When Cassandra Freeman’s manager approached her about auditioning for the role of Vivian Banks, aka Aunt Viv, in Peacock’s “Bel-Air,” she sidelined it.
She knew it would be a dream opportunity to play a new version of the iconic character in a dramatized reimagining of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Yet despite coming out the gate swinging in 2006 starring opposite Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s “Inside Man,” she didn’t see herself in it initially.
“I didn’t even know that this was an option on the menu in life, so to even see an opportunity like this to come up is pretty unreal,” Freeman said. “I just feel very humbled by the whole experience. And I just hope people feel the love that we’re cooking as this comes out into the world.”
“Bel-Air” is a 10-episode drama that follows main protagonist Will Smith (Jabari Banks) as he moves from his humble hometown of West Philadelphia to the bourgie enclave of Bel-Air with his affluent extended family after a run-in that could’ve ruined his hoop dreams — or worse. The series began streaming weekly in February.
Like the rest of the internet, Freeman had seen creator Morgan Cooper’s concept trailer when it went viral in 2019 and thought it was brilliant. When the series got Will Smith and the original producers’ attention, a bidding war started, and the series got picked up for two seasons by Peacock.
Freeman’s manager convinced her to film an audition tape, and thereafter, she had an interview with Cooper and showrunner Rasheed Newson to discuss how they saw Aunt Viv.
Similar to the original, Freeman’s Aunt Viv is the powerful and brilliant matriarch who holds that household together like glue. Aunt Viv, originally played by Janet Hubert and later Daphne Maxwell Reid, represented more than a TV mom. Both actors brought their own uniqueness to the character, but Aunt Viv became a cultural icon that placed Black womanhood on a pedestal on network television and transcended generations.
To Freeman, the original Aunt Viv “represented queendom.” Her unapologetic nature, grace, compassion and consciousness made the character legendary, she said.
“At the time, she was someone who was a pool of riches when it came to history and the history of her family, but [also] the history of Black people,” the Florida-born actor reminisced. “So to me, she was like a great combination of queen and Maya Angelou all wrapped up into one character.”
But Freeman told HuffPost that the goal wasn’t to fill Hubert and Reid’s shoes. “We could create our own shoes when doing this show and really think about who these people are today. And that, alone, allowed me to find some of my own authorship about who I thought Vivian is today.”
The new Aunt Viv adopts many of the aforementioned qualities. Freeman said 2022′s Aunt Viv is still very much “the heart of the show,” a wife who supports her husband’s political ambitions and a retired artist. In all that, she realizes how much she’s put her family before her own needs and desires.
“She realizes that maybe she’s directionless, maybe she’s given too much of herself away to her family. And so, throughout the show, you’ll find out, can she get back in touch with the part of herself that was fearless and ambitious?” Freeman shared.
“And also, how does the family adjust to that? And how does she adjust to a new definition, because you see these first few episodes, she’s very much a cookie-cutter of that Bel-Air world. She could just come out of that cocoon, hopefully, throughout the season.”
Aunt Viv’s struggle with her daughter, Hilary Banks (Coco Jones), is a catalyst for Viv’s potential butterfly moment. Vivian watches her daughter pave her own way as a chef and influencer, to her mother’s dissatisfaction. While Hilary is living for today, her mother’s approach to success is old-school.
“Also, it becomes a conversation about authority, and I think [Aunt Viv] is so assimilated to Bel-Air and assimilated to what’s the right and wrong way of doing things,” Freeman said. “But this new generation has rewritten the script and said, no, you can call people out for X, Y, Z, and you can create your own lane. And you might not have to ask for permission; you might have to ask for forgiveness. But even when you watch Hilary, she doesn’t even really do that.”
The veteran actor said that side plot resonates a lot with her and her own journey through Hollywood. She understands that her relationship with social media, for example, is different than that of many of the up-and-coming actors of today.
“You can get so attached to a way of doing something, that you don’t realize the opportunities that are here today that can actually help accelerate your career or create a new career,” she said. “And I see that personally, in my own life as an artist, but I see that in other people’s lives, too. People who are great top makers of crafts, whether they make things by hand or they’re carpenters, but they don’t want to utilize the new tools that exist today.”
In an almost poetic way, Freeman’s approach to portraying Aunt Viv — and “Bel-Air” itself — is a mirror to that age-old dilemma: What happens when the old guard collides with the new?
“That’s a really big, big question ’cause it’s a big, big answer for the show, but also life in general,” Freeman said.“I guess one way to say is the thing that’s really interesting about Vivian, and you could say anybody who’s over 40, you could really look at this storyline as, you can get so attached to a way of doing something, that you don’t realize the opportunities that are here today that can actually help accelerate your career or create a new career.”
New episodes of “Bel-Air” premiere on Thursdays on Peacock.