Tatyana Ali Says Acting Opposite of “Bel-Air”‘s Akira Akbar Was Like “Looking at My Younger Self”
Peacock’s “Bel-Air” has been a nostalgic trip down memory lane for many, especially Tatyana Ali. The 44-year-old industry vet – best known for playing Ashley Banks in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” – joined season two of the dramatized reimagining, which kicked off on Feb. 23, not as her classic ’90s character – which has since been adopted and updated by 16-year-old Akira Akbar – but in a new role: Ashley’s beloved English teacher, Mrs. Hughes.
“I thought it got to the core of some of the things about Ashley that might still be the same from show to show in a really cool way.”
While fans continue to compare the legacy of “The Fresh Prince” to its modern-day makeover (and sing its praises), Ali acknowledges that the two shows are, in many ways, “not the same.” So she didn’t approach her “Bel-Air” season two offer as a return to the familiar. Instead, she embraced her new character as she would have in any other onscreen project, by asking questions like, “What is this role? What is she about?”
“Reading the scripts and realizing that so many of my scenes would be with Akira, new Ashley, I was just like, wow,” Ali, who says she “was excited to be asked to jump in and play in some way,” tells POPSUGAR. “I loved the character, I loved the mentorship of the character, and I thought it got to the core of some of the things about Ashley that might still be the same from show to show in a really cool way.”
Last year, before “Bel-Air” debuted, Ali passed the task of portraying Ashley onto Akbar, a conversation the latter previously described to POPSUGAR as “amazing.” “One thing that she told me that was so iconic was, ‘I had Ashley and now I’m giving her to you,'” Akbar recalled. Ali also shares that one of “Bel-Air”‘s directors, Matthew A. Cherry, connected the two via a phone call before they shared the screen together, during which she shared some words of wisdom with her new costar. “I just told her, ‘Shine. Let your light shine and just keep doing it. Be confident and do you,'” Ali says. “And she’s been doing that. It’s been great.”
Ali and Akbar share a handful of scenes together in “Bel-Air” season two, as early as the first episode where we see the heartwarming teacher-student bond they form over their love of learning and Black literature. Despite already having Ali’s blessing to mold Ashley into her own, Akbar admits acting as her version of the character in front of the “Fresh Prince” alum was still a nerve-wracking experience. “Because it’s hard bringing a new dynamic to this iconic character,” she explains. “But the words that Tatyana gave me, she made me feel like I am doing such a great job and she’s really passing me the torch.”
Similar to Akbar, Ali was equally “nervous” about her first scene with the young actor “because I’m like a guest on their set.” “I’m like, ‘How do I fit in here?'” she adds. “But the minute we started doing our words and our dialogue together and did that first rehearsal, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so good. She’s so good as an actor.’ Sometimes people don’t catch what you give or they don’t give you something new every time, so that you can catch it, but we did that. It was so much fun.”
Ali is honored to be one of the first “Fresh Prince” stars to grace “Bel-Air”‘s set. Her experience was filled with memorable moments, but she says her favorite scene of all with Akbar is one that made her reflect more on her past years playing Ashley. “The way it was written, saying it to Ashley, having been Ashley myself at one point, just broke my heart and blew my mind open,” she reveals. “I was like, what time am I in? What universe? This is reflection upon reflection.”
“It was just so crazy for me personally and also in a way I felt like, this is so weird,” she continues, before turning to Akbar to say, “I hope you don’t feel like I’m a weirdo by saying this, but I felt like I was sort of looking at my younger self in that moment, in that scene, and saying the things that I wish, as a young actress, as a young woman doing this work, I wish somebody had said to me.”
“People could not have said that enough. ‘Be yourself. Don’t let this world mess you up.’ Don’t ever lose that,” she tells her costar. “That I will never forget. That’s a moment in my life and in my career that I will absolutely never forget. Just full circle.”
New episodes of “Bel-Air” premiere every Friday.