Bel-Air's Jimmy Akingbola On Fame, The Writers' Strike And Adapting To Racism In America

The UK actor plays Geoffrey Thompson in the reboot of 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.'

Reboots don't guarantee a hit, but Bel-Air, a dramatic reimagination of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, is a bonafide success. Along with introducing a new generation to Will from West Philly, a group of actors on the rise have gotten their big break, including Jimmy Akingbola who plays house manager Geoffrey Thompson. 

Akingbola has been acting for over a decade, working alongside greats like Samuel L. Jackson and Idris Elba. However, Bel-Air has made him a star and he is taking this moment to chart his own path. Not only is he on the hit series, executive produced by Oscar winner Will Smith, but Akingbola also has a documentary steaming on Peacock called Handle With Care, which is about the foster care system.

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In Jimmy Akingbola's first interview with, he opens up about newfound success and the experiences of being a Black man in America juxtaposed with the UK.

BET: Bel-Air has been a big hit. It premiered on Peacock back in February of 2022, the season two finale aired this week and season three was just renewed. How has your life changed since playing Geoffrey Thompson in Bel-Air?

Jimmy Akingbola:  I can see the difference now when I'm walking around in Los Angeles. My name is actually not Jimmy anymore -- it's Geoffrey. [Laughs] The amount of shout-outs and people coming up to me to give me my flowers, it's been amazing. The fact that Bel-Air has been a massive hit has shown that if reboots are done properly with attention to detail like ours, then they can be good. Things have dramatically changed for me but I'm really proud of the change. I think the journey in this business is about perseverance. You have highs and lows, we all got through a pandemic, and to come out the other side of it, and to be a part of a show that is for the culture that represents Black excellence and storytelling -- Bel-Air. It represents vulnerability, love and it still has all the key things that the original had.

(L-R) Will Smith, Jabari Banks.

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BET: Writers are so important and right now we are in the middle of a writer's strike. What are your thoughts on the strike?

Jimmy Akingbola: Most of the hit TV shows, even the films that we've all loved and impacted us over our lives, that's all coming from the writers. If they're not being treated right then we need to stand by them. Bel-Air only works because of the great writers. We need those words on the page. When you speak to any writer, it's really hard for them -- it's real. There's a lot of work to be done but I think these are the times where all these different conversations need to be happening as well. It can't just be a change in one area, the change has to be across the board.

BET: Your IMDB credits go back over ten years. It includes roles with the titles "police officer number two," "receptionist," and "pet shopkeeper."  You're on this big hit show now, what comes to mind when you think back to those earlier roles where you didn't even have a name, but you were just grinding?

Jimmy Akingbola: In this world, where it's all about the quick or the quick arrival, it just reminds me of the journey. You have to start somewhere. I remember having a couple of lines in a play and doing that for six weeks in the UK, but still feeling like I was learning and growing from watching the other actors do their big roles. I was trying to make the most of those three lines. [Laughs] I feel like I'm on top of a great mountain, but I'm looking at the next mountain to climb with a smile on my face.

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BET: Speaking of what's next, you currently have a documentary on Peacock called Handle With Care, which is about your experience of being Nigerian but adopted by white parents. Tell us about Handle With Care.

Jimmy Akingbola: The idea to make Handle With Care came from, unfortunately, losing half of my family during the pandemic. That made me really just ask the question, "Who am I?" My biological family and my foster family made me the man I am today. The biggest thing for me was that it is rare that you see positive foster care stories in film and TV. I wanted to make something that was celebratory and inspiring but didn't sidestep the traumatic stuff. I'm really proud of it. I started making Handle With Care before I got Bel-Air. It's a bigger story than myself. It's about unconditional love. I want it to lean towards people that have been thinking about adopting and fostering. If I can inspire one or two families to look into that and do it, that's great. But also, I want to change society's attitude towards foster care. Sometimes you hear somebody has been in foster care, then their immediate thought, subconsciously or consciously, is, "Oh, my God, they must have had a terrible time." 

I wanted to make something that if I was my 15-year-old self, what would make me believe in myself and believe that I can be anything I want to be? My beginning doesn't have to dictate my future. Because if you just roll out the stats, which are true, but they're not true for everybody. It's like history, the big conversation here in the U.S. and in the UK is  -- where's Black history? Why is it not being taught in the schools and the curriculum? Give us the full amount of the history, the whole story.  I think it's the same with the foster care stories, don't just keep rolling out the horrific stories. Share the uplifting stories.

BET: As a Black man raised in the UK, when you came to this country were you shocked or disturbed at the way race relations are in this country or did it feel very similar to the UK?

Jimmy Akingbola: It's very different. I feel like in the UK, we have our version of it, but it's completely different. Ours is very much behind smiles. It could be passive-aggressive. It could be almost subtle and it can almost drive you crazy. I feel like I wasn't surprised when I moved to the US because American culture is huge. We grew up with it, we're so tapped in, in a different way that I feel like you guys are tapped into our culture. But then when you're living here, and you really see it up close, I feel like, if we're the subtle version, then America is just like -- yo, it's in your face. It's in your face in terms of politics, you look how Obama was being treated and then you got Trump. Then you've got the way that there's a lot of communities separated, there's not as much crossover as we have in the UK. But within some of that, I also feel a bit more of a community sometimes in the U.S. We could take a spoonful of that as a Black community in the UK to really affect more change to our country, whether it's politics or the entertainment industry. We really could learn from America. But it didn't surprise me, you can be aware of something but when you live it and you see it, it's a whole other thing. Like for me, I am very aware that if I get pulled over by a police officer, I need to make sure I do the right things and sound as British as I can. There's been certain situations in the UK where people have died within police custody, but it's not what it's like here. So that alone just blows my mind, that level of fear and danger is on a whole other level.

BET: What are you hoping for in the next few years of your career?

Jimmy Akingbola: Bel-Air and Handle With Care, I feel like they're taking up my TV space in a nice way. But there's a great book called Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, which is almost like a Game of Thrones meets Lord of the Rings African story that I so want to be in -- so that'd be a great movie. Also, I want to produce some more stuff for TV and film. I would like to do a U.S. version of Handle With Care. I've also got a show about Black history in the UK that I would love to sell the format to the U.S. I think it will be a great show to have on U.S. TV during Black History month in February. But I want to say thank you so much to BET, you guys have been supportive for some time.

Watch Bel-Air and Handle With Care on Peacock.

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