banks”: I would say as much as Carlton likes to believe that he and Will are complete opposite I think they both grow to find out that they’re more similar than either of them would like to admit it. Obviously out the gate Carlton sees Will as a threat. And again it’s a threat to his masculinity, it’s a threat to his blackness because Will reminds him of what he believes he can’t be or or is an allowed to be for whatever reason and I’ll leave it at that.
Question: Well I feel like at the end of the first episode when you and Will actually come to blow it’s kind of like sobering in a sense because you know because I remember being you know like 8,9 10 year old watching like Will and Carlton roughhouse and be like oh yeah that’s how me and my cousins play but like never actually coming to blows like really like I’m about to knock him. What was that like in that in that moment putting the energy out? How do you feel like that kind of goes on to either complicate or add to you know like the the juiciness of the way that your relationship with Will is?
Olly Sholotan as “Carlton Banks”: I mean in terms of how it was to film I think we shot that day five so Bari and I didn’t know each other that well. But it was one of those alright ok we’re here let’s go and it’s such a very cool scene part he’s very open he’s very easy to work with so that part was good. As far as narratively in the show I think it does two things I think a establish them this is a different show you know I think it establishes that this isn’t just —- they disagree these are like two fundamentally opposed sides and also as far as their relationship I think that you know they’re thrown so far apart so when they come back together it’s it’s a stronger bond I believe if they come back together you guys will see if you watch the show.
Coco Jones as “Hilary Banks”: But I think also in the state of social media like people can’t see anything you know. So in order to keep somebody’s attention and like you can’t really play it safe. You know like you have to tell the truth and whatever way that looks like because it’s available somewhere else if you’re not going to tell it somebody’s going to tell it that story. Like when I auditioned for Hilary I was like OK I’m taking all of these narratives from what I think they want her to be. I wasn’t telling completely my truth I was telling this is what I think they would want. And then Morgan when he talk to me about what the goal was he said it’s not he said who are you bring who you are to the table because this is about truth. This is about taking an amazing storyline and telling it in the truth of this day and age so I mean there are times in the show where like we go there do you know what I’m saying and we give what it needs to give because it’s out there and we want people to be like OK they are not afraid to like they’re not afraid to tell the truth. And I think that’s what makes a good show, A really good storyline where it feels like everybody is coming together to tell all of these different stories and they are all authentic. I feel like that’s what the show does for sure.
Question: When we were talking to the executive producers we kind of mentioned that it’s a very ensemble show. What is a storyline you can be vague so we don’t spoil anything but is there anyone for your particular storyline that you’re excited for people to see?
Akira Akbar as “Ashley Banks”: I feel like because like I can’t say you know say it too much but I’m just excited for everyone to relate to Ashley because of these modern day issues as she goes through especially for teenagers.
Olly Sholotan as “Carlton Banks”: I think you’re going to be mad surprised. I think that is kind of the thing that I’ve been most excited for it’s to see. I’m excited for the journey of Carlton and his drug problem because I think it’s easy to look at it on the surface as you know rich kid does drugs because it’s fun. But as you delve deeper into it you see the struggle, you see the pressure, you see though you see the unattainable goals he sets for himself and I think again that something every single person who’s ever wanted anything can relate to. You know the idea of wanting something so bad and either not knowing how to get it or getting it or it still not feeling enough or I don’t know I just think it’s going to speak to a lot of people.
Coco Jones as “Hilary Banks”: I’m excited for people to see Hilary journey as an influencer. Because this is the day and age of TikTok and all of those things like I’m excited for people to see all the glitters isn’t really gold. And for me to get to become one of those people what I’m told I have to do and the circumstances that I deal with trying to increase my engagement or get views. You know what I’m saying because these things aren’t talked about on the Internet. When you’re watching a vlog they’re not gonna talk about what they had to do to stay in this Hype House or what the emotional toll was if they were playing you know what I’m saying if they just see the thumb dial you just see the quick video so I’m excited for people to see like the journey of her dealing with trying to make it as an influencer.
From Executive Producer Will Smith and Westbrook Studios, BEL-AIR is streaming Super Bowl Sunday, February 13.