Tatyana Ali gets fresh with SheKnows

May 11, 2010 at 1:00 p.m. ET

Tatyana Ali grew up in front of our eyes alongside Will Smith in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Now 24, Ali has been making a name for herself by tackling gritty roles such as her turn in the recent Hotel California and Mother and Child, currently in theaters.

Tatyana Ali

Ali is a product of Long Island. After her youth witnessing the magic of Broadway, Ali yearned for the bright lights. She would soon have her chance at acting, but it would come from the small screen initially and not the Broadway stage.

It was her unforgettable role as Ashley Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where she would star in 133 episodes before the show called it quits in 2001, that would make her a household name.

Tatyana's triumphs

Ali is not only an award-winning actress, but also a singer who is currently working on her first album in almost a decade. And don't miss her scene-stealing turn in the ensemble drama out in theaters now, Mother and Child, starring her old friend Samuel L Jackson, Kerry Washington, Annette Bening and Naomi Watts.

Ali sat down with SheKnows for an exclusive chat about her burgeoning career and how she managed to grow up in Hollywood without succumbing to the dreaded child actor becomes personal disaster storyline that happens to so many.

SheKnows: Starring in Mother and Child with Kerry Washington, Sam Jackson, Naomi Watts and Annette Bening -- that must be a nice thing to have on your resume given that cast?

Tatyana Ali: The cast is incredible. My role is relatively small, but all my scenes are with Naomi Watts and Sam Jackson. You just can't ask for anything better than that (laughs). Also working with the director, it was an incredible experience. There was this beautiful material, this beautiful script -- when I read it, it made me cry. It was like reading a great novel. We wanted to do justice to that writing. That was everybody's goal.

SheKnows: The scenes you shared with Sam Jackson, you almost come out of it a better actor.

Tatyana Ali: Absolutely! I worked with Sam Jackson when I was really little in Eddie Murphy's Raw.

Tatyana Ali strikes a poseSheKnows: That's right!

Tatyana Ali: The very, very beginning. I've known Sam and his wife for a while. But, it's been many years since then. After the scenes that I worked with Naomi, I called my mom and my sister right after that day was done. I was so excited on the phone, I was like, "It was like a tennis match." I felt alive all the time. You are absolutely right. There's a part of you that you want to be there and be present in the moment. But, then there's a part of me in the background saying, "Oh (expletive)! I just acted with Naomi Watts!" It was so cool.

Checking into Hotel California

SheKnows: What first attracted you to your role in Hotel California? The fact that we've yet to have a movie named that?

Tatyana Ali: I know, right (laughs). It seems like someone would have come up with that idea already. I was drawn to it because it was really different than anything I've done before. I also like the way the story was being told through flashbacks. I was attracted to Jesse, the good girl who is attracted to dark things and where that can lead you in life.

SheKnows: Working with director Gio Santini, was that fun?

Tatyana Ali: He was amazing. It was his first project and you are always nervous about that initially. He knew what he wanted the film to look like. My character is raped in the film. Having to go through that on a set, you want a director who is going to control the set and really make it a safe place for you. I felt that way all along. He had a clear vision of the style, the look he was going for and wanted. When we actually did that scene, he really took control of the set.

SheKnows: That's amazing, especially considering he is a first time helmer. Did you get to share any scenes with Tyson Beckford, or get to meet him on the set?

Tatyana Ali: We were on the set at the same time, but none of my scenes are with him.

SheKnows: You've been around for a few years now. Have you ever run into Tyson before, or was this the first time you ever met him?

Tatyana at the BET AwardsTatyana Ali: I haven't met him before, actually. That was my first meeting. He's so cool. When he poses, he's so serious. But, in real life, he is so fun. He laughs all the time. He talked a lot about fashion. Obviously, he's in the right line of work (laughs). He's a really funny guy.

SheKnows: You were drawn to performing so early. Given that fact, was there anything that prompted that, or is it something you always remember wanting to do?

Tatyana Ali: I used to tell stories when I was little. For example, I saw ET when I was about four years old, just about the time I started working professionally. Our neighbors in Long Island still tell this story. I was on the other side of the fence and I talked to them for hours telling them the entire story of ET. I was acting it out. I always did that with everything. I'd have my sisters and cousins do plays. We'd make movies together. My parents were always cool with that. I was a ham (laughs).

Tatyana takes Hollywood

SheKnows: I take it you had to audition for the Fresh Prince?

Tatyana Ali: Yes, I did.

SheKnows: Was producer Quincy Jones there?

Tatyana Ali: Quincy Jones was at the audition. I remember my mom, she was really excited about that. My mom is really cool. She's from Panama. She's not a stage mom, yet she's always there. That was just the one time I can remember that my mom spoke about an audition that I was going to with my aunts. She was talking about Quincy Jones. They were all so excited. I didn't know who he was, I was so young. But, it was amazing. He was very good to me -- I called him Mr Jones right up until I got out of college. I saw him again and said, "Hi, Mr Jones." He said, "Please call me Quincy." Okay (laughs)!

SheKnows: It's probably good you didn't know he was Quincy Jones, producer of Michael Jackson's Thriller.

Tatyana Ali: Oh, my God, I would have been so nervous. Quincy is such a kind man. He doesn't wear his success like some people. He's a wonderful, wonderful man.

SheKnows: A lot of performers have people they look up to as they were coming up. Obviously, you have gotten to work with a few given your early start in the business. Are there people out there that have inspired you and are there ones you've been able to work with?

Tatyana Ali: Mary Alice. I got to work with her when I did Fences. My mom always said, "Wherever you are in life -- in school, on Broadway, on a set -- be a sponge. Soak in everything that is going on around you. Watch and learn. I used to watch Mary's process, how she got herself ready backstage before a performance. She always had quiet time. It was like clockwork. I guess I idolized her without knowing who she was or all of who she was. I knew her as this amazing actress that I was working with. There are also contemporary women that I idolize. I idolize…(laughs), I have a girl crush on Kate Winslet.

SheKnows: (Laughs) I think everyone does.

Tatyana Ali: (Laughs) That's been going on for a while now…

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