Famously known for playing Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Karyn Parsons returns to acting in Sweet Thing, a tenderly dark but poetic picture that follows the misadventures of a pair of siblings looking for childhood sanctuary amid familial turmoil and dysfunctionality.
Ahead of its proposed 2020 release, Sweet Thing – now in the editing phase – is both a family affair and labor of love. Not only is it directed by Parsons’ husband, critically acclaimed indie filmmaker Alexandre Rockwell, it also stars the Rockwell's kids, Lana and Nico, as Parsons’ on-screen children.
“I play such a terrible character… I’m like the mom from hell,” says Parsons, who is holding court inside BET’s headquarters when she nearly winces in distaste. “I’m unrecognizable.”
While Sweet Thing is halfway to the finish line, Rockwell and Parsons take the grassroots route to secure financial backing for the remainder of the film’s production. A newly launched Kickstarter campaign aims to do just that.
“It’s coming along pretty quickly,” Parsons assures us. “The editing is happening right now, but there will be post production and music that needs to happen also.”
An actress turned first-time author, Karyn Parsons today is quite a far cry from the life and times of her fictional character, Hilary Banks. Focusing on issues of identity and the untold stories of African-American achievement, Parsons recently published How High the Moon, a debut young adult novel that centers around a light-skinned Black girl coming of age in the Jim Crow South.
“My mother grew up in the 1940s in the South, and she always talks about her childhood in such favorable terms,” explains Parsons. “After a while I was like, ‘Wait a minute, how was this so happy?’ I wanted to ask more questions, dig a little deeper."
Her Sweet Blackberry Foundation, a non-profit organization established to tell little-known stories concerning Black achievements, serves as an extension of Parsons’ developing curiosity around identity and history.
In an exclusive Q&A, BET catches up with our favorite on-screen Valley girl. We talk growing up in Southern California pre-internet era, a Fresh Prince reboot, rewriting history and much more.
To be a part of Sweet Thing, make a donation to Kickstarter today. Patrons are automatically entered to reap tons of awards, including a potential dinner with the Rockwells. See more details, here.
BET: You’ve been quite removed from acting for years now. What have you been up to exactly?
Karyn Parsons: I’ve really just been working on Sweet Blackberry.
BET: What’s Sweet Blackberry?
Karyn Parsons: It’s a non-profit organization, and the mission is to bring little-known stories of African-American achievement to kids. I do that at this point right now, through short animated films.
BET: Who writes the scripts?
Karyn Parsons: I write the scripts. They’re like picture books come to life. They have a single narrator, and they tell stories of people from Black history – which is American history – that you don’t hear about.
BET: What inspired this organization?
Karyn Parsons: The story about the slave who mailed himself to freedom, which my mother told me about, was basically the impetus for this whole thing.
BET: Why appeal to kids?
Karyn Parsons: Doing this because I couldn’t relate to the history I was being taught growing up. I didn’t see myself in the histories that were taught in school. I couldn’t relate. So the whole idea of Sweet Blackberry is to get these untold stories about African-American achievement to children, to inspire and empower them.
BET: What was it like growing up in your household?
Karyn Parsons: It was kinda funky. [Laughs] I grew up not that far from the beach when it was a funky, hippie place.
So funny, I used to always say when I buy property I’m going to buy in Santa Monica. I was going to buy back where I live and, you know, I was so excited. By the time I was on Fresh Prince, I couldn’t touch Santa Monica property! It was so expensive! Very different from the Santa Monica I grew up in; it was really rough around edges, and it was just very different.
Karyn Parsons: We weren’t poor, but we didn’t really have a lot of money, that’s for sure. We moved around a lot, but when it was just me and my mom, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. And even when my dad was around, he wasn’t around so much. I was an only child. So it was a lot of me and my mom, the librarian, hanging out at the little libraries around town.
BET: Are you anything like your Hilary Banks character?
Karyn Parsons: No way. [Laughs] I mean I have the Southern California voice and affectation, I guess. But there were a lot of students from Malibu that came to my school. A lot of them were rich kids blending in with us. That’s where I got the Hilary character. From my idea of who some of these kids were.
BET: Do you miss Hilary Banks?
Karyn Parsons: I think at some point, yeah, but not anymore. No, because, I’ve tried to do a Hilary line when someone asks me and I immediately think, “Oh shit, I don’t know where she went.” [Laughs]
BET: What do you miss about working on Fresh Prince?
Karyn Parsons: I looked forward to going to work every day, looked forward to seeing the people that I worked with every day, for six years. I never had a day that I wasn’t looking forward to seeing them. It’s crazy.
Because what you all see is the plots and characters. But there’s a lot of down time, and it was great, because in that downtime we were able to exchange and have interesting conversations — we were spending time together. I loved these people. We were playing house, you know? I grew with them over the years. I was an only child, and suddenly I had a sister and a brother and my cousin Will. I had all these people around me now.
Not to snub my father, either, but James Avery was a whole different kind of dad. And he was very much like a dad to me. It was just a really wonderful and full experience in a lot of ways for me.
BET: Are you interested in a reunion?
Karyn Parsons: I’m not interested in a reboot. Not without Uncle Phil. Impossible. No way.
BET: You recently returned to acting. You play quite a dark role in Sweet Thing. Tell us a little bit about that…
Karyn Parsons: I play such a terrible character. I play a mom, but I’m like the mom from hell. I was looking back at some of the edits from my husband [Alexandre Rockwell] and saw myself and thought, “Oh shoot.” [Laughs] Did I really? Yikes.
BET: That different, huh?
Karyn Parsons: I’m unrecognizable, I mean, even physically. I don’t look like me.
BET: You kids are also involved?
Karyn Parsons: My kids play my kids. It’s been a good experience. It’s about these kids who have an dysfunctional and alcoholic father, played by Will Patton — he’s amazing. He loves his kids, but he is in no shape… he’s grappling with his alcoholism and his sadness.
The kids end up having to stay with their mother for the summer, and it’s a bad place. Her new boyfriend is not a great guy. It’s a bad situation. But the kids end up meeting this other kid and they kind of begin to explore this new adventure together that they needed. They have a hard life. It’s a beautiful story. It’s really poetic, to be honest.
BET: When can we expect a formal premiere?
Karyn Parsons: It’s coming along pretty quickly.The editing is happening right now, but there will be post production and music that needs to happen also. Hopefully the film is ready for release by 2020.
(Photo: Evans Alexandre, for BET)