‘Bel-Air’ Star Akira Akbar Explains What It’s Like Playing Ashley Banks
Akira Akbar is no stranger to the camera. She has a background in commercials, nine years of modeling experience and previously appeared in series such as “Criminal Minds”, “This Is Us”, “We Can Be Heroes”, “Family Reunion” and other TV shows.
When she learned that Morgan Cooper viral short film “Bel-Air” was chosen to be made into a television series, Akbar knew she had to audition.
“My mom loved the show,” Akbar said of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” original series. “Seeing how different (‘Bel-Air’) was drew me in. It was a drama and not a comedy, so I thought, ‘This is going to be really cool.'”
Within two weeks, Akbar landed the role of Ashley Banks in Peacock’s reimagining of the beloved “Fresh Prince” series.
Now, 16-year-old Akbar is back in season 2 of the show, transforming the 90s TV sweetheart into a young modern-day activist and working alongside stars she grew up watching. She particularly liked Coco Jones – who stars as his sister Hilary in “Bel-Air” and in “Let It Shine,” the 2012 musical film.
Stepping into her first series regular role at 16 is no small feat, let alone following in the footsteps of Tatyana Ali, who played the loveable Ashley Banks in the original ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’. . In Season 2 of “Bel-Air,” Ali plays Mrs. Hughes, a passionate English Literature teacher who is penalized for giving Ashley books by black authors that “are not part of the curriculum.”
“I really think working with Tatyana was one of the most memorable moments,” Akbar said. “She gave me a lot of life and acting advice, but she also told me that I was doing such a good job portraying the role of Ashley. She liked the way I put my mind to it. own touch and how I bring it to life.
As the hysteria grows around “critical race theory— a scapegoat for conservative white parents to uphold and defend white supremacy in K-12 education — there is growing backlash and legislation across the country. In states like Florida, Governor Ron Desantis passed the “Don’t Say Gay Act”, launched an assault on AP African-American Studies and Black History, and passed legislation subjecting school librarians to criminal penalties for simply doing their job.
In Season 2 of “Bel-Air”, the Bel-Air Academy Black Student Union, where the Banks children attend, organizes a protest in solidarity with Mrs. Hughes. Akbar said it’s a great time to shed light on the struggles that black students and educators go through.
“It’s a time for black teachers to realize they’re not alone on the journey,” Akbar said. “Black storytelling is basically the most important thing in the world of ‘Bel-Air.’ In this season, Ashley finds herself in this new position, and the storyline definitely gives audiences a path to Ashley’s activism.
For Akbar, she said she brought a lot of her own takes to Ashley. It made him reflect on his experiences with black teachers in the classroom or rather the lack thereof.
When she’s not attending premieres and awards shows or sipping a box of craft services juice while filming, the actress is an ordinary teenager.
“I’m still a young girl going to school, living a normal life, but I really think people have treated me differently, that’s also why I tend to hang out with my cousins the most of the time. People are just weird. They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s the famous girl.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m just trying to exist,'” Akbar laughed.
Although she is the youngest on set, Akbar is the second eldest of six siblings. Originally from Orange County and now residing in Temecula, California, she has a college-aged older sister and four younger siblings. Akbar’s entire family is involved in the arts and entertainment business; her mother is a hair and wardrobe stylist.
“My sister,” Akbar said, “she played the younger version of me in ‘Captain Marvel.’ ‘Lucifer’ or something like that. I’m not really the odd one out.
Akbar also hopes Ashley is a vehicle not only for her experiences, but also for showing young black gay men that they deserve to be represented on screen. Along with leaning into her activism, Ashley is starting to unpack her sexuality more this season, Akbar said.
“I’m glad the show puts in stories, LGBTQ+ stories like Ashley’s, because it’s important for people (of) Ashley’s age to realize that they’re not alone,” Akbar said. “Honestly, I feel honored to be able to explore her and her coming-of-age story.”
In Season 1, Ashley reveals to her sister Hilary that she has a crush on her friend Lucia. When Akbar first read that the character was thinking about her sexuality, she did expect there to be some sort of online speech – but she didn’t pay much attention to the negativity.
“I don’t think I really cared what people thought that much,” Akbar said. “But I feel like there were mostly good thoughts – that people thought it was a good change for Ashley.”
In Akbar’s words, Ashley is open-minded and selfless, often caring more about others than herself. But in this season, Ashley is starting to take a stand for herself and her values. As excited as Akbar is to see Ashley blossom into a young woman, her hope for her character is that she pours out as much as she pours into others.
“I think Ashley pays more attention to what’s going on in the world and makes sure other people are well before her,” she said. “So I just want to see her having more fun.”
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