January 3, 2017 Interview – Karyn Parsons
The will to see one’s dreams through can become an unstoppable force filled with inspiration and hope. Taking a chance, Karyn Parsons dove into the world of acting while only a teenager, and, by the age of twenty-four, was on her way to becoming a star on the hit sitcom series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. A show that aired for six seasons, Parsons’ portrayal of the spoiled, rich kid Hilary Banks became an endearing one to fans of all ages. Syndicated for over two decades now, bringing laughter to new and old fans, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is still as relevant as ever.
Gracious of the series’ success, Parsons’ talents do not begin and end there, going on to star in popular feature films such as 1992’s Class Act, 1995’s Major Payne, and 2000’s Ladies Man. Recently we caught up with the energetic and passionate actress to talk her career in the Arts, the fun on the set of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, her non-profit organization, Sweet Blackberry, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in acting professionally in television and film since you were a young age. Tell us, what first inspired you to get involved in the industry?
Karyn Parsons – I actually was one of those kids that wanted to act since I was about 6 years old and it never went away. I said it, I meant it, and then I said it again a year and another year. I did little plays and things and then I came across a workshop. It was an ad for an acting workshop out of where I danced and I went to that. I was only 13 at the time, but it was a real acting class, learning Stanislavski and Uta Hagen. The teacher, at first, wasn’t so sure she was going to let my friend and I in the class because we were so young, but she eventually let us, and I became addicted to it. That’s when I started getting serious about it. Then I would end up meeting through her class many years later, my agent, the agent I was with when I got The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
CrypticRock.com – That is pretty cool. Kids have this kind of a sense, they know what they want to do without any training, it is inherited. You are born with it.
Karyn Parsons – I was fortunate. I have kids now, they are not the same, they have things they are very passionate about, but they don’t have that same “I know what I want to be when I grow up.” For them it changes every few years, or every year, mine just never did. I was one of those that I knew what I wanted to do, I never wanted a back up, and that was that.
CrypticRock.com – It is different for everyone. You did get your start in television nearly three decades ago and went on to appear in many series, including of course your regular role as Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. How would you compare working in television opposed to film?
Karyn Parsons – The television that I did on Fresh Prince was a live audience, it was sitcom, and it was taped in front of a live studio audience. That’s quite different. You can do it again, and when you do film you can do it again as well, but in television, you have to hold for audience laughter. It’s a Comedy, so it’s going to be different from a Drama. For instance, I did Major Payne (1995) with Damon Wayans, Damon is a Standup, he’s very funny, but he also likes to try and do stuff without warning you.
We had moments like that on Fresh Prince where we weren’t warned and Will would change lines. He and the writers would come up with something else and they would try something. When that happened you would try and keep a straight face, if you did break you could go back and do it again. You really have to try when you are a feature, and there is no audience there, and you have to keep the reality going. You can’t wait for the audience to laugh, there’s not going to be anyone laughing. You have to really hold it together and keep on with the scene, you don’t have that break. There’s things like that in terms of timing and that affects the whole reality of it, it becomes a different kind of suspended reality. Then Drama is a whole different thing, whether it is in film or television. I like both film and television, they are such different animals to me.
CrypticRock.com – On one hand, you have that you can feed off the audience and you have that instant feedback, whereas in films you do not.
Karyn Parsons – Film is definitely more intimate, even if it’s Comedy; there’s much more of an intimacy. The camera is right in there on your faces, it’s with you, the set is smaller than having 200 plus people watching in a stage kind of theater event. It is very much like a play when you do a televised event.
CrypticRock.com – Speaking of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it was a massively popular series in the 1990s, lasting for six seasons. How did the role come about for you and what was this experience like for you?
Karyn Parsons – It was life -changing, let’s start with that. It didn’t feel like it was at the time though. I met incredible people and I was having such a good time, I had never done such a big job before in my life. For me, it was just so much fun. I didn’t know that years later, because it didn’t happen while we were doing it, it was not a big deal while we were doing the show. It wasn’t until afterwards, when we went into syndication is when so many people started to see the show. People started to recognize me, it just changed things.
The experience itself was really good, very positive, people loved the show. It actually touched a lot of people and affected a lot of people’s lives, when you are doing it you don’t have perception of that. You are doing it in front of the audience and it feels like that 200 people and your crew as well as cast are the only people that are seeing it, it doesn’t feel like millions of people are seeing it at all. I still can’t always get my head wrapped around that (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – It is very great that it has been so popular for so long now, like you said, it took off after syndication. Your character, the role of Hilary Banks, was a very unique one. She was a somewhat snobby rich kid, but at the core, you knew she had a good heart. What was it like for you to bring her character to life?
Karyn Parsons – It was so silly, it was so fun to be bad. To say the things you are not supposed to say. She didn’t mean anything by it, that was just her reality, she was a spoiled kid, she was a first child. Her parents had a lot of money and her dad had spoiled her rotten, he was sorry for it, but it was too late. It was fun to play that kind of innocent brat cause it really was innocent, she didn’t mean to be that way. I had a lot of people that hated her, but I was very surprised by how many people actually liked her. I didn’t expect that, I thought everyone was just going to hate her across the board, but it was fun to play.
CrypticRock.com – Every character had their own unique qualities to them, Carlton obviously, Will, what was the chemistry like on set?
Karyn Parsons – It was great from day one, from the beginning, we liked each other immediately and took to each other immediately. We just had fun, people came out and hung out on our set all the time that had no business being there, they just wanted to be there cause it was fun to hang around. All the time, people used to say to us, “You guys don’t know what you have here.” We didn’t, really, until it was over and you go on to other jobs, and you think, “I’m never going to get it like that again.”
We were like family, the first week that we worked together we hit it off. They are really talented people and very much liked playing ball, everybody was like tossing it and catching it and rolling with each other. We were a well-oiled machine, it got to where we knew each other so well and that kind of chemistry where you are working together, it’s so much fun. That’s where the comedy starts to come, I know Carlton and I know Alfonso, you can feel the rhythm and that stuff makes it really fun.
CrypticRock.com – One can imagine, you develop a family-like vibe together.
Karyn Parsons – We were, and I’ve said this before, it’s as if we played house for 6 years and you start to believe that. When you are there for 6 years pretending that you are my dad, it’s kind of hard not to feel like you are my dad and we really genuinely like each other as people and spend time outside together. Also, you are bonding because you are going through something that is changing all of our lives.
CrypticRock.com – Beyond The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, you have had many roles in film as well, often portraying a different type of character than that of Hilary Banks. As an actor, is it difficult to get the audience to break away from the type of character they associate you with in order to play another type?
Karyn Parsons – I definitely got typecast and I’ve had doors kept shut; they would not let me in for parts. That’s happened, it’s a drag. I can’t complain too much because I think I’ve had more doors open because of Fresh Prince than doors closed. Although, I’ve have had that happen where I wanted to see someone for a part that I knew I could do and they just said, “No, we know what she does and what she is like.” (laughs) They thought I was like Hilary.
It’s funny there’s a film I had an opportunity to do, they wanted me to audition for it. I didn’t audition for it, they had me doing a very different character from Hilary. I forgot the reasons now why it didn’t end up working out, but that was one of those situations that I always think back, if I had done that people would have had a much better sense that I’m not just like Hilary. The more opportunities you have to show people the contrast, then people are willing. The popularity of the show and definitely the popularity of the character overshadowed anything else that I did. I’m alright with it though.
CrypticRock.com – That happens a lot with many actresses and actors. Seeing you had a very active career in acting starting at thirteen years of age, in recent years, you have stepped away from it. Can fans expect you in any new roles in the near future?
Karyn Parsons – No, I haven’t acted in eons, 10 years or longer. I did a short film this past summer, it was the first thing I did in forever. I had not acted since before my daughter was born, my daughter is 13 now. I don’t think I did anything except for some silly, short things with people. I did a good, short film this past summer and that was just because the project came along, they offered it to me. I read it and it was so good that I thought, “Oh I can squeeze this in.”
It’s hard, I have a non-profit organization and I have 2 kids. I thought, “I could just try and get back into doing it here and there,” but it takes a lot more commitment. I tried that, it was hard to drop everything for the audition. You have to get a sitter and go across town to get to the audition, you have to memorize your stuff, you have to get the right clothes to wear to it, then you got to go back and do it all again. It’s like last minute drop everything. As my kids get older and more independent, we will see, maybe I’ll see if it can work out again.
CrypticRock.com – That will be exciting and family responbilties are very important of course. Can you tell us a little bit about your non-profit organization?
Karyn Parsons – It’s called Sweet Blackberry, it’s sweetblackberry.org. The mission of Sweet Blackberry is to bring little known stories of African American achievements to kids. In schools, we hear about a handful of stories about black people in history really, they are great stories, but there are so many more stories out there that are mind-blowing. They just haven’t made it to the textbooks and risk being lost. They are stories that are really inspiring for children. It can really empower them and teach them how great obstacles are actually opportunities for greatness, that’s their purpose.
They are lightly animated short films. Alfre Woodard has narrated one, Queen Latifah has narrated one, and Chris Rock narrated our last one. They are available on Netflix for streaming right now. I am trying to get them into schools. I go and I visit schools and I screen them for the kids and talk to the kids. I love it and it’s my favorite thing to do. If you are interested in having me come show them to the kids and having me talk to them, contact us at sweetblackberry.org. It’s really fulfilling for me and the kids get a lot out of it.
CrypticRock.com – That is a wonderful program. It sounds very educational and very inspiring.
Karyn Parsons – It is! My mom was a librarian and she headed the black resource center at her library. She came across the story of Henry Box Brown, he was an enslaved man who literally mailed himself to freedom in a box. He had a box created, had somebody put postage on it, nail it shut and sent him across state lines. When he crossed state lines where there wasn’t slavery, and they opened it, he was free. That was a true story and that was the impetus for all of it. When I heard that story I was so blown away. I told my friends and nobody heard of his story. I thought, “This is crazy, it’s such a great story for kids.”
CrypticRock.com – That is an amazing storying about the human spirit and the will to fight.
Karyn Parsons – Yes! Also determination and what you can achieve. Once I started researching and finding more stories of people who overcame incredible odds through their determination and spirit; they did things they couldn’t imagine, but because of having so much to overcome, they actually went on to do such great things. I think that that is a really important lesson for children. Not just the history lesson, but that lesson of what you are capable of. If something is in front of you and it’s blocking you, you can figure out a way to get under it, around it, over it. Don’t just say you can’t do it, don’t give up.
There are ways to know your power. The people that I tell these stories about, they have such undying power, and that’s just human. Unfortunately, because of the history in this country, slavery, Jim Crow, and oppression of black people, we are going to find so many stories of people that have been overcome. These are people that had everything against them, yet triumphed. There are so many people with triumphant stories and they are American stories, they are for all of us. They are not just American stories, they are for everyone to learn from, human stories, as you said, human spirit.
CrypticRock.com – My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror films. If you are a fan of Horror films, what are some of your favorite Horror films?
Karyn Parsons – I was watching American Horror Story for all except this last season. That’s because my husband doesn’t watch them, so I had to sneak (laughs). I was particularly a fan when Jessica Lange was on the show; it was so fun and so good. In terms of Horror, we watched some Horror, we just started watching The Walking Dead finally.
CrypticRock.com – The Walking Dead is a great series with a lot of story development. You are starting from Season 1 when watching then?
Karyn Parson – We did, but we skipped up, we raced through then we skipped a couple. We got inpatient, there were some actors we knew were coming up that we wanted to see (laughs). We are on Season 5. It’s so gross. We spend more than half the show covering our faces and waiting for the gore to go.
CrypticRock.com – It is amazing what they can get away with on regular cable television.
Karyn Parsons – I heard them on the radio a couple of times, before I saw the show, talking about the gross factor and what they can get away with and can’t get away with. As far as Science-Fiction, I love the Star Wars films. Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out in 2015, I was begging to see it and I could not get anyone in my family to go see it with me. I went out of town and what do they see while I was gone? Star Wars: The Force Awakens, without me!
For more on Karyn Parsons: Twitter
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