Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Tamera Tomakili On The Importance Of Exploring Magic Johnson's Love, Cookie, In Winning Time - Exclusive

Naturally, "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" features several icons from the "Showtime Lakers" era in 1980s, from the team's new owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) to player-turned-coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke), as well as the club's dominating center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes). The series, however, largely centers on what happens after Buss' first big move with the Lakers — in 1979, when he selected Earvin "Magic" Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.

Adjusting to his new Los Angeles surroundings took some time for Johnson, who was born in Michigan and played NCAA basketball at Michigan State. And while Johnson hoped his girlfriend — and future wife — Earlitha "Cookie" Kelly (Tamera Tomakili) would make the big move to L.A. with him, Kelly opted to stay behind in Michigan in a bid to keep her beau grounded. 

"Winning Time" kicks off with a scene in November 1991, just before Johnson announces his HIV diagnosis to the world. Though Kelly married Johnson less than two months prior and found herself caught in the middle of the story, Tomakili said most of her preparation for the role in the new HBO/HBO Max series went into the depiction of the couple's early life together instead of the HIV revelation.

"I educated myself about the situation and their relationship and what they chose to do after making that announcement, [but] I definitely tried to stick in the realm of who they were in their youth and their early relationship," Tomakili told Looper in an exclusive interview. As such, Kelly is given ample time for her backstory to develop, which explores how she held her ground and became a tough "Cookie," so to speak, to keep her love with Johnson in line even though there were thousands of miles apart.

Tomakili loved telling Cookie's early story

Tamera Tomakili said she loved exploring a side of "Cookie" Kelly that's not as well-documented. After all, most people only know of Kelly after Magic Johnson's HIV diagnosis, not from before. "That's one of the things that I really wanted to explore. We know her as shy, 'I let my husband do his thing and I have my own little thing,' but we don't see her really get a voice," Tomakili told Looper. "We don't see where her roots are from. [We] know that her family is from the South and migrated to Detroit, being part of a family or raised in a single mother household with another sibling, and that her mom couldn't afford college. [In the series] we see someone who is a little bit of a tough cookie, still soft in the way that she loves and cares and devotes her time, and is loyal, but still someone who is like, 'If I don't stand my ground, if I don't stake in myself, I'm not going to make it in this world.'"

There's no doubt that Kelly speaks her mind in the series, and even at one point she calls Johnson an "a****le" before hanging up on him in a contentious phone call. "I understand that, especially with the scene in the phone call with her and Magic, you really got to think about the reality," Tomakili observed. "Everybody else outside, it doesn't matter what they think — you have to hold true to who you are. Cookie is that, and being able to show that right away, and have her walk and live and breathe in that, and knowing, 'I need to look out for me in this.' Either, 'You're going to be a part of it or you're not' is what I wanted to bring forth." 

"Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" is now on HBO and HBO Max, with a new episode dropping every Sunday through May 8.