‘Bel-Air’ Star Olly Sholotan Tells Us About Playing A New Kind Of Carlton Banks

The very idea of a super-serious Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air remake turned ’90s kids (myself included) apoplectic. Here was this perfect timeless thing led by one of the most magnetic megastars of the last 30 years. Unimproveable! But timelessness is in the eye of the beholder and rarely applicable when the burden falls on a new generation to find a connection with something made for a different time, with a different aim. In short, Bel-Air (which streams new eps every Thursday on Peacock) isn’t exclusively for those fans, but if you can fight off nostalgia-powered preciousness and give this a chance, you might find some familiar notes and a story about fitting in that has the potential to connect.

For actor Olly Sholotan, the role of Carlton is a huge opportunity to introduce his skillset to a larger audience. The cost of that is that he’s been tasked with the most challenging role in this whole endeavor, taking the preppy, Tom Jones-loving Carlton that’s frozen in amber for some people and bringing him into a new more aggressive pose where Carlton’s ambition and the weight of expectations on him have turned him fiercely territorial and ceaselessly intense. How’s he doing with that? Pretty well, as we discovered when talking about the challenges of taking on Carlton, being seen as a villain by new fans, and connecting with his own ambitions and self-imposed expectations.

What was your thought initially when you heard about this more serious Fresh Prince as far as if they could pull it off? Because I know there’s been a lot of doubt out there, and it’s been interesting to kind of see people get it and start to see.

Interestingly enough, I did kind of go through a similar thing because I remember when Morgan [Cooper] dropped his original trailer in 2019, I kept seeing, “oh, fan-made, Bel-Air trailer, but it’s gritty.” And I was, I don’t want to see that; that’s uninteresting to me. But then it kept coming up on my Twitter feed, time and time again. And I was, fine, I’ll watch this thing. And then, when I watched that proof of concept trailer, I was just hooked. You know what I mean? I watched it on repeat over and over again. So, I do understand why the initial instinct is, “Well, it was already great.” Because also, I feel like a lot of people don’t even know that it’s dramatic; they just assume we’re doing the same show, which, that would be a waste of time.

But also, even that being it’s dramatic, I don’t think a lot of people realize the brilliant mind that is behind us. And you see it in the first three episodes out the gate. Morgan Cooper is an absolute visionary. And I think only when you watch that, do you go, “Wait a second, I see what [they’re] doing. This is cool. I fucks with it.”

There are great moments here. It’s not all serious. But to me, the character that changes the most is your character. Would you say that that’s fair?

Oh, I would absolutely say that’s very accurate. I think that, yeah, Carlton is probably the most wildly, wildly different and that, yes, I remember when I got those initial audition sides. And they’re, “Oh, Carlton from Fresh Prince.” And in bold letters, for me, they said, “This is a different thing. Don’t try to do what Alfonso did.” And I was, okay, that’ll be kind of hard. And then I read the script, and I was, “I understand what you mean now.” It was part of the huge appeal to me because I am always a fan of, “respect the past and then build on its legacy; don’t try to imitate.” And so, so the idea of showing a different facet to this really interesting character just fascinated me. Because look, the fact of the matter is at the end of the day, I think part of why Carlton in the original Fresh Prince was so lovable was because we loved making fun of him.

He was the butt of every joke. It was, “Oh, ha ha ha.” You have this kid that, “Oh, he’s black, but he doesn’t really know how to be black.” But over the years, as we’ve had more and more conversations about race, I think we’ve yet to really address that phrase, “doesn’t know how to be black.” And what I love about the show is it really takes that sense of a loss of identity and throws it into today. And it asks the question, “What happens when a 16-year-old kid doesn’t feel like he belongs to his own community and how does that affect him? On top of dealing with mental health issues. On top of dealing with issues of how he sees himself and success and his father. And all of that really, really was fascinating to me about this version of Carlton.

Yeah. Seeing specifically the toll of the expectations of having to follow in his father’s footsteps and be the son, the firstborn son and the conflict there with Will; it’s just really brilliantly fleshed out. Can you talk a little bit about finding your way into that?

Well, I’m a son of immigrants; I’m a first-generation American. And something that’s been ever-so-present in the back of my brain is that my parents worked so, so hard to get me here. My father, to my knowledge, taught himself English. He sent himself through school. And it used to bother me a lot more as a kid. And as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized, no, I must forge my own path. But as a kid, there was definitely this deep understanding, I have to be better than him because I am a manifestation of my parents and my ancestors’ wildest dreams. And I think in a way, Carlton feels something similar in that he knows that his father has created this incredible life for them, and he enjoys that life, but he definitely puts a lot of pressure on himself, and his father does help out with that, to exceed his father’s expectations.

And again, I think that’s something this generation can identify with. This might be a bit of a non sequitur, but I think it’s very interesting talking to anyone today who’s between the ages of 13 and 17, or honestly 20, because there’s this sense of loss in a way. But not a grieving loss; just the sense of, I don’t even know how to do the things I want to do. Getting a job is really difficult. Getting a job that pays is really… Just the idea of success, that quote-unquote “American dream” sort of becomes less and less possible, in a way. And I think that Carlton’s a reflection of that; someone who’s working really, really hard to get somewhere big, but he doesn’t know how to.

And then also, throw Will into the mix. Because something that I think is so brilliantly done is that Carlton has struggled so much with his blackness and as a result, has tried so hard to, in a way, run away from it. And so, he sees his cousin come to Bel-Air and do the exact opposite of what he has worked so hard to do. And he succeeds with flying colors. And that’s infuriating. He’s a 16-year-old kid.

What do you want this show to do for you in your overall career? I know you’ve done work in music. What are you looking to get from this beyond just the work itself?

The sky’s the limit. I really love interdisciplinary work. I love work that pulls in all kinds of media, between traditional media, film/TV, to movies to newer media to music to art to live experiences. So, I think the goal, really, is to be happy and to create art for a living. Because I think I’ve learned time and time again that it’s very easy to get stuck in the, “Okay, and after this, I want to do a movie that’s between this budget and this budget. And then…” But this career path is so non-linear that my goal really is just to get the chance to keep creating and to keep sharing my art and work with the world, through as many mediums as possible.

You need to get Carlton to this place of chill, with regard to his ambition.

[Laughs] Here’s the thing: it’s taken me a minute to get here. I remember oh God, my poor mother. I would run downstairs in tears, and she’s, “What’s up?” And I’d be, “I just watched this amazing movie, and I wasn’t even in it.” And she’s, “What movie are you talking about?” And I’m talking about Inception. There was no role for me. I didn’t even audition for it. But it’s taken a lot of growth to get to this point where… There was a point in my life, it was in college, it wasn’t that long ago, where I couldn’t watch a good movie without feeling terrible for the next few days because I was, “I’m running out of time. What am I doing? I’m going to grow old and die and never achieve my dreams.”

And that’s, I think, what makes me really proud of Carlton, especially just knowing where he goes by the end of the season. He’s become like a little brother to me. And I know right now, the world isn’t fucking with him too hard. I believe Carlton might be the most hated character on Black Twitter at the moment. And I totally understand it, but I only ask that people give him the chance to grow, because he really does do that.

How much attention do you pay to the public response?

It’s hard not to. I’m not going to pretend like, “Oh, I haven’t seen anything” because obviously, we made this thing in a bubble and it’s so exciting. I think part of the exciting part about a show being released is sharing it with the world and seeing what people catch onto, seeing what people love. But it’s a few things. A, I’m not sitting all day just, what are people saying? I catch it. Friends will send me funny tweets and all that. And also, the second thing is I think the greatest compliment for an actor is believability. And if people are saying that, “Oh, Carlton pisses me off,” I’m, all right, cool. I think I’m doing my job. And I’m proud of that.

New episodes of ‘Bel-Air’ drop Thursdays on Peacock