Tatyana Ali Dishes On Vanished: Searching For My Sister & Fresh Prince - Exclusive Interview

Tatyana Ali spent seven years of her life playing Ashley on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Yet, her newest movie is one of the most challenging roles she's tackled yet — playing a set of twins. 

"Vanished: Searching for My Sister" is full of twists and turns as Jada (played by Ali) makes it her personal mission to find her missing twin sister Kayla (also played by Ali). When the investigation isn't uncovering any leads, Jada decides to impersonate her sister in order to get answers herself.


We were at the edge of our seats watching the dramatic story unfold, and we even got the opportunity to ask Ali what it was like working on the set of the emotional television movie. In an exclusive interview with The List, Ali explained how she was successfully able to play two different twins in a single scene, revealed what she "hated" about playing Ashley on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," and opened up about how growing up on a sitcom affected the types of stories she wants to be a part of today.

Why Tatyana Ali wanted to be part of Vanished: Searching for My Sister

I just saw your new movie "Vanished: Searching For My Sister." It's intense. What drew you to this story?

A couple things. I really like the idea. You know, there's been a lot of stories in the news about Black women going missing and nothing — kind of the resources not being put into finding them and those stories not being taken seriously. And I love that this was based on a true story and that this sister just refused to allow her loved one to be dismissed in that way. I was really drawn to that. I thought that was really amazing.


And then also the chance to play twins, at first, was totally exciting to me. And I've never done anything like that before, especially play somebody like Kayla, the sister that goes missing. I rarely get that opportunity. And I was like, "Whoa! They thought of me for this? I want to try."

How'd you go about preparing to play these two very different characters? Did you look into the real story?

Yeah, I looked into the real story and there's not — It was a story that took place in the '90s, and there's no video footage that I can find. It was all, kind of, written reports, so I looked into that. I did the work that I usually do for a character, but it's just double the work.

And then the interesting thing was the relationship between the two [twins], because I like to collaborate with other actors, and I come in with what I'm guessing. They come in with what they're guessing, and we work together to create that relationship. It was a really interesting experience to just be creating that relationship with myself. [Laughs] I'm the only mind at work trying to figure out how they relate to one another.


And then also just to find — I loved finding the nuance, like how do I differentiate them? How do they hold themselves? Walk? How do they love? Because both sisters have their own relationships in the story. And they're both mothers. How do they mother? How is that different?

Yeah, that's how I thought about it. And then, of course, there were days on set when I had to play both on the same day.

This was the most difficult part about acting in the Lifetime movie

Was that ever confusing playing both twins? Because at one point you're even playing one sister, Jada, who's pretending to be the other sister, Kayla, who you also play.

That was confusing to everyone on set, [Laughs] when those days were happening. When I was Jada playing Kayla, versus Kayla being Kayla, versus Jada being Jada.


Yeah, and I think that those were probably the hardest days. Jada playing Kayla, not just pretending to be her sister, but also discovering, like, who her sister really is. Things that she maybe kind of knew, but never really saw for her own eyes. And being afraid for her, the more she found out, that was the most challenging part for sure.

In some scenes, the two sisters are even interacting. What was it like to play both characters in an interaction? What were those days like on set?

It was — Those days were actually kind of tedious, because the split-screen work is very exact. You know, to make it work, a lot of movement is restricted, which kind of always sucks as an actor. You want to just, like, live the way you think you should be living.


And I relied very heavily on, like, the stand-ins that I was working with, you know? So they would watch the first performance as one character, and then I'd work with them to try to give me what I know I did in the first performance, so that I could play the other sister.

And they're not easy scenes, too. They're all about co-dependence and kind of trickery. [Laughs] And there was a lot of things going on in those scenes, a lot of moving parts. So that's my first experience doing that. I think it's my first experience working with split screen, too.

Looking back, what was the most challenging part of filming "Vanished: Searching for My Sister"? Because this is a dark movie.

I think the most challenging part for me was actually the violence. The being gripped up, and, you know, [grabs at her throat]. And I experienced, personally, just a lot of, like, people at my throat, and that was hard. It was hard, like, on those days. And I'm working with amazing actors who, like, are actually scaring the crap out of me. [Laughs] Like me, Tatyana.

And just that violence, violence against women, negotiating that, making yourself small so someone else feels bigger and maybe will leave you alone, that really touched my heart. And that's the kind of stuff that I had to wash off, you know, every day. Yeah. That was the hardest part.


What she 'hated' about her character in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

I have to ask you about "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Do you have a favorite memory of playing Ashley?

What is my favorite memory? Oh, my gosh. There's so many. I don't mean to be corny, but there really are. It was just like a dream job. Like every job kind of pales in comparison. [Laughs] Just because we had this incredible camaraderie, and we were allowed to just let our creativity loose. It's where I learned to do comedy. I had only done drama. I'd done theater before that and dramas. And so I learned how to be funny there. And, you know, I was raised on that set, like they raised me. So there's so many good memories.


It's funny as I get older, though, the things that I hated like floral dresses with — I didn't think that was cute. You know, it's, like, I wanted to be grown. They were making me — I wanted to be like Hilary. I had Hilary to look at, and I was like, "Can I wear a — I wish I could wear a suit and, like, a dope hat like all her outfits." But I really think fondly about those things now. [Laughs] Like my flower dresses and cowboy boots. And I don't know if that — I don't think that will ever come back, but — [Laughs]

There's going to be a reboot coming out next month called "Bel-Air." What did you first think when you heard about it?

I think it's really ingenious. I think I remember when the trailer came out, the independent filmmaker that did that, that's doing it with Westbrook now. But when that trailer first came out, I tweeted it. I was like, "Oh, my gosh. They totally got the essence of the story." And the essence is so good that it could be a comedy or it could be a drama.


So I think it's a really interesting way to reimagine it and make it — I'm sure the reboot is going to be — It's its own show, and I kind of like that. I like that the version of the show that we all did kind of remains in this sort of category. I think that's cool. Especially in this world of reboots, it's very unique, and I'm really excited to see it. We've all been, like, texting each other and talking about it.

No way!


Tatyana Ali reveals what it's like working with Will Smith

What is it like to work with Will Smith?

It's incredible. It's incredible. He's an incredible person to work with, to be around. He's just one of the most generous people that I know, and I mean that in every way. Like, he makes everybody feel special. You know what I'm saying? And I mean that in a true way. He's just, like, naturally curious about life. I love watching — Over the holidays, I watched the thing he did for Disney ["Welcome to Earth"]. That's like — So if you want to know what it's like, that's what he's really like. He's just, like, curious and brilliant and lovely.


And you two still text each other? That's awesome. That's really special to have, especially so early on in your career because you grew up on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."

Yes. Yes. It's very special to have early on in your career, and it's also a way to spoil you because it's not always like that unfortunately. [Laughs]

What do you think your character, Ashley, would be doing today?

Oh, I don't know. She's such a — You know, we had a nice amount of women writers on "Fresh Prince," and Ashley was kind of like this, like, feminist who didn't — She was always, like, fighting for her independence and fighting for her right to be who she wanted to be. And I don't know.

At the end, she was going off to performance school to, like, a performing arts college. I don't know. Maybe she's a playwright. Maybe she's — I could see her as a playwright. I could see her being like — I don't know. Thinking of all those moments, I could see that. Like a musical playwright or heading up some — Like a Carmen de Lavallade or somebody fabulous like that. [Laughs]


How The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air affected her acting career

How did growing up on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" affect the roles that you choose to take on today and the stories that you gravitate towards?

I'll take it from two angles. I think it's things that — The roles that I'm given, offered, are usually more in comedy, romantic comedy. Any of the dramatic work that I've done since "Fresh Prince"  has mostly been in things that not a lot of people see: short films, smaller, independent films, things that I'm doing but not necessarily, like, a lot of people are seeing. Still very valuable to me. So, I'm still, like — A film like this, ["Vanished: Searching for My Sister"], I would love to do more work like this, you know? It was so much of a challenge, and I really enjoyed it.


I think for me, though, whether it's a comedy or it's a drama or it's a horror or whatever, which I would love to do also [Laughs] — just to put it out there — or sci-fi. I would love to do sci-fi. For me, I grew up on "Fresh Prince" with James Avery and Joseph Marcell and just these incredible actors who really believed that, like, there was purpose to what we do and to the stories that we tell. Like, if you have somebody's attention, like, what are you going to say? How are you going to enrich their lives and entertain them? And so I try to look for that in everything I do, whether it's a romantic comedy where I'm just like celebrating love, celebrating black love, you know, whatever, or it's something like this where there are women missing, and this is what it looks like to care about a woman who's disappeared. All of those things are kind of — I think that's where my passion comes from: in the storytelling. And it's certainly from my education at "Fresh Prince."


"Vanished: Searching for My Sister" premieres on Lifetime on Saturday, January 22 at 8 p.m./7c.