How Jordan L. Jones and the Cast of “Bel-Air” Reimagined “The Fresh Prince” as a Drama
Jones plays a decidedly more serious version of sidekick Jazzy Jeff on the upcoming reboot from Peacock
When Will Smith stepped in front of a camera in 1990 and told audiences how he “became the prince of a town called Bel-Air,” an icon of comedy and hip-hop culture was born. But the show also raised important issues around race, class and equality in America, two topics that hadn’t exactly been hallmarks of the sitcom in that era.
The show would become a classic, and now, a reboot called Bel-Air is due out on Peacock on February 13. Convincingly remaking any piece of canonical pop culture is difficult, but it’s even harder when it’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. So rather than trying to evoke carbon copies of Will Smith’s over-the-top antics, Carlton’s tightly wound straight man or Uncle Phil’s inimitable dad-ness, Bel-Air is striking out in its own direction.
The show, directed by Morgan Cooper and executive produced by Smith, follows a character named Will (Jabari Banks), who moves into his uncle’s home in Bel-Air after getting into a life-threatening fight in west Philadelphia. But it isn’t a comedy — it’s a full-on drama, showing how real things can get when set in modern-day America. It’s full of grit, darkness and real-life consequences that take the canned laughter out of the equation.
Los Angeles actor Jordan L. Jones plays the character of Will’s sidekick Jazz, who is loosely based on hip-hop DJ and beatmaker DJ Jazzy Jeff, who played the role in the original series.
Jones, who turns 29 in March, brings a sense of wisdom to his role as Wil’s best friend, offering insight, support and brotherly wisdom. Here, he speaks to InsideHook about playing an iconic hip-hop trailblazer, being tagged on Instagram by Smith, and why this show is more than just a reboot.
InsideHook: A good friend and beacon of wisdom, DJ Jazzy Jeff is a pair of big shoes to fill, not only as a TV character, but for his role in early hip-hop as a beatmaker. He made the turntable scratch famous. He’s a Grammy Award-winning musician. Where did this all begin, you starring in Bel-Air?
Jordan L. Jones: First of all, this is literally a dream come true. It all started with the audition. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be about. Reboots are always: “Why are they doing this?” When I read the script, I thought wow, this is completely different. I felt the role was for me. But during the audition, I wasn’t given direction, so I called my mom and said: “I didn’t get it.” She asked why, I just said: “He didn’t ask me to do anything extra.” But when I got the role four days later, it was the start of something amazing. The director Morgan Cooper is hands-off and lets us improvise. He trusts his actors.
What was it like working with Will Smith on Bel-Air, as producer of the show?
Will Smith can do a lot of different things, he’s a versatile actor. Fresh Prince was comedic, Pursuit of Happyness was the opposite. In Bad Boys, he plays the serious cop. In King Richard he betrays everyone. He’s one of my personal heroes. Him being my boss is incredible. He’s really watching. When the trailer came out, he tagged us all in a post. I told my friends: “Will Smith tagged me in a post, y’all can’t talk to me no more. I’m changing my number.”
What is it like watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air now?
I have watched the show religiously, I’ve seen every episode a hundred times. I don’t know how anyone could have not seen the show. I still watch the series every day.
You play Jazz on the show. What did you want to bring to the role that was originally played by DJ Jazzy Jeff?
I wasn’t strategic about it. Subconsciously, I know what he brought to the show, so in my own way, I wanted to bring my own thing to the show. That’s comedy, drama, just the impact he brought was my goal. All I want to bring is my best self to the show. I think Jazz the character was not the same person he was in real life; he made his way into the show and became a mainstay as Wil’s friend.
The original show was a comedy, but Bel-Air is a drama series. What was it like shifting those gears?
I’ll say this: Every single character is fleshed out. You get to know Hilary Banks more, it’s not just like she’s a ditz. Uncle Phil is not just a district attorney, or that Carlton is just a side piece. It’s different. In Bel-Air, I pick up Will from the airport, so it makes sense how they met. One of my favorite parts of the show is how everything is drawn out. You learn the background of each character; you learn their beginning. That’s a beautiful thing.
Can you give us an example of how something that was originally comedic is translated into a dramatic situation on the new show?
The best sitcoms you can’t recreate. You can’t redo Seinfeld. You’d be doing yourself a disservice. When you think about the intro song from Fresh Prince, he says: “West Philadelphia born and raised, On the playground was where I spent most of my days.” But how would that look? That’s what we see in Bel-Air. Just like when he says: “I got in one little fight and my mom got scared, she said, “You’re moving with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air.” But what kind of fight was that? It sounds lighthearted, but if he got into a fight and your mom couldn’t take it, she sends you to go live somewhere else. That’s a big thing. It helps the show so much. I’m glad it’s not the same.
We still have funny moments in the show! But it’s both. It’s a serious, real-life story. It’s like having a day that has serious and comedic moments.
Something important to you is the power of prayer, how did that help you here?
When something is bad, you say, ‘Please God, take me out of this situation.’ A lot of people don’t understand you got to thank God for the good times and the bad. I thank God for the opportunity he has given me. As an actor, it’s a profession of “no.” This is one of the few professions where if you don’t get the role, it doesn’t have anything to do with your role. They cast a girl for your role, a different skin type, you name it. You must have faith, otherwise mentally it’s tough. But if you don’t get too low on the bad or too high on the good, you stay even keel.
Your mom, Ptosha Storey, helped support you as a single mother, and is an actor herself — she plays Nancy on The Oval on BET, and Naya on Young & The Restless. How has she helped you?
She’s my biggest supporter. When I was waiting to hear back about getting the role, she couldn’t sleep. She says, “You’re as happy as your saddest child.” When I started this whole journey, I wondered what I must keep going. She constantly reminds me of who I am, that’s what has kept me going. She knew how hard it was and didn’t want me to go through it, but she didn’t stop me from doing it. Once I decided, she helped me with everything. She has my back 100%. She says, “Don’t quit.
As an actor who has been on a number of shows — All Rise, Mainstream, The Rookie, Shameless, Rel — do you feel that Hollywood is becoming more inclusive?
It is changing. I’ll say that a lot of people in this world are talented. Sometimes when you see a certain director, they often choose the same or a similar cast. I enjoy that. And we hope to do that with Bel-Air. It starts with giving actors who are talented — and not just actors who are known — a chance. I can’t believe Hollywood is becoming more about talented people than just names. When you watch Bel-Air, you’re going to watch Jabari Banks play Will Smith and go: “Wow! What else has he been in?”
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