The series Bel-Air continues its success and returns to Peacock on February 23rd.
Morgan Cooper is a great example of having a vision and executing it to completion. His viral trailer in 2019, reimagined the iconic, culture-defining ‘90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The new series features an ensemble cast that introduces Jabari Banks as Will and a creative team that includes Cooper, who serves as director, co-writer, and executive producer, and co-showrunners and executive producers T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson.
Cooper’s focus on his craft was inspiring to witness him speak on as a filmmaker. When I sat down with Morgan in December 2021, he carried himself with such a calm aura despite the million directions I’m sure he was being pulled at the time.
Bel-Air will premiere on Peacock on Super Bowl Sunday, February 13, 2022.
Question: What gave you the original idea? What made you want to produce a dramatic version of Fresh Prince?
Morgan: Yeah. So I was in my hometown, Kansas City, and I was driving on the highway. And I always say when ideas hit me, when the vision hits me, all kind of comes at once. So the look and the visualization– I come from a camera. I was in the cinematographer for a few years. So I see how the faces look and how the colors look, and that meshes with like the words and the colors that I see. I kind of like, see it all color. So it all just kind of hit me at once, and it hasn’t really strayed away, you know what I mean? Honestly, even to this day, just like, it all hit me, and I’ve always just believed in manifesting. So I made a call to my producer and put up the money to make the short, and here we are.
Question: What was it like to initially meet Will Smith and find out that he was interested in actually producing? Executive producing
Morgan: Yeah, Will is great. It’s interesting Will actually– well Westbrook, his company reached out before it even went viral. So it was under 10,000 views when they reached out because it’s media team, they’ve always got their ears to everything happening on the Internet. And so they reached out very early. And a day after it was released, I was in Calabasas talking to him on FaceTime. He was in Miami doing Bad Boys, and he was like, “Yooo!” and I was like, “Yooo!” and he was like “So what you trying to do?” I’m like, “I’m trying to make it.” So I told him right there, I was like, I see it as like a 1 hour drama and flew down to Miami to talk about development. We shook hands and got into it.
Question: What kind of compromises did you have to make and how did you sort of, like, navigate having to stay true to your vision and then compromise for network, showrunners, et cetera?
Morgan: Yeah, I think the biggest thing is just you can’t be possessive in television, you know what I mean? It’s like you sell the show. It’s no longer yours, its ours, right? And so every day just… Once again just waking up in gratitude with the situation, and everybody’s got an opinion, that’s television, and it’s just the nature of it, but it’s exciting. There are a lot of different perspectives that go into this, and it’s not one person’s thing. And just taking one day at a time. I’m thankful to be working with very thoughtful artists who have a ton of experience and so every day is a great learning experience.
Question: Can you give a specific example of anything that you were sort of steadfast with when you created this versus it changed?
Morgan: Let’s circle back on because I want to be thoughtful with my answer but yeah, on a day to day basis always things that you want that you have to fight for because there’s a lot of different opinions. But that’s television. It’s just such a collaborative medium.
Question: I have a question. I kind of like it and hopefully spark but is there anything that you had original vision that has been able to carry through to the final product and you’re like, “Okay this is my vision on screen.” Was there any particular shot or anything like that that you’re like? Yes, that’s it.
Morgan: Yeah. You’ve all seen the pilot so once again kind of going back to just how my mind works as an artist, I see the images with the– it’s all like one thing, you know what I mean? So I think the pilot is definitely the best representative of my vision. Hopefully when people see that people who have been fans of my work, my work will really feel that texture. So Philly was something that I really wanted to make sure we represented really well, you know what I mean? I wanted to pay respect to that community…Bike Life Rex, young dude from Philly who had been following IG, and we went back and forth in the DM, so I wrote him into the script. He’s a young dude surfing on the bike from Philly. You know what I mean? So even if people don’t know the specific details, you can feel it. It just feels different. You know what I mean? So I was just trying to lead with what is real to me, like, what’s authentic. And so I think people should really feel that in the pilot.
Question: Well, what’s the ratio between risk and opportunity for bringing so many kind of unseasoned performers, people who may not be as well known?
Morgan: I prefer– honestly, I love working with non actors, especially when it’s, like very specific things. You know what I mean? It’s like that texture. You can’t teach that type of energy that Philly energy is so special. I have a ton of friends from Philly. You know what I mean? And it’s just such a specific type of energy. I’m from Kansas City, and it’s not the same as Philly, but just kind of like the type of energy is the same, and you can’t act that. You know what I mean? And so when casting was sitting in reads, it was like, that’s cool. So I was like, let’s see these guys, and you see their tapes. And it was just like, as clear as day.
Question: Was there any pushback on that?
Morgan: No, I’m really thankful for that. The studios were very supportive of those casting decisions, and I think everybody saw the benefits of it when they saw the pilot. Hopefully, when you guys saw the pilot, you guys felt a real energy. You know what I mean? Because it was.
Question: Kind of piggybacking off that question. What made you decide to seek out rising actors instead of taking out bigger names? Because you would think with this big property, this big Bel Air reboot, that you would seek out Michael B. Jordan or something, you know what I mean? Some bigger names. What made you guys decide to go with rising actors?
Morgan: Yeah. Something that we were always aligned on was just choosing the best actors who were right for these roles versus names. You know what I mean? It was important for us to this reimagine vision. Who are these reimagined versions of these characters? Like, who brought the spirit of what was aligned with the vision versus like, let’s just get a name just to get a name. You know what I mean? Because Anybody who’s a fan of the show, it’s like– they’re not showing up for a specific actor. They’re showing up for these characters that they know and love. Right. And so who embodies these reimagined characters in the most authentic way? And I’m blown away by the cast that we landed. I feel so fortunate to young Jabari. The world is going to know about Jabari for years and years to come. Coco, Olly, I feel like we struck gold with this cast and just the best people to work with, too. So collaborative and so for us that’s what we’re looking for is to really create a true family versus, like, let’s just kind of hodgepodge names to do it. And also, I think there’s an element if you have a name, it could maybe even be distracting. You know what I’m saying? It’s like if you bring in– I won’t name anybody specific, but you kind of see that actor versus seeing this reimagined character. You know what I mean? So that was important.
Question: Watching the pilot kind of put me in an ill position because my homeboy, Jerry was in the–
Morgan: I love Jerry.
Question: Yes. And it’s like, so when I saw the pilot, I was like, I’m sorry, dog. But Jabari. He’s the guy, you know what I’m saying? I mean, I didn’t talk to him yet about it, but it’s like I’m watching that y’all nailed that casting.You know what I’m saying?Like, Jabari just completely embodies that role.
Morgan: Yeah. He’s incredible, man. I remember we were in Philly scouting for the pilot, and he came down. He was in DC at the time, and he came down and he had a little mustache at the time. And we were in the middle of a Zoom and in the middle of it, it hit me. I’m like, ‘hey, bro, do you mind? This is weird. But you take five and just lose the mustache real quick. Just like, run in real quick and shave.’ And the second I saw him like him, he’s such a deep well, like what he can do his bag. He’s just so versatile as an actor and can do so many different things. He has natural charisma, natural comedic timing. His dramatic chops are exceptional, and he’d only done a short film, and now he’s number one on the call sheet. And since the first take, he rose to the occasion, and I knew we’re going to be just fine.
Question: Do you find yourself gravitating towards more, like, dramatic films or series? We were talking about it before throughout the interviews that people were a little concerned about trying to remake something or reimagine. Excuse me– something like Fresh Prince that is so classic and iconic. But when I saw the trailer, I was like, this is interesting. I can see where to go. Do you find yourself gravitating towards outside of film and TV?
Morgan: It’s interesting. I always feel like my voice as an artist. Directors. Like I said, I kind of view it as a singular thing. And so it’s like drama, but funny, too, you know what I mean? Because I think they go hand in hand, honestly. Like anything. I think that’s good. There’s always, like, any good drama has probably some good comedy or good comedic moments, you know what I mean? Even if it’s nuanced or subtle, you know what I mean? I think they kind of go hand in hand. It’s more of a drama. I consider our show more of a drama, but it’s got to be funny, you know what I mean? I think that’s because with humor comes vulnerability. You see what I’m saying? Which is a pathway to, like, dramatic moments, like meaningful dramatic moments is that pathway of levity. So they go hand in hand with me. So I definitely don’t say I lean one way or another. I just lean towards something that makes me feel something as an artist. I just chase a feeling, you know what I mean? And usually levity opens up my heart to get to that dramatic thing.
Question: You talk a lot about authenticity, and that’s been something that is a theme throughout all of the interviews that everybody is saying that same thing and also just being open and how they have a great relationship. What’s your rapport, with everyone that’s involved, not just the cast, but the crew, and then just bringing out that authenticity in each character.
Morgan: Love the crew. I feel like we’ve got the best crew in this town. They’re just so giving with their talent. They bring their A game every single day and honored to be working with such a hard working crew. Yeah, I love them. I was just over there just like, dapping everyone. I love them so much. And it’s become very tight knit. So I can’t say enough about the artists and technicians behind the camera on this project. I could go on for days and props from every part of that Department, you know what I mean? So I love our crew. I get emotional thinking about them because they’ve given so much to this.
Question: Yeah. So I think this between Bel-Air or even Zola this year, I think there’s, like, this trend of black creators kind of going outside of the Hollywood circle to get stories told which are just going viral. So I guess the question I’m trying to ask is how exactly do you see, I guess from now on, how do you see stories being told through social media?
Morgan: Good question. Yeah. I think things are just changing, you know what I mean? I know the old days are just like, there’s only one place to watch things that entertain you. That’s done. You know what I mean? It’s like we really can take matters in our own hands as artists and pave our own paths, because ultimately people want to watch what they want to watch. And if that idea comes from a studio, great. If it comes from a young dude in Kansas City, that’s going to happen to, you know what I mean? So it’s like, hopefully this could be something that paves the way for other brilliant, independent artists to shoot their shot and do their thing, you know what I mean? And create their own opportunity, because you can’t wait for permission. It’s never going to happen. We’ve got to be, like, the captain of our own destiny, so to speak, and be fearless in what we make. And I didn’t make that to– I just made it because I want to make it. At the time, I was shooting commercials for a living as a cinematographer. I was living my life doing my thing. I just wanted to express it. And I think people felt that, like, I wasn’t trying to chase clout or anything weird. I just wanted to make it because that’d be something I would watch. I want to make things I want to watch.
Question: When You talked about that moment where you talked with Will. When do you think it’s really going to hit? Like, oh, my gosh, this is it.
Morgan: Yeah. Honestly, I hope it can just inspire the next generation of storytellers to do their thing. And honestly, I just hope people can see my collaborators work, you know what I mean? I’m thankful to have this opportunity, but I just want the people around me to shine. That’s all I really care about at the end of the day.
Question: In modernizing this take on Fresh Prince, what does this 2021 iteration have to say that’s different from the Fresh Prince in the past?
Morgan: That’s a very good question. I’m just trying to, if I could say, holistically. Yeah, maybe we circle back to that one as well. That’s a great question. I want to give that a little thought.
Question: How about this, then? The soundtrack is amazing for the show. There’s a kid Cudi song in there that I haven’t heard in ages. I’m just like, yeah.
Morgan: They sleep on that one. I mean, incredible project. And everybody was like, is this a new Kid Cudi? So I’m like, ‘What?!’ Teleport to me is so good it so like romantic.
Question: So in line with that, the audience, we’re picking up these sounds and everything. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of a show having a musical identity or a footprint, in a sense, and how music kind of helps with the storytelling?
Morgan: Oh, man. Absolutely. Before we even casted, I made, like, a 50 song playlist for every single character because I feel like if you know what somebody listens to, you can get a very good feel for a tone of a character through music. And so my hope was just to create a visual landscape that lends itself through the emotional subtext through these scenes. For in Philly, one of those things that not only have a cultural impact, but from a character perspective, really touch you at a deep place in your heart when you see Will on screen, leaving Philly behind. Like, what is the soundtrack for that moment? You know what I mean? So I lean towards what matters within the culture because once again, it has to be authentic, it has to be real for it to be meaningful, you know what I mean? So that’s just leaning into I don’t know. I always say I just lean into things I care about, you know what I mean? Honestly. And through that, I think the decisions become very easy. It’s like a filter. It’s like, what am I trying to say? Oh, okay. If I know what I’m trying to say, it’s like down to my lenses, the camera, the edit, the edit style, the musical choice right there. It’s all through the filter of like, what do I want to say in this moment? What is the emotional subtext of this character’s experience in the scene? What are the character dynamics within the scene? Okay. And all the choices become really clear. That just comes with putting in the 10,000 hours.
Question: Kind of going off the playlist thing. Like, if you had, like, a personal playlist, were there specific songs that inspired you in creating the show?
Morgan: Yes. I mean, even kind of going back to Teleport to me Jamie, when I hear that song, I just think of coming of age love. It’s just kind of got that type of energy, and you go back to your first loves and all that type of stuff, you know what I mean? So it’s just like all these different sounds growing up in Kansas City and the things– freeway. There’s a freeway needle drop. I’ve never heard that on TV, but I grew up listening to that, and that matters to me. So it’s like if it matters to me at a visceral level, maybe it’ll matter to other people.
Question: I’m not sure who said this, but they described you as the heartbeat of this entire production. And I thought that was like very powerful and a testament. I mean, I’ve never met you before. It’s a testament to who you are. Describe obviously it’s your vision, but from your standpoint, just looking and seeing, these things come from pre production to now as you’re working towards how it feels to be like the central part, like you’re talking to a lot of different people. There’s a lot of moving parts. How are you balancing that? I’m sure this is like your laser focus on this, but how are you balancing everything?
Morgan: I got a great assistant who helps me keep my thoughts organized. It’s a lot, you know what I mean? It does take a certain amount of delegation and trust, you know what I mean? And also the ability to let certain things go because this isn’t a Bel Air film. It’s a television show with a lot of different opinions. We’ve got two showrunners who see the world in a specific way. We’ve got a whole writer’s room and that’s the magic of it. You know what I mean? I guess my mind of management is just really taking it one day at a time, one task at a time. The big homie Will always lay a brick, you know what I mean? So I always try to remember that in moments where I’m like, damn, there’s so many different things I want to isolate and make perfect, you know what I mean? Because I’m a perfectionist. That’s how I work. Just like lay these three bricks, you know what I mean? And then you look up in a week and all those things are in place. So taking one thing at a time, I’m at House of Intuition, getting candles and morning coffee a little like day to day tasks to keep the mind and spirit right. So not ignoring that too.
Question: How’s it feel being like such a young professional and being the boss of all of this stuff or having to call shots and make these big time decisions when there’s so much on the line?
Morgan: Yeah, man. I think for me just being incredibly present, you know what I mean? That’s why people ask me all the time, “How are you so calm with it all?” And I just say I just try to just stay focused on the art, you know what I mean? In the process, I’m still the same kid who had a little T2 out of my hand in the hood in Kansas City, 18. Same approach, just like focus on the frame, one thing at a time. I’d say it’s like staying laser focused on the things that matter. And I’m not on the Internet a lot. You know what I mean? I try to just stay in the real world as much as possible, and that’s helpful as well, because I think sometimes if you focus too much on what everybody is saying, you can kind of let that find its way into the art, you know what I mean? Versus, like, once, it just happened in the memories, like, what are the things that are very real and handmade to me and letting that lead and even going back to Jabari, I love this cast so much. Like all my little siblings, as far as, like a little brother to me, I stay laser focused on just checking in on them and making sure they’re right. It’s like a squad. It’s like, let’s focus on this right now and everything that comes after, that’s going to be what it is, but let’s stay focused on the art. Let’s stay focused at getting a little bit better, what we do every day.
Question: What age did your creative journey start for you?
Morgan: Yeah, when I was 18.
Question: When you’re 18, yeah. So if you took a look back, you’re able to sit down with your 18 year old self right now, everything that’s happened so far. What would you say?
Morgan: Yeah, man. Trust your gut, follow your heart, you can do anything. Manifestation is real. And, yeah, I look back on that time. I’ve been thinking a lot more about that lately. I just turned 30. And looking back when I was 18, and I didn’t go to College or anything like that. I didn’t do well in high school, and I was scared. You know what I mean? It was a very scary time. My dad moved to Florida, and it was a very real journey, to say the least. I bought a little canon T2I and decided to tell stories. I always say just want to tell the story of my cousin, and I’m still the same guy.
Question: Everyone that we spoke with has talked about this freedom that you’ve given them to improv and bring their real personalities to the character. Can you speak a little bit to that?
Morgan: Yeah, absolutely. I always say I never as a director, I try to be surgical in my direction and not over direct actors. It’s where they feel box, spin. It’s like. And I think that comes from my process really just chasing a feeling. And that’s what everything, whether it’s a shot or the shape of the light I want in a frame or an actor’s performance, it’s chasing that feeling. And for me, that makes the process much easier. And I’m glad I’ve discovered that process over the years, because when you chase, like a result, it’s kind of an ethereal thing, and you’re just trying to throw something fine to sticks, but it’s like, no. What do I want to say with this if you know that you can get to that result a lot of different ways and that gives the actor freedom to get to that place their own way. You see what I’m saying? So I make it a very collaborative process, and I’m so thankful working with a great cast who asks really smart questions, you know what I mean? And they want to be challenged. Like, actors love good direction, you know what I mean? I try to just come in and give them just what they need and leave room for them to bring their magic to the table, you know what I’m saying? It’s all in service of that feeling we want to create with this moment, with the scene, with the sequence. I always say it’s like moment creation is such an important attribute for an actor. You got a lot of great actors who are serviceable actors. Like, they can do the lines, whatever, but we’ve got moment creators. They create moments. I hope you all felt that in the pilot. There are just so many moments that they created and that’s between them and god, honestly. So for me, it’s just like, give them freedom to really express things, have authorship with these characters and create a true form of collaboration. I never want them to feel bogged down with direction. It’s like, no, here’s what we’re trying to say. Here’s what we start the plane emotionally in the scene, here’s where We land the plane and always just giving them stakes, reminders. We’ve got younger actors who haven’t done this before, so just being there to help empower them and help remind them the emotional cues within the sequences.
Question: I wanted to ask you what kind of went into the decision making process of illustrating those different terrains as far as the music perspective as well as was there any kind of thought into the eras? Obviously, I feel like, kind of like, at least in the first episode when I heard some of the Philly rappers were kind of like an older era, at least from the younger kind of artists that are portrayed.
Morgan: It’s becoming more and more rare to timeless music. We don’t have a lot of timeless hip hop anymore. You see what I’m saying? Everything is just so driven by, like, what’s the hot thing now on TikTok? And then you look up two weeks later and it’s kind of onto the next thing, and it just kind of gets lost in the sauce. It was hot two weeks ago, but come on, money trees is never going to be out of style. You see what I’m saying? What we do is never going to be out of style. Like, you throw that on any Stadium, it’s up anywhere, you know what I mean? So it’s like leaning into, like, what’s timeless and what’s new but still has a timeless element, a very hand made element in Philly. Sloan’s got a joint in there. You know what I mean? Young Sloan portrays Darnell. That was important to have that West Philly texture. Like we hear Freeway, what we do great. Like that was Philly, a timeless component. But what does West Philly sound like now where you have SIM Santana, who’s doing more drill? Like, you feel that East Coast drill presence in the Poppy store scene, you know what I mean?
Question: You were scared when you were younger, when you were 18. Can you share what was going on?
Morgan: Yeah. I mean, like being in the middle of it. You don’t see this type of stuff in the MidWest, you know what I mean? It’s like I don’t know anyone in the business at all. My dad sold ADT and my mom did deploy morale consulting, but I knew I wanted to say something. And so it’s definitely just kind of like a sink or swim situation. Like, you got to figure this out, you know what I mean? You can’t lean on anyone to make the dream come true. Like you’ve got to will it into existing, manifesting. Yeah. When you have a dream, a very big dream, and you really have no idea how to get there, you know what I’m saying? It’s scary, but I’ve always run towards fear, you know what I mean? It’s like for real. Even with this project, just keeping it tall. It’s like I didn’t know until Will tapped in. I wasn’t going to get sued. Johnny am I lying? Johnny produced a short for my hometown and we still talk about to this day. It’s like I didn’t know if Westbrook was reaching out to. Yeah, but it’s like I didn’t let that stop me. I ran towards it. So I think the fear can be helpful because if it’s scary, that could be a good thing, you know what I mean? Things that it’s the unknown. I think that’s what it is. It’s like the unknown what could happen if I tried this thing and I fail. That’s scary. And I’m not afraid to admit that, you know what I mean? But I’ve always ran towards that fear.
Question: Going back to the original short, I guess with your background, what inspired the actual visual looks of the short? And how does that kind of carry over to the actual series?
Morgan: Fine art, really. Like Kehinde and Amy Sheryl, what they were doing, the Obama portraits, it just came, you know what I mean? Just that I’ve never seen anything. None of us really have seen that before. Black people set against beautiful floral and not just like the paint, but the framing as well. Just like this beautiful Bolt. Just had never seen anything like that. Once again, growing up in the Midwest. You just don’t see that, you know what I mean? I saw that, I’m like it was just so striking to me. You see what I’m saying? And also how he painted light. Light is something that’s important me at a very spiritual level. I think it’s a very defining part of my work. If you see anything I’ve done, it’s like people talk about how late, you know what I mean? And so just seeing how he painted, that was a huge inspiration of the visual texture. Roy de Carava, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence. Like, there’s a lot of silhouettes that you saw in the short film as well, like the Migration series. That’s all Migration series. So putting together a mood board with all the fine art influences that mean a lot to me. Gordon Parks, how he took, like, very simple moments at a time when it wasn’t trendy to capture black life, like he was doing that because he had to. Same thing with Roy. Roy Decarava, right? And so honoring them through intimacy and how we show black people on screen, you know what I mean? In a way that’s caring and tender.
Question: So with that, how do you take that short? And then how do you count with that Peacock budget? How do you enhance that?
Morgan: Yeah. I think for me, it’s just not forgetting those North Stars. Right. And I hope you guys felt like a level of intimacy and tenderness, you know what I mean? In these sequences of young black men in a locker room just expressing joy, for example, I want to see more of that on TV because it’s real and we don’t see those things enough. It’s not just like trapping and nonsense. It’s like there’s a lot of love. And so I think despite the budget and all the toys and stuff that you get with a big budget. Just like staying true to what do I want to say in the intimacy of these moments? I feel like that’s my superpower as an artist is like creating moments of intimacy on screen so not losing sight of that. It’s like all that Stuff’s cool. Don’t let it distract from what you want to say and the emotion that you want a viewer to feel.
Question: I wanted to talk about Carlton and the way that he kind of relates to blackness. Olly was saying that it’s kind of a everyday struggle to be like, “Well, I’m not black enough to black people, but I’m too black for white people.” What was it like kind of writing that character and placing him within that dynamic of really questioning his own identity as a black man?
Morgan: Yes, such a good question. I think for us just being very intentional with the choices we made and. Yeah. I think just intentionality. And Carlton didn’t choose the world he was born into. I think that’s very important to remember. I think sometimes we forget that as people, it’s like, you didn’t choose to be born in Lincoln. You were born in Lincoln. And that informs the people you’re around and the proximity to you that informs your experiences and your moral view. You know what I’m saying? I think that’s important to see on TV, to dimensionalize a character like that who can just be so viewed as like, 2D, like, you see what I’m saying? It’s like, no. Why does he think these things? He wasn’t born in this world will choose the same way? Will didn’t choose to be born in Philly. So, like, Carlton’s judgment, its like Will didn’t choose to be born in the situation. This is the thing that he was around. If that led to his situation and changing and shifting, that’s what I hope our show can do in a really unique way. To make that very clear, we don’t choose where we’re from. We’re not one thing. You know what I mean? And that’s okay. That’s beautiful. And it’s important to have those conversations and not be taboo. If Carlton talks a type of way, that’s okay. You know what I mean? It doesn’t make him less Black, its how he talks. He can’t change his skin color. You know what I mean?
Question: What does this version of the show have to say differently from what the past version is?
Morgan: Yeah, 30 years ago, just due to the times that we live in. And just like the format in which that show was a 30 minutes sitcom that’s based in comedy can only go so far with certain social themes. So I think for our show, it’s just to go deeper in every single way and really peel back the layers of these characters and create a three dimensional world to have these conversations in a way that’s authentic, you know what I mean? The reason I give pause is because we wouldn’t be here without that show right now, you know what I’m saying? So I don’t want no slight on that. You know what I mean? At that time. It’s still to this day, I revere that show, you know what I mean? But I guess, for example, when I did the short, I didn’t watch The Fresh Prince at all, like, at all. That entire process for a reason. You know what I mean? I didn’t want that to inform. It’s just like, what are my memories of these kids? Okay, cool. Now I want to reimagine them in a way that’s real and that’s modern. So it’s like it’s just like a different thing. Can I ask you a question?…Okay. When you watched it, I’m curious, from you guys perspective, what was the most surprising thing, knowing the sitcom, seeing the short, what were the most surprising things for you guys? I’m curious.
Interviewer: I think Will and Uncle Phil’s relationship to me was so different. And I felt like when I watched the first one, it was like, okay, Will went to Bel Air, but you really focused on this is why he’s going to Bel Air. This is not sweet. It’s not a vacation.
Interviewer: I think the showrunners kind of mentioned it, but the fact that you don’t have to know Fresh Prince originally to now watch it. Now a younger generation is tapping into, oh, yeah. I may have saw Fresh Prince at 03:00 in the morning on Nickelodeon, but now this is what I can see. And I can kind of relate a little bit more to this than I could have, watching it back in the 90s.
Morgan: I think those are all great thoughts. I agree with all those things and the particular last one. It’s like you don’t really have to know that show to hopefully enjoy this show because I view it as just a different thing, you know what I mean? While still trying to honor the spirit of that incredible, iconic show. So hopefully that helps. I’m sorry. Okay. All right.
…And I got to give a big shout to the studio and Peacock for being supportive. That because it wasn’t easy. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. That’s another thing, too, is like, we’re making the show. We’re still in the midst of this thing, and that’s hard. And we don’t have unlimited days to do this stuff. So for them to believe in the vision enough to put up the money for us to go to Philly and do it the right way, you know what I mean? I still remember that was the first day on 60th street on the bike, and Will walking up with his mom. That was the very first shoot of the very first day. And I just remember the whole community came out and they felt so much love. And I’m like, that’s why I do it. You know what I mean? For them to be seen because people should be seen and feel honored. You’re going to portray those things like, no, go there and shake hands with these people and look them in the eye. Thank you for having us. Right.
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.
Bel-Air Interview with Co-Showrunners / Executive Producers: T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson
In December 2021, I along with several other journalists from other publications sat down with the cast and crew of BEL-AIR. BEL-AIR is a contemporary dramatic reimagining of the beloved and culture-defining 90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The series is based on Morgan Cooper’s viral fan film Bel-Air, which dropped in 2019 and lit the internet on fire.
Below is a group interview had with Co-Showrunners / Executive Producers: T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson. Both T.J. and Rasheed were extremely enthusiastic when speaking about the series. It was both refreshing and inspiring to hear their take and approach on the modern day version of Fresh Prince. The new life being brought to the series is done with such care by a creative team dedicated to pushing the boundaries and revealing truth in storytelling.
How did you two envision dramatizing such a comical sitcom? That’s like, obviously everyone’s number one question.
We were helped out a lot by the trailer that Morgan Cooper put online for the tone and the feel. So it’s not like we were starting from nothing, grasping in the dark. When you have a compass reading like that, you know what direction you’re walking in. So that was a big advantage. That visual template and tone and, you know, between the lighting and the music to follow.
Rasheed Newson: We also found it with the entire writer’s room when we sort of got together. And that was sort of the fun part of just looking at this show and taking it apart and going, okay. “Now What if this were real?” In the pilot of the Fresh Prince, Will meets Carlton, Ashley, and all of them for the first time. And so you start going from a drama series, why exactly haven’t we met our cousins and why, if we’ve been struggling in Philadelphia and y’all been rich this whole time and so that led to this idea that there must be some secrets to this family, and now you’re in the world of drama.
So, that kind of gets me thinking the original show came out in the nineties. That was obviously a very different time in America. Which can represent rich, affluent black people, but they have certain political beliefs and, they refer to themselves as Republicans multiple times in the individual series and stuff. So…And now in 2021 things are a lot different…America’s a lot different. What do you say? How do you reflect that in the drama? Especially with the wealth disparity too.
One of the things we wanted to shake off the idea is that if you’re rich and black, you’ve traded in your allegiance to liberalism along the way. One of the things, you know, if you’re on set of the show when you walk into the mansion, it’s filled with a lot of art, African-American art. Everybody from GWA to Ferrari Shepherd. When you walk into this house, they’re not just rich, they’re black and rich, and you walk into this house and you should know that a black family lives here. And so we did go the other way. I mean, Phil, we’ve made him quite liberal. That was a deliberate choice because of that sort of, that old dichotomy of, well, if you’re rich, you must have sold out along the way. It’s not true. We’re not living there anymore.
Phil’s character is an interesting dynamic there too. You talk About criminal justice, the conversations we have nowadays, you have Phil he’s running for DA, correct? How do you balance those modern-day political conversations into this drama?
Part of it is you’re gonna see an evolution of Phil’s campaign and his campaign message as the season comes along. He starts off at the beginning trying to walk that fine line like I want to reform, but if I reform too much, I don’t wanna be branded as a radical and you know, Will coming in their life is a catalyst for change. That’s kind of the premise of the series and slowly over the course of a season against political advice from people are trying to keep, I know how you feel, but that doesn’t have to be what you say. He’s gonna have a conflict with that and be pressed by people in his family to say what he really feels, which is great. But the reality is there is a political price to pay for it and to show what that is and to show how difficult it is to walk that line in today’s America, without trying to gloss over that or pretend like you can come out and say something and everything’s gonna be great.
Very early in this room, there was a question of “Hey, do you want to be aspirational? Are we showing the world as we wish it was? Or we showing the world as it is?” We have opted to show the world as it is.
There are a number of interesting updates to these characters. We’ve got Carlton doing drugs, we’ve got Hillary as the social media influencer you know, Uncle Phil broke the law to get Will out. How did you decide on how to repurpose these characters for modern audiences?
Again, it felt like it was a group discussion and it was just sort of everybody sort of talking especially with Morgan and trying to figure out where would this go and what would be interesting? One of the things that that was, I think tough is these characters are incredibly beloved. And so you don’t want to do anything that seems to diminish them, but it’s a drama people have to do something interesting. People have to do something that isn’t along the straight and narrow. So it was just trying to find things that fit within the model of who they were, but you go, okay, I could see them doing that.
And they could also provide a story engine to keep telling stories as they pursued, whatever it is that made them different and unique this time from the drug use to the influencing, like, what is she actually gonna be doing Hillary? You know, and if you’re a food influencer, all the different places that could put you, what are the limitations on that? How saturated that space already is, and trying to find a niche to stand out that could give a character, something to butt up against and strive for that their money couldn’t necessarily just provide. You can’t just buy yourself into influencing, as far as I know, I mean maybe followers. But they’re not real people.
So the sitcom is very Will-focused and that’s kind of just the nature of sitcoms. This drama seems to be leaning more towards an ensemble. We’re learning very intimate things about all of the characters. Was that a cognizant choice when you were putting it together?
It was a decision and it was a necessity, right? Because there just was a limit to the number of stories you could tell if you were just following one character, but if suddenly you’ve got everybody on the campus at your disposal, it just made for richer drama. I’ve been very proud because there was some backstory stuff for the Phil and Viv characters at the beginning of the season, you tell the actors this and you hope you’re able to actually get to develop. And I felt like we’ve been able to come through on that promise. We wanted to avoid the model where Viv and Phil were sorts of props who just came in to give advice and teach the lesson to the kids. We wanted them to have stories of their own that had nothing to do with the children.One of the most interesting days in the room was when we started talking about, okay, who is this? You know, we think of them as Uncle and Aunt, who were they before they had kids? Who are Phil and Viv? What was this marriage like? What did they want? And so that’s given us a lot of material.
And you know what, I’m really, really proud of the parental storyline. I mean that one, I think given our age and our experience, we both have families. We both have kids. We both balance marriage with a career. The Phil story and the Viv story are intertwined. They need each other. But I’m just very proud of the story arc over 10 episodes, we’re delivering where there might be a little bit of a shift in the relationship and power dynamic that we’ve established in the pilot.
Rasheed Newson: And we’re very excited about that. One of the reckonings of being on this show is the show came out 30 years ago. I’ve watched every episode, I am 42 years old. I used to watch it as a kid. And I was like, oh, I can’t wait till I’m that old. And now I’m doing this show and I’m like, I’m Uncle Phil. And I have the same taste in music. I mean, they’re in their forties. I said to my husband, I was like, cause I was doing the thing you’re doing like backstory stuff and you go, oh, well, what music would Uncle Phil listen to? And I’m like, should I think about Motown? You’re like, no, he’s not your parents. He’s you.
Regional rap is very up, it’s especially an immense thing here in LA. I wanted to understand how you guys not only number one, brought those characters into 2021 with their music interest, but how you represented the different changes?
Rasheed Newson: That’s all Morgan.
TJ Brady: A lot of that comes from Morgan. Who’s tapped into the scene more so than, than either of us. I would say a lot of it comes. We hired a great music supervisor, Philippe Pierre, who’s very tapped into regional, especially Southern California. And the composers we hired for this. I want to give a huge shout-out to the amazing Terrace Martin and Robert Glasper. Those guys are an incredible asset to the show. And I just, I love working with them. They’re the sweetest people and so talented. So I just shout them out all day.
Rasheed Newson: but it has the DNA from the beginning. I mean, I think our day one, Morgan came and there was like there was his lookbook and it was like 200 pages. We went to characters and clothes. He had a Spotify playlist for every character on the show. Like this was just day one. He was like, “Okay, this is the music that this character listens to.” Whether or not it makes it in the show, it informs them of who they are.
Obviously, it opens up with middle child. I wanted to know where were you guys first when you heard that “First things, first Rest in Peace, Uncle Phil” and how did that resonate with you? And then bringing that obviously to the opening scene. It’s still kind of lethargic in a sense.
It’s a powerful piece. I mean, I, where were you? I used to watch Fades Of Black on MTV on Sunday mornings. But now I feel like I hear music on a one-year delay. Because in addition to being an old dad with two young children, things filtered through me, but I imagine I heard it in the car and it probably clicked because it was speaking to something from my era.
Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t know where I was. I know where I was when I first saw the song I used in the trailer, Morgan put online I can remember being at work on another job and someone forwarded it to me like this is the best F’N idea ever click, open it up. And it was the best FN idea ever. All I could think of was, “Wow. I wish I had thought of that.”
One thing I liked a lot about the pilot was the way it had slight nods to the original. There’s a part where Will says, “You got in one little fight. My mom got scared.” What is that line as a showrunner between paying homage and not being too on the nose? And not going too leading into the old one.
We dance with it every episode. Because one person’s idea of funny the other person is “Oh, that’s too much.” The idea is the scene shouldn’t hinge on it, that can’t be the, that can’t be the button to the scene or the joke of the scene. It has to sort of just lay there. I think there’s a scene, episode three, Uncle Phil is playing pool. Now he doesn’t do the whole, we’re not doing a shot-for-shots sort of thing, but he’s really good. And, the scene is about something else and it’s just a part of the scene. So that’s where I think the sweet spot’s been.
TJ Brady: Did everybody remember from the pilot when he is on the plane, what he is drinking? Orange juice out of a champagne glass. And that’s deeper because that didn’t even make the credits, that’s in the real song. It’s in the song’s radio version, you know, so it’s orange juice out of a champagne glass.
Rasheed Newson: But it’s funny because we want people who love the original to have moments, every episode where they’re like, okay, they remember us. Dice in the mirror.
How involved has Will been in the development of the series?
The most involved was in the casting of the character of Will when we were trying to find Jabari. I mean, it’s the role that kind of put him on the map that led to his career. And it was probably the most pressure I think we’ve been under because you’ve gotta find somebody that not only you think can carry the show, but at some point you’re like, this is gonna go all the way up to Will and he’s got to weigh in on this. Luckily Jabari just knocked it outta the park. And then of course we’ve been using Will in the promotion of the show. The teaser that came out, what I love about that is like the four moments you’re like, “Is that him?” So that’s been great.
I want to give a shout-out. As you mentioned, casting, Jabari, Vicky Thomas, legendary Vicky Thomas casting director. When you talk about sifting through a mountain of submissions very early on in the process. We went to Philly. You know what? You’re in Philly, and I think there’s somebody you should meet. So her name is part of this creation story in a big way. And for any and all of you here, she might be worth an interview. She’s just an amazing legendary African American female casting director who continues to change the game.
I mean, it was like “Oh, just, you know, find the next Will Smith.” That was the cast. And I found it heartbreaking as I would I stopped watching the slates because you go to watch the slate, they’re supposed to tell how tall they are and you know, where they’re coming out of. People were pleading with “I was born to play this role. I’ve watched it. Just give me a chance.” I feel like people were like, “God told me I’m gonna be the next Will Smith”. I was like, I can’t watch.
How many people auditioned for the role?
TJ Brady: We saw…I don’t know.
Rasheed Newson: They weeded it down for us. It felt like I feel like 60 or 70 that got to us. I feel like everybody in that, every actor in that demo and some not in the demo, some people I’m like “You are 35.” You’ve seen our cast. There’s that thing of like are you going to be the show where the teenagers are like 30? Like, are you gonna play that? And so we’re like, no, we want people who are actually around the age, but it means you’re gonna be going with people who have fewer credits and less experience. Are you really going to put a show on someone’s back? But then you’re going, well, that’s what they did with Will, you know, 30 years ago. And it worked out pretty well!
You mentioned earlier that you were a kid when the show came out. Yeah. so obviously there might be some kids nowadays that didn’t watch Fresh Prince. My nephew, for example, he’s 15. I told him I was coming to this. He was like “Fresh Prince?” And I was like, “What?” And that’s when I’d realized. Oh, wait, okay. I’m getting a little old. So are you trying to appeal to that younger audience?
Absolutely. I mean because of that, that’s why this show has to be able to stand on its own. That’s why it couldn’t just be referential. It couldn’t be that show. Where you’d only enjoy it if you’d seen the original, it’s gotta hook you now and it’s gotta do it on its own power.
That’s why if you look at the people we cast it’s amazing the way they’re gonna be dressed, the music they’re listening to. The things they get into it’s all designed around that. Right there. We’ve got to earn new viewers and we know that.
What was that first table reading like when you got everybody together?
It was exciting. It was a logistical nightmare because it was on Zoom. We couldn’t get everybody in the same room. I mean because we’re in a pandemic. I was gonna say it was worse then, I guess it was worse then. It’s still bad now, it’s tough. It was on zoom, but they did a great job. What’s great is our job is to go in and just say hello, introduce it, and step back. And there are just moments where we’ll watch over you. Like this is happening. Yep.
Did you have a specific moment for both of you? Where it just clicked? Like “Oh, okay, this is happening. We’re here.”
It was when we were in Philadelphia and I don’t think it was the first scene, but we were doing a scene. It was with Jabari and April. The 16th and Market. And what, what I got was, one, they were great. And we were here in Philadelphia and we’re doing it and the whole community. Everybody came out to see what was happening and when we would tell them and they were really excited. It really sank in. Everyone didn’t believe us. Will wasn’t there. “Where’s Will? Where’s Will?” “He’s not here!” “I know you gotta say that. He comes later.” And I’m like, no, don’t wink at me. He’s not coming.
Speaking of the fact that you had to do this during a pandemic, during the show, there’s no mention of the pandemic. I don’t see any masks. There’s no social distancing. Can you walk us through that decision to not have this set during the COVID era?
We talked about it and from an acting standpoint, you’re gonna lose this much of the face. It just handicapped so much from an acting standpoint.
Being unable to predict the future about it. It’s a difficult thing to gauge where we’re gonna be when it comes out. In addition to the fact that on some level we’re trying to provide some level of wish fulfillment. And I think we’re all looking forward to the days when we don’t need these anymore.
I’m always hesitant to have a character use a cell phone because it’s one of those things that date the show. If somebody pulls out a flip phone, you’re like, “Oh Jesus”, you’re like listening to the dialogue. It became one of those things too.
COVID though, just from a production standpoint, just give a shout out to our COVID team, keeping everybody safe. Being able to pull off some of these locations and shoot like it is. We’ve been doing this for 14 years working as TV writers, producers, and it’s way harder than it’s ever been to get a location. Especially if you want to shoot an interior, it’s a lot more expensive. It’s a lot harder. We have lost things two days before it’s all set up to go to a place. No, they said no because COVID numbers are up now. I would be disappointed, but I couldn’t even argue against it.
Like we were looking at one school and then suddenly the parents were like, wait a minute, we can’t go into the school. And you’ve got to let 200 people from a production crew go into the school. And I was like, you got this we’ll find something else.
So that has really impacted us a lot. And I think it’s a testament to the team around us. They’ve been able to get things done.
To what degree do you feel like you guys are doing some predictive state of Black America in terms of writing? To what degree did you sort of do some projections about the future as you were writing still now?
I think what we did was sort of extrapolate a few things when it comes to Phil’s campaign. Where we think the conversation around black candidates running for office, policing, and how to talk about that. We’ve seen some things reflected in the past election that we extrapolated forward. Also around the state and Rasheed, the amazing art collector that he is and I’m not just making that up. He’s like a legit art collector. He was extrapolating out some trends in the world of a black art, where it is, and trying to talk about where it’s going in terms of styles, the marketing, the framing of it in the larger culture, where does it belong and how is it handled and appreciated?
Can you talk about the juxtaposition between the beginning of the episode? And then the middle when he gets to LA. So like in Philly it’s just very much just dark, even the lighting in it. In comparison to when Will arrives.
The lighting was sort of funny because some of that’s like just the difference between the east coast and west coast light. It was overcasting when we were in Philly and I was like, this is the sky that God gave us. And then when we got here and it was just like blasting sun when we were going. We were also trying to go for I mean, when he comes here, this is to become his home. So there should be, it should feel more harmonious. It should feel more, not regimented, but more sort of stable. I mean just something as simple as I know, no like this, no one cares, but it’s in my head that it matters when he has breakfast with his mom like she’s up, she’s cooking it and serving it off the plate and he’s just eating it out the bowl, like right there by the island. These people sit down for breakfast. That’s important. So it’s just those juxtapositions. We try to give to like every part of life, which is not to say one is better than the other. They’re just different.
There’s been this conversation about colorism in Hollywood and with a dark skin Aunt Viv, the original, and the light skin Aunt Viv. Did you guys give any thought to that when it came to casting?
Yeah. I mean, we decided that the family would be a dark-skinned family and that was just, I mean, we had to make a decision and that was it. We said we don’t necessarily, we didn’t feel like we saw as much representation in that realm as there should be. And so we said, well, there’s something we can do something about that. And we can just make the decision that this will be a dark-skinned family. The Banks will look like this on the color spectrum.
So I was reading that there was a bidding war that was happening between Peacock and HBOMax. And for this obviously, there is going to be this huge property behind it. It’s probably going to be one of the biggest shows when it comes out. Do you feel an immense amount of pressure?
We do. We’ve wanted to do this job for a long time and to run a show we knew it was hard because we had seen it. But again, going back to the, having a family and kids, before I had kids, like, you know, it’s a lot to have a kid I’m like, oh I know. And they’re like, no, really it’s all I know. And then I had kids and I’m like, oh my God, it’s a lot, you know there are some things that you can only learn by. There’s something I say to my wife all the time when the pressure’s piling up and it’s getting crazy. I say, these are the problems I pray for. If I’m gonna have a problem, I want to have showrunner problems.
In that vein as producers, I know a lot of your job is being asked for something impossible and then making it possible. Do you have a specific moment where someone asked for the moon and you’re like, all right, I got my lasso?
Let me go through my list of NDAs <laugh> can I tell you I mean, this is dude, I’m trying to make this sound as boring as possible. There just came a time when we were doing the episodes and there was a moment of like, oh actually we should flip these two episodes. We should air this one before that one. And we were already in production and, and it meant that the storylines had to flip and it meant that the actors you’re gonna be doing something in this you’re reacting to something in this episode, in the next episode, you’re actually gonna do the thing you’re reacting to in this episode, in addition to setting up the whole post-production schedule. So we could take the one that shot later and move it earlier and finish it first. That was, we’re not gonna say which one. You guys can guess which ones were. And by the way, it becomes a logistical creative nightmare, where you’re going, we can do this, but I just wanna say, I wanna go into the fear because I have a lot of it. We’ve worked on a lot of shows. I always say America gets to decide, right? We do what we can. America’s gonna decide. I’m gonna move on to this one. Oh man, I hope America loves us because I know what the legacy is. I don’t want to be part of the team that messes it up. You know? I mean, forget America with my family. I’ve got to go to reunions and hear from cousins and uncles and aunts that you ruined the Fresh Prince. I don’t want that.
We talked earlier with the different characters about Jeffrey, about how he’s got a lot more swag than jumps around that made me wonder, like which character do you feel underwent the biggest transformation from the sitcom to this interpretation?
I think it’s Carlton. Yeah. Personally Carlton, cocaine. Yeah. Why he’s doing that? What’s his story behind it? We didn’t wanna just go like, oh, he’s reaching, he’s doing cocaine. So what I will say is Carlton, he just wanted to look at trying to make a real 16 to 17-year-old privileged young man in a situation like that, but the pressure on him of being kind of the only, or you know, different ways that can manifest itself, trying to live up to a dad who is that successful? You know, a middle child trying to like really take a lot of what that could be and just shave off any of that didn’t ground, the original. But to really have to build a character, we could take on a journey who wasn’t there for a punchline, you know, our Carlton’s not a joke.
So he’s not going to do the dance is what you’re saying?
We’ll have a little dance party and they’ll bust it out. There we go.
The actors were talking about their improv or their ability to have that freedom. I’m sure Morgan can elaborate on that. But as you guys are in the writer’s room and being there throughout the entire process, how has their abilities to improv and like kind of change up the lines a bit improved the show?
I mean, anytime an actor or actress can say it in a way that makes it more natural and spontaneous coming out of their mouth. It’s great. I love that they sort of surprise each other. So you’re getting genuine reactions when someone cracks a joke or when somebody flirts like, oh, you’ve been there with it. And they don’t go into it like I’m gonna change the line. We do it as written a few times. And then if we play with it a little, you know, give them the freedom. We just do one or two at the end where they just go do whatever they want. It’s also, I mean, it’s an acknowledgment of just what we’re writing for a 16-year-old kid. I’m not gonna have all that dialogue. This is where the story has to go. But if you want to throw some flavor into it, I’m absolutely willing to take it.
Modern criticisms of the show were the way it handled queer storylines and LGBTQ. Are there any queer characters in this?
There is a queer character in this. Tyler is Will’s first friend at school and a member of the basketball team. He’s six, five. He’s not in the pilot. He’s when Will goes to school.
It’s just played as kind of who the character is. There are no very special episodes.
And also one of our series regulars, we were gonna get into their sexuality later in the season.
Going back to Carlton. Of course, him not have a punchline and is not always being that jokester. The scene in the locker room is a very serious scene where it talks about, race and who’s allowed to say what based on what group they’re around. Why would you all say that that scene is important?
It speaks to the different worlds they’re coming from. Right? Like, what I like about that is you could always just say like, Connor, shouldn’t say that word. It’s the N-word what are you doing? But for Carlton given where he grew up and the people he grew up around, he’s like, it makes perfect sense. And we wanted to dig into why, if we gave us something for those two characters, this is the first real clash of like, okay, it’s one thing to know that I lived here and you lived over there. You feel alien to me if this is what you’re allowing. So it really just let us dig into the chasm between them culturally and the worlds they come from.
I want to talk about the creative team and the writer’s room specifically. What was important in those early conversations about we need this amount of people, these types of people in our writer’s room and the creative team down from the director, cinematographer, to the production designer, what were those conversations like?
I think for the writer’s room, what we wanted, because especially as we were beginning, we weren’t, we had to find the tone. So there were a couple of people who came from comedy who were in the writer’s room. Because we’re like, well, we do want it to be funny sometimes. Yeah. You know, this should not be an unrelenting drama. And then there was sort of a mix of experience in terms of different shows people had come from. When it came to directors down the line it’s a mix of having people with experience, but also know that you want to give some people a shot. So there are some people who have important positions who’ve never had those roles before. I mean, and some of them are glamorous.
One of them, Jason Little, locations manager. He is from Philly and was enthusiastic to do this job. And he’s an African-American man and he’s just never had the shot. And everybody said, this is yours, this is gonna be your time.
Directors, you know, we really try and try hard to have our directors slate reflect the diversity of the cast and America at large. I mean really making that effort. That’s been all the way from the top, you know, supported and supported by Peacock, Universal, and Westbrook. And they’ve all been great about that.
Well, then there’s a recognition that it’s not only the right thing to do. It makes the show better.
Were there any series that influenced the direction for you guys about it?
It doesn’t manifest in any other way you know, visually or anything other than just sort of story engine and where the drama comes from. I’ve always loved Friday Night Lights because it’s a show about young people about family. There are grown-up stories, there are youth stories, there are sports. But most of the drama in Friday Night Lights didn’t come from the football field. So I would have to say that. I really love that show. It’s more inspiration than it is a direct influence. I haven’t pulled anything from it. We’re probably pulling more from our lives than anything else.