‘Bel-Air’ Co-Show Runner Talks About Reimagined Iconic Series and His Upcoming Book

Today, I am speaking with Rasheed Newson, author, screenwriter, and co-showrunner for the new Peacock original series, “Bel-Air,” a contemporary dramatic reimagining of the beloved 90s NBC sitcom, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” 

Rasheed grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is a graduate of Georgetown University, where he wrote movie reviews for the school newspaper. In 2002, he moved to Hollywood and became employed in the entertainment industry. His writing career began when he partnered up with T.J. Brady. Their first gig was on the Fox-TV drama “Lie to Me.” The dynamic writing duo has gone on to work on shows “The Chi” and “Narcos.”  

He made my day by agreeing to talk about me about his upcoming book, My Government Means to Kill Me, a coming-of-age story about what it means for a young, gay, Black man in the mid-1980s and the importance of the iconic series “Bel-Air.” 

Photo credit: Christopher Marrs

PrideIndex (PI): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with you today, Rasheed. How are you, Sir?

Rasheed Newson (RN): I am good. We are currently filming the last two days of the season one finale.

PI: I watched the three episodes currently available on the Peacock app. We will get to that shortly, but first, let me ask you about yourself, your journey and when you first discovered that you wanted to be a writer.

RN: Writing has been the easiest way to communicate since I first learned it. When I was like seven or eight, I got mad at my parents for not letting me stay up later. And instead of going in and trying to argue the case, I wrote them a letter explaining why I thought I should be allowed to stay up later. They did at least humor me and talk about it to their credit. But I did not get to stay up any later. In high school, I enjoyed writing. I loved every English class I ever took. I found it was a helpful thing to barter. I am horrible at math. I had friends who did my math homework, and I helped write all their papers. It was probably in college when I started thinking about writing as a career. But I thought of movies. Many people think of movies when they think of writing in my generation. I moved out to LA after I graduated from Georgetown University. I figured I would go into film. I joined a writer’s group. And then I met my writing partner. And we started making short films together and then eventually moved into television. 

PI: What obstacles did you face as a writer, and how did you overcome them?

RN: I feel like being gay and being a writer have some similarities because you have to come out to other people, and there is typically some hesitation as to how that news will be met. My parents wanted me to go to college and be a lawyer, or an accountant, some sort of stable trade. I remember knowing I wanted to be a writer and not saying anything for a very long time. I wrote for the school paper in high school and again in college. I felt it was something I had to do. Growing up, nobody I knew had ever been a writer, ever gone to Hollywood, and certainly not been successful. Trying to explain what you wanted to be and who you wanted to do to folks who didn’t understand was like speaking a foreign language to them. I also felt other challenges to being a writer. I guess trying to find my place in the writing spectrum. Am I going to write books? For a while, I thought I’d be a journalist. That as a way of making a living just seemed to be imploding all around. That wasn’t very viable. I told people I wanted to be a screenwriter, and they probably thought I was a bit flakey or flighty. When I moved out here, there was no real clear path. Even now, people ask, “How do you become a TV writer?” and the answer is different for almost every single person. There are no steps; there’s no clear path to doing it. A lot of it is just getting past your insecurities. But I enjoyed writing because it was a different way of getting into other people’s minds and being other people. I found that comforting. [Laughs.] I find it quite easy to do.

PI: Writing for television versus journalism versus writing fiction or non-fiction is different. Right? 

RN: I kind of appreciated them all for the roles they had to play. You’re doing journalism; you can’t make it up. You have to verify it. You’ve got to nail it down. Writing books is great because you’re all by yourself. You’re just out there, and you can do anything you want. You’re the boss, and you’re the final word. Television is fun because it’s collaborative and compared to books certainly; it’s rapid. I’ve been on shows where we wrote it, we shot it, and it was on television all within a month. That immediacy is powerful and exciting. There is solitary writing, and then there is collaborative writing.

PI: Which one do you enjoy most?

RN: I like going back and forth. Writing my novel was fun because I didn’t have to hold back. There must be a consensus on how far we will go with a story or a character in television. I felt a lot of my television writing; I could get in storylines that were LGBTQ+ and talk about being homosexual. There were some homosexual characters on shows that I wrote for, but there was a limit to how far to go because it still has to play in Kansas. Right. And what was great about my last book is that I could tell myself, well, it will be the gayest book of the year. Nobody’s writing a book gayer than this, and I am going all-in on this. And it was liberating not to have to sort of hold back on the details of our lives.

PI: Let’s talk about your books. Pardon me, but the only one I am familiar with is the one that has yet to come out in August. 

RN: Yes. Yes. That’s the only one. [Laughs] The other book is a failed book. They go, oh, this is your debut book. Like, it is the first time you have tried to write a book. I’m 42 years old. There were many, many attempts at writing books. And none of them came together quite like this. 

PI: Tell me about My Government Means to Kill Me.

RN: My Government Means to Kill Me is a coming-of-age story. It is both political coming of age and sexual coming of age for a young African American man who leaves his family to live in New York City and arrives at the height of the AIDS crisis there. And he is brought into a political world of activists and becomes one of the first people to join Act Up when it is first formed. 

PI: Where did you find your muse for that book? 

RN: It is one of those things I had been thinking about for years. As a Black person who was too young to be a part of the civil rights movement, I have wondered, well, what would I have done back then? What would my role have been? As a gay man, I’ve thought a lot about what would my life have been if I had been an adult during the height of the AIDS crisis? What would have been my political posture? That hooked me, this idea of just going back to that era and looking at that lens. I also have, like a lot of people my age, I feel like I’ve spent my entire life reading about the Civil Rights Movement, reading about the gay rights movement, watching the movies, reading the books. It had not escaped my attention that there are many stories about the AIDS crisis, but they don’t necessarily include people of color. You know, we are certainly not often the hero. We are not usually in the ensemble, if we are lucky, we’re people are dying in the background. And I wanted to write a book that put us front and center. 

PI: Why did you decide to write about that subject matter? 

RN: It is recent history that people feel like they know. I love doing a little bit of research using a little bit of imagination and saying to the audience, you think you know this story, but you do not know this. You do not see this layer of it. And that is what I thought I could provide here talking a bit of the underground network of hospices that were around. Talking about why Act Up and other movements, they were so effective. They came together so quickly because, at that particular moment, you have people who are veterans of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement. They had a lot of experience and practice at building an apparatus that could protest the government, I find a special time in place, and it is a serious subject matter. But one of the things, I always say about, the Black community, is that no matter what is going on, we never lose our sense of style or humor. It is a serious subject matter, but there are many laughs and a lot of life. My main character, Trey, combats the darkness of the situation by wholeheartedly throwing himself into hedonistic pleasures, drugs, sex, and partying as a way to remind himself that he is still alive. 

PI: My Government Means to Kill Me is coming out in August 2022. Can we pre-order it right now on your website?

RN: You can pre-order it right now, on my website, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble; anywhere you buy a book online, you will find this book. I know that it does not come out till August 23, which I am excited about. I also have been just begging everybody to pre-order this book. In part, when you pre-order a book, it helps get the book on The New York Times bestsellers list. And if we want more books by gay people of color other than the ones we have, we need to do well. 

I told some friends, you can buy the book now and read it later. Because one of my friends got a lot of books, I am still behind on my reading. I go, okay. Just put it in your library, put it on the coffee table. Let people think you are smart and sexy. And with it, you can read it later. 

PI: Where do you plan to promote this book? Or is that something that you have not thought about at this time? 

RN: My publisher is Flatiron Books. They want to do a book tour by August, which is possible. Thankfully, it is still summertime, so you can still do outdoor events. I really would love to go on tour. 

PI: As you talked about the book, I became fascinated and wanted to know more. All kinds of images popped in my head. I thought this could easily be made into a movie. Are there plans to do that? 

RN: I would love it. We are going to explore it. The thing I stumbled upon is like a secret history of the time. Many people who studied at that time know that during the height of the AIDS crisis, cities closed gay bathhouses, and sex clubs. Except in New York City, they did not close the one in Harlem that was frequented by African American men. A lot of theories as to why. And that is explored in the book. But it gave me a setting that I found incredibly riveting and exciting to go into, I mean when you look at gay culture now.

I am 42 years old. The generation after me know Grindr. They know clubs; they do not know bathhouses. That has been sort of passé for them. The generation before mine remembers bathhouses. I do not know how many bathhouses still exist, but they were once a big part of our community. 

PI: Let’s talk about your television career.

RN: My first show was “Lie to Me.” TJ Brady, my writing partner and I have worked on everything in television together. We now co-show run “Bel-Air” together. We got our first writing job in 2008 on “Lie to Me.” on Fox. It was fun; it was a crime procedural. We stayed for two seasons. We then went to “Army Wives” because TJ was in the military. I was, as they say, in the sidecar on that. TJ had the expertise; I did not. I was just sort of there to write when I could find a place for my voice. We then went to “The 100,” which was fun and sci-fi. We went to “Narcos,” where we helped kill Pablo Escobar. And then we went to “Animal Kingdom” and “The Chi,” and now we are on “Bel-Air.” Our career makes no sense except when you imagine taking the best of the available work. And we check a lot of boxes. TJ is White and straight, and I’m Black and gay. And so that is not to be pigeonholed. As I think a lot of writers often are. 

PI: Now, of course, you mentioned the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” which, pays homage to, well, I should not say pay homage to. But as I watched those three episodes last night on Peacock, I thought it was more of a reload, then a reboot, or a reimagining because it was not a comedy. 

RN: It is not a comedy. It is taking the premise of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Will gets in trouble in West Philly and must suddenly be sent out to Bel-Air. And instead of playing it for laughs, we play it as if it were real. It was that tone that set us on a very different trajectory. The first question you must ask is, what could happen if a mother puts her only son on a plane and sends him to the other side of the country for his protection, so that is where we have to start our story. Once you get there, it was nice to take these family dynamics. The original characters inspired them, but we capture that essence and go in a new direction with it. 

PI: You talk about the original show’s different subject matters and themes. And then it, in some cases, goes dark. Was that intentional to go dark? 

RN: No, it was not the intention to go dark as it was to play the reality as much as we can in television. The impetus for the show is his {Will’s} life is in danger, which is why he must move. We play that through the first third of the season. But we then move away from that, and it becomes a family ensemble that is not very dark. That is more a coming-of-age story than a story about his life being in danger. 

PI: I like to binge-watch my favorite television shows. After watching three episodes at once, I thought, oh my god, this is this wonderful. The series checked every box from my conversations and the experiences of cousins, nephews, and others. It was surreal. This show is going to be a hit.

RN: Everybody who worked on the show was a fan of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” We all love that show. The last thing we wanted to do was to tarnish that legacy. Like nobody wanted to mess this up. And so, everybody worked extremely hard to get the details right on the show, whether it was the clothes, the music, the tone, the dialogue. It has been a labor of love. 

PI: Were you involved in the casting process? If so, how did that work?

RN: I participated in the casting process. There was a national search to cast the role of Will; Jabari Banks landed that part. The casting director Vicki Thomas, who led the search, saw hundreds of applicants. When actors audition for roles they so something that’s called slating where they are supposed to tell you, their height and where they are from, etc. And in this one, people were using the slate to appeal to say “I was born to play this role. Please, you must cast me as Will Smith.” They would tell us everything from their dreams, to an encounter they had with Will Smith at some premiere ten years ago. It was very personal and heartfelt. It got to the point where I could not watch the slates anymore because you have dozens of actors who were showing their vulnerability. And you know, me and everyone else in the process knows, only one of them is correct. You are going to change someone’s life. And you are also going to break a lot of hearts with this decision. A quarter of the way through, I just stopped reading and I would just watch the auditions and make my choices. But I could not believe my heart could not take it to hear all of their appeals. 

PI: With Will Smith as an executive producer on the show, do you want to please him and make him proud of your decisions?

RN: Not only do you want to please him, but you also need his approval. [Laughs] He has signed off on these things. You need Will to say, “I agree.” He is an executive producer who has a great deal of authority. 

PI: Does he let you know if he disapproves?

RN: Yes. He would say I would like to make this change or that change. Nothing terribly drastic, and we make those changes. 

PI: Are there plans to have some of the original cast appear on the show? I’m talking on the lines of what Stan Lee does in the Marvel movies. 

RN: I love those. We are exploring ways to do it in a way that feels organic that does not announce itself or tear against the reality we are trying to build in this world. So, we would not want to bring in one of the original cast members and have it taken away from the story and distraction story, quite rightly. But we love them and want them to feel at home on the canvas. So, we are trying to figure that out.

PI: I am one of those people that will try it. And when I say try it, oh, you know, I want to know what’s coming up next.

RN: Will and Carlton are at odds, and that must be resolved. Somebody must win. And then it is about Will is here in Bel-Air. At what point does he accept that? And at what point does he realize he can take advantage of that? And what does he want?

PI: What does the future hold for Mr. Newson? In terms of television, movies, books, and the moon? 

RN: [Laughs] I mean, this is an issue I debate with other writers; some people have plans for world domination. I did not know a year ago that I would be the showrunner of this show, and we would be working on this. I did not see it coming. I try to leave myself open to what can happen next. And I try to make the best of what is happening. So, when I think of television, my immediate goal is finishing the season strong and just wrapping my head around what I think we can do in season two. Beyond that, who knows? My Government Means to Kill Me comes out in August; I want to promote the hell out of that. I would like to see how big an audience we can find with that book. Beyond that, somewhere down the road, I go, oh, we would love to do that as a movie. But it is not at the top of my mind right now. I have so much more going on. My goal is to do the best work in front of me. And right now, that’s “Bel-Air.” 

PI: Will we see more projects down the road with you and TJ Brady? 

RN: Absolutely. TJ and I have been in this business for about 15 years. We have another 15 or 20 ahead of us. So yes, we would love to create other shows, other projects, and love to write some movies. We are in this until we until show business stops calling us.

PI: What advice would you offer to aspiring writers? 

RN: The best advice I can give is that you need to learn how to love all the parts of writing. I find many people love when it is done. They love promoting it; they love that part. When it comes to television, I love brainstorming. I love breaking a story on the board. I love writing an outline. I love writing a script; I love being on set, where we are still tweaking the dialogue. Some people can find those stages along the way tedious. But those stages along the way are 95% of the job. So, if you fall in love with the craft of writing, you are better off, like a lot of tortured writers, people talking about going to their computer staring at a blank page for three hours. I love getting to write the more challenging part. I have a lot going on. I have a novel I am working on now. I wish I could carve out hours to go and work on it. If you enjoy writing, everything else will sort of work itself out. Your talent will get you noticed. Hopefully, your talent will shine through, and it wears better if you find writing to be a pleasure. It’s always been a joy to me. 

“Bel-Air” is streaming on Peacock click here

Visit rasheednewson.com

To pre-order My Government Means to Kill Me click here