‘Winning Time’s Carina Conti: Getting Paula Abdul’s ‘Vote Of Confidence’ Was The ‘Best Surprise’

Carina Conti plays a young Paula Abdul at the start of her career on HBO's 'Winning Time.' HL spoke EXCLUSIVELY with Carina about Paula's 'grit,' why she was initially 'shy' in reaching to the pop legend, and more.

Carina Conti
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Paula Abdul is the latest star to come into the fold on Winning Time. Carina Conti stars as a young Paula just getting her start as a Los Angeles Lakers cheerleader. Paula would eventually become the head choreographer of the Laker Girls and evolve into a music and dance sensation.

Carina spoke EXCLUSIVELY with HollywoodLife and said learning about Paula has been one of the most “humbling experiences” for her. The actress/dancer admitted that she was initially “pretty shy” in reaching out to Paula but meeting her by chance and then getting her “vote of confidence” meant everything to her. Read our full Q&A below:

Carina Conti
Carina Conti as Paula Abdul on ‘Winning Time.’ (HBO)

When you started reading for this role, did you know it was for Paula Abdul? Was it just for a Laker Girl? Tell me a little bit about like the audition process.
Carina Conti: I knew from the very beginning that this was for Paula Abdul. They never used any code names, were never obscure about it. It was actually so helpful because right off the bat, I was able to start doing research to figure out how to wear my hair, what kind of outfit she might be wearing, makeup, and all of that. I think it would have been a very different audition if I hadn’t known because I really did my best to tailor it specifically to what I thought she might have been like at that time.

When it comes to research, she started out as a Laker Girl and has since become a global icon. Where did you begin and what was the most helpful to you?
Carina Conti: Getting to learn about Paula has been one of the most humbling experiences so far for me. The more I learned about her, the more I respect her, the more I admire her, and the more I want to be like her in a sense that she was only 18-19 when she auditioned for the Laker Girls. She didn’t get in her first time. She had to audition three or four times in a single day to get onto this team, and the way that that informs who she is… she’s exactly the kind of friend that I would want to have as a real human being. I wish I had that kind of grit, that kind of determination, that kind of self-belief at that time, that kind of capacity for rejection. Can you imagine? She really is incredible and has always been special.

You have to have a very healthy level of confidence to keep doing that over and over and face rejection. But you also have to be competent in your talent and abilities to know that you’re worthy of being there.
Carina Conti: I really think that’s what it comes down to, and that’s what is so cool about this series. It’s really just a powder keg of people like that. People who are exceptional at what they do, and who believe in themselves on behalf of the fact that they are exceptional at what they do. You get to watch all these people come together and just fight for the chance to do what they do.

Did you look into what the Laker Girls’ training was like? Was there anything that intrigued you?
Carina Conti: There is this one video on YouTube. It’s almost like a documentary, but I really think it’s a halftime special. It features the Laker Girls, and I think it’s in 1980. It’s fascinating because they are all professional dancers. Rehearsals were unpaid performances or very minimally paid, and you trained so hard. All of these dancers, the way that their testimonies are just so passionate and filled with love, and then you get to see them each do the type of dance that is their forte. There’s like a contemporary dancer. There’s like a traditional Chinese dancer. They’re so diverse and so talented. It’s humbling how hard they work for such little reward really.

Carina Conti
Carina Conti as Paula Abdul during her Laker Girl era. (HBO)

What is your background when it comes to dance and what is your specialty?
Carina Conti: I’ve been a dancer my whole life. I grew up doing classical ballet. I did that until I graduated from high school, and then I pursued competitive hip hop through college when I moved to LA. I’ve been predominantly doing like jazz-funk, heels. I would really love to start taking ballet classes again. I am so grateful that I have a background in that because technique always comes back to ballet. It would be a good challenge for me to bring that back into the mix.

Paula was recently on The Talk and we saw that amazing clip of you talking about how you met her by chance and her reaction to that. Since the show’s premiere, have you spoken to her? What’s been your relationship with her?
Carina Conti: I think I’ve been a little shy because I have so much admiration for her. I actually wasn’t sure because it isn’t, as far as I know, an authorized show. I didn’t know how she felt about it, so I was pretty shy in reaching out. I just tried to come from a place of absolute respect and absolute humility. Getting to meet her months ago by chance was just a godsend. It was complete happenstance, and it made me feel so grateful that she received me the way that she did. And then finally really getting to hear her reaction on The Talk was the best surprise. I listened to it in my bedroom alone. I just sat there for a second, and then I laughed until I cried because I didn’t realize how nervous I was about earning her vote of confidence. It mattered so much to me, and I didn’t think it was something that I would get. It wasn’t something I counted on, so it was just the best surprise.

Throughout this journey of playing her, what’s been something maybe that you discovered about her that maybe you didn’t know and that you maybe realized about her that you just hadn’t before?
Carina Conti: She’s really hard worker. She’s incredibly driven. She has a lot of grit, and that’s one of my favorite things about her. That’s something that I recognize in myself and something I’m incredibly proud of. The way that she fought for her spot on the Laker Girls is exceptional. The way that she became the head choreographer within a year of being on the team, even though she was one of the youngest members, even though she was probably the shortest member… exceptional. The way that she worked on her singing after she was criticized is exceptional. She’s incredible.

Carina Conti
Carina Conti plays a young Paula Abdul. (Shutterstock)

As a dancer yourself who has seen countless numbers of choreographed routines, how did you feel from a dancer’s point of view of the Laker Girls’ routine? Are you a fan of them? 
Carina Conti: You have to just embrace that era wholeheartedly I think because what Paula was doing was so new for that era. It was cutting edge. From within, she had a sense of what was coming next. She was part of defining what the next era of dance looked like, and that’s how she became the Jacksons’ choreographer. She became a trendsetter just by following what was in her heart, so I embrace the choreography with the same kind of chutzpah and joy that I imagined she would have.

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