Jabari Banks went from couch surfing to being the new prince of Bel-Air

“When you see a lot of the things that I’m doing in the show, Jabari’s life mirrors Will’s life.”

Culture

This interview was conducted before the 94th Academy Awards on Sunday, March 27.

When Jabari Banks was cast as Will in NBC’s new series Bel-Air, he began a journey that was in many ways parallel to his character’s — and to that of his predecessor, the real-life Will Smith and star of the original The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Shortly before booking the lead role in the reboot of the classic ‘90s sitcom — his first on-screen acting credit — the 23-year-old Banks worked what he calls a "sketchy" manufacturing job in Temecula, California for $21 an hour plus free boarding and transportation. But he was eventually fired — he thinks it was because he kept asking for soap for the men's bathroom during the peak of COVID — and moved back to his stomping grounds of Philadelphia. He wasn’t deterred from pursuing his dream of acting, though — and he had an inkling that something big was headed his way. Banks prepared accordingly, tapping into his experiences as a theater actor and studying dutifully. Looking at the early success of Bel-Air, it’s clear that work paid off. "I didn't know that it would be this project, this soon, but I knew it was coming," Banks tells Mic. "You gotta be ready for it when it comes."

"I was just couch surfing, I didn't have a job actually. I was just auditioning, auditioning, auditioning, and then I ended up getting called for this role in July [2021] and booking it in August,” he says. “And the transition from Philly to L.A. was very much like Will's transition; it was very abrupt, and it was very eye-opening really quickly. And so when you see a lot of the things that I'm doing in the show, Jabari's life mirrors Will's life.”

And not just Will the character’s life. Banks’s quick turn of fate in landing the Bel-Air job mirrors Smith's own recruitment into the titular role of the Fresh Prince. In HBO Max's 2020 The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion documentary, Smith detailed how Quincy Jones conscripted him into auditioning for the role during an industry party attended by some of the most powerful media executives. Smith wanted to push the audition out two weeks in order to prepare, but said Jones pulled him into another room and told him bluntly, “So here's the deal, right now everybody that needs to say yes to this show is sitting in the living room, waiting for you.”

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — helmed by the then-fresh-faced rapper — debuted in 1990 and ran for six seasons, cementing itself in the canon of classic TV sitcoms and its cast as bonafide superstars. Smith’s groundbreaking show explored the fish-out-of-water story of Will, a West Philly kid who was sent to live with rich relatives in L.A. following a spat on the basketball court.

Bel-Air, which is available via NBC’s streaming service Peacock, is anchored by Banks, another fresh-faced young man who brings the same spirited-yet-relatable essence to the new, moody rendering of The Fresh Prince. His portrayal of Will is at times cocky, vulnerable, and joyful. He’s like so many brothers, cousins, and neighborhood friends who many of us know well. And Banks, like Smith, is a talented multi-hyphenate; not only is he a theater-trained actor (he graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), but he also raps and plays piano. The entire Bel-Air journey feels fated, from creator Morgan Cooper's 2019 viral proof-of-concept short film that caught Smith’s eye, to Banks being a Philly resident with the same last name as the central fictional family, to the whirlwind process that landed him the role. It’s as if the universe conspired to bring this specific young man to this particular point, and everything fell into place.

TV reboots can fall into the trap of being soulless because they try to recreate the alchemy of their original shows. Bel-Air shines by diverging from The Fresh Prince enough to feel new and interesting, while respectfully nodding to its source material. Bel-Air’s tone and visuals are much darker than The Fresh Prince; the stakes are higher, and it depicts high school drama as intensely as shows like Euphoria or Degrassi. Topics like police brutality, politics, and drug use that were glossed over with comedic lightness in the original series are explored with more depth in Bel-Air, sometimes to the surprise of viewers. The original did touch on these issues, as has been pointed out in this Twitter thread by Jenn M. Jackson, PhD., but it was within the confines of a network sitcom. Bel-Air's streaming platform gives its creators the freedom to be more true to life — and it works. The result is a slightly soapy, highly enjoyable coming-of-age story that’s elevated enough to be entertaining, but real enough to resonate with audiences.

Amid the immense buzz surrounding the show, Smith — an executive producer — has become a godfather of sorts. In an interview with The Breakfast Club, Banks said Smith's involvement has been encouraging without being overbearing, and in discussions with both Smith and Cooper, there was an emphasis on being himself. "They just reminded me to be me, bring myself to the role, and that’s exactly what Will was doing when he was being the fresh prince in the 90s. He wasn’t trying to be nobody else,” Banks says.

Will's character faces plenty of obstacles, from the neighborhood bully who puts a bounty on his head, to the police, to his own self-doubt. But so far, the show’s most thrilling and tense relationship has been the one between Will and his entitled but misunderstood cousin, Carlton, played by Olly Sholotan. Sholotan is downright maddening as Carlton — but in real life, he and Banks are close. "Olly is a phenomenal actor, also a phenomenal human, a phenomenal collaborator, a phenomenal brother," Banks says. Sholotan embraced Banks — showing him around L.A. and serving as a friendly resource — when the latter had to quickly relocate to the city following his casting.

That bond has translated to their on-screen partnership, giving them the ability to really dig into intense scenes that see the two characters go head-to-head. "We've developed such a close relationship throughout this whole process, and you know he's really like a brother to me,” Banks says. “I feel like that's why we're so comfortable playing around while we're in these characters, and really going deep with this dynamic of Carlton and Will."

Banks understands why their on-screen interactions are so compelling to watch. "At the core of it, it's the story of two young men learning to coexist in the same house with vastly different upbringings and vastly different views of the world," he says. Exploring Black life through Will and Carlton’s eyes made for comedic gold in the original Fresh Prince. On Bel-Air, it adds fuel to the fiery conflict between the fictional cousins.

Television during the 1990s is regarded as one of the "Golden Ages" of Black shows — aside from the Fresh Prince, there was the eponymous Martin, Kenan Ivory Wayans' sketch show In Living Color, the Queen Latifah-fronted Living Single, the Tia & Tamara Mowry vehicle Sister, Sister, Brandy Norwood's Moesha, The Jamie Foxx Show, and The Steve Harvey Show, to name a few — but the past five years have brought another wave of diverse stories fronted by Black talent.

With Insecure, Atlanta, South Side, Abbott Elementary, Black-ish, and Grown-ish; audiences are swimming in content that appeals to their every desire. But as a viewer who has long craved this type of representation, there’s always the lurking fear: Will this abundance last? Will these actors and ideas have the opportunities to grow and flourish, or will this moment fade? The answers are unclear, but for now, Jabari Banks is flying high. Whatever lessons Smith learned two decades ago breaking into television, Banks is clearly taking them and metabolizing them not only into his performances, but also into the way he carries the celebrity that comes with it. If Will Smith was the originator of this television empire, then Banks is certainly the crown Prince.