Jabari Banks on playing the Fresh Prince in ‘Bel-Air’: “It’s been surreal”

As one Will's career hits the skids, a newer, fresher model enjoys the ride of his life

When NME meets Jabari Banks, AKA the new Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it’s several weeks before Will Smith’s Oscars meltdown. As we log on to Zoom, he’s chirpy and ready to go – every inch the excitable young actor determined to nail his shot at stardom. If the narrative of his dark reboot series, which airs its season one finale tonight (March 31) in the US, has been flipped-turned upside down by Slapgate then it’s a shame. Banks is a rising star who deserves his own spotlight.

Born and raised, appropriately, in west Philadelphia two years after the original last aired in 1998, Banks has earned that spotlight the hard way. He tells us about spending his first year after graduating drama school practically homeless, sofa-surfing between auditions while trying to find a way into the industry. He got nowhere. Not a single TV or film role was booked.

Jabari Banks
CREDIT: Joshua Kissi

“I always knew I’d make it though, even if I didn’t have a backup plan,” he explains. “I always say don’t focus on Plan B because it’ll distract you from Plan A, and if you’re around that doubt, that small sliver can grow over time. So I never doubted myself – and then this opportunity came to me to experience true joy, it’s crazy.”

Coincidentally, the man who gave Banks’ his first ever on-screen part was also looking for his big break at the time. Filmmaker Morgan Cooper loved the classic comedy about a street-wise city kid who moves in with his rich relatives since he was a boy. He had an idea for a new, gritty version which tackled Black – particularly African-American – problems on screen. So he shot a teaser trailer and put it on YouTube. It exploded. Eventually, the millions of views and growing Internet hubbub caught the attention of studio execs, who commissioned a full remake.

Jabari Banks
Jabari Banks as The Fresh Prince in ‘Bel-Air’. CREDIT: Sky

“At first, I was sceptical,” says Banks today. “My friend called me like, ‘Hey, they’re doing a Fresh Prince reboot, but it’s dark.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, why are they doing that?’ Then I saw Morgan’s trailer and I got it. I knew that it could work.”

And work it has. Reviews for the show are mostly positive, while Banks’ performance had him trending on social media long before Smith’s antics at the Academy Awards this weekend. The Philly youngster, unsurprisingly, said he’d “stick by” his friend and mentor in the aftermath because he’s a “a stand-up guy” – and an expected ratings bump for tonight’s closing episode (thanks Will) should alleviate any lingering worries. The Fresh Prince turned Will Smith into a global superstar. It could well do the same for Jabari Banks.

Will (Banks) and Carlton (Olly Sholotan). CREDIT: Sky

Hey Jabari, how did you cope with the pressure on your first big role?

“Hey! I was definitely shook at the start, but I had a really good talk with [director] Morgan Cooper. He was like, ‘Man, the first time that I met you, I knew it was you’. He told me to really bring myself to the role and be me, and that’s been my guiding light throughout this whole process.”

Tell us about the process, has it been a whirlwind?

“Definitely! I was steamrolled through it. I got booked for the role and two days later, I was in LA. I was doing fittings and screen tests with a 30-person camera crew. And that’s just something that I’d never done before.”

Do you feel like you’ve been thrown in the deep end?

“It was definitely a huge responsibility. I speak for everyone on this project when I say that we’re really handling this with care. We wanted to make sure that we turned in a beautiful project that was layered and dynamic. But yeah it’s been surreal. I’m on a bus. I’m on a billboard. I never thought that it would happen this quickly. I knew that it would happen in the end though. I had faith.”

Before Bel-Air you were sofa-surfing, was there ever a point where your faith did waver?

“No, never. I always knew that I wanted to do this at the highest level. I asked the universe, I asked God: ‘I don’t know how to get there, but I know where I’m supposed to be, so just guide me.’ And it happened.”

Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) has become a fan-favourite. CREDIT: Sky

Why did you want to be an actor?

“I love to tell stories. Whether that be through acting, drawing or music, it’s still telling stories. One of my first passions was theatre and I played the Lion in The Wizard of Oz when I was 16. To hear the audience laugh and react to the things I would do on stage meant the world to me. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Who inspires you?

“I love LaKeith Stanfield, Denzel Washington, Daniel Kaluuya… They’re all Black actors and artists, and there’s something great about Black art. It’s a blessing to be one of them, and to inspire the next generation. That’s all I seek to do. I want to open doors for other people in the same way that Morgan and Will [Smith] did for me, the same way that [legendary music producer] Quincy Jones did for Will.”

‘Bel-Air’ airs its season one finale this week in the US. CREDT: Sky

Is helping the next generation important to you?

“We’ve had a lot of talks about paying it forward, and the difference between paying it forward and giving back. I’m really interested in doing both consciously. I think Bel-Air is a show about second chances, and this is definitely mine. I don’t want to blow it. Hopefully I’m not.”

What is the difference between paying it forward and giving it back then?

“There’s a lot of similarities, but in giving back you really have to be conscious. Sometimes, the people that are back there want to pull you back. Paying it forward is simply giving the opportunity to the next person that’s coming up. That’s what Will did to Morgan. Will could have seen Morgan’s trailer and said, ‘Okay, cool. That was cute’ and then not do anything about it. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has a legacy that many think should never be touched, but Will helped Morgan make his vision a reality. I think the world is better for that.”

Jabari Banks
Adrian Holmes plays Uncle Phil. CREDIT: Sky

And you’ll go down in Philadelphian history now! How does that feel?

“It’s beautiful. Not a lot of artists get to do that. There’s a lot of Philly people in the pilot too. We got [rapper] Freeway, who’s a legend. Eazy The Block Captain plays Rashad, [a west Philly drug dealer], Sloan [“D4M $Loan” Morgan] plays Darnell, [Will’s one-time rival]; these are all Philly icons, titans. And the fact that we got them on the show is huge for the city. There’s a mural of me there now.”

Speaking of music, you’re a rapper too?

“I was a rapper before I was an actor. I love poetry. Writing down my feelings and turning them into a song has always been a passion. I produce, I sing, I rap, I play piano – I just love all of the arts.”

Will Smith
Jabari Banks with Will Smith at the ‘Bel-Air’ premiere earlier this month. CREDIT: Getty

What other projects are you working on?

“Coming out of season one, I’m working on music. I have a project coming out this summer. Then we’re into season two, and afterwards I definitely want to do a movie soon. I also love fashion. So I’d like to get into that too. Some people don’t see any value in doing multiple things, but for me, my brain goes in a lot of different places. That’s who I am and it’s important to not put myself in a box.”

‘Bel-Air’ is streaming on Peacock every Friday in the UK, exclusively on Sky and NOW

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