Cassandra Freeman looks forward to what she brings to the role of Aunt Vivian for Peacock’s Reimagined ‘Bel-Air’ Series, a dramatic retelling of the popular 90’s sitcom that starred Oscar nominee Will Smith. Here she speaks with BSM about the wonderful opportunity, and any pressure felt stepping into the shoes of the two other actresses who played the part.
You star as Vivian Banks, the female lead in the Peacock drama series retelling ‘Bel Air.’ What do you hope to bring to Aunt Viv’s character, first played by Janet Hubert and later Daphne Reid, that people have grown to love?
The first thing I think of is I hope I get to keep a lot that they already brought, which is this place of excellence and the way both those women allowed us to feel like there was something greater than ourselves to achieve, and it was also about their grace and their elegance. I hope I keep a lot of that, but I also hope I ground it in something modern and in a space where just because these people have a lot of money doesn’t mean that they are not mindful like regular people. I didn’t want to put on airs like she speaks as if she went to Juilliard or something like that. I wanted to feel like, “Oh, she could be just like me; she just has more money.” That’s it. I want that to shine through. I want people to feel that the biggest difference in our version is that you get to see Aunt Viv go through a journey of claiming who she really is at the root of herself, which she is an artist, so she’s not just a mother and wife. She is this artist and a woman who is pretty brilliant in her own right. I hope throughout the series; people will be inspired to know that it doesn’t matter how old you are or where you are in your life cycle. There’s always more of yourself that you can claim and hold up to the light so that you can inspire other people.
Have you had the opportunity to meet either ladies, Janet or Daphne?
No, I have not met these women. I know I will. That’s going to happen. I’ve played other people who are real people, and it’s always scary to meet those people and then try to embody them, and I felt the same way about this. I will literally cry to meet Janet Hubert and Daphne Maxell Reid. These are people you know; they’re icons in your head. It’s like, aren’t they real? I don’t even know! I tell people that to take on this role is sort of like looking through the looking glass of a TV, you never think that this is the opportunity that would happen, but I hope we do get to meet so I can give them their roses in person.
Were there any pressure shooting scenes knowing that Will Smith was behind the camera, as the executive producer and the original Fresh Prince who made the ’90s show famous? How did you feel?
The biggest pressure I had was when I originally auditioned for the role, and I almost felt defeated because I didn’t think, “I am an Aunt Viv.” After all, she is such an archetype. That was the greatest pressure, but as soon as I got cast by Morgan Cooper, our creator, he made it clear that my job was not to fill those shoes but to recreate those shoes for our generation. He made it clear that he and Will Smith share that same sentiment, and I think Will, in general, has been so supportive in this show. He and (Westbrook Studios), all I can say is that they’ve been very happy with what we’ve created. I haven’t felt that pressure. I tried to do what Morgan said: create these shoes (roles) as if they’re new. Because let’s be honest, I can never be what Janet Hubert was at that time and the culture, so I can’t recreate that, and I think they know it would have been quicksand to the whole production. I feel like after you watch one minute of the show, you forget that any of those other people existed in that way because you’re like, “Oh, I get it! We’re entering a new world.”
What do you like most, comedy or drama? Or a bit of both?
I’m someone who’s like, life is a buffet. We’re supposed to be ourselves. I used to be a stand-up comedian too, so I like all the things in general, between all sorts of different art forms, even if it’s something such as theater. I mean, I started in the theater, and I’m like a theater geek. You’re supposed to be the clown and be the ingenue. That’s what I come from; I can’t choose. I want it all. I think most artists, many great artists, who’ve done it as long as me, and who started in the theater, that’s all you want. As a black woman, you want to be handed a palette to use all the colors of the rainbow. That’s the only reason why I became an actress is that I just felt like the expression of who and what it is to be a black woman has never really been seen. I hope to be a part of the palette to show a greater expansion of what is possible and who we actually are because I don’t think we’ve seen everything there is to be when it comes to being a black woman.
What have you let go in 2021, and what will you be going after in 2022?
Well, honey, I can tell you what I’m leaving behind. (laughs) I’m leaving behind this feeling that I have to rush and feel like I’m (in the back) and I need to run faster. I’m exploring in 2022 to trust that my expression and point of view are valid enough because it came from me like I’m a one out of one. That’s got to be enough. In general, I’ll share this with you because of your publication and what it means to women. Aunt Viv, in this series, to me is, what I said originally. We don’t know what a real black woman is like; what does it mean to be a black woman? When you think about how you have all these cages on black women, whether, through white supremacy, patriarchy, motherhood, capitalism, or being a daughter, you have all these things. Then the white gaze it’s like, what are a black woman’s true beauty and potential when she’s got all of those cages? Part of the show is exploring and curious about what happens to a woman when those cages slowly start to come off. It’s very meta for me because I’m sort of going through that same journey in my own life. Who am I, and who can I be? What’s the greatest self-expression I can have for myself?
Why should loyal fans of the first ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ and new fans watch this reimagined series?
People have to watch this one because, to me, it’s almost like exploring through the part of the underbelly that Will Smith wanted to talk about in the original show. But because it was the 1990s. They only had 30 minutes, and it had to be a sitcom, and that’s what he hopes that we get to explore in this (new series). You got an hour to tell more truth, and we get to show black excellence and what it can look like today. That’s a huge opportunity, and Will Smith, in general, is interested in putting out good stories that help uplift people. Even in the trailer, though it feels dark and dramatic, it feels a little bit warm. I feel like the sitcom was more like a dinner conversation at a party where you’re like, “Oh, well, who’s Carlton, and who’s Hillary?” “Oh, Hillary, you know, she’s so into her clothes.” The thing you want is for TV (watchers) to say, “Yo, y’all, we didn’t really know who Carlton was, and maybe we were wrong for thinking that he was so small, like maybe he had a whole life there.” Actually, what is the full spectrum of being a black person, and maybe it was wrong that we kicked Carlton out of the black people club; who said that was even a thing?
You’re gonna get easter egg treats. You’re gonna be like, “Oh my God! Oh, that’s a throwback!” But then, at the same time. You’re gonna be like, “Oh my god, that’s what that was about?” (in terms of retelling old storylines in the new series) Even from the same song right off the bat, on the first episode, you’re gonna be like, “Oh, guys, we didn’t realize how many layers were there.” By the time this is done, you’ll ask, “What was the real truth behind XYZ?”
Bel-Air | Official Trailer | Peacock Original