Camila Mendes | Smart, Ambitious, Not At All A Mean Girl
I sit down with Camila Mendes and struggle a bit to position myself on an awkward seat, somewhere in between a stool and a chair. She takes a seat herself, legs crossed, on a similar stool, and she manages to make this look not only comfortable, but elegant. As the rest of the team leaves the studio one by one, she is sure to give each a friendly wave goodbye. Somehow, she manages to remember each person’s name as well, despite the room being a flurry of looks and poses and introductions all morning. Now it is just Mendes, myself, and the manicurist who has stayed a bit longer to bring Mendes’s nails back to their signature Veronica Lodge dark red while we start to chat. This is Veronica of Archie Comics, but most recently of Riverdale, The CW series, which situates the classic characters in the present day, taking a darkly surreal look at the secrets of small towns and teen relationships.
Mendes got the start in Hollywood that every kid who did a few too many plays, including herself, dreamed of. After high school, she auditioned for the acting program at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. “I was willing to do absolutely anything to get into NYU,” she tells me. At her audition, when asked if she had any future interest in writing her own plays, she told them she had actually written a play of her own recently. “Because it was a school assignment, that I had to do, so I did it.” I love a good scam, and am now totally invested in the story.
She was soon accepted into Tisch’s Playwrights Horizons Theater School. The drama students are sorted into one of ten studios at the school, each with a different theoretical framework for teaching acting. I perk up and we say at the exact same time, “like Hogwarts.” I almost confess that I’ve never actually seen or read Harry Potter, but I am too excited to have broken the ice, not that it was difficult. She is genuinely friendly, the kind of girl you could meet in a bar bathroom and end up swapping secrets and taking selfies within a few minutes.
Mendes’s freshman year, like many of ours, was punctuated by hangovers and missed classes. However, by sophomore year, she found herself dating someone who really inspired her: serious, passionate, ambitious, and artistic in all the right ways. She connected with an agent in the city shortly thereafter. She dove head-first into a few classes, learning to think not only as an actor, but as a writer and director as well. She started to “act every scene as if [she] was directing it,” and it worked.
Then, as we love to say in Hollywood, it all happened so fast. She finished her classes a semester early, landed her role as Veronica, and shot the pilot. She graduated from NYU and attended up fronts for Riverdale the day. after. Upfronts are an annual tradition when both the stars of new pilots and returning shows are presented by the networks and do extravagant meet-and-greet events with potential advertisers, producers, and press, with the hope of selling valuable advertising slots. It’s a bit like graduation, presenting the newest and hottest shows hoping to be big hits. It’s hard for me to imagine this kind of time as anything other than exciting, but Mendes told me it was mostly stressful, and overwhelming, and she didn’t know anyone going through the same thing.
Mendes knows that she was lucky to find the right role at the right time. Her time on Riverdale has made her more confident as an actor, as she has proved to herself she’s capable of making it in the business. “We like to pretend that we don’t need validation, but before you make it, you’re always searching for validation. Am I capable? Is it ever going to happen? Will life align for me?” Mendes is a classic beauty, at the beginning of a promising career, and I am struck by her gratitude, watching her recount her insecurity. She is looking over my shoulder and I catch a glimpse of how she might have felt, a bit like the rest of us, before she found herself as an emerging actress. Veronica’s nails aside, Mendes bares little resemblance to the condescending city-slicker that colonizes the social battlefield of Riverdale.
We chat for a while about her success within the Young Adult genre. She’s quick to point out that Riverdale, now in its third season, has been popular beyond the teenage demographic. The casting, writing, and acting is solid. She points out that if there’s anything distinctly Young Adult about the show, it’s the “kitschiness,” but that’s what makes it truly nostalgic for the Real Adult viewers, the ones who actually grew up with Archie Comics. The point that Mendes makes is a good one, and a deeper theoretical argument than it sounds.
For one, capturing a teen audience is more difficult than it seems, as the audience is hyper-attuned to their own cultural nuances and hyper-critical of media marketed to them, always ready, phones in hand, to call out anything lame, dorky, or ‘off.’ The show is aware of its origins and does not try too hard to be a “modern” interpretation. It feels at times a bit ’50s, à la Archie, and at times a bit ’90s, à la David Lynch. The second comparison comes up a lot. The show’s creators and actors have been forthright about the influence of Twin Peaks, and the show rode the coattails of the reboot nicely. By drawing from influences both modern and timeless, with one foot in midcentury aesthetics and the other in the present, Riverdale resonates with everyone. Whether you’re partial to Archie’s debut in 1941, The Golden Age of Comics in the ’50s and ’60s, or Lynch on the little screen in the ’90s, “Tween Peaks” may pull a bit at your heartstrings.
Beyond Riverdale, Mendes has already shot three films. There’s The New Romantic, a rom-com about a new sugar baby with a dark twist, in theaters November 9. In The Stand-In, she plays a character similar to Veronica, a “smart, ambitious” Yale student, “not at all a mean girl—she’s a good person.” However, the project she is most excited for at the moment is Coyote Lake, her first film lead. It’s an indie-thriller, a tragedy, a mother- daughter story, a bit of a love story. She spends a few minutes lauding the genius of the film, the ways in which the characters function as the story, the aesthetic, the theme, and the message. I am amazed at the ways in which she can effortlessly move between the sides of herself as an actress and sounding more like a film critic, or even a theorist.
I think about the ways in which Mendes is Veronica, is Riverdale: equal parts something old and something new, fun and intelligent, creative and well-researched. Mendes’ artistic dexterity enabled her to transform Veronica Lodge from a two-dimensional character into 3D. That third dimension is something all of her own; a grounded self-awareness and a keen understanding of her place, and Riverdale’s, in our rapidly- evolving zeitgeist. She is well-equipped, nails sharpened and polished, to climb great heights in this industry. How am I certain of this? To put it simply, Camila Mendes is “smart, ambitious, not at all a mean girl.” She’s a good person.