It’s 2016, and Daniella Pineda can’t stop crying. Pineda, who never planned on becoming an actress and at this time was known for TV roles on The Originals and The Detour, thought she had gotten used to rejection by now. But she found herself unprepared for the pain of coming this close to landing a life-changing Marvel gig (more to come on the superhero part that wasn’t quite meant to be). Luckily, Hollywood not only taketh away but occasionally actually giveth as well, and later that same year she would end up in a similarly star-launching franchise: She plays dinosaur doctor Zia Rodriguez in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, in theaters June 22.
“Today feels like my wedding day,” Pineda tells me giddily when we meet up on a mid-June morning at NeueHouse Hollywood, the swanky work space where her publicity team has its offices. It’s just hours before the film holds its star-studded premiere, and members of her Oakland-based extended family have flown in for the festivities. I suggest to the 31-year-old Pineda that the next 10 days before the film opens in theaters are akin to the last 10 days before the rest of her life, and she is quick to agree: “A year before, I was in a rat-infested apartment. So, the hardest part is, I’ve experienced the top of the Christmas tree, and I’m afraid it’s going to be all downhill from here.”
On the contrary, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas for her for quite some time. Self-deprecating and charming, stunning but relatable, Pineda’s star quality is undeniable, even if she herself never envisioned an acting career and instead studied radio journalism at Mills College in Oakland, intent on becoming a war correspondent. (“Very happy I didn’t pick that lifestyle,” she says now.) But she was unable to shake her love for writing and directing, and in between doing “every job under the sun” (read: cleaning houses; waiting tables; working in a company’s IT department, where she betrayed her inexperience by earnestly asking one day at work, “What does IT stand for?”), she found time to create a series of YouTube videos poking fun at Hollywood stardom. Her now-manager spotted the videos, and thus began her own path to, well, Hollywood stardom.
“I first knew of Daniella through her sketch-comedy videos, and I thought of her as smart, funny and scrappy, and of course, unfairly beautiful,” Master of None alum Noël Wells, who cast Pineda in the 2017 indie dramedy Mr. Roosevelt, tells Playboy. Says Wells, who wrote, directed and stars in the feature: “At some point during the shoot, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, shit—we have a legitimate movie star on our hands.’”
Oh shit, indeed. And if you’re only familiar with Pineda as someone who casts spells or heals raptors, you’ll probably be surprised by how much she loves comedy—she adored Ace Ventura growing up—and that she’s constantly hilarious. “People never get me right,” Pineda tells me. “I’m either deeply underestimated—people don’t know that I have a knowledge of film and cinema, or that I have other interests [outside of Hollywood]. And people don’t know that I can do comedy and that I went into the business only wanting to do comedy, never wanting to do drama.”
She worked for a public radio station in San Francisco and tried her hand at horror screenwriting but until her satirical YouTube videos caught the eye of a Hollywood manager, acting wasn’t on her radar: “It didn’t seem realistic.”
Daniella Pineda thought she had, if not a face for radio, certainly a mind for it. “I love NPR, and I thought working somewhere like that would be so intellectually stimulating,” says the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom actress, who majored in sociology and radio journalism at Mills College in California. After graduating, she landed a fellowship at San Francisco-based public radio station KALW and was on the path to her dream career, covering stories about poverty and racism in the Bay Area.
But in 2009, “the economy was shit,” she says. “It’s hard to find a well-paying job [in radio], and I was intimidated.” She decided to chase another passion — film — and moved to New York in hopes of writing and producing horror movies. Though Pineda, who was adopted at 16 by her aunt, a former Toyota exec, and her uncle, an engineer (her biological parents “are not really in the picture,” she says, “but I won the love jackpot”), did theater as a kid, acting wasn’t on her radar. “It didn’t seem realistic.”
But a series of satirical YouTube videos she created and starred in caught the attention of manager Kirsten Ames, who convinced her to consider acting. Pineda soon booked small parts on Homeland, Inside Amy Schumer and The Vampire Diaries, which led to a series regular role on spinoff The Originals. But playing paleoveterinarian Zia Rodriguez in Universal’s $170 million dinosaur sequel, bowing June 22 in the U.S., is a big leap for Pineda, whose prior feature work was a trio of small indies.
“Even though it was the biggest accomplishment I’d ever had, I was by myself in a London flat and I was really lonely,” says Pineda (who describes herself as “taken but not married”) of Fallen Kingdom’s 2017 shoot. She found solace in her first love — audio storytelling — and discovered Last Podcast on the Left, which explores all manner of true-life horror: “serial killers, cults, MK Ultra, all the good stuff,” she says. “I’m going to donate a big chunk of my next big check to them on Patreon.”