For decades, Nickelodeon has been an outlet kids could rely on for entertainment by their peers. As each generation of viewers grew up so did the network’s stars, with notable names like Kenan Thompson, Emma Roberts, and Ariana Grande graduating to Hollywood stardom. But it’s not easy making the transition from getting slimed to primetime. Daniella Perkins, star of Nickelodeon’s hit comedy series Knight Squad, is squarely positioned to make that leap next.
At 18 years old, the bubbly entertainer is 10 steps ahead of the pack thanks to a massive following first drawn to her via viral videos on Musical.ly (now known as TikTok) and YouTube. If personality is social currency, then Perkins is richer than the princess she plays on TV. She’s energetic, charismatic, and not afraid of leaning into her silly side, making her hard not to watch.
“It’s very apparent times are changing… YouTubers are now actors and actors are now doing YouTube. Hey, Will Smith,” Perkins says with a laugh. “I’m a really silly person and I hope that shows in my vlogs. I just embrace my weirdness and hope that it makes someone smile or not scared to be themselves.”
“It means everything to me to play a character girls of color can connect with. When you’re little, seeing someone on screen that looks like you really sticks with you.”
On Knight Squad, Perkins plays Ciara, a knight in training with a huge secret—she’s actually a princess in disguise. Yep, Perkins can sword fight, slay a photo shoot, and leave you in stitches. Today she’s channeling all that infectious energy into the camera for a shoot with Champion. The California native will help debut the brand’s new motocross collection during this year’s ComplexCon in Long Beach. It’s a long a day on set, but as Perkins dances to a mix of pop songs and ratchet rap that might make the brass at Nickelodeon blush, the fashion-loving actress makes each shot look effortless.
“I love fashion so much. Top Shop and Urban Outfitters have a few dozen of my paychecks. I’m still sad about that but I cry in cute outfits,” says Perkins, who recently hit up her first New York Fashion Week. “My personal style says I’m not afraid to try something new. I’m always playing with wigs or different hairstyles. Play with your style as much as possible. You could learn something new about yourself with the different things you try.
One thing Perkins is still learning is how to navigate Hollywood as a woman of mixed race. Having been born to a black father and white mother, Perkins identifies as a black woman but, in an industry that often relies on neat classifications, casting directors have had difficulty categorizing the young starlet.
“It’s hard for me to feel accepted sometimes as a mixed race actress,” Perkins admits. “For some auditions I’m not black enough, but no part of me could ever pass as a white woman. Recently I went on a few auditions that ended up all going to blonde actresses, but I’d never go out for something intended for someone darker.”
With this admission, Perkins displays an awareness of the privilege that can also come with being fair-skinned or ethnically ambiguous—in the colorism hierarchy, it still positions her over those with darker skin. Biracial actress Amandla Stenberg—whom Perkins looks up to and considers “amazing”—echoed a similar sentiment earlier this year when she explained why she dropped out of contention for the role of Shuri in Black Panther.
“These are all dark-skinned actors playing Africans, and I feel like it would have just been off to see me as a biracial American with a Nigerian accent just pretending that I’m the same color as everyone else in the movie,” Stenberg said at the time. “That was really challenging, to make that decision, but I have no regrets. I recognize 100 percent that there are spaces that I should not take up.”
Perkins agrees and acknowledges the plight of darker-skinned actresses who have a hard time landing quality roles, while being clear that representation is important for her, too. Truth be told, seeing a mixed-race princess knight on a major network like Nickelodeon is a feat for diversity, one that only seems possible today. Gen Z is the most tech savvy, social media-fluent, and racially diverse population ever, and Perkins is the multiracial, multiplatform star perfectly suited for this time.
“It’s hard for me to feel accepted sometimes as a mixed race actress. For some auditions I’m not black enough, but no part of me could ever pass as a white woman.”
The visibility of her character is not lost on Perkins. But she hopes that during her career color-blind casting becomes the norm.
“It means everything to me to play a character everyone can relate to but more importantly girls of color can connect with. When you’re little, seeing someone on screen that looks like you really sticks with you,” she explains. “I was talking with someone my age recently who didn’t realize why it’s so impactful to have actors of multiple races play powerful parts. Although we’ve come so far, we’re still very far from where we need to be. It really just made me more aware that not everyone understands how much representation is still lacking on screen.
“It makes me so happy to see movies like Crazy Rich Asians too, though,” she continues. “Hopefully we can come to the point where TV and film can have multiracial stars without it being newsworthy. I pray one day it’s just the norm.”
It’s no wonder that when asked who she’d like to work with, Perkins mentions another multiracial actor whose personality has overshadowed any mention of his race: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Playing the action hero’s daughter on the big screen would be a dream come true for Perkins. She points to Johnson and his frequent co-star Kevin Hart as two role models who flawlessly mix humor and action, which is something she would like to master as her career evolves.
“I would love to play a badass woman of color in a superhero movie,” Perkins says. “And put my stage combat from Knight Squad to use.”
Then again, she can also see herself as a heroine in a romantic comedy. “I would really like to play the lead in a rom com,” Perkins says. “I just love ‘love.’ I want to continue playing powerful female role models in both comedy and drama.”
As Perkins already knows, from navigating social and traditional media stardom, there’s no need to choose one path.
“I think social media has rounded me as an actor. I have different views than other actors sometimes because I see the changes happening quicker than they do,” she says. “I feel like I know how to connect more with my fans than the average actor does because of social media. Being able to connect with people, whether in a scene or online, is what I live for.”