Jimmy Akingbola, Fresh as Ever – Bel-Air Interview

Jimmy Akingbola - Bel-Air - Claire Bueno - Premiere Scene - Digital Cover - Thumbnail

By Claire Bueno

When you hear the name Jimmy Akingbola without fail it is always followed up with, ‘He’s one of the nicest men in the business.’ and I have to agree. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Jimmy for a number of years, he’s a busy man but always has time for you.

The London born actor has had such an eclectic career, but perhaps his latest project Bel-Air is one of the most exciting. We all remember the ‘80s classic The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air which catapulted Will Smith to stardom, well the show has been re-imagined for a 21st century audience, and Jimmy’s nuanced performance as Geoffrey the house manager leaves an indelible impression. I was lucky enough to have a much overdue catch-up with him, as we reflect on his career and ceaseless commitment to his craft.

Jimmy Akingbola - Bel-Air - Claire Bueno - Premiere Scene - Digital Cover

Jimmy, huge congratulations with Bel-Air I have been able to see the first three episodes and I have to say the writing really is outstanding; I would imagine when you read the script that was a huge attraction?

Yes, definitely. For me, the only way you can do Fresh Prince of Bel-Air again is as a drama. If it was a comedy, I really don’t think I would have done it; I don’t think I would have touched it (laughs) because the original still holds up. What we are able to do with our dramatic re-telling of the original story is just delve deeper into all those issues and themes in a way that you couldn’t in a 25-minute sitcom. They did have their moments; they highlighted their little moments, but now we are able to expand the world, and if you were already a fan of the show and you’ve got that nostalgia feeling, then you’re re-connecting with your favourite characters again. And it’s just nice, what does a street-smart, book-smart kid from Philadelphia, what does that version look like in 2022, through a modern lens and I think, for me I’m like, “Yep I wanna be a part of that type of show.”

Absolutely, and it really does feel like it has had a 21st century makeover; it’s highly stylised. There’s real drama, tension and characters that are really rich and three dimensional, aren’t they?

Yeah, yeah, definitely everybody is. Some characters have been turned on their heads; if you look at Uncle Phil, Geoffrey and Carlton, our characters somehow help re-tell the show in a different way because we are all very different. So for me Geoffrey, what excited me is that he wasn’t a butler and he’s from East London, he’s a street-smart kid originally as well. But he’s worked his way up, he’s been able to shapeshift through class, and classes, through different areas and people. So he’s got this whole edge and swagger to him and a backstory that I can’t wait for the audience to see.

I was gonna say because watching your performance, and I’m not just saying this because I know you, but you’re magnetic on-screen, and as soon as you see Geoffrey, there’s this, like you say backstory and a real sense of history that you want to know more about. He’s quite enigmatic, and he’s a no-nonsense character as well, isn’t he?

Yeah, thank you so much, Claire. I embrace that, receive that because we really did talk about that. Morgan Cooper created the whole vision for this show, he’s the guy that did the four-minute trailer in 2019 that went viral, and I just wanna touch on that; we are here because of him. We are here because of Will (Smith) as well because Will saw how talented he was and believed in him. But we are here because Morgan Cooper spent 20 – 30 grand of his own money to make a piece of art, and just put it out there because he believed in it, and not expecting anything to happen and then look; we’ve got two seasons of a re-telling of the Fresh Prince of Bel-AirBel-Air. But for me, when I spoke to Morgan, we had a conversation about authenticity. It’s really interesting cos Joseph Marcell is a friend of mine, and so the butler that was authentic, but it was authentic in a different way from those times in the ‘90s. And so not only the way that he spoke, but his position in the house. Morgan said he didn’t want to have him as a butler; he wanted him to be like a best friend to Uncle Phil. They go way back, and they have a history that they met in the UK. I’ll say that much without giving too much away, so that’s how far they go back, which creates them almost as equals. And then I talk to Morgan about for me on American shows, I still think we have a lack of authenticity in terms of a black British voice and a look. And because I have lived in America now for four or five years and I have met people who have been out here longer than me, they do hold on to that sense of who they are. Some lose their accent, and they change, but a lot are proud of what they came from. So we wanted Geoffrey to have his East London roots; he’s also a bit younger than the original Geoffrey so he’s closer to Will, he can connect with him on a certain level, but at the same time, he’s no-nonsense, he’s got swagger, he’s suave, and he’s intelligent. He’s similar to the original, Geoffrey knows everything in terms of what’s going on in that house. And so it’s really nice to see him be Phil’s advisor, his consigliere and the eyes and ears. And again, I’m just excited for people to enjoy the show and enjoy the journey of all the characters.

And there are so many themes in the subtext of the whole show, but one of them for me is about finding your place, feeling where you’re at home. You mentioned that you now live in LA, and LA is very different to London (laughs). Were you able to draw upon your experience of finding yourself in LA and channelling that into your character?

Yes, thank you, definitely. I connected with that straight away, personally as Jimmy, in terms of being from East London and then living in West Hollywood. What was great in terms of Geoffrey’s backstory, I was able to connect that as well. So you’ve got Geoffrey’s story, my story rolled into one in terms of, what does that feel like? And what does it feel like to be away from family and friends? It is tricky, I love it out here, but it does require a certain resilience, a resilience of the mind and the heart. And so that was really an exciting place for myself, Morgan, Rasheed (Newson), the showrunner and TJ (Brady) to play with that and have those nuanced elements and vibes throughout the show and within Geoffrey. And what’s also nice Geoffrey immediately understands where Will is, more than anyone else in the house. So there’s a different relationship between them.

Yeah that is very, very true. And we all know you as a screen actor, but your roots are very much grounded in theatre. They often say theatre actors become great screen actors, so I wondered what have you been able to bring with you from the theatre that you can bring into your craft as an actor for film and TV.

That’s a really good question. I think with the theatre, I’ve been able to bring a level of rootedness. I think starting out in the theatre and being at the National (Theatre) and the West End playing roles like Othello or Look Back in Anger’s Jimmy Porter, huge iconic roles, and Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange. When you’re on set, and you’re on a show like this that is big, but in terms of depth, you can’t test what we do on stage in the UK; it doesn’t match up. So there’s a sense of knowingness, strength and groundedness in terms of how I feel. I like to create my characters for screen and then backstory as well. Because in a play you know where you are going, and then in TV a lot of the time they might give you the one or two episodes, and then they’re writing for you. But for me, what’s important is I need to know my backstory; who is Geoffrey? What’s he been through up until this point? And then in theatre, you are able to do a lot of that work in the rehearsal room, and in TV and film it’s getting less and less that time, so it’s almost doing that time on your own, so when you come on to set you’re there, you’re ready to go.


“The advice I think subconsciously I gave to myself is, about work ethic, perseverance and persistence.”

BEL-AIR -- “Love and Go On” Episode 106 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jimmy Akingbola-- (Photo by: Tyler Golden/Peacock)
BEL-AIR -- “Love and Go On” Episode 106 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jimmy Akingbola-- (Photo by: Tyler Golden/Peacock)

And you are one of the busiest working actors at the minute, but you still have time for others; that’s one of the things I’ve always liked about you, Jimmy. I’ve worked with you and TriForce, and you’re the founder of that. You’re very rooted in supporting other artists and creativity and giving them a platform. I wondered if you wanted to talk to me a little bit about TriForce and the work that you do.

Yes, thank you so much, Claire. Me and Fraser Ayres, my business partner and best friend, set it up in 2003 because we remembered the feeling we had in Edinburgh Festival, which was very inclusive, diverse and togetherness, artists supporting artists. We felt that really doesn’t happen when you get to London; I don’t know, it’s all a bit cold-shouldered. So we set up our company TriForce Creative Network to provide platforms and events for artists to come together; actors, writers, producers, directors. Whether it’s an actors showcase, we need to make it free because all these other showcases are charging people, so if we make it completely accessible, it is open for everybody. There’s a lot of people who would see posters of Fraser and me on it and go: “Is it just a black thing?” We’re like: “No!” But it said a lot about where we were in the world at those times, and we are still where we are now. We’re like: “No, this is just us; we’re just promoting it to ask people to be a part of what we’re doing.” It’s been great over the 15 plus years to see the growth of the TriForce Film Festival, the WriterSlam, the actor’s MonologueSlam. People have gone through our initiatives, and they’ve got their careers. I’m not saying we completely made them, but we have been a significate part of their journeys. Whether you want to talk about someone like Chizzy Akudolu or Oliver Stark from 9-1-1 out here, Zac Momoh, there are so many actors that we can name that have been through our initiatives. But what’s been exciting is that the next chapter for our company was to set up the production company, so we’re making content now. The entertainment comedy panel show Sorry, I Didn’t Know is about history, but black history which is for everyone.

Jimmy Akingbola - Sorry I Didn't Know - TriForce - DandI

We are so excited and proud about that; we’re waiting to see if we get a season three. But then the other element, Fraser and Minne (Ayres), while I was in the US, they created DANDI, which is short for Diversity and Inclusion. It’s a recruitment initiative that recruits jobs for people in the industry for people that are being marginalised because of their sex, the colour of their skin or ethnicity. We’ve taken all that we have done in terms of in front of the camera and said: “Look, it’s even more important to have a diverse crew and producers, commissioners, writers, and that has grown significantly over the last four or five years, and we’re a leading company in that space.

And finally, am I right in saying you’ve had a 20-year career? You don’t look old enough! But I wondered is there some advice you would have given yourself when you were setting out in your career that maybe other emerging actors could benefit from?

Yeah, first of all, I started when I was five people (laughs). I’m only joking. The advice I think subconsciously I gave to myself is, about work ethic, perseverance and persistence. It really is, and keeping the love for it. Because it will get tough, it will be really hard, but if you tick all those boxes that I just mentioned and keep believing that your journey will be different, then I truly believe you will have a career. And there are all sorts of different parts of the career. For me after three years when I was doing two, three plays a year across the UK, for me that was a career; that is success.

And for us to maintain our ethos in that space and go look, “We’ve been doing this for years anyway, but now we are able to do it on national TV.” And then you can get onto the other things, film and TV, but I think if you are doing what you love and at a really good, high level, and being paid for it, for me; you’re winning. And I would just ask people to just do the work, don’t focus on the fame and the money that’s when you can get into trouble. Just make sure you continue to love it and that you don’t want to do anything else, and also, I encourage them to make their own work. Do your short films, do the plays, set up your own company because I realise it is a really good way to balance the insecurity of this business. You know, Claire, what it is like, you’ve been in the business where you’re waiting to be given the opportunity, but with technology, how it’s improved and how it’s cheaper and more accessible, there’s no reason why now you can’t create your own work. So that I would say to anybody getting in the business.

Jimmy Akingbola stars in BEL-AIR
Premiering on Peacock from 14 February, exclusively on Sky and NOW

Peacock is available exclusively on Sky and NOW at no additional cost



Photographer: Joesph Sinclair    Styling: Carlotta Constant   Groomer: Oye Ajiboye
With special thanks to Personal PR

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