The 23-year-old stars as Will in Peacock’s “Bel-Air,” which reimagines Smith’s famed ’90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” as a drama, but he began modeling his career goals after Smith’s long before the project’s conception.
“It’s cosmic. I don’t know how to explain it,” he says of the uncanny similarities among his story, Smith’s and the fictionalized Will’s. For example, there’s the last name Banks, which he shares with Will’s aunt, uncle and cousins in the show, as well as their shared Philadelphia upbringing.
There’s also the breadth of both Banks’ and Smith’s artistry. Banks tends to show up to interviews with an encyclopedic knowledge of his hero’s achievements. He’s excited to share that he’s a musician as well as an actor, and plans to release a rap single this summer, but he’s just as quick to bring up that Smith had already won his first Grammy when “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” debuted.
“I aspire to be like artists who build worlds,” Banks says.
Beyond the empire of swagger Smith built in the ’90s between his music and acting, Banks has a few unorthodox role models, including Tim Burton and Walt Disney. Instead of just drawing on the skills of different performers, he’s focused on making sure that when people see a Jabari Banks project, they know.
“When I look at artists like Tim Burton, I see a specific vision for everything that he does. It’s different — ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ doesn’t really look like ‘Edward Scissorhands’ — but it’s all in that Tim Burton style. I’m looking to do that.”
The vision is certainly there: “It’s very melodic, a tenor-y timbre,” Banks says of his musical projects. “I lean into my lyrics, heavy. It’s not too oversaturated with words, but the lyrics mean something.”
And he’s collaborating with others, though he notes that he does have the skills to do it alone: “I’m working with other producers. I also produce myself, but I have to get a new laptop!”
At the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Banks began honing his “world-building” skills through the practice of devised theater, a method in which a collective of artists work and improvise together over a period of time to create an organic script.
“It really enlightened me on the idea of storytelling not only through the words, but through the body,” he says. “Through individual scenes, individual projects and individual people, we’re all working together to tell this story. This person could stand over there and be a tree — it’s very contemporary and artsy, and sometimes you don’t get it … but if we’re all working together, at the end of the day, we’re going to create something beautiful. Someone’s going to feel something.”
Banks smiles thinking back on a devised theater project called “Nobody,” in which he served as music director and wrote songs in real time while the cast built a story about a high school senior trying to figure out who is. He also cites a high school production of “The Wiz” as the reason he began to take himself seriously as a performer.
Like Will, Banks was a kid with hoop dreams — though it wasn’t a fight on the court that interrupted his athletics. His grades in school began to drop, making him ineligible to play on the basketball team. So, he needed a new after-school hobby.
“I had been in shows, but I was just BS-ing in the background. I played sports at that time, so I was just a kid that was there for fun with the other kids,” he laughs. “But I knew I could sing a little bit, because I grew up in church. So, I joined [‘The Wiz’]. I got a role as the lion, and then theater became my main focus. I knew that whatever I wanted to do in life, I wanted to do it at the highest level. I always told myself that, so my plan was to go to the NBA — and, you know, God had other plans.”
Still, he holds his basketball background close. Kobe Bryant is another figure in whom he finds artistic inspiration and that has only increased since he moved to Los Angeles to shoot “Bel-Air.”
“I had a chance to talk with one of Kobe’s close people, because the ‘mamba mentality’ has really driven me,” he recalls. “He told me that Kobe could be in a circle with 10 basketball players, but if there was like one janitor who was at the top of his craft, Kobe was talking to that person. He just wanted to know their mentality.”
That primed him to take extra care with his interactions with the crew on “Bel-Air. “You have to respect everyone’s voice, [even] before the art. We’re telling stories, but at the end of the day, we all go home to our families, and you always have to remember that,” Banks says.
Two years ago, before he knew how close he was to beginning his life in Hollywood, Banks was working in a gutter-manufacturing factory in Temecula, Calif. He got laid off from that job because, he says, he upset his managers by demanding simple resources for the other workers, such as soap in the men’s bathroom. That experience informs his attitude now.
“My first time being No. 1 [on the call sheet] was dope, but all the energy leads from me. If I’m having a bad day, that trickles down to everybody else. I come in at 5 a.m., but other people come in at 4 to start setting up. I have to respect that and put any type of ego aside.”
While it’s not lost on Banks that his first big project on screen carries the support of companies and producers that have succeeded in entertainment for decades, something in him is still energized by the alternative artistic styles he trained in.
“People are a lot more independent than they were in the years before. That’s our generation. We can do it all — we don’t have to wait for anybody. That’s what Morgan Cooper is,” Banks says, speaking of the gritty “Bel Air” trailer Cooper posted on YouTube in 2019. It drew Smith and Peacock’s attention allowing the series to exist today.
“He’s just a pure creator. He didn’t wait for someone to give him the money.”
Banks hopes to create shows of his own one day in the same way. He hasn’t sought a greenlight from anyone else for his first screen project as creator: an animated series following multiple generations of a Black family as the children learn about their father’s old nightmares and traumas by literally entering his childhood journal.
“I’d love to push the bar on what it looks like to be a person of my skin tone in a fantasy setting. A new lane for what that looks like for us.”
“We’re starting to see creators take the control back from these big studios, for them to allow us to create on our own terms,” he adds. “I want to be at the forefront
of that. I want to raise that flag and say, ‘Hey, we’re here! We’re not waiting!’ We’re the generation to take the risk.”
Michael Schneider contributed to this report.