After playing a "Riverdale" teen for so long, Camila Mendes wants to surpass your expectations

The "Música" star on why she started producing, what makes a good rom-com and Brazilian representation

By Olivia Luppino


Published April 9, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Camila Mendes (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Camila Mendes (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Everything is going according to plan for Camila Mendes' career. In the past two months, Mendes has stared in two very different but equally heart-warming romantic comedies: “Upgraded” and, more recently, “Música." In “Música,” she plays Isabella, a young woman of Brazilian heritage. “I feel like I have been waiting for this moment my whole life,” she said of the opportunity for her own cultural background to be explicitly a part of her character's story. 

While Mendes is excited to highlight Brazilian culture — and set the record straight that Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish — she knows that representation for Latinas in film and TV can happen in more subtle ways, too. “Something I tell myself a lot is that me existing in Hollywood and being Brazilian-American is enough,” she said on "Salon Talks." 

“Música," writer/director/star Rudy Mancuso's loosely autobiographical feature directorial debut, follows a young man with synesthesia and a passion for puppetry (Mancuso) as he figures out his future while juggling the conflicting desires of the women who make up three corners of what Mendes calls a “love square" — his mother, his ex-girlfriend and his new romantic interest, played by Mendes. 

After playing high schooler Veronica Lodge on "Riverdale" for seven seasons from 2017 to 2023, Mendes has one simple goal: “I just want to be in good s**t,” she said. Now 29, the actress is using her decade of industry experience to take on bigger roles behind the camera, including executive producing.

“At first, it was a protective measure, a way for myself to ensure that I would be proud of the project,” she said. Her time in Hollywood taught Mendes a lot about shielding herself from “disappointments,” which in turn helped her discover that she loves having more control and voicing her creative opinions, which she can do as a producer. “I actually have a lot to contribute in this way, in a way that I don't think anybody expects of me,” she said.

Mendes knows that the legacy of the confident, self-assured Veronica Lodge will follow her in future casting decisions, but she doesn't mind being "stuck" playing these kinds of characters. It turns out, she shares that self-assuredness with them. "Even though I get insecure about things, I feel like I'm meant to do this, so I think that's this natural confidence that people pick up on that translates to my roles," she said. 

You can watch Mendes’ full “Salon Talks” interview here or read a copy of a transcript from our conversation below. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You're starring in two rom-coms in something like two months. Did you always know that this was a genre you wanted to get into?

Not really. I think it was just more of a coincidence that these two projects came out at the same time. I definitely shot them in the same year, but I always categorized “Música” as a different thing than just a rom-com. I mean, I love rom-coms. I'm not s***ting on rom-coms, but “Música” felt like so much more because it wasn't just a rom-com. It had this Brazilian American cultural aspect. It had this synesthetic perspective, which I'd never seen before. It's a musical; it's also a coming-of-age story. I just think "rom-com" was probably the most appealing way to package all of that together, but the truth is that this movie has so many genres going for it.

There's such a rom-com resurgence right now and I'm really excited about it.

Me too.

Are you feeling that excitement from fans?

Yes, a thousand percent. Especially with “Upgraded,” as we were saying, that one I felt really struck a chord with people. Obviously, I love the movie and I was excited about it, but it was genuinely surprising to see how many people were craving that kind of rom-com resurgence.

I know that you said that “The Devil Wears Prada” was a touchpoint for “Upgraded.” What were your touchpoints for a “Música”? Because you're right, it's not just a rom-com. It's a lot of different things, so was there anything you were referencing or is it really just something all its own?

"He seems to think that I exude a natural confidence, and to me, it's always strange to hear that because I feel really insecure about things."

It definitely is something all on its own. There aren't that many Brazilian films in Hollywood, or Brazilian-American films in Hollywood, but I think what it immediately reminded me of was “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” It had very similar elements to it. I think the puppet thing helped with that, but also he's got the ex-girlfriend and this new girl that he meets and he's lost, and I think there's ... a very similar storyline in “Música.” But then it also gave “500 Days of Summer” a little bit, and we say, “La La Land,” I think because that's the most recent modern musical that we can all think of, even though I feel like it's very tonally different. But there is that sort of romantic musical feeling with this too. 

I see all of those in this, absolutely. Now that you've been in two, and you're obviously a fan of rom-coms, what would you say makes a good rom-com?

Chemistry above all else. I got really lucky that I had chemistry with Archie in “Upgraded” because we'd never met in person before filming, and same thing with “Música.” I'd never met Rudy before we [started filming]. Obviously, we met over Zoom, but I didn't actually meet him in person until the day before filming. So, I got very lucky with both projects. I had a natural chemistry. A lot of actors these days are getting offers for roles just in their inbox and they're not really doing chemistry tests, and it's not like that magical feeling of finding two people who just have a really beautiful chemistry.

Talking about “Música” now more specifically, I loved this movie. I never thought I’d be into puppetry, either, but I even enjoyed that.

It works for some reason.

Can you tell viewers what to expect with “Música”? 

It's so hard to boil it all into one thing because the truth is it's not what you expect at all, and people keep telling us that. They keep saying, "This is unlike anything I've ever seen before." It feels like such an original, fresh idea. We call it a non-musical musical. It's based on Rudy's life. About 80% of it is real and things that have actually happened to him, and it's told through the eyes of a synesthete. 

"I constantly have to remind people that I don't speak Spanish."

Rudy experiences a condition called synesthesia, which is basically when your sensory wires get tripped up so you can hear Tuesday and smell an orange, or there's just a mixing of the senses. For Rudy, it's rhythmic association where he organizes everyday sounds into rhythm, into a musical construct. This movie is making music a character in that Rudy is constantly seeing these musical sequences around him that only he sees and nobody else is seeing, so it's got a really unique perspective. 

It's set in New Jersey. He's got his mom in real life playing his mother in the film, and he's balancing his relationship with his mother and his relationship with his ex-slash-on-and-off-girlfriend and his relationship with my character, Isabella, who is the new girl in his life. He is caught in between these three women, and it's what we're calling a love square instead of a love triangle.

Across many of your projects have a through line of these self-assured, confident, young female characters. Your character in “Música” fits this description too. Is there something that draws you to these roles?

I think it makes sense because my first big role was a role where I played a very confident character, but I also think — I was actually talking to Rudy about this last night — he seems to think that I exude a natural confidence. It's always strange to hear that because I feel really insecure about things and I'm very in my head all the time. 

I think it's less confidence and more, as you said, self-assuredness. I don't have this feeling, necessarily, of, “I don't belong.” Even though I get insecure about things, I feel like I'm meant to do this, so I think that's this natural confidence that people pick up on that translates to my roles. I booked a role that was very confident and it just kind of stuck, and now I'm stuck playing confident characters.

You're someone who I'm always excited to see on screen and I'm always rooting for you, and that's because we have something very important in common. We're both Latina.

Where are you from?

I'm Puerto Rican.

Amazing. Did you grow up here?

Yes, I grew up here, but my family's Puerto Rican, so I have that whole side. I know you’re Brazilian. Now you're in a movie that's all about Brazilian culture and highlighting it. What's it like playing a character where your background is so much a part of the story this time around?

It's amazing because I feel like I have been waiting for this moment my whole life. I have been auditioning or getting offers for roles that are all Spanish-speaking, and that's been tough because I constantly have to remind people that I don't speak Spanish ... [or why I'm] not auditioning for or not accepting a role, because I have to explain to people that the right people will realize that this isn't OK. I would hate to see a Puerto Rican playing a Brazilian in something and trying to sound like she speaks Portuguese. That would be insulting and offensive to me because I know there are so many able Brazilian people out there who could play it. It just felt really nice to finally, effortlessly, step into a role and embrace my Brazilian culture and embrace the fact that it has nuances that people don't even know about.

Representation is something that's important to you and it's something you speak a lot about. When you're thinking about future projects and dream roles, how does identity play into that? 

Something I tell myself a lot is that me existing in Hollywood and being Brazilian American is enough. I don't feel this pressure to make myself only be a part of stories that are about Latin representation. “Música” obviously is that and I'm very happy to finally get the chance to do that, but ultimately, I just want to be in good s**t. I just want to do good projects and be excited by the things that I do. Ultimately, I think the best representation is just seeing people like yourself who are thriving and who are being admired for their work and their talent, just like anybody else.

I know you said with “Upgraded,” having the name Ana Santos, that's enough. And I was like, “Absolutely.”

Yes, and even just being Ana Santos with an “S,” there's something about that that feels very like, that's how the Portuguese descent, that's how it would be spelled, so I was very mindful of little details like that.

Speaking of those little details, I know you're stepping into more producing roles with “Música” and with “Upgraded.” What made you want to start getting behind the camera? 

"Existing in Hollywood and being Brazilian American is enough. I don't feel this pressure to make myself only be a part of stories that are about Latin representation."

At first, it was a protective measure, a way for myself to ensure that I would be proud of the project. I've had experiences in the past — I've gone through a decade of Hollywood already — and I've had my disappointments. So I think for me, I was like, “OK, I want to make sure that I get to have creative authority and contribute to these stories in a way that's more meaningful.” It started as a protective measure and it kind of evolved into a genuine love for it because I think I have a personality type that lends itself to producing. I definitely like more control. I am very vocal about my creative opinions.

When I was at NYU, I studied at a theater school there. They divide everybody into seven different studios, and the studio that I got placed in was called Playwrights Horizons and they were all about creating well-rounded artists. We didn't just do acting. We did design, we did directing, we did producing, playwriting, everything. At first, I was like, "Well, I don't want anything to do with any of those other mediums. I just want to be an actor."

In the last few years, I've realized how much that has helped me and how now I step into that role more effortlessly because I spent 10 years on a TV show. I have a lot of experience. I actually have a lot to contribute in this way, in a way that I don't think anybody expects of me. Producing has turned into this other career that I really love.

Bringing it back to this movie, do you feel like you're a Rudy or an Isabella, when you look ahead at where you see your career going post the success of “Riverdale” and now these projects?

I wouldn't say I'm either because I think Rudy is very uncertain and a little bit too scattered, and Isabella's very grounded but she's also very OK with not knowing the future. I'm very future-oriented and I need to know what's next, and I am always trying to come up with a plan.

By Olivia Luppino

Olivia Luppino is a producer at Salon. Previously, she wrote about culture, fashion and lifestyle for The Cut and Popsugar.

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