Upon first meeting her, it is clear that Simone Joy Jones lives up to her middle name. She is joyous and boisterous and is nonstop smiles during a 45-minute Zoom call, one that ends not for a lack of conversation, but merely a lack of leftover time. “I’ve got so many things to say, but there’s no time — with less than a minute left I start panicking,” she laughs at the end of our interview.
Jones embodies the kind of vibrant energy that makes her immediately memorable. She might be young and fresh-faced, but she’s also determined and ambitious. Already, she’s managed to land the coveted role of Lisa in Bel-Air, the Will Smith-produced remake of the iconic Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But that’s not all. She’s also worked with Billy Porter, playing a role in his directorial debut What If?, and has a passion for directing and producing — she produced her own film in college called Inside Out. On top of all that, Jones has released her own music under the artist name S!MONE.
And this is the story all about how… serendipity played a role in landing Jones where she is right now — on a show called Bel-Air.
It wasn’t acting that introduced Jones to the arts. Rather, she first got introduced to the creative arts through music. “My first love is singing — I watched my mom perform in the choir in Greensboro, North Carolina,” she says. “I was a very sheltered child. I was listening to mostly Christian music. But then I heard, I think it was ‘Knock You Down’ by Keri Hilson. And I was like, what is this? This is very different, wait a minute! But just finding storytelling in different mediums has been my love, I guess, since the start, though I found my way in through there.”
Those different mediums can also serve different purposes, Jones tells me. “I found that with my music, making my EP Divine Mistakes,” she says. “I like to find people who are much better than me and get them all in a room together and then be like, alright, let’s create something, let’s make something beautiful. Let’s just be here, be present. In that way, 2020 was a gift, because I could just focus and allow myself to grow with my own sound, you know? I’ve been in theater for so long. So I’ve had lots of practice in emulating other people’s sounds or taking another piece of music and infusing myself into it. With my own music, I guess it’s like that journey in a more personal way.” She can express her own perspective in music, whereas acting is more of an empathy exercise — getting to walk a few miles in someone else’s shoes.
One of the songs on her EP showcases a particularly vulnerable moment, a raw voice memo that has Jones playing the piano and singing to herself before being interrupted by someone entering a rehearsal room. “It was my sophomore year of college,” Jones explains. “I was, I think, the saddest I’ve ever been. I went into a practice room, and I was just in between classes, too. I was feeling really sad, and right when I was about to cry, someone walked in.” There’s a reason she kept it on the EP, even though it’s not much more than her expressing this visceral sense of feeling disconnected and lonely — even when she clearly wasn’t alone in the room. “It just encapsulates how I bottled things up sophomore year, and I just pretended that I was OK all the time. And so especially from ‘lonely’ going into ‘cherry pie,’ it was kind of like it cuts off abruptly. Like a record scratch, like, I’m not doing that anymore, evolving from the person I created to protect myself, you know?”
Her current life is a far cry from that at Carnegie Mellon University. She’s now surrounded by people she does connect with and living by herself in LA. “I graduated in May,” Jones starts. “And then I was like, you know, thank you, I’ll move to LA from Pittsburgh. I don’t care, I’m just going to do it and try. I stopped in Texas, got the job in Texas, and then came the rest of the way here. So it’s been a wild ride. I love it here.” She sighs in delight as she motions around the room she’s sitting in. It’s something she’s proud of, having been able to create a home for herself. When decorating her new place, she was inspired by someone else’s apartment, she tells me. “I was like, this is so cool. I love their energy and their eye, and so I asked them, come help me please, I just moved to LA! And so I told her, I want this divine, feminine thing, and we went shopping together.” Of course, it’s hard to tell through Zoom what the full room looks like, but there’s a soft pastel color scheme, with cozy lighting and fluffy pillows and throws.
It looks comfortable and inviting, a place where you’d love to hang out with your friends for hours on end. Not that Jones has the time for that — filming for Bel-Air often was long and exhausting. Yet, she’s made friendships for life with her costars, and they often see each other. She stresses how nice it is to go through this process of achieving your goals together. “I just had a night yesterday with Jabari [Banks; who plays Will Smith on the show], the showrunners, TJ Brady, and Rashid Newson,” she says. “We went to go pop Champagne under the Bel-Air billboard on the street. We were just basking in this moment, because it’s so exciting. To not only have all of our dreams come true in a different way, but also to do it together and actually enjoy being together. I mean, it was just a surreal moment for me. It’s such a contrast from when I recorded ‘lonely’ to this.”
The chemistry on screen has clearly benefited from the fact that Jones and her costars often chose to spend time together, even after 12-hour days of filming. “We’d just ask each other, what are you doing? And if we’d have the same schedule, we’d just go hang out together,” Jones shares. “It’s so nice to be insatiable with the people that you’re around, and that they feed you in a really cool way.” There’s also significantly more screentime for her character in Bel-Air, compared to the previous iteration. Whereas Lisa was a bit of a surface-level character in the original Fresh Prince show, only appearing in season five, Jones’s Lisa is introduced very differently from the get-go. “I feel like I’m a unique character in that way,” she says. “We meet Lisa younger, we meet her as, like, a hardcore athlete who wants to go to the Olympics. Somebody who’s had a history with Carlton and a future with Will. I love her,” she surmises with a big smile.
Her larger role and the focus on interpersonal conflict and bonds also reflects one of the key elements of the show: family, be it relational or found. In a way, Bel-Air challenges some of the assumptions we all blindly made when watching the original Fresh Prince, which is something that excites Jones. “I love the idea of found family, because sometimes family, you’re just stuck with them, and you gotta keep going. You gotta heal,” she says. “Family can be beautiful, and also with the original show, that’s something that you just can’t try to bottle up and capture again. So, I think it’s unreal how as an audience member you now get to unpack those relationships a bit more, to have that in a different form in this one is so special.”
Of course, the fact that everyone has such vivid memories and ideas of the iconic show also made Bel-Air seem like an impossible, untouchable project, Jones admits to me freely. When she saw a first trailer about the idea a few years back, she remembers thinking to herself that it was cool, but she wouldn’t want to be a part of that. With so many expectations and so much pressure to live up to the original, it didn’t seem like something she’d want to be involved in. “When I first saw the question in my email, I was like, I don’t know. I’m not gonna try to touch the Fresh Prince, unless it’s being done incredibly well, and in a way that’s different. Then I got a hold of the script, and I saw the people who were running it, like Morgan Cooper,” she enthuses. “If you just look at his Instagram, in a way it’s such a little door into his world, and his world is so huge, so genuine, and so cool. Every step of the process was eye opening. And so with every audition, I got closer and met more of the team, saw more of the script, and realized that I was falling more and more in love with all the characters.”
Contrary to what you’d expect about audition processes, Jones wasn’t nervous or scared, she enjoyed it. “In a way, it allows you to be the director, when you create those audition tapes,” she says. “It’s beautiful. I can be the director, the producer, the actor all in one. It was really exciting, because I got to sit down with Lisa as a character and figure out the dynamic between Carlton and her, and Will and her, and make it my own.” However, that doesn’t mean it was all smooth sailing for Jones while she was vying for the role. In fact, the audition very nearly didn’t happen at all.
“I was in Pittsburgh at the time, working on a movie with Billy Porter, when I got a call saying that the producers were in Philly, asking if I could meet them there,” she says. “I drove with a friend for five hours to Philly and was meant to meet them at this hotel. We thought I could just stay at the hotel so I could get ready and then walk down the stairs, have a dramatic grand entrance to meet them in the lobby,” Jones regales, eyes sparkling with only partly contained mirth. “So I walk down the stairs, five minutes before, thinking, this is great, I’m early, they’ll see me and be like, that’s Lisa. And so I wait five minutes, seven minutes. Then I get a call from my manager, and I ask if they’re maybe late, if there’s anything I can do. And my manager goes, ‘no, they’re looking for you. Where are you?’ I’m like, what? I’m at the hotel. Turns out, they were at a hotel with the same name, but 15 minutes from me. I was in the wrong location!”
Jones snorts at her past self, then tells me that she panicked for a brief moment, wondering if perhaps she should just curl up in a ball and cry, instead of meeting them elsewhere. “I decided that I’d get it together and just call an Uber and go. But Philly traffic is insane, so I ended up jumping out and running the last five blocks. So I’m breathing hard, I’m sweating, there’s pit stains right as I’m about to go in — the dream of looking gorgeous long left behind — and so I thought, well, I had a good run. If they meet me, and still like me, it’ll be a miracle!”
All’s well that ends well, considering they not only liked Jones enough to give her the part, they also gave her a lot of space to build Lisa through her own perspective. “Of course, I built some mannerisms just for Lisa, but there’s definitely some Simone infused into Lisa as well,” she shares. “Although, Lisa, I think, is definitely way more grounded than me. I’m much more scatterbrained. She’s very focused, and she’s in the middle of these three forces: Will, Carlton, and her dad. She has all of these forces pulling her in different directions, yet she’s very grounded. She says what she means, and she means what she says. She just has so much strength, whereas I am very sensitive, I feel like I cry at everything. I feel like I don’t have any skin sometimes, like I’m very raw to the world. Lisa has this kind of armor around her, while she’s still able to be sensitive on the inside. So, in that way, I learned a lot from her. I’m just so thankful for Vicki Thomas and the rest of the crew, because I feel like I’m a very vibrant person and they didn’t have me mute that at all,” Jones confesses, as she mentions the amount of giggles she’s had to record in ADR.
And while there definitely are moments where giggling is appropriate in Bel-Air, it’s clearly a drama series — not the comedy that people associate with the Fresh Prince. Add to that the fact that Jones experiences happiness as pure bliss and sadness as deeply visceral, and you’ve got yourself a challenge in compartmentalizing. It’s something Jones had to learn the hard way when she was back in college and was performing two shows centered on the AIDS crisis. “I would take it home with me,” she starts. “And then I’d wonder, why am I so in my head? Why do I feel so hurt sometimes? Even when I thought I was putting it away. I really learned my lesson to leave it at the door. When you leave the rehearsal room, you have to leave it there.”
It’s been an incredibly valuable lesson, particularly when it comes to Jones’s character losing someone very important to her on the show. “That was one of those moments where I was so thankful. It would have been very dramatic and having these really hard things happen to my character and dealing with these really pigmented themes,” she says. “You have to learn how to separate but also be fully there, so you can do justice to the story without hurting yourself.”
Jones says that the environment they’re creating on the show certainly helps bring some levity and safety to the very real issues Bel-Air addresses. “It’s just so loving and genuine. If you need a little help or space, the cast and crew are there. I haven’t experienced that with a lot of shows. We can laugh and joke around, but if I’m like, hey can we just work on this scene again so we don’t waste anyone’s time on camera? We immediately come together and find a corner to practice. It’s just been so helpful to have such incredible scene partners.”
It was Porter who helped her realize how important it is to set the tone for creating such a positive environment. When she worked on his directorial debut What If?, Jones noticed the difference in how he approached the project compared to what she was used to. “Normally, you get a side character and they might not even give you the full script,” she says. “You’ll show up, knowing what you’re supposed to do, but you’re left wondering about the bigger picture. But Billy, he made sure we knew what we were talking about. A week before we started filming, he sat us down and we watched a queer documentary, and he took us to the Pittsburgh library where he grew up. I learned that you can set the tone. Of course, he could’ve had us just come in and do our stuff and it would’ve been great, but the fact that he made space for us to have a community, to have some fellowship, some laughs. And we were quite a young cast, but he talked to us like we were professionals and also made us sit down and listen to him, because he knows what he’s talking about. I was so blessed to be a part of it. I’m going to take that into all of my projects, that I can set the tone. I don’t have to come in and just be whisked into whatever is going on, but it can be my job to create a space that’s lovely, kind, genuine, and authentic.”
This approach also fits Jones’s wider philosophy of, “whatever you give out, is what you’re going to get back.” It’s how she picks her projects, and while there’s a certain sense of serendipity involved, it also comes down to grafting and not being afraid to be picky. “I’ve been so blessed,” she says. “The projects that I really want to work on have found me, the people that I really want to laugh with have found me, because I stopped fake laughing at jokes that aren’t funny.”
Of course there are moments where it’s more difficult to live as authentically as possible, and Jones references school, saying, “There’s people who have such big personalities, and sometimes you just want to be next to them, no matter if you make yourself smaller or different.” Similarly, Jones recognizes that as a new actor you can’t always afford to say no to things. “It’s still acting, it’s still money, but I don’t know if I want to do it in that capacity. I’m lucky with my representatives, they’re very helpful. They’ve been very supportive and respectful of my choices. Because if I wouldn’t speak up for myself would just say yes and audition for something that you don’t actually align with, what if you get it? And then what? You’re stuck for months on end.”
All the hard work has certainly paid off for Jones, what with this dream role in a coveted project, while simultaneously getting to work on her directing and musical ambitions at the same time. In fact, it was another serendipitous $20 roundtrip to LA from Texas that resulted in Jones meeting the producer who would eventually help her with Divine Mistakes. Jones had originally meant for the trip to be somewhat of a distraction from a falling out with a roommate, but then producer BRICK! (Travis Scott, Kehlani) responded to a demo she’d sent him via Instagram, saying that if she was ever in LA they should do a session. “I was like, great, I’ll be there on Tuesday, see you at 7! I showed up with my bags and no studio experience whatsoever, but we got to work and made a song called ‘Ball Out.’ It’s one of the first songs I’ve ever made, and it’s on episode six of Bel-Air. It’s my first sync, so it’s incredibly special to me,” she shares excitedly.
It’s also a true testament to her talent and her ability to act as a visionary. As an aspiring producer, she’s interested in not just telling the stories themselves, but also making sure it’s the right people whose voices are being heard. “I think I’m good at getting the right people together, whether it’s for this show I produced called Inside Out or for my music — to tell stories and see it through their lens,” she says. Most importantly, perhaps Jones’s greatest strength is her determination and willingness to grow and learn. “The things I thought were mistakes were supposed to happen, to show me something, or help me grow,” Jones insists.
And although maybe she hasn’t realized it yet herself, it’s exactly that attitude that helps her set the right tone, just as Porter instilled in her. “I sing, I dance, I act, I produce, and I direct. And I want to do more of those [produce/direct], because I want to tell stories through my own eyes and through the eyes of the community that I’ve come to love — and make sure their stories are told too,” she concludes. “I want to do it justice.”
Watch Bel-Air on Peacock every Thursday and listen to Divine Mistakes on Spotify.