Daniela Nieves wants more Latinas to play main characters

Credit: Todd Williamson/Peacock

“Sometimes I just want to sit back and watch a girl be a princess,” actress Daniela Nieves tells POPSUGAR. She stars in Peacock’s new Vampire Academy, based on the international best-selling books from YA and the creative mind behind the CW’s successful vampire franchise. The show follows two best friends, Sisi Stringer’s Rose as a badass fighter/guardian and Nieves’ reluctant Princess Lissa. She gets caught up in vampire politics when her family dies in a car accident and she becomes the head of her royal household.

“I just want to sit back and watch [the Latina] fall in love with the captain. I don’t want her to be the dude. I want her to be the main character.”

Obviously, “princess” is a loaded term. People use it as an insult to describe spoiled or entitled women. It has these colonial roots. The Disney pantheon has also become synonymous with a pink and frilly definition of girlhood. And in a misogynistic society (like the one we live in), anything coded as feminine is ripe for tearing down. Still, “princess” is aspirational for many girls, especially those outside of the blonde, blue-eyed, skinny beauties of yore. And Lissa gets it all – adventures, beautiful outfits, a love affair and more. For Nieves, it’s a question of who gets to be the center of attention: “I just want to sit back and watch [the Latina] fall in love with the captain. I don’t want her to be the dude. I want her to be the main character. I want to see the great love story for her because I want the great love story in my life. I want to be the main character in my life. I don’t want to feel like I’m on the sidelines.”

“When Latinas are represented, it’s often about them being Latinas.

And she gets that in “Vampire Academy,” an opportunity her manager told her to “try not to commit to” when she sent in her audition tape. Part of what makes it so enriching for Nieves is that it’s a different mode of representation that doesn’t focus on exploring identity. “Often representing Latinas is about being Latina. The point is that she is from Venezuela. She’s just struggling with being an immigrant,” she says, before claiming, “I’m already living that. I was an immigrant. I know what it’s like.” She knows there’s value in these identity-driven stories, but she wants other options, too.

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Image Credit: Jose Haro/Peacock

Nieves immigrated from Venezuela as a baby. Before she was ten, she acted in telenovelas, an experience that she knows helped her prepare for Vampire Academy, though it couldn’t be more different. For one thing, there’s just the sheer volume. Nieves recounts how in her telenovela days, “we shot maybe 100 episodes a year … and we shot maybe eight months a year.” In contrast, for Vampire Academy, we shot 10 episodes in seven months. Telenovelas did taught her how to work for hours under pressure and how to learn texts quickly. But she’s grateful for the opportunity to “take time and really be in this world, really work on this character and really see it pay off,” citing the immersive quality of Vampire Academy, which for the most part thanks to the thoughtful cinematography, costuming and more.

In addition to this high production value, “Vampire Academy” also boasts a decidedly progressive world view. The two main protagonists are Black and Latina, and their love interests and authority figures are equally different. As viewers, we bring our ideas of race to the show, but they don’t apply here. The same applies to sexuality. Characters in Vampire Academy have same-sex and opposite-sex relationships, and the show and its many characters treat them all the same. Even gender works differently. The Halls of Power are lined equally with men and women. Until you consider class – “vampire academy” society is strictly divided into three groups, with the lowest tier females, the dhampir, being forced to choose between unequal breeding relationships (a la “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and soldiers, likely to die young. However, they serve the royal Moroi.

On the other side of this divide are friends Lissa and Rose. Lissa the princess and Rose the guardian. Theirs is the central relationship, more important than any romance either of them enters into. In fact, their faces are on the show’s key art, proving the importance of their relationship. Nieves hopes the show will “help young girls realize that their female friendships are so important.”

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Image Credit: Jose Haro/Peacock

For her part, Nieves embodied both sides of Lissa and Rose’s friendship dynamic. She even read for the Rose role. But down to the nomenclature, Rose Nieves’ first major English role is so similar to the one that marked her transition from Spanish-language telenovelas. As Angie Cruz in Nickelodeon’s Every Witch Way and its spinoff WITS Academy, Nieves played the wild best friend-turned-literally-the-guardian.

“I want to do something different,” she says, “I’ve never played anything like a princess. There was never anything [like that] in my career. So I was super excited to “play Lissa”. Still, she wants to know why it’s so rare, asking, “Why can’t the Latina just be the princess?” It’s a question worth asking, especially since shows like Lord of the Rings: The Power of the Rings are starring face backlash for casting non-white actors in their fantasy roles.

“We can imagine vampires. We can imagine zombies [and] Monster. We can imagine the craziest things. How can we not imagine them being Latina? Or would they not be Korean? Or would they be black?”

Nieves calls this particular cultural phenomenon bullshit: “We can imagine vampires. We can imagine zombies [and] Monster. We can imagine the craziest things. How can we not imagine them being Latina? Or would they not be Korean? Or would they be black?” To them, “It’s just so important to do something [diverse casting] a normal thing, so hopefully in the future it won’t even be a thing. It’s just what we see – because that’s what we see in our daily lives anyway. [So]why can’t we see it on TV?”

Vampire Academy is working to make sure we can. Whatever your background, Nieves believes “you can find yourself on this show.”

“In real life there are no moroi and dhampirs, but there is definitely classism,” she says. “There is definitely discrimination. There is definitely hopelessness towards the justice system. Our show is this beautiful thing to escape to… but at the same time, [you can] Get elements of relationships, growth, and learning things about yourself that are relevant to the now.” It’s a winning combination, and one that the imagination has used since its inception to draw parallels between current events, without being too heavy-handed.

“Vampire Academy,” with its non-white female leads, is political in its existence. That’s something Nieves can identify with as a Latina who makes it in Hollywood – people like her are few and far between. And it’s even rarer for Latina actresses to take center stage. But that’s exactly what Nieves does, daring to play the princess and finding joy and contradictions in the role.

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