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'Fresh Prince' star Karyn Parsons talks reunion — and favorite Hilary moments

Karyn Parsons opened up about playing Hilary Banks in an interview with TODAY.
/ Source: TODAY

The Banks family recently got back together for a "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" reunion special, and the experience was "emotionally intense," according to one star.

"It caught me off guard," Karyn Parsons, who played Hilary Banks on the beloved sitcom, told TODAY, explaining that cast members were kept at separate hotels so they wouldn't interact before the cameras were rolling — even though they still keep in touch.

"It was really emotional, and beautiful, and very, you know, sad, 'cause of James (Avery) not being there," she said.

The special also features an appearance from the show's original Aunt Viv, Janet Hubert, who was replaced after the show's third season and has feuded with Will Smith. Parsons called the meeting "so healing."

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Karyn Parsons played Hilary Banks on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" for six seasons.NBC

"I mean, deeply, deeply effective," she added. "It's something we all really needed, and I think I didn't realize how much — you know, it's been kind of ugly and turbulent in the past. You know, there's been comments exchanged and stuff. And I was never directly a part of any of it. So, I didn't like it; I was sad that it existed, but I didn't know how much it really affected me until it was gone, until things were made good. And when that happened, I felt this tremendous weight lifted. It just felt like — it was beautiful, 'cause it's a great show, and there's so much love, and we all cared about each other so much throughout that it was beautiful to have things set right, you know, finally."

The reunion includes a moving tribute to Avery, who played family patriarch Philip Banks and died in 2013.

"I feel like I learned a lot from James, as a person and as an actor," Parsons told TODAY. "He was so generous. You know, I'll never get over the episode that sticks with so many people, when Will's father left, and I remember Will really wanted that to work, and him going to James and talking to him, and giving him advice on things, and being really helpful in a really quiet way."

"He was not heavy-handed about anything like that," she added. "But one thing James did that was really beautiful is he saw things in you that you might not see in yourself. And he saw possibilities. He used to really want me to play Lady Macbeth. He had this thing about me playing Lady Macbeth, and it was so interesting, because it made me look at myself differently."

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Late actor James Avery played the show's beloved patriarch, Philip Banks.NBC

Parsons also shared some of her favorite storylines for Hilary — starting with the season one episode in which Will discovers she dropped out of college and he and Carlton blackmail her into performing various embarrassing tasks in exchange for keeping the secret from her parents.

"I'll never forget when we taped that episode, and it was the first season, and so I didn't know a lot of how the audience was taking Hilary," Parsons recalled. "You know, I hadn't had a lot of feedback from people yet, but I was assuming people probably weren't going to like her that much, 'cause everyone loved Will and she had this kinda thing with him. And we got to the part where I go to Carlton for help and say, 'He's making me, you know, clean his dirty drawers or lucky drawers,' or whatever, and he says, 'Will you clean mine?' And when that happened, he turned on me, the audience did not just start clapping; they started stomping in the stands. They started stomping their feet and howling."

"We were trying to keep a straight face and stay in the scene," she continued. "And if you watch the scene, you can see as they cut back and forth, you can see me kind of smiling and trying to play it off as a 'I can't believe you' smile, because I couldn't keep it down. I couldn't believe they hated her so much, they were loving seeing her get hers. It was fun."

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Brian Stokes Mitchell played Hilary's news anchor boyfriend, Trevor.NBC

In another memorable episode, Hilary's news anchor boyfriend, Trevor, proposes to her while bungee jumping for a live segment before plummeting to his death.

"The bungee-jumping episode will forever be my bittersweet episode, because I remember when I read the script for the first time, there was this horrible heartbreak of, 'Oh, my gosh, Brian Stokes Mitchell's not going to be on the show anymore,' 'cause Brian, who played Trevor, was so wonderful," she said. "I loved working with him. I loved the Hilary/Trevor romance. It was really fun. And so it was horribly disappointing to read like, 'Oh, no,' you know, that Trevor's gone, Brian's gone. And then you just see how it happened and how it played out, and then of course that's the laughs, the part that was so funny."

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
The cast during season four: Karyn Parsons as Hilary Banks, James Avery as Philip Banks, Daphne Reid as Vivian Banks, Joseph Marcell as Geoffrey; Front: Tatyana Ali as Ashley Banks, Will Smith as Will Smith, Alfonso Ribeiro as Carlton Banks.NBC

Parsons said her view of the character has changed over the years since the sitcom's 1990-1996 run.

"I still think she's incredibly self-centered — and she's just myopic, you know?" she said. "She's grown up as daddy's little girl. First child and it was a girl, you know? I used to imagine that they dressed her up in all kinds of little fancy little frilly things, and everything she wanted, they gave her. And my first child was a daughter, so I'm starting to even understand it, in that regard. But I think I underestimated a lot of things about her. I think she's very determined. It's like how our best qualities are often our worst qualities, and vice versa.

"I think with her, she's, you know, so self-centered and seemingly myopic, but at the same time, she's very focused and determined and has confidence. You know, the confidence we all wish we had — if she wants to do something, she knows she can do it. ... She always gets what she wants, you know? So nothing stops her, and I think that's a quality of Hilary's that I love and I wish I could have a little bit more of. And I do think that she has a lot more heart than she might always get credit for."

She also has some thoughts on where Hilary would be now.

"I think Hilary now would be the queen of the internet," she said. "I have no doubt. She'd be the Instagram queen. To me, that's so obvious. I thought of it once, and I was like, 'Oh, yeah. That's where she lives,' you know? And that's what she was made for. She would own it. She would own Instagram."

For more from the interview, watch the video above.