'Bel-Air' 's Jabari Banks Calls Landing Will Smith's Former 'Fresh Prince' Role a 'Humbling Experience'

"It felt like a spiritual experience that we're all here because each player in our ensemble has something in their life that intertwines that got them to this moment," Banks tells PEOPLE

will smith and jabari banks
Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

For Bel-Air star Jabari Banks, landing the lead role on the newly-released Peacock series was meaningful in more ways than one.

Bel-Air, which premiered on Sunday, is the streaming service's dramatized retelling of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The beloved sitcom previously starred Oscar nominee Will Smith as a West Philadelphia teen named Will Smith, who is sent to live with his upper-middle-class relatives in Los Angeles' ultra-wealthy Bel-Air neighborhood.

Speaking to PEOPLE exclusively, Banks, 23, says he was quite familiar with the Smith-led series prior to his Bel-Air casting. In fact, the newcomer notes, he was rather engrossed with the Fresh Prince world while growing up.

"It's been such a defining factor in my life, for sure. It's such a huge part of my life," says Banks. "We got the Will Smith Christmas sweaters, my whole family has it. I dressed up as the Fresh Prince in high school."

Because of that, Banks' casting feels much more "special" and "surreal."

"It transcends language, for sure — this whole experience," he explains. "It's really above me, I'd say. You know what I mean? It's ordained. It's written — it was already written. You can't write this."

jabari banks

"I think we all recognized that coming into this whole experience," he continues. "It felt like a spiritual experience that we're all here because each player in our ensemble has something in their life that intertwines that got them to this moment right here."

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ran for six seasons between 1990 to 1996. In this modern-day interaction, audiences can expect Bel-Air to dive into worldly issues more deeply.

"It's the best approach in my opinion because there's no way that we could do a Fresh Prince reboot and have it be a sitcom," Banks explains. "Because what they made in the 90s was lightning in a bottle. Like, you don't recreate that. You don't touch that. That's okay."

"It's interesting because we get to dive deep into these characters," he continues. "And I say, Cassie Freeman [who plays Vivian Banks], she actually said it beautifully. She said it's like if you go into each character's diary and you read what they were actually going through in the inner workings of their lives and their emotions through the arc of the show because, man, the stakes are high in this situation. You get in one little fight in Philly, it's not one little fight, right? So what does that look like now? [Getting] to explore that is going to be super exciting for everyone to watch. It was super fulfilling as an artist, as well."

jabari banks
Jabari Banks. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

According to Banks, there are "many parallels" between his life and his character Will's life.

"It's his first time in LA, it's my first time in LA. We're both from Philly," he shares. "When you see Will and Jazz [Jordan L. Jones] standing on Mulholland Drive and they're like, 'Oh, man. Look at this. This is crazy, right? Like, is this even real?' A big part of that was Will, but a huge part of that was Jabari."

As Banks expected, coming onto the new series meant tackling a role previously made popular by Smith, who is now an executive producer for Bel-Air. However, the actor says he only sees the opportunity as a great honor.

"It's been such a humbling, humbling experience," he notes. "I'm just so grateful to be able to step into these shoes and to give back to my community in this way."

Though Banks had both "anxiety" and "excitement" getting to work closely alongside Smith, he also got some great advice from the multihyphenate.

"He's taught me so much already and it's crazy. It's been five months, but I've learned so much," says Banks. "I think the biggest thing is just to lean on my instincts — lean on my instincts and lean on my upbringing, because that's what he was doing up there when he was doing The Fresh Prince. He wasn't trying to be nobody but himself."

Smith's advice also ended up being "a great life lesson" for Banks beyond the show, he notes.

"There's so many elements of life and social media that try to take you out of you and try to force you to be something else," he explains. "And what does that look like? What's the balance of that? ... What's the balance of being yourself and evolving look like?"

jabari banks, will smith
Jabari Banks and Will Smith. Eric Charbonneau/Peacock/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.

With Bel-Air marking Banks' first-ever acting role, the newcomer believes "balance is key" right now amid this huge life change. However, the actor also has no plans of slowing down going forward.

"I plan on having my theme park — an amusement park, my own theme park. That'd be dope. I got my clothing line that's coming out as well," he says. "It'll all be intertwined. My shoes will be in there. They can buy the shoes, they can buy the merch and then the clothes. So I'm super excited to get into the whole fashion take as well."

The first three episodes of Bel-Air are now streaming on Peacock, and new episodes will premiere every Sunday.

Related Articles