• Interviews

Jimmy Akingbola Talks About “Bel-Air”

Jimmy Akingbola finds that there is a lot more work for British Black men to be found in the United States than in his native United Kingdom. In his opinion, it is hard to truly breakthrough in the UK, while in the US, there are more leading roles and characters with substance. But there are still not enough opportunities for Black talent and as he puts it: For real chance, there really needs to be a lot more going on.”

Currently starring in Bel-Air, a retelling of the iconic 90s sitcom series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which launched pad for Will Smith’s career. Now the new series Bel-Air is streaming on Peacock with Akingbola in the role as Geoffrey – the Butler, who is now the House Manager.  Akingbola, who is in his early 40s has appeared in series such as Ted Lasso (2020), Most Dangerous Game (2020), and the comedy series In The Long Run (2017-), where he played Valentine and starred opposite Idris Elba. He is also the executive producer and host on Sorry I Didn’t Know in which panelists answer questions about Black history on British ITV2.


Why do you think it was a good idea to make a new version and retelling of The Fresh Prince Bel-Air and how does Bel-Air reflect the current times? How is it different?

The main difference is that it is a drama series. The fact that we have a one-hour format has changed everything and has flipped everything upside down because we are able to delve so much deeper into the characters that we all know and love, but we can also expand on the themes. We asked the question: What does modern Bel-Air look like from a contemporary lens? And that is how ours is different. It is not a reboot; it is a retelling or reimagining of the original. It is cinematic, it is epic, and it has great colors, a great soundtrack. It is different because we go outside the house and see what Bel-Air is like.

It is a special show, and it is doing something different right now. I have seen a lot of messages online where people say: ‘this show is amazing’, ‘there is nothing like it’, ‘it represents black excellence’, ‘there is so much positivity there’ and ‘there is a nice balance in terms of the layers’. A lot of young people are being inspired and say they want to know more about their culture and it is empowering them to love themselves. The show is doing so much without hitting people on the head with it. That makes it a special moment.

You play Geoffrey – the role of a Butler that Joseph Marcel played in the original series. How is he different from the original?

Geoffrey is no longer a Butler. That does not work in 2022, so he is a House Manager, and he does some other things. Hilary is not the butt of the jokes anymore and she is a social media influencer. Hilary in the original ended up being a presenter and I believe that she had a job as a chef too. So cooking is one of her main loves and skills.

Did you watch the original series growing up?

I watched the show as a kid growing up and I used to call it Midweek Church and I believe it was on Thursdays at 6 PM. We would watch the Australian soap Neighbors from 5.30 to 6 PM and then switch over to BBC2 and immediately sing along to the theme song. Watching it as a teenager, I felt it was inspirational. I really identified with Will, and I identified with the fish out of water and being given a second chance and that he is different. There were a lot of elements like that that reflected my personal life and my upbringing as well. But I also remember learning a lot about my culture even if it was American and I got a lot from that. We found out what that original show did: It was part of a movement in the 1990s, where there was an explosion with Black culture. That sitcom was part of it. So, it was one of my favorite shows.

Did you go back and watch episodes of the original Bel-Air?

Yes. I watched episodes here and there to relive that feeling and when I started doing the job, and Morgan said he wanted Geoffrey to be from East London, I started thinking that if I am that teenage version of myself now, I would like to have had a Geoffrey that sounded and looked like me. It felt really good to play a Geoffrey that had a different swagger and background. Morgan Cooper allowed me to take ownership of that. It is a dream come true. Now I pinch myself because I am playing a character that I loved and I am in the show I grew up watching. It is a surreal, beautiful, serendipity moment but at the same time, it feels like it was meant to be.

Will Smith and Morgan Cooper are the creators of the series. What was it like working with them? How involved were they?

We would not be here today without the genius showrunner Morgan Cooper. But Will called Morgan about five hours after the trailer went out in 2019. Somehow, it ended on his desk and he called Morgan. Will has been involved in watching everybody’s audition tapes and gave nods to everyone, which is good to know as an actor. Will has been very respectful to allow everyone to do their jobs, so we have had messages and videos and he sent us a nice Christmas gift, but he is aware of his aura, so him turning up to set every time, is not really helpful. He has kept a healthy distance, but we have been seeing him a lot in the last couple of weeks during the premiere and screenings. Will has been with us the whole way and also the cast of the original.

It was a launching pad for Will Smith in the 1990s. You already have a great career as an actor, but I was wondering what do you think the sitcom will mean to your career?

I have done some really great work in the last three or four years and they have probably been my best years. I have been going from comedy to drama, from shows like In the Long Run to Cheat on ITV to The Tower on ITV to hosting a show that I created with my business partners and then to do Most Dangerous Game on Quibi and then Ted Lasso. Yet, what I feel that this job has done for me, I feel is consolidating everything have done even including my stage work as Othello and To Look Back in Anger, where I was the first Black actor to do that.

This job in Bel-Air consolidates all of that and I think for me it has elevated my career. For those who know me, I have always been very vocal about inclusion and diversity, and I would love to be in Succession, but there is something so right and meant to be that I am in a show that unapologetically is reflecting Black excellence. I am in a show I grew up watching and I am playing an iconic Brit character. I am playing it with authenticity because I am from East London and that character is rarely seen on UK TV let alone US TV and I wanted to show America that there are so many different versions of ourselves – because that is what the show is doing – showing the whole spectrum of the Black diaspora and us as a community.

So, I want us to keep on elevating and the next step I want to do is make films and I want to produce an EP and TV shows and films, and I want to be a lead in a TV series or film. I feel that now is the time to be a lead. We have been joking that Geoffrey should have a spin-off called G and that would be great. I think that my body of work shows that I can do it. I hope this job allows me to go into the next space of film and get some iconic roles and work.

You are British – from Plaistow in East London – but started a career in Los Angeles in 2015. What is it like for you to be working in the US? 

A lot of people think it is very easy, but I think it is very tough to work in America. There is a lot of competition and a lot of hurdles you need to jump over to earn your spot and your place. The difference is that the US has always been very good at celebrating and nurturing talent regardless of where you are from, but especially British talent.

A lot of Black British actors have a lot of success in the US.

When you start having British talent who happen to be Black over here, it does not change. They are still like: ‘Wow, you are amazing. You are good. If you can do the show, let’s go.’ In the UK, the system is a bit different. It is an old-school system and to me, it is like the glass ceiling that can create a lot of barriers for people of color. David Oyelowo talked about not wanting to move to Los Angeles with his family, but he had to have the career that he truly deserves, and I can understand that and I felt it. People say: ‘But Jimmy, you have always worked.’ And I go: ‘Yeah but there is work and then there’s work and being able to have a career that has a sense of trajectory that allows you to play more than just the leads best friend or the friend of a friend of a friend. And also having characters that are not just representing the race.

When I look at the fabulous drama Normal People, I love that. But we have never had anything like that where we might have a young Black female and a young Black male. It has nothing to do with race, it is just two people falling in love. That is still so far behind for us, and I think that America is ahead of us. I don’t like the excuse of money and whatnot, I think that in America, if someone is good, they are rewarded, and it does not happen in the same way in the UK.

It is slowly happening but not fast enough. We have Michaela Coel for instance but that is just recently and not on now, so for a real chance there really needs to be a lot more going on. Benedict Wong is an amazing actor, but all his work apart from the early years has been in America. I love the UK and I want to work there, but it really shows that there is still a massive gap of representation on TV and behind the camera as well. I hope that the more you see people like myself or Letitia Wright or Marianne Jean-Baptise that the UK will embrace the talent in the UK at the moment.

It is a shame that a lot of us have to leave the UK to have a career. It is all about how you facilitate the new talent. But I am positive, and I am not one of those people who says: ‘Forget the UK, it is terrible,’ but I cannot sit here and say that everything is fine and that it has changed because there is still a lot that needs to happen. Things are slowly changing. Someone like Damson Idris, who has a leading role on Snowfall, and Tracy Ifeachor.

These are people who have not had opportunities in the UK, but they are leads in America. I hope they inspire the next generation and I also hope that the industry wakes up and goes: ‘How is it that those actors have done one episode of Dr Who and that is it in the UK. And yet they are on billboards and household names in the US.’

The US is celebrating Black History month. What does this month mean to you as a Brit?

I am Black every day of the year. I celebrate it with a bit of a sweet and bitter taste in my mouth. I do celebrate it and again, there is again something about Bel-Air that is meant to be and that is that we are doing a show that is very positive and celebrates Black excellence and it came out in the US during Black History Month.

In the UK, I am an executive producer on a show called Sorry I Didn’t Know, which is a comedy panel show about Black history, so it is very important to me. It is very important to me to educate and align everybody as well – not just people in the Black community, because history is history. Why does it seem to be put off to the side I think there is an issue when you do not really embrace the root of history? If you do not go there, you just operate in life as being unaware. So, for me Black history is about making sure that we are all aware of the other side of history. Whether we look at TV shows and education, it only gives one side. It is really important that we tell the other side. I would like to think that Bel-Air is part of that other side of history.