Olly Sholotan Talks ‘Bel-Air’ Season 2 and Carlton & Will’s Friendship
Feb 24, 2023
[Editor’s note: The following contains some spoilers for Season 2 of Bel-Air.]After the events of Season 1, the second season of the Peacock original series Bel-Air finds Will (Jabari Banks) rebuilding trust with the Banks family while pointing the spotlight at himself when it comes to wanting to shine on the basketball team. And with Will and Carlton (Olly Sholotan) on better terms, and someone new catching Will’s eye, he’s going to have to figure out what his priorities truly are.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Sholotan talked about Carlton’s journey, how he got over being terrified to take the role on, the challenge of winning over audiences, the evolution of Carlton and Will’s relationship, what it’s been like to share this experience with co-star Banks, the organized chaos of scenes with the Banks family, exploring anxiety, having Tatyana Ali guest this season, and what Will and Carlton teach each other in Season 2.
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Collider: Your character has already had such a journey of growth, after everything that Carlton did and went through with Season 1. What were you most excited about, when it came to what the possibilities could be for Season 2?
OLLY SHOLOTAN: I would say the thing that I was most excited for was just Carlton and Will getting along, and the audience watching Carlton and Will get along. It’s something that has been such a long time coming because it was such a staple of the original. I know when our show premiered, a lot of people were actually really put off by that because, in the original, Carlton and Will were best friends. But what I love about our show is that you get to see that happen in real time. With where they leave off at the end of Season 1, and where Season 2 picks up, they’re hand-in-hand, trying to take on Bel-Air together, and I think that’s gonna be really, really cool to watch, especially because I also love Jabari [Banks]. I love scenes with Jabari. Since every time I would show up to work last season and it was like, “All right, now you have to yell at each other,” it was good not to have to do that as much, this season.
Image via Peacock
I have to say, the change in their relationship from the original series was probably the only thing I didn’t like about this reimagining when it started, but I also trusted that it would go somewhere. I also love that, just when I thought it was at the point where I might be past being able to like Carlton, that dynamic really flipped.
SHOLOTAN: I’ve gotta hand it to the writers. You’re right, much more and it would have been like, “Carlton is irredeemable.” They really toed that line well, of having Carlton be unlikable, for lack of a better word, and yet still so loveable.
Did you know, from the beginning, that relationship would change, or was that something that evolved and you found out about it, as the season went on?
SHOLOTAN: What I think is so good about the show, as far as the writing goes, is that while I was never explicitly told, from the writing, I was immediately like, “Oh, I know what journey they have to go on.” Carlton and Will are presented as these two characters that seem completely diametrically opposed, but you see the similarities in them. They’re both so driven. They both feel like fish out of water. They’re both just looking for a place in the world. And they’re both just young Black men, trying to find a place in the world. And so, I guessed that they would probably find common ground, but I wasn’t really explicitly told that.
When the opportunity to do this show and play this character originally came your way, was there ever any hesitation on your part? The original Carlton, in the sitcom, was such a specific character, so did it ever concern you to take on this role, knowing that it would not be what people expected?
SHOLOTAN: Absolutely. I was terrified. When I first got the audition, I remember looking at it and being like, “A Fresh Prince reboot to play Carlton? I can’t do what Alfonso [Ribeiro] did.” I didn’t even put two and two together and realize that it was a dramatic reimagining. In hip-hop, when a rapper kills a beat, we say, “Don’t touch that beat anymore. They’ve rapped over it. They’ve done the thing. Don’t touch that beat.” Alfonso killed this role. There’s nothing I could have done to it. And then, when I saw that it was a dramatic retelling, I was like, “Wait a second, this is very interesting.” I remember for my audition, they had said, “This is not the ‘90s sitcom. Do not look at that for reference.” I don’t know if any other character had that, but I remember, for me specifically, the casting director, Vicky Thomas, was like, “This is not what you’re familiar with, so do something different.” And that freed me from the expectation of having to do what Alfonso did.
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How has it been for you and Jabari Banks to approach finding this dynamic together? In doing something like this, you very much have each other to go through it with, so what has that been like, as actors working with each other, but also as these characters?
SHOLOTAN: Jabari and I are both quite new to the industry. I suppose Jabari is slightly more new than I am, but we’re both quite new and quite young, so it’s been a complete whirlwind. There’s nothing more beautiful than having a co-worker that I can look at and say, “He’s my brother.” Throughout this process, we’ve really found this beautiful bond. When we have tough scenes to shoot with each other, we know that we can always lean on each other, or be like, “Oh, my God, I just can’t get the line.” On a set, there are so many things happening. The lighting guys are trying to figure out the lighting. The camera guy is doing his thing. You have to remember not to look in a certain direction on a specific line because the lights are here, and there are a million things happening. Having that bond and that ability to lean on each other throughout this whirlwind has been really beautiful, and that goes further than just on set. That’s also just in life. In so many ways, our lives have changed. I always say that, in the last year or year and a half, I feel like I’ve aged five years. Our lives have become a lot louder and a lot more hectic, but also a lot more exciting. And in each other, we’ve really found support in brotherhood and it’s been great.
And it’s not even just the two of you. It feels like this whole family is a pretty tight knit group. What’s it like to have the scenes when the whole family is together? Is that just organized chaos?
SHOLOTAN: Organized chaos is exactly the word I would use because, let me tell you, those scenes take forever to film. Logistically, they take forever because there’s six of us and you have to get coverage for every single person, but we’re also singing the entire time we’re talking. We all love each other too much, to be quite honest with you. We’ll finish 12-hour days together, and then go hang out. We’ve really found this bond with each other that I don’t think happens on a lot of shows. I’m really, really fortunate to have found it because, going through an experience like this, as crazy and hectic and exciting and fun as it is, I wouldn’t do it with any other people.
When you have that bond and you’re a newer actor, does that create a sense of safety that allows you to take risks with your performance, that you might not have been able to, if you had been worried that your scene partner wouldn’t be there to catch you?
SHOLOTAN: Oh, absolutely. And it goes even beyond just scene partners. It’s also the directors that we have, and our writing and producing team. They create such a safe environment, and it all starts with (executive producer) Morgan Cooper. He directed the pilot and, from the very first day, he was like, “Make wild choices. Go for it. Make this your own. Feel the freedom to do that because we always have another take. Make that crazy choice and, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We’ll do it again.” That’s the type of creative environment that we’ve fostered on our set, and I think it’s what led to the show being so good.
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What has most surprised you about finding and working within this family dynamic? Is there anything that you didn’t realize, until you were all on set together?
SHOLOTAN: What most surprised me? Surprise isn’t the right word, but there’s something uncertain about dreams. My biggest fear has always been, what if I get everything I’ve ever wanted and it’s not enough, or I never actually wanted it? For as long as I can remember, I wanted to create art for a living. That has been the only dream that I’ve ever had. And I know there was definitely a small voice in the back of my head that was like, what if I do this and I hate it? What if I’m on a TV show and being on set is just too exhausting and too long? But I found that the act of creating really drives me so much, and it feeds so much of my soul, that there’s nothing else I’d rather do. The minute we wrap, I go back to my studio for 10 to 12 hours. I just love the art of creating. So, it’s less being surprised, and more of a happy realization.
Geoffrey is such an important character to the Banks family. What was it like to lose him for a few episodes last season when things were so strained, and what was it like to have him back in the Banks home for Season 2?
SHOLOTAN: He allows for so much comedy, yet at the same time, he’s this really deep, dark, foreboding presence. There was this one episode, I wanna say it’s episode four of Season 1, where we’re all figuring out campaigning stuff and Will’s like, “Yo, Geoffrey, what are you doing?” And Geoffrey’s just like, “Stuff.” I don’t remember if it made the final cut or not, but Jabari had the funniest reaction. I was like, “Is everyone else just gonna let him be as sketchy as hell?” What I love about our version of the show is that it’s so important that Geoffrey feels like part of the family. He isn’t just our butler. He raised the Banks kids. In Season 2, you really see Geoffrey’s relationship with the individual kids, and how that relates to his relationship with Will. He was part of our upbringing, so him not being in the house for a few episodes was definitely like a hole was there that we were missing.
I really appreciate that this show addresses issues head-on. When it comes to Carlton, a big issue for him is his anxiety, and how he deals with it or doesn’t deal with it. How has that been to incorporate into who Carlton is, and to explore that in such a real and authentic way?
SHOLOTAN: I always say that, with my work, I wanna say something that matters and that’s real. This character is dealing with issues that kids are dealing with, on a daily basis. We’re in the worst mental health crisis, ever, and there are so many pressures that are both societal and having to do with social media. There are so many things happening in the minds of kids that make it hard to be young in America, these days. And so, playing a character that gets to speak to that is really important to me. If one person can watch the show and feel seen and validated then I will have done my job. From fan interactions, whether they’re through social media or just in person on the street, I think that the show is doing that. For me, it’s probably the biggest achievement in my career, so far.
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What has most helped you to find that and make it as authentic as possible? Is there an ongoing conversation about how and when to work that into Carlton’s life, so that it is always there, in some way?
SHOLOTAN: That’s the thing, the struggle with mental health is not a straight and narrow path, and that is something that me and the writers talk about a lot. Back in the day, there was this idea that you could cure mental health. It’s like, “Oh, you have anxiety? Well, guess what? You don’t have anxiety anymore.” In reality, it’s more about learning to cope with the anxiety, and learning to deal with it, and figuring out how to live a life with it. That’s a conversation we’re always having, about how to do this as authentically as possible. The scary thing is that we all, to a certain extent, have experiences with it, whether we wanna admit it or not. Previous generations were really apprehensive to admit it, but that doesn’t mean we don’t all have experiences with it. And so, to make it authentic, it’s not that many steps removed. We just have to dig a little deeper into ourselves and we find it. It’s a very vulnerable and brave experience. My friends ask, “How’s the show going?” And I’m always like, “Carlton is kicking my ass.” He really does. I have to go in there and find that stuff and bring it out, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it.
Obviously, you’re acting, but physically, your body doesn’t necessarily know that you’re just pretending for a scene.
SHOLOTAN: My body has no idea. My body is in crisis mode, all the time. There was this scene that we filmed [for Season 2] that was the world’s longest scene. I can’t say too much about it, but it was utterly bonkers and insane. It was for episode eight. And I remember that I just needed to nap for three days after because my body has no idea, and physiologically I’m in that place. I’ve found ways to decompress it and deal with it, in a way that’s sustainable.
While Carlton’s life is in upheaval, it’s hard for him to really get a handle on things, whether it’s family, school, romantic relationships, or all of those things at once. He obviously has trouble dealing with the expectations that everyone puts on him, in a healthy way. What do you think Carlton needs, in order to get to a healthier place for himself? Do you think he can get a handle on that? Will things get worse before they get better?
SHOLOTAN: It’s a self-love and self-acceptance thing. You can’t really fix mental health, in the traditional sense of the word fix. It doesn’t really go away. You just learn to deal with it. And Carlton is at a place right now where he’s so resistant to dealing with it. His thought process is, “I need to be perfect. I need to get over it.” But there’s no getting over it. You have to go through it. Will things get worse before they get better? What I will say is that it’s a journey that he will go on. At times, that journey will be painful, and at times, that journey will be tumultuous, but ultimately, such is the journey of life.
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It’s nice to see him get to have a little bit of romance, but at the same time, you can feel how that’s maybe not the thing he should be dealing with, until he fixes himself a little bit first. How will that be for him, this season? Will he be able to explore that a little bit more, or should he deal with himself first?
SHOLOTAN: The lovely Riele Downs, who plays Yazmin, is incredible. She’s the kindest soul on the planet. Obviously, they have a little romance kicking, and that relationship offers the chance for a lot of growth for Carlton. It’s the first relationship with Carlton that we see in real time. With Lisa, it was the aftermath of that. The audience gets to see a lot of the things that Carlton is really good at in relationships, but also the things that he needs work on, and the things, in himself, that he needs to deal with before getting into a relationship with someone else.
What was it like to have Tatyana Ali guest this season? How was it to have her there?
SHOLOTAN: It was borderline spiritual. She’s this incredible force. I didn’t even have any scenes with her, but we were on the lot at the same time, and we’d pass each other and talk. I remember the day that she filmed a scene at the school with Akira [Akbar], who plays Ashley, and in the scene, Tatiana’s imparting knowledge onto Ashley. I was on the lot for ADR, or for a fitting or something, and we ran into each other. We were talking and she was really emotional. I was like, “What’s up?” And she was like, “It was just so meta. My character was giving advice to the new generation’s version of my character, that was advice that I wish I’d gotten when I was younger.” That just goes back to how beautiful what we’re doing is. Having her be a part of the show is such a beautiful reminder that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants with this show. There’s a really important mantel that we carry, taking this show and bringing it to a new generation. We get to tell this story that was so beautiful and impactful for so many people, and give it to a new generation of kids and adults.
Without spoilers, what can you say to tease what we can expect from Carlton and from the Banks family in Season 2?
SHOLOTAN: Carlton’s relationship with his parents will be tested, in a lot of ways. Carlton’s relationship with his own anxiety will be tested, in a lot of ways. You’ll see how he deals with that, and how he deals with rising to the expectations of everyone around him. In a lot of ways, it’s a continuation of Season 1, in that you’ll see how Carlton deals with what everyone else expects him to be, and what he expects himself to be. We got a two-season order, off the bat, and I think that the writers have really expertly paced his story, over the course of two seasons. A lot of what he deals with this season is a continuation of Season 1. It’s expectations from his parents, but it’s turned up to 10 now because he’s not fighting Will anymore. With Season 1, Will was there as a distraction, while he and Will were beefing. Now, he and Will are kind of cool, so he really goes head-to-head with his parents on what those obstacles are and how he overcomes them.
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It’s more than just wondering if his parents will ever cut him some slack because it seems like no one is harder on Carlton than Carlton is on himself.
SHOLOTAN: Ultimately, at the end of the day, what I love about the way Carlton is written is that he is his biggest enemy, in a lot of ways, and that speaks to the human experience. A lot of us like to think that things happen to us. But a lot of the time, barring certain exceptions, we are the result of our own demise, and Carlton really he puts himself through the wringer. I think that his journey, over the course of the series, will be learning to cut himself a little slack.
Because Carlton and Will are constantly teaching each other things and opening each other up to new things, what would you say Carlton teaches Will in Season 2, and what does Will teach Carlton?
SHOLOTAN: They both teach each other accountability, in a way. They’re so similar. They’re different, but I think they’re more similar than they are different. And something that they’re both very good at is being very, very sure of the decisions that they’ve made, and they really stick to that. They both teach each other to be accountable for their own actions and really putting your money where your mouth is. And Will does teach Carlton to let loose a little bit. It turns out that Carlton has a little game. Will teaches him to let loose a little bit, and just to breathe and cut himself some slack.
Bel-Air is available to stream at Peacock.
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