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Peacock’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot Bel-Air has surpassed expectations of what it means to revitalize a classic TV show. With a lot of our favorite ‘90s titles teasing sequels and revivals, fans feared that this edition would mar our beloved O.G. However, Bel-Air has proven that, with some creative finagling, you can develop an exciting new series, while honoring its predecessor. With a new and more dramatic take on each character and their aspirations, we get to watch a multi-talented cast take on what it means to be a successful Black family living in the California suburbs today.
Aside from its noticeably darker tone, Bel-Air differentiates itself from Fresh Prince with its three-dimensional focus on its female characters. From career goals and entrepreneurship, to sexuality and relationships, Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman), Hilary (Coco Jones), and Ashley (Akira Akbar) tackle it all in meaningful ways. In this version of the story, Hilary, glamorous as ever, is navigating life as a chef, entrepreneur, and influencer while also serving as the sage and supportive eldest sibling in the Banks household. Wearing a loose hoodie, light makeup, and silver herringbone chain, the fun and confident Jones (who’s been acting since age 9 and singing before she could talk), chatted with ELLE.com via Zoom on the couch of her L.A. home.
Below, the star tells all about Bel-Air season 1, last week’s finale, and her rising music career.
What led up to your Bel-Air audition? And what was it like getting the part?
It was [one of many] projects sent from my team that they [really] thought I should audition for. I didn’t think I should. I thought they didn’t want me for [Hilary]. I was assuming that I wasn’t what they were gonna be looking for. Just limiting beliefs. I actually asked my acting manager. [If I] could audition for Ashley. And he was like, “Ashley’s 12.” So I [auditioned for Hilary], and then talked to Morgan [Cooper, the Bel-Air creator]. He wanted to talk to me [about] how I was trying to play Hilary and [he encouraged me to] make her more like me. So then I did [another] audition that way, and I found out I got the role maybe a week and a half after that.
Bel-Air is a story about family. What was it like shooting, bonding, and getting close with the cast to play this iconic TV family?
Naturally, we just bonded. When you’re spending 15 hours a day with somebody, you’re gonna start to learn about them and they learn about you and you just get close. We didn’t really try. It just happened. [There were] hectic long hours, but [it was] so fun because our cast, [is full of] multi-talented, funny, [people]. When you get in a room with a bunch of talented Black people, it’s just gonna be a loud, interesting environment to watch. I feel like everyone has different things that they bring to the table like you do in a family. So it was always something interesting happening.
Are there parallels between you and Hilary in real life?
[After] our director, [helped] shift the narrative in my mind, I made Hilary [more] similar to me, [and] similar to a lot of the girls I know. She just comes from an upper echelon area code. There are definitely times where I’m like, “Now this right here is me,” but also Hilary’s not as goofy as [I am]. I can really go there with [being] the goofball, and she was talking to her mom a little crazy. I can’t feel that, [and] sometimes [when] playing it, I’m bracing [myself]. It’d be giving privilege every once in a while, but then she always comes back to center. Her and her mom [and] their tension is just a theme of misunderstanding—but with the right intentions—and I feel like whether or not the way that they talk to each other is normal, the themes are normal [and] everyone [just] wants to be understood.
What did you like most about the original Hilary, played by Karyn Parsons, and how did you approach your own take on the character? How did you want to make her different, and how did you want to stay true to her?
I think I kept her fashion of course. That’s a part of Hilary. Like she cannot be that [girl] if the fits don’t come correct. I think [I kept her as being] headstrong, her sureness of self and her value. Even though Hilary’s journey made her question it at times, she [was] always like, “Oh, I am that girl. If you don’t get it, I feel bad for you beloved, but somebody will get it, Okay?” I love that they made Hilary someone you run to for advice—kind of the wise sibling in a way. But because she’s older, she’s been in the Banks’ house [longer] and knows how to finesse. And I think that [it] was so important to see Hilary’s warmth and also her being a chef. A huge part of her [is] giving to her family, cooking for them and making these meals that bring everyone to the table. Of course the overall theme in Bel-Air is love and support regardless of whatever we go through. But I’m happy that Hilary got to be more giving in this show.
Hilary is such a fashionista. Did you have a favorite outfit of hers?
So many looks that I’m like, “Y’all [did] we call cut? Can I please take this home?” But I think one of my favorites is the blue and white Balmain look, it’s [in the scene where] I’m with my mom and her sorority sisters. It’s a high waisted skirt and this blue and white school-girl Clueless type of vibe. I liked it because I feel like it was very throwback, but also modern too, because I love a little crop top and a high waisted skirt.
We saw Hillary take a chance in the finale, trying to get out of her contract and create a partnership. What was your reaction to that scene and what was it like filming it? How do you think that’ll affect your character in the next season?
Oh, I loved it. I loved that. Hillary is a strategist. She just reminds me of me in the way that she’s like, alright, it ain’t working that way, but we are gonna get it regardless. So let’s find another way. I’m curious to see how this whole journey plays out for her. There’s so many different ways that it could go right and wrong. And I know she [gets] in situations sometimes, but we’re always rooting for her at the end of the day.
Do you know when you’ll be filming season 2?
There [have] been a lot of different dates floating in the air, but nothing set in stone. I know the writers are in there writing their ‘lil asses off. I’m like, hurry up, babes!
What was your reaction to the finale? Are there any hopes for next season?
My reaction to the finale was glee, because it’s been such a beautiful but crazy journey. It was kind of like the final moment but in a way, it’s the start of something new. Hopefully season 2 will have a lot more of what we did so well this season: showing authenticity, love, supporting Back culture and Black excellence.
What are some things you’ve learned from playing Hilary?
I learned about balance, because I was also working on music heavily at the time. And the goal that I had in my mind was to have music out around the time the show came out because I remembered previous times where I had a popping moment and no music, but music is number one for me. So I didn’t want the new people that were introduced to me to just see me as Hilary. I wanted them to also see me as a musician and take that part of me seriously as well. So it was [a] balance: trying to make sure that I gave Hilary everything she deserved every time I stepped on set, but also [ensuring] I had enough creativity to write a song that was meaningful and not just another song every day [and] every time I could.
So, will we be seeing Hilary Banks sing?
L. O. L. I do not know. I mean there’s music in the show [but] it’s in a surprising way…
How did your new song “Caliber” come about?
I wrote it a couple months ago with Rockette and Lil Eddie, they’re songwriters and artists themselves. And honestly it started with this track. The track made me feel flirty and sexy and cute. And I wanted to talk my stuff. I was talking to them and we were talking about guys [that] just don’t come correct. Like, they’re not on the level [I need them to be at]. And it’s not that I think I’m all that and a bag of chips, but it’s just like, I know what I’m gonna do for you—what are you gonna do for me? We looked up the synonyms to level and then something popped up [about] caliber and we were like, “Boy, get that pen and paper out.” And it just really started flowing from there. I feel like “Caliber” is the perfect articulation of what I’m trying to say. It’s not egotistical, it’s simply about being on the same playing field as me.
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Is this part of a larger project? Is an EP coming?
An EP is definitely coming. My goal is to have it out in summer. Just [from] what I’ve learned with [being on] a label, the timeline that I set up in my head [is] very much an LOL because there [are] so many people involved, so many strategies involved. There’s so much planning involved. I would like it to come out in the summer, but I will have to leave it up in the air and leave it up to God, honestly.
How do you think your sound has changed since your 2012 Disney film, Let it Shine?
Girl, I was such a fetus. I didn’t even know what I was talking about. I was just happy to be there. But I think I also had to grow and what I love about my journey—which is what I hated at the time—is that I got so much quiet and so much stillness to be a normal girl. People of course knew me [as] Roxie, but it wasn’t like everyone was watching me grow up. I got to make mistakes and act the fool every once in a while. So I feel like I got to become normal and [be] around my girls, and meet some of my best friends. I love that I got to still be here [in L.A.] and still strive for the things [I want], but it wasn’t like, “All eyes are watching, don’t mess up.” I got to grow. And so of course my music has grown as I’ve grown. I’m a grown woman now, and I talk about grown woman things—but I keep it cute.
Which artists or styles have inspired you personally and professionally?
I like a feeling; it’s not necessarily a certain artist. I do love pieces of work from so many different artists that I can’t [even begin to] name. [I] like SZA, I love PartyNextDoor, I love Alex Isley. But what I really love is just this feeling of, “Play that one more time.” Like, “What was that? That was memorable.” That stick-out-in-the-crowd [type] of music. … I’m always looking for something that won’t blend in.
And acting-wise, who do you look up to and what future projects do you see yourself doing?
Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union, Angelina Jolie, Aunjanue Ellis … I mean the girls, they’re iconic. There [are] so many talented Black women out here that paved the way so [that] things aren’t as hard for the rest of us. And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to [help] the next dark skin Black girl who looks like me, hold her hand and be like, “Come [through] this door, do not listen to what they’re saying.” Because that’s what we’re supposed to do. I would love to see myself in an action role. I’m an athlete. My dad played football, my mom did sports all her life too and sang as well, but I wanna be able to use my physicality and somehow do some choreo. I did gymnastics. I did soccer. I did track. I did basketball. I did softball. I wanna kick somebody’s ass.
So where do you see yourself in five to 10 years, in terms of acting and singing?
I would like to have been on a world tour, have a debut album, and I’d like to win some awards. Best New Artist would be cute, Best Debut Album. Acting-wise, I would want a blockbuster, something that’s in theaters, you’re not escaping it, it’s everywhere. Then, I would really wanna do a role that people do not expect of me, a different look that really makes people respect me as an actor. I want that challenge. Give me the next Hunger Games. Give me a trilogy. Yes, I’ll be a vampire!
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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