Camila Mendes Always Keeps Her Cool
Story by Katherine Gillespie / Photography by Conor Cunningham / Styling by Nina Cheb-Terrab
07 April 2021
What actually is the CW's Riverdale? An ambrosia salad of murder mysteries, dance routines and stan-fueled love triangles, the popular teen show deviates from its Archie Comics source material and zigzags instead towards Twin Peaks by way of Scream and Gossip Girl. Its writers' room has no respect for timeline, genre or the sanity of professional recap writers. Season five, currently on mid-year hiatus, randomly takes place almost a decade after season four left off; we learn that during that downtime Archie fought in a miscellaneous war and Betty joined the FBI. Veronica, meanwhile, moved to New York, had a Safdie brothers moment and married a Wall Street dude.
"When we get a script, I know what to expect," says Camila Mendes, whose dark horse character steals Archie from his canonical love interest in Riverdale's first episode and proceeds to open her own speakeasy before graduation. "And it's usually going to be something absurd and insane that could not possibly make sense. I feel like logic can be boring on a show like ours, you know?"
Over the past four years mostly spent on set in Vancouver, she and her castmates have learned to go with the flow. Bright and conversational over the phone from Canada, where she is effectively trapped until June due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Mendes says that she can easily approach showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa with any questions. "But I come from a school of thought where what's written is what's written, and my job as an actor is to come in and serve the writing. That's what they taught me in acting school. So I try to live by that."
Acting school was New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where Mendes made friends with fellow student Maggie Rogers and spent a lot of her time "rolling on the floor, doing pelvic exercises and avant garde performances." Not the most logical preparation for Riverdale ("I wasn't one of those actors who had just moved to Hollywood and was trying to hustle my way through — I was playing Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz in Angels in America"), but the training served her well. She's a Teen Choice-awarded scene stealer, balancing Veronica's mean girl origins with a peppy Tumblr-gen feminism.
"I never expected that I was going to be on a show that was that successful and has such a cult following," the 26-year-old explains. "And that probably wasn't initially what I had wanted for my career. But now that I have it, I'm like, 'Oh my god, this is amazing.'"
Born to Brazilian parents in Virginia, Mendes grew up in Florida before moving to New York. She ended up on the theater track at Tisch after white lying during her admissions interview. "They asked, 'Have you ever written any plays?' and I was like, 'Actually, yes I have.' But the plays I had written were literally just for a class assignment where it wasn't my choice. They jotted down some notes, and the next thing I know I'm in a studio called Playwrights Horizons."
Tisch was a transformative experience, and one she speaks of a little wistfully: "I so desperately want to reconnect with that part of myself. I miss theater school, I miss acting like a rabbi. I miss being able to do that." She got plenty of playwriting done there — enough to realize that her skills lie elsewhere. "I know my place," she laughs. "I've experienced writing enough, where I know that I actually would never want to be a writer. And now because of that, I really appreciate good writers. I really understand the difficulty of writing a good script. And I feel like I have maybe more of an ability to critically evaluate a script."
After graduating in 2016, Mendes booked Riverdale with only an IKEA commercial on her resume. Filming episodes back-to-back takes up ten months of each year, and while she's thrilled to have steady work on a smash hit show, the experience has sometimes been a strain.
"The main skill that I've picked up is being quick on my feet," she says. "We don't really get scripts much ahead of time, we don't get to sit with them and do the work. I come from this background of being super prepared and breaking down my scripts — I think I did that for the first three episodes of Riverdale, and then you fall out of it, because there's just no time. I have to go to sleep so I have enough for the next day."
A Tisch production it isn't, but Mendes considers Riverdale a different kind of education, one that's making her a more versatile performer. "I became way more pragmatic with how I approached my acting technique," she says. "It's definitely a skill that you have to develop, and I talk about it with my other castmates — we've noticed that sometimes indie actors will come onto the set, and they don't know how to assimilate to that kind of pace and environment. It took time for all of us to adjust to that. But now I feel like I'm always ready."
Making television during a pandemic involves an even greater time crunch, and this is the first year Mendes has experienced anxiety attacks while on set. While participating in the Gen-Z center part discourse in February, she tweeted about going partially bald due to stress.
"I got out of the shower and had a full breakdown," she recalls of the moment she looked in the mirror and found a small patch of hair missing. "This was the first few months of Riverdale in the pandemic, being away from our family and not being able to leave. That was a really hard thing for all of us, because we're so used to having our little apartments here in Vancouver, but we go back and forth to LA whenever we can, because that's home for most of us. And now we're not allowed to do that."
Luckily, Mendes has found a strong support network in her castmates, especially Lili Reinhart and Madelaine Petsch. As the gossip headlines attest, their lives are closely entwined. "We all got out of relationships at the same time and then went through this pandemic together," she says. "And now we've been bonded by how much change has happened. Me, Madelaine and Lili, specifically, we've never been closer than we have this season. It's really nice to have them, to feel like I do have friendships here — meaningful ones."
It also helps that Riverdale's young actors have been able to schedule new projects as the show approaches its final seasons. Calling upon those Tisch script reading skills, Mendes has made some canny picks so far, like last year's Andy Samberg rom-com Palm Springs. When Riverdale wraps for 2021 she'll shoot the Netflix comedy Strangers in Los Angeles, co-starring Maya Hawke and helmed by Someone Great director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, with whom Mendes immediately clicked. "Jen and I are already homies," she says. "There's just something different about South Florida girls. An energy I can just detect." Also on the schedule is sneakerhead thriller American Sole, alongside the likes of Pete Davidson, O'Shea Jackson, Sydney Sweeney and Bad Bunny.
Fans can expect some pretty cool production credits to roll in soon as well, one in particular centering Mendes' Latina identity. She's an eager advocate for nuanced representation in Hollywood, and as a Brazilian-American knows all too well how quickly even well-intentioned studio execs can stereotype and sideline the performers they're trying to push forward. "I get so many educated people asking me if I speak Spanish," she points out. "And I'm like, 'Is it really that underrepresented? Where people don't even remember that Brazilians speak Portuguese?'"
Sadly there are no rabbi roles on the horizon, but Mendes' sense of perspective and humor — as well as that Riverdale-honed work ethic — don't put a return to the stage completely out of the question. Anything could happen. Like Veronica finding out that her dad is actually one of America's most wanted crime lords, she's keeping calm and surrendering to the chaos. Working it to her advantage, even.
"As actors and artists in theater school, we're like, 'I don't want to be this kind of actor and I want to be in all the critically-acclaimed indies that go to festivals and win awards,'" she muses. "Then you book Riverdale, and it's like, here we go, here's a completely different path than I imagined. But there's so many advantages to this path as well, and I'm very, very grateful for that."
Photography: Conor Cunningham
Styling: Nina Cheb-Terrab
Photography assistant: Zuleyma Prado