As Bel-Air continues its freshman season run on Showcase in Canada and Peacock in the U.S., The TV Watercooler had the opportunity to speak with Cassandra Freeman who has taken on the role of Vivian Banks on Morgan Cooper and Will Smith’s dramatic re-imagining of the classic ‘90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
In our conversation with Freeman, we learn about the actor’s process of creating her own version of the iconic character, exploring Aunt Viv’s true passions, and how Bel-Air is able to take elements from the original series and ground them in today’s reality.
Can you talk about the pressure at all that you and the cast must have faced when you began working on the dramatic re-imagining of such an iconic series?
We’re all fans of the show. I grew up with the show in real-time and the younger cast members grew up with it too because it’s a classic show that plays in the background of everybody’s house. So, we felt such joy and admiration for the show.
As for the pressure, I feel like Morgan Cooper made it a point to tell us that we weren’t here to fit in the shoes of those who created the original show, but we’re here to create something that is our own. I think that relieved a lot of pressure for us.
We’re not here trying to do perfect impersonations of anyone. We’re trying to take elements [from the original series]and ground them in today’s reality. As soon as we realized that, a lot of the pressure went away.
Do you feel that a show like Bel-Air is held to a higher standard when it comes to social responsibility? If there are light moments, a critic may say the show is not leveling up. Whereas non-BIPOC shows have it so much easier because they can write in a random moment into an episode that may deal with social issues and then get praised for it but switch back to being “light and funny.”
Truthfully, I think as soon as you put a person of colour on the screen it becomes political, regardless. You could say that all art is political, so it becomes about if the artist wants to push it and make it even more political.
I mean, seeing an affluent African American family on American television is inherently political. So, it becomes about what story do we want to tell without having the pressure of everyone else’s expectations on us about what they think we want to talk about.
We have what we want to talk about. Bel-Air is about black excellence, it’s about an all-American family, it’s about the greatest currency one can have is the ties that they hold dear with their family. We’re interested in not making everything into a joke. Instead, we’re interested in the inner lives of these huge iconic characters.
Coming from theatre, how did you approach playing this incarnation of Aunt Viv, having the role been played by both Janet Hubert and Daphne Maxwell Reid? Recasts are standard practice in theatre and even daytime soaps.
Listen, that’s exactly right. I tell people that all the time, when you do a play or anything in the theatre, [that character]has a long list of all the people who already made it their own have their stamp on it.
So, because I have that background, that’s what I did here.
You look at what you loved about those characters, what you loved about those actors and you might take some of it, but mainly, at least for myself, I always look at the previous actors and think, “Oh, what’s the one nugget that maybe they left out that I could add to make it original and also just bring my own natural flavour and point of view?”
Perspective is the only thing that matters as an artist. So, for me, I brought their deep listening and their compassionate heart – they are literally the heart and consciousness of the show, so the thing I really wanted to ground it in was this feeling of you know that Aunt Viv is from West Philadelphia. You should never forget that when you’re watching the show. I wanted her to feel very grounded in that in any moment that old part of her might come back out, even though she’s grounded and surrounded by all this luxury and opulence.
The format allows for a lot more character development, which aspects of Vivian were you excited to explore?
The thing that I was most excited to explore in her is how she really gets to reveal her true passions in life. She starts off sort of like a paper cut-out doll of Michelle Obama where her husband is running for D.A. and she’s trying to fit into a certain mold that I think is too claustrophobic for this woman who’s from West Philadelphia and used to be a prolific visual artist. And then she had to put all of that away because she couldn’t make a living that way, and then she decided to have a family.
So, what I think you see, is a woman coming out of that cocoon and really learning how to take up space in her own right without having to ask for permission. You’ll see that over the course of this first season that her relationship with her husband will change, and her relationship with herself and the art world will sort of expand.
The focus on Vivian and Hilary (played by Coco Jones) has led to the parallel of Vivian’s backstory as an artist and picking up that vocation again. Did you draw upon any of your own history as an artist here?
The writers came in with that, but that was the thing I was also very excited about because I grew up in a household where my aunt and uncle are like Vivi and Phil. They are one of the biggest African American art collectors here in the United States, so growing up and going to their house and seeing nothing but black art and getting to know a lot of those black artists and sculptors, I always felt like “Oh, I wish everyone knew as much about art as I do,” so it’s a dream come true to play someone who gets to do that now. It’s great. And I love that I also get to embody an artist. They see the world very differently. I think they’re geniuses.
Should Phil (Canadian actor Adrian Holmes) be worried about Michael Ealy’s character, Reid?
[Laughs] How did you feel about it?
He was coming on so strong!
[Laughs] I’m excited to see what people think. You know, I think that people fall in love for so many reasons, and I think that his character comes in to spark that part of her as an artist. I mean, he has the conversations [with her]that she and Phil can never have. And when you have conversations about art, it’s always very intimate.
And so, I can’t say if you know, I think men should be worried. If someone new is, you know, barking around their house… Phil is such a strong, anchored character. He’s so sexy too. I think it’s a good even fight no matter what!
Viv’s focus on the first few episodes explores the dynamics between her and Hilary and welcoming Will (played by Jabari Banks) – will the rest of this first season have her realize what’s going on with her other children as Carlton (played by Olly Sholotan) has a drug problem and Ashley (Akira Jolie Akbar) is exploring her sexuality?
You’ll have to get to episode ten to see how a lot of those storylines are resolved, and then how it relates to season two!
Well, it’s in season one right now, so it’s definitely in focus and so you gotta get to episode 10 to see how a lot of those storylines are resolved.
There’s some backstory implied between the complicated relationship Viv has with her sister, Vy (played by April Parker Jones). There was even a line that both Phil and Viv owed it to Will to bring him out to LA after what happened with his father. How soon will that be explored?
That’s probably something that will be revealed close to the season finale!
Is there something you are looking forward to paying homage to the original? I know I was excited for Jazz (played by Jordan L. Jones) and Hilary to share a scene. Can we expect you to throw Jazz out of the mansion anytime soon?
Keep watching! There’s an upcoming episode that is pretty epic and definitely pays tribute to something very near and dear [to the original series]. Get ready!
Bel-Air airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on Showcase in Canada and streams live and on demand with STACKTV and the Global TV app.