How did he get his start?
Growing up, Jabari Banks thought his future was in sports. “If I wasn’t gonna go to college for basketball, I wasn’t gonna go to college,” he says. But when his grades dropped during his junior year of high school, he lost his athletic eligibility, and his mom told him he’d better find another after-school pastime. A friend recommended theater, “and immediately something clicked,” recalls Banks, 23, whose early roles included playing the Cowardly Lion in a production of The Wiz. He went on to study at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and in 2021 he was “floating around Philly, bouncing couch to couch,” when his life got flipped, turned upside-down.
How did he get the part of the Fresh Prince?
Unsurprisingly for a former resident of West Philadelphia, Banks had an affection for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. “My family had the sixth season box set, and that would just be on repeat in my house,” he remembers. “That was the first time I realized what television was.” When his manager sent him the casting call for a reboot of the ’90s sit-com, Banks says, “I was like, ‘I’m perfect for this,’ because people have told me all my life that I resemble Will Smith, in my mannerisms and stuff.” After a series of auditions, he found out he had gotten the part of Will on a Zoom call with the original Fresh Prince himself. “He was like, ‘Yo, what up Philly!’” Banks recalls. “It was overwhelming.”
How does the reboot differ?
Bel-Air—which premiered on the NBC streaming service Peacock the night of the Super Bowl—is a more dramatic take on the original conceit, but Banks, like his predecessor, brings beaucoup skills to the lead role, including his basketball experience. “We made a point to lean into the authenticity of a hooper—the movements and play style and intensity,” Banks says. He’s also a rapper, although when asked if he gets any bars in the show, he coyly replies, “You’re just gonna have to wait to find out.” And he brings the Philly swag: “This is my first production, but the writers will write something, and I’ll say, ‘This is actually how I would say that, because I’m from there,’ and they trust me.”
What’s next for Banks?
Much like his character, the showbiz newcomer initially felt like a fish out of water in LA, but he credits Smith for being a strong mentor. “He’s taught me so much about myself, just through his words,” Banks says. “To be a part of this project and to see the path he has charted for young people that look like me, it’s really incomprehensible. I can only hope to emulate his career and gain the respect that he has.” Time will tell if Banks can live up to Smith’s blockbuster standards, but he promises, “It’s all just getting started. I got music coming out, I’m working on an animated series, fashion, movies—we’re trying to hit all facets. Be ready: It’s coming quick.”