Jabari Banks is living every fresh young actor’s dream.
Hot on the heels of attending acting school in Philadelphia, a few auditions in and he’s already the lead star of the hotly anticipated reboot of possibly the most beloved 90’s sitcom in existence.
Banks, a Philly native and complete newcomer to Hollywood, landed the highly-coveted role as the new Will on Peacock’s dramatic reimagining of the story of The Fresh Prince, simply titled Bel-Air. Premiering on Super Bowl Sunday, the streaming darling has already garnered millions of viewers and become a hot topic on social media. As the show’s star, Banks has hit many a radar with his earnest, emotional turn as the talented-yet-tortured Philadelphia teen searching to prove himself within his beloved 14 square miles.
“God, The Universe. That’s how it came to be,” Banks said of his unlikely entry into professional acting. “But my dad sent me this article and said “hey, they’re auditioning for Bel-Air, you should audition.”
Not thinking much of it, the fledgling young actor gave the audition his best and hoped for the best. Naturally, he was elated when he received the call from his manager that his audition had actually gotten him noticed.
“I knew I was right for the role, but I had to get it right. I’m adamant about [the concept that] if you ask for something your time is going to come. It just depends who you are when it comes; if you’re ready,” he added. “I really felt that I had to surrender to this whole process. I left it to God, I left it to the Universe, and it worked out in my favor.”
That favor found Banks taking acting notes from Academy Award-nominated actor and original Fresh Prince himself, Will Smith.
“He gave me that advice: ‘Just lean on who you are.” Because you know, when you think about the original Fresh Prince, Will wasn’t doing anything but being himself up there,” Banks said. “He wasn’t really trying to be anybody else, because it was a fictionalized version of him. It wasn’t too far off.”
“I don’t believe the Will character is too far off from who I am either. There are so many parallels between my life and Will’s life.”
Banks sees tackling this iconic source material to tell a story that still resonates in the modern-day, especially in a manner that highlights some of its darker themes more seriously, is an opportunity to show young people the breadth of opportunity that’s out there.
“Coming from underprivileged areas in the United States, it’s easy to feel like you’re trapped and to think that this is all that the world is,” he observed. “Just to show that there’s so much more out there and the possibilities are endless to who you can be and how you portray yourself, there’s so much more.”
Though he naturally identifies with his character and has the co-sign from the original Will on his performance, Banks still faces the pressure from watchful Millennials evaluating what the young actor will do with the character and plot lines that helped define their childhoods. Some have worried that the actor would end up doing a Will Smith impression while filling his big shoes.
“That wouldn’t work,” he laughed. “The way that we’re going about this, it’s dramatic. So there’s no way I’d do a caricature of Will. I definitely had to lean into who I was and my experiences with this role, and I think I did that. Actually, I’m sure I did that.”
Banks met Bel-Air at the intersection of serendipity and his own preparedness for a role of this nature. Still, there were some adjustments and acclimations to be made for the University of the Arts musical theater graduate, as he was much more familiar with the stage than a film set.
“I dropped out of school actually, decided to just try to make it, sending out audition tapes and trying to make something shake. There was a big learning curve from being a theater actor to a film actor – just finding those nuances and making everything intentional and small.”
Now that he’s gotten is SAG card and is quickly becoming a streaming darling, Banks is excited for fans to see the full range of what he can do, both in front of the camera and on the stage as his life and career progress.
“It’s amazing because the world saw my life change in front of them when Will called me and told me I got the role,” Banks said of his formal introduction to the industry. “It’s so interesting that you all will be able to see me grow as an actor as well. I’m just so blessed to be here.”