- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
With Bel-Air, Morgan Cooper’s gritty reimagining of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, landing on Peacock this weekend (and on Sky in the U.K.), all eyes are likely to be on Jabari Banks’ considerably more serious take on Will Smith’s wildly colorful original character (and perhaps Olly Sholotan’s less-dance-prone Carlton Banks). But there’s another firm fan favorite getting the dramatic twist — Geoffrey.
Played by Jimmy Akingbola (Arrow, Ted Lasso), Bel-Air’s Geoffrey is far less like the silverware polishing butler famously portrayed by Joseph Marcell across six seasons, and more Philip Banks’ sharply-dressed, no-nonsense right-hand man, described by the actor as Jason Bourne to the original’s more Roger Moore version of James Bond. And he’s also — coincidentally — from the same part of London as Akingbola, who first moved out to L.A. in 2015.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Akingbola explains how much he loved the original Fresh Prince, why he initially said no when the part came his way and then thought he’d messed up his Zoom audition and what Marcell told him when he said he’d be taking on his famous role.
Were you as much of a fan as the original as most people of a certain age?
Oh yes. For me, the TV routine would be Home & Away, Neighbours, Fresh Prince. It was huge. And also, what I’ve realized, is that we didn’t have commercials, so for those 25 minutes you were just focused on the show. And through the comedy, we were watching Will grow up while growing up ourselves.
Did you know all the lyrics to the theme song?
When I was younger I definitely did. I remember that tune coming on in school discos. I think there was something lovely about Will’s work and the storytelling in his songs. He was one of those rappers who was very accessible.
I was quite disappointed that the bit about the smelly cab didn’t make it into the new theme.
Ha! It’s a weird one. So it’s not a reboot, it’s not a retelling of the original and told over an hour. So it allows us to go deeper and explore these wonderful characters we already know and love. We have the license from Will to go in a completely different direction, but there are some beautiful nods to the original. But there are lot of things where we’re going in a completely different direction. Even Geoffrey, he’s very different.
How would you compare your Geoffrey to the original?
I always say that, for me, the original Geoffrey was the suave Roger Moore-type James Bond and in our version he’s more Jason Bourne. He’s got an edge and a swagger to him. We talked a lot about authenticity, and Morgan said that Geoffrey was from East London and I was like, great, because I’m from East London. And we talked about what he’d look like. He couldn’t be a butler, that doesn’t work in 2022. So he’s a house manager, but he does a lot of other stuff. I remember loving the original Geoffrey but, where I’m from, not knowing many people who spoke like that. So I loved being able to create someone who, if you are from East London, you’d be like: “I know guys like that.” Also in this he’s more tapped in closer to Will, he’s had a similar background. He’s street smart.
How did the role come your way?
I actually left L.A. and came back to London in 2018 to do [Idris Elba’s TV series] In the Long Run and then I booked another job. And then the pandemic hit. So I was in London auditioning in lockdown in my home, going crazy. I was in a bit of a fatigued state, coming up to a second year of Zooms, so when this first came along I turned it down. I looked at the synopsis and it said Geoffrey, mid 50s and I was like, “I’m still young!” So I said no, but they were like, “Ignore the age, they’re going younger.” So I said fine, and I worked on it with my niece Fola Evans-Akingbola [soon to be seen in the U.K. version of Call My Agent], and I fell in love with it. I started remembering how much I loved these characters. And I felt like I’d be perfect for this new Geoffrey. So we had lots of fun and I sent it off. And I didn’t hear anything. And while I’m in the UK and speaking to my British friends in L.A., they’re like, “Yeah I’ve got a producer session for Bel-Air.” And I’m like, “Well, congratulations, I didn’t get any callback.”
So what happened?
Out of the blue, I got a call saying, “Jimmy, they want to see you like now, tonight.” So I did my producer session with Morgan Cooper and the showrunners I think at 9 p.m. at night, on a random hot day in London, and I was wearing a three-piece suit, and sweating, with the lights on me. And there were technical difficulties — I couldn’t see the casting director. I could only hear her. So I got in my head that it was terrible. I tried to ad lib and make it very London. But she was crashing over my ad libs. And then we wrapped up. I just resigned myself to the fact I’d messed to up. I really wanted to come off the call. It was a massive audition I thought I’d messed up. But apparently they said I was their first choice.
How much involvement does Will Smith have?
Will’s all over it. He basically gives the nod on all the cast. So that’s a good feeling!
Have you spoken to him?
I haven’t, but we’ve had texts and video messages from him. And he gave us all copies of his book. But for me, it’s the selfless side of Will, the fact that he backed this young guy from Kansas City that had shot his own spec trailer and pitched his own idea to him. For Will to back this young guy Morgan Cooper and to help get it over the line is so great. So when people ask about Will’s involvement, I’m like, he’s been involved from day one! There’s a lot of people who could be doing stuff like that, but Will is actually doing it.
And have you spoken to Joseph Marcell?
Yeah, we’ve spoken! I actually called him on the day when I was able to tell him and he was like, “Jimmy, I know. Congratulations. I can’t wait to see you when I come out to L.A.” So he came out a couple of days ago and we got some whiskies together.
Does your Geoffrey lighten up a bit? In the original he has moments of frivolity when the family isn’t watching.
He does. Later on, we do get to see a little bit of his lighter side.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day