For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
Coco Jones has a knack for portraying powerful Black women on-screen. Case in point: her role as Hilary Banks on Bel-Air, Peacock’s dramatic reinterpretation of the hit ’90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. While in the original series Hilary might have been deemed ditzy or aloof, Jones’s version of the affluent 20-something is particularly focused and career-driven—much like Scandal’s Olivia Pope.
You don’t have to squint to see the connection between Jones’s Banks, Pope, and Jones herself. The now 24-year-old, who got her start on the Disney Channel, grew up admiring Pope on-screen and identifying with the fixer’s attention to detail and ability to get things done. She also recognized the broader impact of the show, which was created by Shonda Rhimes and ran for seven seasons. “To have such a successful series like Scandal depict Olivia as this beautiful, desired, very passionate, and very professional Black woman: It opened a lot of doors for others,” she says, adding, “Olivia also reminds me of me! She’s very type A, and she’s a perfectionist.” Here, the actor and singer talks about the importance of transparency, the original Fresh Prince, and the colorism and anti-Blackness that’s peppered her path to fame.
Are there any specific lessons that you learned from watching Olivia Pope on Scandal?
Kerry Washington’s ability to be vulnerable and strong. She has this balance about her where she’s showing her emotions, but you still know that she’s done the job. She can handle everything that’s being thrown at her, and that motivates me.
You’re known for acting, but you were a musician first. How does one career path influence the other?
Because I’m an actor, I can really tap into the emotions necessary to portray anything. If it’s a song where I feel like I’ve had a pretty good day, but I need to recut the song and it’s sad as hell, I can just tap in. You have to find a way to make it believable.
Your 2018 song “Just My Luck” is a clapback to the entertainment industry. Were you afraid of the response when you released it?
I wasn’t afraid of the response. Honestly, I didn’t know what the response would be, but it felt like a weight off my chest to get to express how the industry has made me feel. But emotions are temporary. How I currently feel is different. Those songs are like journal entries I can look back on to help tell my story.
In your What Really Happened video, you spoke out against colorism and anti-Blackness in the industry. Why was it important for you to address that in your work?
I had never been transparent with my audience. I was always taught to say what’s politically correct. So when I saw the tweet that inspired the video, I felt obligated to tell my truth, because people just didn’t know. And I wanted them to know from me.
That was my first time being really vulnerable. What I’m most happy about is that I feel like I let down that wall between me and my audience, and I can literally be whoever I want to be. And that I’ll be accepted, because it’s honest.
You’ve come so far from your Disney days; is there anything you would tell your younger self?
Put your energy on positive things instead of comparing, because I’m telling you, everything is going to work out.
Did you watch the original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air growing up?
Of course. It’s a classic! I watched it with my family, and everyone had a character they gravitated toward.
Was Hilary the character whom you gravitated toward?
I did like Hilary’s outfits. I liked her confidence. But I think I liked Will more, because I’m really goofy, and I liked how goofy he was.
How do you think the reboot is different from the original?
Pretty much in all ways. It’s similar in storyline, the themes of family and love, but that’s about it. Bel-Air shows what would happen if we got into the diaries of each of these characters, not just the funny, surface-level stories, but diving deeper into what it would really look like to be them—the good and the bad.
In Bel-Air, we see Hilary struggle with determining whether she has to be sexy to be successful. Has this ever been a pressure you’ve felt in your life in either Hollywood or the music industry?
There’s always pressure to be like other women. That’s why it’s really important to know yourself and know what feels authentic for you. Because at the end of the day, I can do whatever I want to do. But is it me? Or is it what I’m being told? I’m grateful that I had my experiences as a child actor, because I know what it feels like to not be authentic. And I want to chase the feeling of only being authentic.
In what other ways are you and Hilary alike?
We are headstrong in our goals. We know exactly what we want out of life.
When you were preparing for the role of Hilary, were you looking at the original Hilary as a blueprint?
The main thing I wanted to keep the same was the confidence, but I wanted her to be a bit more like me. [That meant] more relatable and more transparent, because not everything is all perfect and pretty in life.
What are you most looking forward to in the next season of Bel-Air?
I want to see more of Hilary being in love, and I want to see her be successful. I think she’s on the journey, but I want to see her make it.
Hair by Kira Dior and makeup by Ken Alexis.