The Stars of ‘Bel-Air’ on Black Excellence and Representing for the Culture

A cloudy evening over The Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena did nothing to hide the high spirits inside The Tap Room — the resort’s cocktail bar and lounge — where the cast of NBC/Peacock’s NAACP award-nominated series Bel-Air came both to cool down and celebrate, post red carpet, after a long day of photos and interviews just an hour earlier.

And with some of the highest ratings on the network, critical acclaim, awards buzz, and a renewed season, series stars Jabari Banks, Adrian Holmes, Cassandra Freeman, Olly Shotokan, Coco Jones, Akira Akbar, and Jimmy Akingbola have much to be thankful for.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Bel-Air’s leading elders, Adrian Holmes (Phillip Banks), Cassandra Freeman (Vivian Banks), and Jimmy Akingbola (Geoffrey) over a round of truffle fries and drinks to discuss the culture, representation, its critical reception, and what goes on behind the scenes of a hit series, as well as what perceptions the cast hopes they can bring to their unique pocket of network television.

Coming into the series, you guys are making an impact in the culture, just through your representation of an affluent Black family. We talked about that a little bit earlier, but did you kind of get the response that you guys were expecting? Or like, how has the response been to your characters just from the representation standpoint?
Adrian Holmes: Well, the response has been amazing. You know, it’s… exceeded our expectations to be honest. We’re just so proud and, and honored and just so blessed to be in the positions we’re in and being able to contribute to the culture, to the community to tell our story, you know, our narrative, you know, in a way that really shows us for who we are. You know, the vibrant, affluent, Black excellence.
Cassandra Freeman: Yes. You know — and thankfully — so many people behind the scenes look like us.
Holmes: Yes! Yes.
Freeman: I think when you watch the show, you can feel that no one tried to water it down and tried to make it, um…
Holmes: Diluted.
Freeman: You know, diluted or be like instructional for those who are not from the culture. And I know
for me, when I watched the show, I was like, “Yes! Speak directly to me!”
Holmes: Yes!
Jimmy Akingbola: Right. Yeah.
Freeman: But yeah, I think we were overwhelmed with how — from day one — people showed up. Now
day one of advertising? People were like, “Who asked for this?!”

No one!
Holmes: Yeah, no one.

I remember those days! [laughs]
Freeman: I was one of them people.
Akingbola: But I… I think that was very intentional and you know, that comes from, if you think about it, Morgan Cooper, you know what I mean? Like, he, he gave Will “the gift” and then Will received that and gave us all the gift. But the, the root of it is Morgan. And, and so we are living out his vision, you know what I mean? The nuance of every character. That’s all from Morgan Cooper’s brain. And so that is about being for the culture that is about this young Black creator from Kansas City. You know, being a “disruptor,” actually a game-changer, you know? And um, so I’m really proud not only to be on the show, but to be a part of, I call it the “MC Universe” — Morgan Cooper universe. Cause I’m telling you, you know how we love Ryan Coogler? Trust me, Morgan Cooper’s name’s gonna be on everybody’s lips eventually in the next year or so.
Freeman: Yeah.
Akingbola: And so the way that the audience responded to this show, it moved me. You know, we knew what we were up against, but we also knew what we were making. We watched the first episode, which Morgan wrote and directed. We were all in tears, you know, tears of joy. “Wow!” Like—
Freeman: When we all saw it privately. We screamed, we were like “What?!”
Akingbola: “Is this what we’re making?”
Holmes: “We’re a part of this?!”
Freeman: This the whole time I was like, “I can’t be Aunt Viv! What, what are we doing?” As soon as I saw his version, I was like, “oh shit!” Like, if I didn’t know me, I’d be like, I felt they did such a great job casting the show. But anyway, the question was how did we feel about the audience? And yes, we’re happy. Next question, guys! [laughs]

Absolutely. So kind of speaking of breaking down perceptions and everything about, like, the Black community and just getting that representation on screen is also The Fashion, right? So you guys are dressed — obviously, right now — to the nines and that kind of carries on to the show as well. So what do you feel like the fashion kind of speaks to? Do you guys bring a lot of your own sense of fashion to the show? Or is it all kind of predetermined?
I mean, first of all, we will all say Queen Sylvia! You can bring what you want to. Queen Sylvia — that’s her name — who’s our new wardrobe head. She wasn’t here last season, but she definitely came this season and elevated. And, and I think anything that anyone brings to her, you never have to fight with Queen.
Holmes: No.
Freeman: She’s with you, if not a step ahead of you. Before you say no, She’s like, “that’s not right.” Like, she understands. It’s so clear. And actually, me personally, when we just spoke on the phone before I even showed up for the first fitting, I was like, “listen, I feel like Aunt Viv should head towards like a more ‘Fila’, more African…” She’s like, “I already got you.” She sent me the board. And I was like, “yes!” So for my character, you’ll see a lot of West African influence.”

I noticed in the second — I got a screener for the second season…

You had, like, this kind of —
The choker! Her using her fashion as a way to express herself. That’s the thing I think is interesting. The only way I’d pivot off this question is say when you are an artist, you think the first door to breakthrough is just, like, to do The Art. But then you realize there are all these other things that you want to break through as well. So I think for Viv, like it might have been her hair, it might have been her clothes, then it becomes about her voice. Like what will she be able to express? And I think that’s what you’ll see throughout the season. Like will she be the author of her own narrative or will she allow other people to do that? Go ‘head!
Akingbola: Again, I just want to cosign that with Queenie. She’s, she’s amazing. You know, she’s an American Nigerian girl and, uh, you know… my mood board was exactly what’s been in my head from season one!
Freeman: Isn’t it crazy?
Akingbola: Yeah. It was exactly what’s been in my head. So I didn’t need to send her anything, but she understood the nuances. Cause Geoffrey’s from The UK. So I’ve been here for four or five years, so I dress a particular way.

And she just got it. And it’s about the difference, you know? Even though I’m here, I don’t think I’d be dressing like a normal guy from California. She doesn’t bring me anything where I’m like, “I wouldn’t—he wouldn’t wear that.” You know? And like, I dress a certain way, we’re not the same person, but in terms of like our style interest, they are. And she’s just, she’s just ahead of me.

But she’s collaborative! Whereas in this business, sometimes you get told what to wear.
Freeman: And then you gotta fight people…
Akingbola: Well, there’s no fighting. It’s about collaboration. Like you’re gonna see some Ozwald Boateng in the season.

Ghana’s Finest!
Exactly! You’re gonna see some Ghana. And that’s about, she had that in her mood board; and I had met Ozwald personally and they were like, “we love the show. We want to dress you.” So I was like, “Queenie… connect the dots!” It’s the collaborative thing. You know what I’m saying?
Freeman: We didn’t have to convince her. And believe me, it could have… Not everyone behind us has to be Black. But when they are and you’re telling that type of story —
Holmes: It helps!
Freeman: It’s nice. It makes it nice not to have to translate.

A new season of Bel-Air streams February 23 on Peacock.