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I TALK TO Jimmy Akingbola

"We feel like we're being guided by this protective spirit that's come from the original"

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is an iconic nineties television comedy recognised the world over, which launched the screen career of Will Smith, who plays a fictionalised version of himself that famously moves to live in Bel-Air, California with his Auntie and Uncle.

In March 2019, a promising young filmmaker called Morgan Cooper spent $25k to create a 4-minute short called Bel-Air which reimagined the hit sitcom as a dark, gritty drama. That video went viral and caught the attention of Will Smith who was instrumental in Peacock greenlighting the series with a two-season order, of which Will is now one of the executive producers.

Set in modern-day America, this new one-hour drama imagines The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air through a new, dramatic take on Will’s complicated journey from the streets of West Philadelphia to the gated mansions of Bel-Air.

As these two worlds collide, Will reckons with the power of second chances while navigating the conflicts, emotions, and biases of a world far different from the only one he’s ever known.

With newcomer Jabari Banks taking on the role of Will alongside Olly Sholotan as Carlton, Coco Jones as Hilary, Akira Akbar as Ashley and Cassandra Freeman as Vivian, that just leaves the Banks family's butler - now, house manager - Geoffrey, who is played by the wonderful Jimmy Akingbola.

Known to comedy fans thanks to shows such as The Crouches, Rev, In The Long Run and Ted Lasso, Jimmy Akingbola has also starred in Holby City, Arrow, Cheat, The Tower and most recently hosted two series of ITV's Black history panel show Sorry, I Didn't Know.

Ahead of his most important role to date, I caught up with Jimmy Akingbola to discuss how he very nearly didn't audition for the role, working closely with Morgan Cooper on carving out his version of Geoffrey, the lasting legacy of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and his thoughts on Holby City coming to an end after 23 years.

First of all, explain the premise of Bel-Air.

This is a modern-day, dramatic retelling of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where we follow Will's life from the beautiful streets of Philadelphia - I say beautiful because I think that's really important. What you didn't have in the original, was being able to see the world that Will left.

The story takes the street-smart and book-smart kid from Philadelphia to the mansion and the hills of Bel-Air and Hollywood. But what does that look like in 2022? A lot of people think we're going to do a nineties version. People don't read, they just see the headline. But no, this is the only way that you could do Bel-Air as a drama.

An hour where we're able to really delve deep into each of our characters and the new issues, topics, biases and themes that we'll talk about and are dealing with now today. A lot has changed. But also, crazily, over 30 years after the original, there's a lot that hasn't changed.

And it all started with a guy called Morgan Cooper, who off his own back created a trailer on YouTube for what he imagined this show to be.

That's right. Morgan Cooper created a trailer that went viral and him leading the vision on this and making it cinematic and epic, is beautiful.

You know the work I do alongside TriForce Creative Network and my production company - for years we've been talking about diversity and inclusion, so the reason this job is amazing for me, is it's a Black story that's universal. It's inclusive. We've all grown up with it.

We are telling this beautiful Black story and it's diverse in front of the camera and behind the camera, and actually, we are slowly trying to really enjoy that space. It doesn't have to just be one show. It doesn't just have to be Insecure or Power - it's crazy that I'm saying a lot of American shows, I would love to say more British shows like In The Long Run... but again, I'm celebrating this moment.

I would love to be in Succession, I'm a big fan of that show and I'd be in it all day long, but there's something special about being part of this show and the way that it got picked up.

When did you first become aware of Bel-Air as a project?

For me, I saw the trailer in 2019 that Morgan did and I thought that was the show. I was like "Wow! They're doing that? Oh well, I wish I could have got an audition for it. It looks different." and then I just forgot about it.

Then in 2020 I saw Deadline report that they were going to do the show and at the same time I watched the reunion and then when it came round in 2021, I turned down the audition because it said 'Geoffrey. Mid-50s." - I know I'm not as young as I used to be, but I'm still young! I love characters.

I can play someone like crackhead Mick in Rev and be Valentine in In The Long Run or Malick in Holby - but I was tired. I was going up for some really great roles. Shows like Slow Horses on Apple TV+ with Gary Oldman, and getting close to that and some other things for Netflix, so I said no.

But they went "No! Ignore the age. Please just do the audition. They're going younger." So I was a bit sulky about it but as soon as I started reading the words and I put on my suit for the audition, I fell in love with it.

It's funny, I looked at it and thought I'm really right for this in terms of my comedy background and my dramatic background. So I went from not wanting it to "I need this. I need this!"

So I did audition then didn't hear anything. A friend of mine who lives out here had a producer session which means he's very close to getting the job so I was like "Oh well. I'm not getting it, you've got to get it."

Then out of the blue I got a recall and met Morgan online and then suddenly there was a technical difficulty and I couldn't see him. I couldn't see the casting director. Imagine me trying to interact with you as an actor, but I couldn't see you. All I could do was hear you. So I was staring at myself for the biggest audition of my life.

I was in a three-piece suit. Sweating like a convict. It was a hot evening in London, one of those random ones and they're like "Are you OK?" and I'm like "Yeah, I'm fine." when really I'm thinking this is a nightmare. It's a mess.

After I ended the Zoom, I emailed my team saying that was the worst audition of my life. I'm not being OTT. I'm not going to get this part. I'm sorry. Technically it was all over the place and it didn't happen.

But then, I think it was a week-and-a-half/two weeks later I got a call from my American agent who said "Congratulations. You're playing Joffrey." and I'm like "Who?! What job is that?!" so she's like "Bel-Air" and I go "No! Geoffrey." and I had a few tears and we celebrated. The rest is history. Here I am.

Since the casting got announced, what has the reaction been like for you?

It's been so beautiful. The pouring of love. Yes, there's your immediate family. There was a lot of tears. I've got a great career and I've done some amazing work, but my friends and family always talked about that next level. That next job.

I lost my brother a couple of years ago due to cancer and he was like my twin. We always talked about that next thing. Me and my brother and other family members that we lost over Covid and I got it. This is the job. It's a show we all love and so that's been brilliant.

Outside of that, people like yourself, friends and everybody on social media were so supportive and happy for me. Acknowledging, I think, how hard it is to move to America and to succeed and be on TV in shows like this.

My contemporaries going "Look. Jimmy's due. He's worked really hard. His talent deserves a job like this." - that's meant a lot to me. I'm not one for doing those big long posts about life or whatever, but it's nice when people do it for you and they see that. I'm excited for people to enjoy this amazing show.

Joseph Marcell played Geoffrey in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and am I right in thinking you've worked together before?

Oh yes! Joseph played my dad about six or seven years ago in Death In Paradise, I end up killing him. So I know him. We've got each other as friends. I've got a great picture of me and him pointing to each other as father and son.

I actually had drinks with him about two days ago out here in LA. When I got the role and I was able to say something, I called him and I said "Joseph, it's Jimmy Akingbola, do you remember? I just want to say, I'm playing Geoffrey." and he went "Jimmy. I know. Will's been talking about it. Congratulations. We are all very excited for you. We're 100% behind you guys. Just run with it and do your thing."

Again, I was very tearful, almost getting that blessing from Joseph Marcell, because he represented a lot for me growing up. A British guy on TV killing it in Los Angeles, so to play his character - it's his character, people love Geoffrey - is an honour. And people are telling me that it makes sense I was cast as Geoffrey.

How did you approach playing your version of Geoffrey in Bel-Air?

Talking to Morgan Cooper, we talked about doing this show through a modern lens. So straight away, there's no butler. He's not a butler. He's the house manager. We talked about shifting relationships.

In the original, there were slight disses from Geoffrey to Uncle Phil about his weight and Morgan and I talked about them being friends that go way back. They met in London basically and so they're friends first, almost like brothers. Give them a sense that they go way back, Geoffrey's like his lieutenant, his conciliary, his advisor. He knows what everybody is doing in terms of the family. He's a bit like the fixer and that excited me.

Without giving too much away, we talked about knowing Geoffrey but not really knowing Geoffrey so over the two seasons we want to build that out and take our time and build that mystery in our version.

We also talked about authenticity and the range of expressing Black people in terms of the whole spectrum of the Black community. So if the original Geoffrey was more the James Bond, Roger Moore vibe, this Geoffrey was more James Bond, Daniel Craig vibe.

The way this Geoffrey speaks, we talked about his back story and him being from East London. I've grown up in East London and seen the people that I've grown up with, how they sound and how they move and where we are now in 2022.

So Morgan's talking about influences like people like Daniel Kaluuya to Idris Elba to Kano to Top Boy, so I said I wanted to sound like someone that I grew up with and my friends that I'm around now and versions of myself that have been in LA for five years and still kept their accent. They're still dropping the lingo that we would drop over a pint in the pub or in a bar in London. And he was like "Yes! That's what we want to do." We want to show America that we don't all talk like Downton Abbey.

I love that Geoffrey's much closer to this Will. He knows more about the culture. He's lived a certain life. He's looking at Will going "I was you, back in the day." It's a lovely bond like the original but done in a different way. They rarely shook hands in the original, so we will spud. It's those gentle nuanced moments that I love.

You mentioned earlier, how much seeing Joseph Marcell on-screen meant to you growing up, in terms of representation. Do you feel pressure to represent the Black British experience for a new audience through Geoffrey in Bel-Air?

I do. I really do. And I'm relishing it. I want to lean into it. I think I've always been about that in my career. If you look at all the roles I've played on TV from Mick in Rev, to Malick in Holby to Valentine in In The Long Run, I'm very conscious.

Even in one of my early roles in The Bill, I played a character that wasn't even a criminal. I was very conscious of representation. Be the change you want to see. But at the same time, if a role's great as a criminal - if someone offered me the role of Omar in The Wire, I'm not going to say "No, I'm not going to play a gangster."

So yes, within this role, and in terms of representing the Black British experience, yes. But it's hard. I don't want to take it all on my shoulders, but going in a different way with Geoffrey is very important. Myself, the showrunners and the writers have talked a lot about it, and we get into it in season one but there's lots more coming for season two.

And it's very interesting, isn't it? Just to have that conversation. When you look at the Black British experience and you talk about Black Lives Matter, that year - even though it was huge out here (in the US) we as Black Brits were still able to say "We're going through something else as well." And I'm able to express that through Geoffrey, in America.

There's history (in the UK) of incidents and moments - New Cross Fires, or Mark Duggan - and we talk about navigating the industry and being the minority.

Geoffrey sees what's going on around him but also has his own experiences and without saying it,, is able to go "You don't know what it's like in the UK." It's in the looks. It's in the nods. It's in his body. It's in the stuff that he doesn't say.

Even the bit at the beginning where I get called Idris by Will, it's him knowing about how much of a global icon Idris Elba is for all Brits, but also him representing East London and Newham. He's from Newham, Kano from Top Boy, myself and so even the cleverness of saying that - yes, he's the obvious name, but if you understand why, it works on so many levels.

In that first episode, there are a number of subtle references to the original, but it's also accessible for an audience unfamiliar with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, isn't it?

There you go. I love you saying that. That's what I'm saying to everybody. If you love the original, you're going to love this because we go deeper and there's a lot that's new. But if you've not watched the original, you're probably - by the end of episode ten - going to want to go back and watch the original.

You can tell you're a fan because you've spotted those moments where Morgan's given those gentle, nuanced nods to the original. But it's done in a really tasteful way.

What do you think an hour-long drama is able to do differently from a 20-minute sitcom?

It allows us to take our time and not have to wrap things up all the time. This format allows us to build out our world, really set things up before leaving them for a bit and then coming back to it.

We're able to explore what's going on with Will. What he's going through is almost traumatic. Being ripped from his community and his family and thrown into this other family where he's going "This ain't me. This is not my world." - being able to really explore without a slapstick comedy one-liner.

Also, if you watch what we've done with Carlton, we've been able to do the same with him. Carlton in our version is the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air until Will turns up. They exist. They go toe-to-toe and I don't think they were able to do that in the original.

It's really interesting to see Carlton being triggered by this other young Black guy who has taken his throne and actually taken a space in his dad's heart as well. Seeing how mentally, that affects Carlton. We can do that within an hour.

I can't believe we haven't really spoken about him yet. Jabari Banks. Wow. What a talent! What's it like working with him?

It is beautiful. I first met him in the car park at Universal Studios, getting stuff up our nose to get tested for Covid, and we hugged. I'm looking at this young kid. It's his first TV job. He's looking at me going "Yo man! I looked at your work, you're great." and we're both in that same place recognising that this is life-changing. This is amazing.

He's so free, talented and humble. He's got an old soul and so much swagger and technical ability that you don't even see on screen. He just seems so natural.

You can cast and cast and cast, and try and force that authenticity. Force that person that looks like Will and moves like Will. But this is effortlessly it. He is the role. He's hardworking. He's on set every day. He knows his lines. He's very good at improvising in the moment. He creates iconic moments in so many different scenes so you've got to be on your toes, working with him. You don't know what's coming next.

It's exciting. He's number one. He leads as a young Prince. He leads with humility and love and basically, we're all like one big family. Seriously. I know that can sound like the PR line, but we are like a crazy family that talk over each other, freestyle - or try to freestyle in some aspects - and just have fun.

Jabari is destined for the stars and yet he's so humble and he's very aware that there's a lot for him to learn. But I said to him "Whatever you're already doing. You're in the pocket and stay with it."

If you watch the original pilot of The Fresh Prince, you see that freeness with Will. And he talks about that in his book. He didn't really know what he was doing but he was just in it. And that's what made us fall in love with him. This is talent. This is raw talent.

And to have been given two seasons straight away is incredibly rare. How does that change the dynamic on set?

It's unprecedented, right? For this job to be where it is. The way it got picked up and for it to then get two seasons. Even Will said he's been in this business for years and that does not happen.

We still have to do the work, but we feel like we're being guided by this protective spirit that's come from the original. That aura. It's almost ancestral. I feel like James Avery is watching over us as well and going like "Take it easy. This is going to be fine. It's going to be great."

Having two seasons allows us to really focus on execution and excellence. Morgan Cooper is all about the detail. We're trying to be our own show. We're not trying to be Insecure, Power or Empire. We're trying to present something different that's not been on screen before.

It's a whole different look and vibe, so two seasons allows us to really focus on Black Excellence and create an iconic, groundbreaking show that's different from the original iconic, groundbreaking show, that's representing a space in 2022. It just allows us to have time. I think TV is beautiful, but sometimes, especially with the pandemic, things get rushed. We're filming episode ten and we've not even scratched the surface.

I'm really interested in what people are going to say about each character's journey, but we end in such a way that as a cast, we want to do at least six seasons. Just to give that beautiful nod, like the original. If we do more, great. But if we can match that. That would be perfect.

What sort of an Executive Producer is Will Smith?

We've had a number of video messages and he's across it completely. We all got cast with his blessing. He's watched everybody's tapes. He knows who we all are and gave us a copy of his book over Christmas and wrote personal messages for everyone. That was really nice.

I get asked this question a lot - "How much is Will involved?" - and Will was involved from day one. We would not be here if Will didn't call Morgan Cooper, acknowledge his genius, his vision and his talent and then back him 200%.

It takes a lot to do that. There are a lot of other names that could do more, and maybe they don't have time or they're not really about it, but Will is so consistent in that selfless way. He's backed this genius, Morgan Cooper, who I feel is going to be the next Ryan Coogler, the next Scorsese, the next Spike Lee.

Why do you think The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is still being watched and enjoyed by audiences new and old today?

Because it was the only comedy of its time that was really good at mixing serious social and political issues in with the comedy. The Cosby Show was more light-hearted and soft. The stakes weren't as high.

Whereas what The Fresh Prince did, was keep the comedy element, but really go there in terms of acknowledging a lot of the issues within the Black community that actually on TV you couldn't really go into.

But at the same time, make it very accessible for everybody. It wasn't like other shows that would only be on BET and some people wouldn't see it. This was a commercial hit. A universal show where you could be from Taiwan, India, London or New York, have any ethnicity and connect with it.

I think Will and the producers were very clever making sure they were ahead of the cultural shifts in the nineties. So if you look at the fashions, with the Jordans and the blazer. If you look at The Fresh Prince having Jazzy Jeff be a part of it. If you look at the cameos. The stars! Everybody wanted to be on the show. No other show was doing that.

Even the live filming of it - and I learnt this watching the reunion - was like a club night. It was like this energy. Everyone wanted to watch it, be in it and be a part of it. They created a space that was never there before and I think it's about timing. It was that moment in history where it pinged and it was just right for everybody. We needed to be telling different stories and The Fresh Prince did that in such a good way.

The original, you think about when they get pulled over by the police, or the one where Will gets shot and Carlton's trying to be a gangster - the subtext to that is, what does it mean to be Black? And love. There was so much love in that show which is why when the father scene happens, we were all in tears. That's why it was so successful.

What are you hoping the reaction to Bel-Air will be?

I'm hoping that people will be surprised and immediately connect with it. Surprised, in that it's completely different from the original, making them connect with it and want to run with it to see where the family is going to go in terms of 2022.

I'm hoping people spot the love, care and all the hard work that people have put into the show, to honour the legacy of the original. And to see it and understand why Will did it again.

Finally, I couldn't let you go without getting your thoughts on the end of Holby City...

I'm sad. I feel really sad because I've been very lucky. The Holby family, I'm friends with all the crew and the cast still now and it's such a special place. The fact that all those people have lost their jobs, breaks my heart. But also, that show, like The Bill going, was groundbreaking for so many people. It's the first show for many actors.

Part of me goes, it's a strange move, and I hope they do replace it with something better, but at the same time, I'm just forever grateful. I came in there when there was a new wave of characters, it was almost like a mini reboot, that really elevated the show.

Guy Henry, working with him, was amazing. Again, Malick. Playing this gay, alpha, male surgeon was amazing. Everyone was like "Jimmy, you know there's never been anyone like that on TV before" and we wanted people to not judge Malick because of his sexuality and his colour - and we did that. We did that.

A big thing for me was talking to Oliver Kent the producer, and going "I want to do this role but let's makes sure we don't fall into stereotypes in terms of race and sexuality. Let's go the other way." There were some actors who didn't want to do the role because they didn't feel comfortable.

I'm so proud of the work we did with Malick and that we created an iconic character. People talk to me via my characters and so Holby for me is the job that allowed me to really show what I can do as an actor. It was the launchpad. I'd done a lot of work before it, but it was the last job I did before coming to America. I'm just forever grateful. It was an important part of my career and they will all remain family to me. Aw, you've made me all emotional actually.

Bel-Air launches Monday 14th February with three episodes then continues Fridays on Peacock on Sky and NOW


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