Talks Will Smith, “Bel-Air” & “Giving Hope” – Smashing Interviews Magazine

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Talks Will Smith, “Bel-Air” & “Giving Hope” – Smashing Interviews Magazine

Born on January 24, 1979, Tatyana Ali is best known for her role as Ashley Banks on the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996). She played a recurring role as Roxanne on the CBS daytime drama The Young and the Restless and starred in the sitcom Love That Girl! for three seasons. She appeared as Mrs. Hughes in season two of the drama series Bel-Air, which is a reimagined version of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Ali is married to Dr. Vaughn Rasberry, and the couple has two sons. Beginning on April 9, 2023, she can be seen in the starring role of the Lifetime movie Giving Hope: The Ni’Cola Mitchell Story, which is based on a true story. Mitchell was the victim of unspeakable sexual violence and grew up to be a bestselling author and inspirational speaker. She founded the nonprofit Girls Who Brunch, the purpose of which is to cultivate, inspire and empower at-risk girls between the ages of 9-17 years old.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Let’s talk about Giving Hope: The Ni’Cola Mitchell Story, which is a true story. Why did you decide to become involved in the project?

Tatyana Ali: I read the script, and I was so moved by Dr. Ni’Cola Mitchell’s story. I was moved by the script and emotionally moved. I had to put it down a few times, take a moment and then come back to it. I have a personal connection to mentorship. I’ve been involved in mentorship organizations for most of my life. I’ve been a mentor myself. I’ve been a mentee myself. The way she turned trauma into power is very courageous in that she tells her story and has used her influence the way she has to affect girls all across the country. Also, I was just stunned by the fact that she’s in her 40’s doing the work right now that we could honor her and celebrate her work now while she’s here. After I read the script, I just wanted to meet her. After I met her, I just hoped I’d do it justice.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: When you met Ni’Cola, were you looking for mannerisms or the way she spoke?

Tatyana Ali: Yes. I wanted to know what she wanted out of this story and obviously wanted her blessing. When Barbara Fisher brought me to her and the project, I needed Ni’Cola’s blessing (laughs). I wanted to connect with her just on a personal level, and then beyond that, yeah, getting to know her as an individual. She has some qualities that I’ve seen in other women that I really admire that do incredible work, very powerful work like this.

It’s so powerful and so loving at the same time. There’s just this sort of slow, very direct focused way that she talks and moves in the world. I just find that so fascinating, especially in a world where you think of powerful people who are really changing things. You think they have all these male attributes, but there’s something unique about her and the way that she does what she does, that I wanted to portray.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is it more difficult for you, as an actor, to portray a real person as opposed to a fictional character?

Tatyana Ali: Some of the process is similar, but the weight of the responsibilities is different. It’s not all from the writer and my imagination. It really is wanting to get her story right, you know? Get it right. In that way, there’s a different level of expectation that I put on myself, for sure.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Ni’Cola has survived some horrible traumas in her life. What do you think kept her going in order to help others?

Tatyana Ali: In my opinion, she’s a storyteller that evolved into telling her own story. There’s incredible healing power in that. I also think that the love that she pours onto the girls and women that she mentors is part of her healing. I think that’s how she heals because there is reopened trauma by telling her story. But that connection that she has with the girls in her group lasts throughout their lives for years, some who are mothers themselves now and adult women. She keeps those relationships, and I think that is her healing.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What women do you have in your life that inspire and encourage you to keep persisting and persevering in your advocacy?

Tatyana Ali: I’m very lucky to have many women in my life who inspire me, starting with my mother and grandmother who passed last year. Just incredible women, so strong and so much wisdom. I also find great strength in my peers, my sisters, my friends. I love the company of women (laughs). I think we find strength in each other.

My advocacy work just comes out of trauma I have experienced, which was also kind of a connected tissue for me in this story. Even though it’s scary and painful, it can turn trauma into power. You realize, “I’m not the only one.” You open up conversations, and you realize, “Oh, my gosh, I’m telling my story, and this allows somebody to tell theirs to me.” There’s this process of telling the truth, letting blame lie where it needs to lie. We tend to blame ourselves when we don’t let it out. That’s been my experience, and that was definitely what drew me to the story and made me think that maybe I had something to give to it.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: The non-profit Girls Who Brunch Tour that Ni’Cola founded is still going strong today.

Tatyana Ali: Yes, it is! When we did those scenes, we were actually reenacting the brunch events that Ni’Cola put together, that she puts together all over the country. The young girls and young women that they brought in were extras and actresses, but it felt like the real event because of the sets and all of the beautiful production design and all of the craftsmanship that went into creating the event. But it’s like we knew we were there to celebrate them, and it was just incredible what that does.

So it’s not just about sharing trauma. It’s also about celebrating you because of your existence, and that alone is reason enough to celebrate and to lavish love. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tatyana, when you were six years old, whose idea was it for you to start an acting career and appear on Sesame Street?

Tatyana Ali: (laughs) The way the story goes, I was a very precocious child. I grew up in Long Island. We had chain link fences in between the backyards, and I’d be the kid at the fence. The neighbor would be like, “Keep this child away from me!” I’d say, “I just saw this movie. I have this story to tell!” I have kids of my own and have a taste of what that’s like (laughs). I’d be telling stories and constantly performing. Then, I kind of got discovered in a mall. On a whim, we went to the auditions and got it. It just kept happening. It’s interesting because my parents were reticent, and I think they were all throughout my career, even after I went to college. I graduated, and my Dad’s like, “Okay. Great. You went to Harvard. Are you going to go to law school?” I’m like, “No, Dad. I do something. I have a craft. I have a vocation.” (laughs)

Smashing Interviews Magazine: So Dad was saying, “No. I want you to make some money.” (laughs)

Tatyana Ali: (laughs) Right. So it’s something that just had its own flow, I think.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you remember your time on Sesame Street?

Tatyana Ali: Oh, yes. I remember a lot of it. It was very much like preschool on steroids. The kids were backstage, but the backstage area was like a preschool, and as they were filming, they’d come in and say, “Okay. Who wants to do the read-along with Big Bird?” Yes, I talked a lot, but I was pretty well behaved and a listener. So because of that, I was always one of the kids that got to do a piece with Sid Caesar and Carly Simon. I got to do some really special things, and I remember all of those moments. I remember being there and the experience of it.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sounds like great memories, for sure. Did you have any struggles in your early career?

Tatyana Ali: Not early early. It was fun. It was just fun. My parents weren’t really stage parents, and my sisters aren’t actors. They might’ve tried it, but they also tried other things that they loved or ended up loving more. But because of that, there wasn’t that pressure, and so it really was fun. I didn’t really have hard times in my career until after I graduated from college.

When I came back as a young woman, there were some things industry-wise that happened that were hurtful. It was something I understood when I would read scripts or rehearse. It came from a place of confidence. Being in this industry is hard, and I think what happened is that my confidence got chipped away. I felt like I couldn’t stand straight and make the kind of decisions you have to make in performance.

I really struggled through that and kept working and working and auditioning and auditioning, and something happened when working on my toolbox, my access to the things I need to do what I love. Yes, you struggle through that, but I think that’s also sort of like the luxury of being able to do something that you love for so long. You go through these in the flow, out of the flow periods. I’m glad to get on the other side of that though.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You ended up on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as Ashley Banks, so that was a good career move. What was it like to work with Will Smith back then?

Tatyana Ali: Oh, my gosh. He is a force. When we first started working on Fresh Prince, he would mouth the words. He would memorize the entire script and mouth the words that I was saying. It was because he was remembering when he had to speak. But even with that, he is one of the hardest working people that I’ve ever met. Beyond that, he just has a sort of natural thing. He has a thing. He has the “it” thing, an energy, a desire to connect, a passion and enthusiasm that’s always been there.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’re appearing on season two of the new Bel-Air series, playing the teacher of your former character. How is this show preserving the legacy of Fresh Prince?

Tatyana Ali: I think, in a couple of ways that I see pretty clearly. We were very lucky on Fresh Prince where we rehearsed, and as a cast with our director, we could try things and then audition them for the writers, and that’s unusual. But for some reason, that’s how it was. So there are relationship nuances and histories that were never really written on the page but were created during rehearsal. One example is that Philip and Geoffrey had this sort of relationship before the family, this friendship and this dynamic so that both of these men were in partnership taking care of this family. That was never written on the page. But it was true, and they’ve taken that and run with it. So in those ways, I see that clearly.

Then the other part is the Fresh Prince writers always spoke to what was happening. Sure, we would turn it into comedy, but we went there, and I think Bel-Air is going there. I loved that about Mrs. Hughes and that whole storyline. It’s what’s happening. It is what people are discussing and what people in different parts of the country are going through with book banning and all of this. I think those two are really core to what the show is.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will you be appearing on Bel-Air again?

Tatyana Ali: Not that I know of. I had an amazing experience though. It was really out of this world.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I watched you on The Young and the Restless a few years ago. That was your first soap experience?

Tatyana Ali: (laughs) Correct. Yes! When I just started, I ran into Vanessa Bell Calloway. I can’t remember what soap she was on. But I ran into her and she said, “I heard you’re on Y&R.” I said, “Yeah. I’m going to try the soap, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like.” She said, “Let me tell you something. That is the best training you will ever have. You’ve got to know what you’re doing, and you’ve got to do it. There’s no time for play!” She was so right. It was awesome.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You played Roxanne, the girlfriend of Devon Hamilton (Bryton James). What did you think about the actors you worked with?

Tatyana Ali: Bryton James, yes! We had a ball. Roxie would always come up for events, you know, like a concert or a party or something. That meant Bryton and I would have our moment, but then we’d have all day to just be in the back cracking up and just having so much fun! We had a lot in common, too, because he’s a child actor also. I just loved working with him and Christel as well. I had so much fun with them. And Kristoff, oh, my gosh, what a beautiful man.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Can’t believe it has been four years since Kristoff St. John passed away. It’s wonderful that Y&R has given him so many tributes to keep his legacy alive.

Tatyana Ali: Yes. Yes.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’re close to being married seven years! That’s still in the honeymoon phase. Is it not?

Tatyana Ali: You know what? I know it! Sometimes, we’ll look at each other and go, “Wow! We’re at that mark? Oh, cool!” He’s just awesome. He’s my best friend, and we have so much fun together.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: He’s an English professor?

Tatyana Ali: Yes. He’s an English professor at Stanford University, and he’s working on his second book now. His first book was Race and the Totalitarian Century. He’s won awards for that. He’s just a brilliant, incredibly kind man. He’s an incredible teacher also, and I think we have a lot of fun because he also has a whole thought world of things he wants to produce, speak about, learn about and contribute, and I give him that space to do that. I feel like with my work and my art, he gives me the space and the support to do that as well. It’s just really fun.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: With two hectic schedules, family time has to be scheduled?

Tatyana Ali: Oh, yeah. It is mostly. We’ll do a date night like, “Oh, is everybody asleep? Let’s go downstairs and watch our show.” Our youngest is three and a half, so we’re at that point where, “They’re asleep! They’re asleep!”

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you working on new music?

Tatyana Ali: Oh, music. You know, there are some things I’ve thought about working on. But they’re not at a big point yet where I should be talking about it. But music is always there. I would love to do a part, whether there’s a musical or singing involved. I would love that.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: How about a Broadway musical?

Tatyana Ali: I would love to go back to Broadway. Yes. Absolutely. There have been a few times where I’ve been doing other things like Black Girls Rock! They gave me a mic, so there you go! But, yeah. I love music. I love singing.

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