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Bel-Air's Olly Sholotan, Coco Jones, & Akira Akbar Put A Modern Spin On Carlton, Hilary, And Ashley - Exclusive Interview

Peacock's new series "Bel-Air" asks the question, "What would happen if the sitcom 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' was a drama set in the present day?" While the outline of the story remains the same, when it comes to the Banks children (Hilary, Carlton, and Ashley), that question means big changes. Far from the entitled and flaky Hilary from the sitcom, Coco Jones' new version of Hilary is a talented chef with a devoted social media following, and she has dropped out of college to pursue her passion for cooking. Meanwhile, unlike her sitcom counterpart, Akira Akbar's youngest daughter, Ashley, isn't yet tight with Will. Instead, she's close to Hilary, who's helping the preteen navigate her first crush.

Finally, there's Carlton, who is perhaps the most different of all the Banks siblings from his sitcom counterpart. Although he remains short in stature, he's no longer a lovable nerd. Instead, Olly Sholotan's Carlton is reimagined as a lacrosse star and one of the most popular kids at his elite, mostly white high school. He also may have a drug problem and looks down on Will due to his less-than-privileged upbringing.

Looper spoke to Jones, Akbar, and Sholotan about bringing the refreshed versions of their familiar characters to "Bel-Air," including whether they referred to the original versions when they were developing their characters, the fun of making Hilary a social media influencer, and what it was like to explore stereotypes about African Americans from Carlton's privileged perspective.

Making the characters their own

I love the fact that you're all playing these new versions of these iconic characters. Did you refer to "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" or consult with Will Smith or any of the original cast members when you were developing each of your characters?

Olly Sholotan: Funny enough, I remember when I got the initial audition, in very big bold letters was, "Do not copy the original at all whatsoever." In trying to replicate any of those performances, we're coming from a place of imitation rather than truth and honesty. When you take the beautiful, incredible script that [executive producers] TJ [Brady] and Rasheed [Newson] and Morgan [Cooper] have given us and you do it from a place of truth, authenticity comes out. The lifeblood of those characters is so in the story that I don't ...

Coco Jones: I definitely didn't get that bold memo.

Sholotan: Dang. All right. That's funny.

Jones: I definitely was heavily inspired in my audition by the OG Hilary. When I talked to Morgan and he was like, "No we want you to just be yourself, be confident, be driven," I started to realize why Hilary is who she is. She comes from money. She lives this upscale life, but she's really trying to make it on her own. That's a huge separation that I did not put together when I was auditioning.

Akira Akbar: I feel like when I auditioned for Ashley, I brought a little bit of the original Ashley into this character, connecting with the other characters. I think I had a scene and it was with Will, and bringing their connection to the audition. I made it my own a little bit, but at the same time used a little bit of the original Ashley.

Sholotan: Also, we weren't alive when the original was airing. [Laughs]

A social-media savvy Hilary

Coco, your character is an influencer. That's something that didn't exist when the original was airing and it makes your character a little savvier than the original character. Did you enjoy bringing that of-the-moment savviness to a character that sometimes seemed a little clueless in the sitcom?

Jones: I definitely loved the fact that she is an influencer because it is such a relevant career field in this day and age with all the social media platforms and all the efforts to go viral that are happening every day in our peers. I loved to tell that story from a different light of what happens when you turn the camera off and what goes on behind that screen, behind those pretty pictures, because it's really more than what people see. I liked telling that relevant storyline, but being very transparent about the opportunities that are put in front of you and the cost to get them.

Understanding Carlton's point of view

One of the things that was part of the original was an understanding of class and race that is carried through here. Olly, your character and Will clash from the very beginning, especially when Carlton expresses some views that are reflective of stereotypes about poor African Americans. Was it a challenge to explore those issues through your character?

Sholotan: Well, to be quite honest, it wasn't much of a challenge because it's something that I think every Black person has experienced. I always say the Black experience is that of constantly experiencing white supremacy to a certain extent. It's easy to look at Carlton and be like, "Oh, this is a kid who sees Black people as lesser than," but when you realize that a lot of his opinions are as a result of him trying to survive in his community and in his very privileged corner of Bel-Air, then you see why he feels the way that he feels. For me, it made sense. When I read that scene, I was like, "It totally makes sense that Carlton would feel that way about that."

New episodes of Bel-Air are available on Thursdays on Peacock.

This interview was edited for clarity.