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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Tatyana Ali's 'Fresh Prince' character keeps her grounded

August 21, 1994|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tatyana M. Ali, who plays sweet but very privileged Ashley Banks on NBC's popular "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," may attend a private girls' school, but that's where her lifestyle and Ashley's part ways.

"My real life isn't anything like hers," she says from her modest San Fernando Valley home, where she lives with her mother and two sisters, Anastasia, 11, and Kimberly, 8. Ali's immigrant Trinidadian father is a police detective in New York--where the family is from--and her immigrant Panamanian mother is a registered nurse. Her father, currently up for retirement, commutes from Long Island to Los Angeles.

"It's scary to think about making that move to L.A. completely!" she sighs, contemplating what will happen if her father sells their New York home and moves to L.A. permanently. "We'll need a big house. Even if it's just the five of us, it seems like more. We're a very active family."

But that fictional Bel-Air mansion, shown in all its glory in the show's opening credit, enchants fans. "I get a lot of mail from the little kids," she says, "who always ask me how big the house is."

As for the youngest Miss Banks, "They've really made her more like me, as we've gone along." Ali, now a mature 15, was 11 when the show premiered in the fall of 1990.

"The cast gets tons of input and we sit down with the writers and producers and brainstorm for each show," she says. "Fresh Prince" resumed shooting its fifth season last week.

Acting proved a healthy outlet for Ali, who was sent to preschool early to channel some of her energy. "I was very precocious and very hyper and a real ham," she recalls. "I thought acting might be something fun and keep me busy."

At 4, she got her first commercial, which was followed by a four-year run on PBS' popular "Sesame Street." She's still approached about episodes she appeared on long ago. "They run them forever," she sighs.

"Herbie Hancock was a guest when I was about 5 and he was demonstrating his synthesizer and he used my name over and over in a kind of computer opera," she says. "At least 10 mothers have come up to me throughout the years saying they named their daughter Tatyana after that show!"

Another show will resonate with her name this fall, as Ali joins Jordan Brady and Mario Lopez as a co-host of NBC's Saturday-morning show "Name Your Adventure."

This summer, she starred in her first TV movie, "Foster's Field Trip," which co-stars David Lascher ("Blossom") and Darius McCrary ("Family Matters") and will air in December. In a total turnaround from Ashley, Ali plays Rita, a foster child "who's been shopped around too much and doesn't like people. She's a real loner, always dressed in black and always depressed."

What began as an energy outlet for a little girl has become a career goal for a teen who wants to continue to act, attend film school and appear in a feature. "I've done Broadway and TV and that is the next step."

For now she's glad "Fresh Prince" has resumed shooting. "Will (Smith) is exactly like his character, but more mature," she assures. Her co-stars have become a second family. "We have a blast. It's so much fun, I guess, because we really like each other." Being the youngest on the set has its advantages: Co-stars Smith, James Avery, who plays her father, and Alfonso Ribeiro, who plays her brother, are "like my big brothers." And disadvantages: "But they're super-protective. I couldn't ever bring a boy on the set. They would have a heart attack!"

"The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" airs Monday at 8 p.m. on NBC. "Name Your Adventures" airs Saturday at 9 a.m. on NBC.

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