Navigating fresh fame and a new relationship, the breakout star of the most tweeted-about show on television can’t explain why people are so fascinated by the part of her life where fiction blurs to reality. (We have some ideas.)
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If you’ve ever seen Riverdale—and we’re guessing you have: The show, which debuted on The CW in 2017, has amassed a zealous, ever-growing following in just three seasons—then you already know something essential about our cover girl, Camila Mendes: She is preternaturally talented. She’s the kind of talented that prevents you from watching or listening to the other people on screen—the kind of talented that, speaking entirely in the hypothetical, keeps an adult woman (who has been out of high school for the better part of two decades) binge-watching a show about high-schoolers long after she should be sleeping.
“When I read the pilot, I had the sense that this could be really magical, but you never know,” says Mendes, 24, calling from Vancouver, where Riverdale films nine months of the year. “I didn’t have an expectation, but I did have the feeling that this could be something really awesome.” Take note. This “feeling,” which Mendes mentions casually and in passing, is a way of talking about intuition, a quality that is a fundamental, intrinsic part of her astronomical success, both as an actor and a human. But we’ll get to all that later.
Riverdale is a teen drama based on the characters in the long-running Archie comic series. And while the cast is officially an ensemble, Mendes, as Veronica, is its obvious star. As a Manhattan transplant in small-town Riverdale, Mendes’ Veronica is poised and sophisticated, gutsy and self-possessed, loyal and searingly smart. In short: She is the type of character that makes television transcendent. And it can be hard to believe, watching Mendes sparkle on the small screen, that less than three years ago, she was entirely unknown, one in a sea of undoubtedly talented students graduating from New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in 2016. So how did it happen?
Let’s take it back to third grade. It’s the early aughts, and Mendes, the second daughter of a flight attendant mother and a business executive father, has just been cast in a seminal production of The Turkeys Go on Strike in her Florida elementary school. “I was a cranberry and I had my own solo song,” says Mendes. “Actually… no. I had a duet. It was a duet. I’m getting carried away,” she says, laughing. How does one bring pathos to an evergreen berry? “We sang a song about being the side dish and never the main course. I was really committed to the choice and to the emotion, and to being a really sad cranberry. The audience was laughing, and I started to get a kick out of it, realizing, ‘People enjoy this.’” Mendes’ mother, noticing that by the time her daughter was in sixth grade she had an innate sense of what an audience wanted and how to give it, enrolled her at American Heritage, a private school with a strong arts program in Plantation. Mendes thrived and in her senior year was accepted to Tisch.
Tisch was transformative, but not in the way Mendes expected. During her freshman year, she lived in the dorms and spent much of her time exploring the dynamic, effervescent energy of New York City. In other words, she partied, partied and partied some more. “I was doing well in my academic classes, but I wasn’t doing well in my theater classes because I wasn’t going. I would be hungover and skip class.” She recalls one particularly blistering moment, sneaking in late to a movement class. “My teacher yelled at me in front of everyone. He was like, ‘It’s such a shame to see you waste your talent. You need to stop making you more important than your work. Make your work more important than you.’” Mendes ran out crying, but the words made an impression. “It was a slap in the face. I was like, ‘Wait a second. I’m throwing away my freshman year. I’m ignoring what I’m really here to do. I’m over here partying, and that’s not what I want to be. That’s not who I want to become. I want to be an actress.”
By her sophomore year, Mendes was serious. She was cast as Adela in The House of Bernarda Alba, a play about generations of Latin women— Mendes’ parents moved to the United States from Brazil—that she hopes one day to make into a film. She started working at a talent agency, and on her year abroad in Prague, she took classes while simultaneously immersing herself in an avant-garde theater community. And perhaps most importantly, she learned how to advocate for her art. When one professor balked at Mendes missing class for a dress rehearsal, she was prepared. “I said, ‘Look, I’m doing great in your class. I have straight A’s. And I’m telling you I’m not going to be there today. I’m taking this class as seriously as I can, but at the end of the day, collective identity and a totalitarian regime aren’t really relevant to what I want to do as an actor. I respect you, but I’m going to go to this dress rehearsal, and I’m not going to let you punish me for it.’” And that’s exactly what she did.
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Back home in New York, Mendes got signed by the agency where she worked. “I’d seen so many people come in and out, and some who I didn’t think were that good would come out with agents. I felt this sense of confidence, like, ‘I think if they saw I was good, they would sign me.’ I didn’t know why they wouldn’t. So I auditioned, and they were like, ‘Oh my God, yes.’” (Remember what we said about intuition?) Just before graduation, the Riverdale script came across her agent’s desk. “At first I was like, ‘I can’t go out for that role. That role is not for me.’ But I realized they were looking for Latina actresses. I was like, ‘Oh, great. Cool. I can do that.’” The rest, as they say, is history.
Riverdale has been a dream, but it’s also had its stresses: for starters, an unpredictable and somewhat grueling schedule, which Mendes has cheerily adopted. “There’s no average day. Sometimes you have to be up at 5 a.m., and sometimes your call is later, but you’re working until 1 a.m. Last year, it was a little bit more chaotic, but this year, it’s become a well-oiled machine.” Still, though, weekends are the only time Mendes has to pursue projects, both personal and professional, outside of Riverdale. Between seasons two and three, she spent a few days in New Orleans filming Netflix original The Perfect Date with Noah Centineo (heartthrob of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), which comes out this summer. While it was her “first big film,” she’s adamant that it’s a supporting role. “Sometimes, articles will use your name just to promote something. I don’t want people to watch the movie and be like, ‘Where is she?’”
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It shouldn’t be a surprise that success and show business haven’t dulled Mendes’ candor, intuition or self-advocacy. If anything, it’s sharpened it. When asked about her relationship with Riverdale co-star Charles Melton, who plays Reggie, she demurs. “In my day-to-day life, I am an open book. But I’ve also developed this sixth sense. I understand how my spoken words can translate into written words and how things can appear out of context. It’s like, yeah, even though I feel comfortable talking about some things, do I really want to see it written over and over again? Sometimes, it’s not really worth it.” What she will tell us? Working with Melton is “great.” The on-screen romance between Veronica and Reggie was in the works long before the relationship IRL, and no, she doesn’t tell the writers what to do. “The show is fictional. I don’t have an attachment to it. All [I’m attached] to is my character. Whatever direction the writers take, I will make it work. I am adaptable. I always make it work.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMES WHITE; STYLING BY JACQUELINE ZENERE; Hair by Kylee Heath at Starworks Artists; Makeup by Pati Dubroff at Forward Artists; Manicure by Stephanie Stone at Forward Artists