Daniella De Jesús is a product of New York, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, three spaces that have provided her with a profound education and endless material for a career as an actor and playwright. After four years in Netflix’s hit series Orange is the New Black, De Jesús finds herself turning to playwriting with her latest work, Pa’ Ti Tengo de Todo, which deals with generational trauma.
But she admits she’s still trying to figure out who she is as an artist. Style is one of the tools she’s chosen to figure that out. Currently, she sports blonde, curly hair and calls her style a mix of 90s hip hop and 70s disco.
She spoke to Emperifollá’s Andrea Devoto about her newfound freedom to create her own look, how she got her role in OITNB, and her identity as an artist.
On Her Career
I started taking acting classes when I was about 11. It was something I always knew I wanted to do. I’ve always been pretty shy, but as a kid, I found that if I could do impressions of my family members, then I got attention and I was funny. I could get people to hear me because speaking wasn’t easy for me. That was my way into acting.
As an actor, I was on Orange Is the New Black for four seasons playing Zirconia. As a playwright, I just had a reading of one of my new plays, Pa’ Ti Tengo de Todo, which is about generational trauma – a theme that I like to write about, especially as it pertains to Dominican and Puerto Rican cultures.
I’ve been trying to figure out who I am as an actor and as an artist. I try to approach every character as a real person who can teach me something, just like how I would approach almost any interaction with people like I think all people have value. When you are playing a character that’s not a very good person, you need a way in without judgment.
I went to Tisch at NYU. So you learn acting, playwriting, design, directing. I started taking playwriting classes and I liked it. I used to feel like I was reluctantly a playwright or reluctantly a writer, only doing it because other people told me I was good at it. I still don’t like the physical act of sitting down and writing. It’s so lonely. Finally having a full draft and getting to hear it with actors and being in a rehearsal room, it’s one of my favorite things. That makes it worth it. As a playwright, I really try to write for my younger self and for the people I grew up with. I feel like that’s been sort of healing for me and for my community I think.
My style is a cross between a 90s backup dancer and 70s glam. One of my style icons is Fran Drescher/ Fran Fine, but her style is shaped by Puerto Ricans. She went to beauty school for a while, but also the women that she studied were Puerto Rican. There’s an interview where she talks about how much they influenced her. Gold jewelry, I love it, that’s very inspired by my grandma. And 90s hip hop and 70s glam were fueled by Black and Puerto Rican communities in New York. I’m a big fan of Donna Summer, Selena.
One of the first movies that I saw in the theater was Selena. After she becomes a designer, I was like, “I want to do that.” That day I went home and started designing little outfits from my Barbies. I used to collect Barbie dolls, so that was also a way into fashion and beauty too. Not in a perfect way because none of those looked like me. Also, my grandma. She used to wear lots of jewelry. She would have gold rings stacked, gold necklaces, wear tight red pants.
I was maybe in 6th grade when I started wearing makeup. I think I started with lip gloss, mascara, and eyeliner. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just felt like I should be doing this. It didn’t feel like anyone was forcing me. It was sort of something that I was driven toward but I didn’t really know why. I didn’t understand what was flattering or what was going to make me look better or what was expressive of who I was.
I used to have really skinny eyebrows in high school. I started getting my eyebrows done in the 5th grade because I used to have a unibrow. At one point, my mom was like, “Okay, let’s take care of this.” In high school, I figured I could save some money if I learned how to do my own brows. I started tweezing but it was too much. I also wore a fake beauty mark. I don’t know why. That was not a good look at all. I loved over accessorizing. I would wear bangles up here and silly different color berets. I also used to flat-iron my hair. I would also wear those shirts that were kind of like dresses over jeans, like Juno but not cute. I was getting inspiration from Wizards of Waverly Place or That’s So Raven.
I think beauty has to do with joy, fun, and playfulness. I think this year is the most confident I’ve ever felt in my life and a big part is finally getting to decide what I look like. I’m having fun with it. Now I only wear clothes that bring me joy and I’m happy to wear them. That’s when I feel the most beautiful. Some outfits I feel like when I put it all together it feels like a character that I’m building. My favorite part is putting the period on it. Like if I have an outfit together and I’m like, “This needs a red lip,” and then putting that on. That final touch is my favorite part, it’s like garnish on food.
I loved growing up in New York. I grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Something that I didn’t realize until college is that obviously not everyone has the same experience as me, like not everyone grows up in a multicultural neighborhood, where everyone’s different but you are all sort of coming from a similar point of view. Everyone I went to school with growing up was Black, Caribbean, and or, Latinx. I didn’t really know anybody who was white, except maybe some of the teachers. I never felt like the odd person out, which is something that I hear from a lot of people of color, that that was their experience growing up. I always just felt very comfortable in school and in my neighborhood. We could play on the street in front of our house for hours and it felt like that whole block was ours. Our neighbors would take turns watching us. It felt like a real community.
I feel like in the past 10 years or so Buschwick has become this artist community where young people go and become artists. I was living there before, I know so many artists that were living there before, a certain demographic lived there. It was so disheartening to experience that and not having a trash can on your corner until you had a white neighbor or just the idea that this neighborhood didn’t have value until white people moved in, that there wasn’t any fertile ground for creativity before white people moved in. That was really frustrating for me as an artist born and bred in Bushwick.
On Orange Is The New Black
I loved working on Orange Is the New Black. I got it right out of college, so it was a blessing to be on a set with that many women – in front and behind the camera. They all looked different, all came from different experiences. A lot of them I grew up watching on TV and in theater in New York, like Selenis Leyva and Elizabeth Rodriguez. Getting to work with them was a dream come true. I was also a big fan of the show beforehand, so I’d be walking to set and humming the theme song and be like, “I’m here. I’m doing it.” It was trippy.
I had an audition for another character before but I hadn’t booked it and they called me back for Zirconia after that. I was not going to give them an excuse, I wanted to get that part. For my audition for Zirconia, I only had one day to prepare. I got home, I put on some baggy jeans, I put on weights in the jeans, then I put on a pair of my brother’s Timberlands and then I walked around the house, working on my two lines being that weighed down. I don’t know why I made that choice but I just needed to be weighted down. I made this choice that I would keep my hands in my shirt and did that for this audition. A week later, I found out that I got it.
Every now and then I had to remind myself it was real life and that I was a working actor. A lot of moments I felt like I didn’t deserve it. Imposter syndrome kicks in, especially as a young woman of color, you don’t feel like you did enough work to get there. Obviously, I did or I wouldn’t have been there. That was a big hurdle to get over and I don’t think I got over it until maybe the last season.
What I liked about Zirconia and hadn’t seen from a woman of color on TV is that she was very assertive and very sexual but not typically pretty. I feel like we’ve seen a lot of assertive and sexual Latinas who look like Sofia Vergara but not any who look like Zirconia. I was kind of inspired by her confidence in who she is and what she wants and how to get it. For me, that was important.
Photographed by Maridelis Morales Rosado
Interviewed by Andrea Devoto
Edited by Frances Solá-Santiago