The actress talks about her classic TV show, being biracial, and life after Hilary Banks
For seven years, thousands set their schedules around the classic rags-to-riches dramedy The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to watch the coming-of-age joys and pains of America’s beloved, silver-spoon fed clan The Banks. Perhaps they reminded us of The Cosby Show’s Huxtables. Their swag and wealth was everything Good Times’s James Evans dreamed of for his family (well, er, maybe not the British butler). But we can’t deny that many of us lived vicariously through Hilary Banks, the spoiled valley girl with a bad shopping habit that only her lawyer-dad could offer.
Nowadays, Hilary Banks is all grown up. At 41 and spoiling her own family, Karyn Parsons is a wife and mother of two busy young kids. Essence.com caught up with Parsons, who talked about the impact the O.J. Simpson verdict had on the show, embracing her biracial identity, and why she’s teaching all children Black history one story at a time.
Essence.com: Congrats to you on the success of your award-winning collection of African-American children’s DVDs, which aired on HBO. How did you get into writing for children?
Karyn Parsons: While I was on Fresh Prince, my mother, who was head of book resources at a college library, told me the incredible story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown, a slave who mailed himself in a small box from Virginia to Pennsylvania to find freedom. Talk about determination! That was such an obvious story to tell kids and it stayed with me. A few years later, I talked to my husband about it. He was really fascinated with it as well and pushed me to just do it, and bring the story to life.
Essence.com: Well, we are glad you did. That is an eye-opening story that people need to know.
K.P.: And they really have been receptive. I started my company Sweet Blackberry in 2004 and The Journey of Henry ‘Box’ Brown was our first DVD. It was an easy way to introduce slavery to young kids. It can be difficult for parents and teachers to explain that part of our history. It was an interesting experience and kept me thinking, Is that too much? Does the whip crack in this scene? We all love to hear a good story, and Alfre Woodard was amazing as the narrator. It aired on HBO in February for Black History Month. Our second story was Garret’s Gift, about a teenage Garret A. Morgan, who invented the traffic light, and Queen Latifah narrated for us, which was great.
Essence.com: These films speak volumes about your real-life person—you’re nothing like Hilary Banks, your most famous role from The Fresh Prince. It’s phenomenal how the show has continued a second life in syndication. Did you ever imagine it would be a phenomenon?
K.P.: Definitely not! When we did the first episode, I went back to my job as a restaurant hostess. Will [Smith], James Avery (who played her on-screen father Philip Banks), Benny Medina (the show’s creator and producer) and all the guys would come by and laugh and point at me through the window. They would bang on the window, "What are you doing here? We have a TV show.” I’m thinking, I don’t know what’s going to happen with that show! You just don’t know. I quit once it was picked up. It’s the same thing with Will. Although you know he’s incredibly charismatic, it doesn’t mean that you thought, Hey, he’s going to be this megastar. You aren’t surprised, but when you are just hanging out with him, you aren’t thinking, You are going to be King of The Universe someday.
Essence.com: What was your first impression when you heard of the Hilary character?
K.P.: They told me she was a model type, a valley girl and spoiled. My very first line was, 'Daddy, I need $500,' and that kind of defines who she is. I don’t look like a model, but you have to work with what you got. I had to throw those thoughts out the window and just go for it.
Essence.com: You definitely played the role well—completely clueless!
K.P.: (Laughs) And I’m so not that character, so when I put on that voice, everyone just cracked up.
Essence.com: Was there ever a moment Hilary did something in the script you regretted?
K.P.: There were changes made all the time and we would really give it our all to try and make the show work the way the writers envisioned it. Our longest running director taught me that. I would feel like something could never work and he would say, “Just try it.” And I really wouldn’t think it would work, and sometimes I was pleasantly surprised. Now I try to apply that in life. Give things a try!
Essence.com: Now was this when your fiancé Trevor died on the show while trying to propose to you?
K.P.: That was exactly when I learned the lesson! I’m just walking around the house in this big wedding dress, trying to say this line as they want, and it was very annoying and I was having a hard time. The director jumped in and said, “Let me figure it out.” He starts walking around, pulls flowers out of the vase and throws the bouquet over his shoulders while saying the lines. I thought, That’s ridiculous, I’m not doing that. He said, “Oh c’mon!” We tried and it got a huge laugh every single time I did it. That whole experience was funny. When they dropped Trevor [he crashed bungee jumping from a bridge, while proposing to Hilary], the sound [technicians] kept playing around with different sounds—an apple dropping, something wet. It was funny.
Essence.com: Did you know when you read the script where the plot was going?
K.P.: Nobody knew. My first reaction was, Omigosh, Brian [Stokes Mitchell] is off the show! That’s what you think; not, Trevor’s dead. I loved working with him. You feel bad.
Essence.com: Watching the two of you interact was hilarious. So what was your favorite episode?
K.P.: The first season when Hilary dropped out of college was funny. The cast all had a hard time whenever we had to sit down together. Everyone just started getting the giggles. The director was mad at us because we couldn’t stop laughing. In this episode, Will and Carlton (her on-screen brother played by Alfonso Ribeiro) turn on me, and the audience started stomping, cheering and clapping. And I’m thinking, Omigosh, they hate me. Every time I see that episode I crack up remembering.
Essence.com: Did you ever want to defend Hilary?
K.P.: (Laughs) No, she meant well. She had problems. She was just lost. I just let her be herself.
Essence.com: Jada and Will mentioned in an interview with ESSENCE that she had tried out for the role of Will’s girlfriend Lisa, which went to Nia Long. Did he ever mention Jada to you?
K.P.: (Laughs) Wait, I thought it was Tyra that went out for that part. I don’t know. But he had wanted Jada on the show for a while. I don’t know for what role though. He had a big crush on her.
Essence.com: So did he ever ask you for pointers on the ladies or dating in Hollywood?
K.P.: (Laughs) He never needed any tips! He’s got that down.
Essence.com: There aren’t many shows that have been syndicated as widely as the Fresh Prince. What’s the secret to the show’s timelessness?
K.P.: Yeah, I was surprised. We were on the same time as Martin, and that show had a huge success. I think the difference though was Martin was harder, and probably failed certain markets, where nearly every market in the world bought our show. It was easy for the whole family to watch and everyone was in on the joke. That’s sort of Will’s universal appeal. He always had a hand in the script and was involved.
Essence.com: Do you stay in touch with the cast now?
K.P.: Yeah, believe it or not. I’m in New York now, but when I’m in California, I see James [Avery], Alfonso, and Tatyana [Ali, who played her sister Ashley Banks]. It’s funny to see people’s faces when we are all together. Will is obviously harder to stay in touch with, but we talk from time to time. He helped get Queen Latifah involved with narrating for my DVD. Joseph Marcell who played Jeffrey (the family’s butler) is back in Britain, but when he was in California we kept in touch.
Essence.com: Wow! So Jeffrey was really British (laughs). And I know you have a daughter, Lana, 4, what character from the show would you say she is most like?
K.P.: Hilary! Everything is “pink! pink! princess!” She’s very much a girlie-girl and even tries to shake her hips.
Essence.com: (Laughs) Has she ever seen the show?
K.P.: We flip by it but we don’t watch it. She certainly doesn’t see mom as that person. And of course I have to take some of that responsibility for her personality. I want to say, Don’t you want to be like Ashley? We had a photo shoot with both of my kids and she’s posing! I’m trying to wrestle with my son (Nico, 11 months) and all of a sudden I realize she’s over to the side posing. She just ignored me and put it on.
Essence.com: (Laughs) Sounds like you have a star on your hands. You also starred in Mixing Nia. Was it easier for you to play the role since you are biracial like the character?
K.P.: Yeah it was. I read the script on the plane and thought, I have to play this role. The director and I hit it off right away. The script really captured the experience, and I found out afterwards that the writer wasn’t biracial. It was very smart.
Essence.com: Your mother is Black and your father White. What’s been your biggest challenge being biracial in America?
K.P.: Well, it’s hard. When I saw Barack’s speech on race, I cried and I felt like, there’s the speech I’ve been wanting to write. I’ve been thinking about writing about race for a long time. It’s very interesting how we feel about each other in terms of race. When I’m around Black or White people, I’m always in the middle. Especially when I am around Black people; they will really tell how they feel about White people regardless of the fact that I’m also White and have White relatives. It’s very interesting and can be really hard.
Essence.com: It’s definitely an issue our society still faces.
K.P.: Exactly. And I’m married to a White man, and then my daughter came out looking like the whitest White child with blonde hair and blue eyes. And I’m like, Omigosh, now what am I going to do? She has my mom’s features and is lighter than my husband. And my boy is browner than I am. Brown eyes and really tan. The race thing is something we continue to deal with and just have to learn to love ourselves and others.
Essence.com: Definitely. And did race ever come up while you were on the show?
K.P.: Fresh Prince was an interesting time because the O.J. [Simpson] trial happened at that time. We had a mixed team with mostly Black cast and White writers and producers. We watched the verdict announced while we were sitting at our table reading. It was devastating. At the table, all the Black people all cheered, then everyone looked around in silence. I just went to my room and bawled my eyes out. The case was one thing, and that hurt me because I watched it very closely. Then watching us separate—Black and White—a room of people who love each other and get along separate along color lines was a whole other dynamic, so I cried. Then Will and Tatyana came to my room. Will explained what he thought the triumph was, that when [O.J.] got off, it was the law working for Black people the same way it worked for others.
Essence.com: Wow. That is an intense experience. And what’s been the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?
K.P.: Talk to your friends and acquaintances. One of the happiest things to come out of me doing Sweet Blackberry and Black history DVDs was I learned that people want to help you. Come to people and open yourself up, and it makes you feel real good. You realize how much we all really want to help each other. We all have gifts and we have to be open to share them.