“Bel Air” star Cassandra Freeman is the niece of one of the biggest African American art collectors in the United States. Growing up, the actress was always impressed with her aunt and uncle’s ability to stay grounded, despite their elevated status and wealth. This was a quality the actress was eager to bring to her character ‘Vivian Banks’ in the reimagination of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” for Peacock.
“I wanted [Aunt Viv] to feel like she’s just one foot out of Philadelphia and she just happens to be surrounded by abundance,” Freeman told WrapWomen during a recent Zoom interview.
Much like the original series, “Bel Air” follows Will (Jabari Banks) on his complicated journey from the streets of Philadelphia to the gated mansions of “Bel Air,” where he lives with his Aunt Viv, Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) and their three children: Hilary (Coco Jones), Carlton (Olly Sholotan) and Ashley (Akira Akbar). Set in modern day, creator Morgan Cooper brings a dramatic twist to the beloved ’90s comedy, peeling back the layers of these iconic characters.
“The show in general is trying to bring a lot of humanity to characters that maybe we only knew the surface about,” Freeman said. “’The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ is sort of like the cocktail conversation and our show is more of like, let’s read the diary of these people.”
While preparing for the role, the “Bel Air” actress chose not to speak with Janet Hubert, who played the OG Aunt Viv in the ’90s sitcom. According to Freeman, Cooper made it clear that the actors weren’t there to step into the shoes of the original cast, but rather create their own characters by drawing from personal experiences – in Freeman’s case, it was remembering how her aunt and uncle remained grounded among their elite circle of friends.
Freeman was also inspired by other women in the industry who shared this same set of values, including Jada Pinkett Smith and Pauletta Washington. “There are a lot of women I’ve met in my career who have that feeling … they’re very much grounded in where they’re from, even though they’re surrounded by such opulence,” Freeman said.
Another woman who inspired Freeman’s portrayal of Aunt Viv, was Michelle Obama. “I think when you first meet [Aunt Viv] she’s like a Michelle Obama, like paper doll of what it is to just be perfect and have everything put together,” explained the actress. “She changes her hair, she changes how she walks, talks, so she can fit into her husband’s world. But I think over the course of the season, she decides to get back in touch with like, who she was and to realize, like, it’s not too late to still [transform]. … Who you see at the beginning of the show is one Viv. If you stay to the end, it is not the same person.”
Watch the transformation of Aunt Viv and your other favorite character on “Bel Air,” streaming on Peacock. New episodes drop every Thursday.
Watch Freeman’s full interview with WrapWomen at the top of the page.
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