Take one glimpse at her signature jet black hair and seemingly unwavering confidence, and it's hard to imagine anyone besides Camila Mendes playing Veronica Lodge on Riverdale, the hit soapy teen drama that just wrapped its second season on The CW. So hard, in fact, that its almost laughable at this point that the role almost went to someone else.
“I had the most harrowing audition process,” Mendes said, sitting in hair and makeup in a Chinatown hotel suite, about to walk to a nearby skate park. “They were like, ‘You’re our top choice, but we want to open up a new search, and we want someone that can compete with you,’” she went on. “I lost sleep, I was crying every night because it felt like I was so close to something that could be big, and like my life and career changing, but in the end it all worked out.”
To say it "worked out" for the 23-year-old actress is something of an understatement. In what may seem like the blink of an eye, Mendes went from normal college student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to the forefront of an international teen culture sensation. “It’s crazy to me that people all over the world from all walks of life can find a reason to watch it,” Mendes said. Take this anecdote, for example: While working on a film in Texas just a few months ago, Mendes was approached at a local whiskey bar by someone exclaiming, “Hey! You’re that girl from Riverdale!” The culprit? A 40-something man. Talk about cultural reach.
But though she might be most recognizable as the polished Veronica Lodge, Mendes in real life is starkly different from the character she plays on television—case in point, today she arrived for her photo shoot in a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers; Veronica would never! “I like clothes that I can move in and feel good in,” she explained. But the two do share some common ground, naturally. “I relate to Veronica in that aspect of being the new girl because I felt like I was the new girl a lot,” Mendes said, acknowledging that Veronica’s arrival at Riverdale High—where she was swiftly labeled an outsider before being adopted into the gang’s inner circle—hit close to home. “But I’m so glad that I was because I feel like now I’m so good at meeting people. I feel comfortable in pretty much any situation, and what better quality to have in an industry like this?”
Mendes lived something of a nomadic life growing up. Her father, a business executive, and mother, a flight attendant, divorced when she was eight years old, and she and her older sister went from moving around various states in the South to living Brazil for a year, where she attended an American school. After moving back to the states, she settled in South Florida in the sixth grade, and attended a private high school with a strong performing arts program. “I do really get sad because my entire extended family is in Brazil, and they’re all hanging out with each other every day and they have such a sense of family and community,” she said. “I don’t get to see them very often and I feel left out, I feel like I don’t get to enjoy that big family feeling that they all get to enjoy because we have so much family there. They’re all having barbecues and constantly getting together, watching the kids grow up. It’s sad that I can’t be a part of that,” Mendes went on. “When I was living there that was nice. Brazilians value family so much.”
Playing the privileged, larger-than-life, Blair Waldorf-esque city slicker who vies for Archie’s heart in the small town of Riverdale is a fun role for the former drama student, but what she finds salient about Veronica is that she is a positive representation of a Latina high school student on a major network television series. The Lodge family’s ethnicity is revealed in the first few episodes of Riverdale, when Veronica’s mother, Hermione, calls her daughter “mija,” before introducing more Spanglish into the dialog as the series progresses. “That choice made so much sense,” Mendes proudly stated. “I’m so happy…and it’s not just Veronica, it’s the whole Lodge family being all Latino…portraying Latinos as a strong, powerful, intelligent family,” she went on. “We do well, we’re go-getters.”
As for that new-girl status, things have certainly changed, at least on the set Riverdale, where the cast is as close off-set as they are on, spending about nine months out of the year filming together in Vancouver. “I don’t think the cast would have been as close if we shot in L.A., because I think in L.A. everyone would be going home to their own lives and their own friends and doing all the L.A. things. In Vancouver we have nothing but each other, and that really brought us together,” she said. “In a way, we really mirror our characters, even in our own dynamic as a cast. We kind of fit the same roles.” Well, except for perhaps KJ Apa, who despite his straight-man portrayal of Archie Andrews, is actually the “biggest goof" in real life, constantly trying to make everyone break character in the middle of scenes, and even walked around as “an alter ego called Fifi” during the week the ensemble cast shot their musical episode (a rite of passage for nearly every network show on television at this point).
Pranks, alter egos, and character-breaking contests aside, Archie and Veronica kicked off Riverdale’s second season with a sexy (or at least considerably steamy for a family-friendly network like The CW) shower scene together, and were nominated for “Best Kiss” at the 2018 MTV Movie & TV Awards—a category that has previously been awarded to only the most legendary on-screen kisses, like Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams’s rainy reunion in The Notebook and the iconic upside-down smooch between Tobey Maguire & Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man. As for the Riverdale kiss, Mendes admitted she has no idea which one between Veronica and Archie persuaded the jury to nominate the couple in that category. “It’s a funny category because you’re like, I don’t really know what I did, I didn’t do anything! I just kissed somebody,” the actress said with a laugh.
Two seasons in, the young actress is still finding her rhythm with the intense 20 episode shooting schedule, but Mendes also has found the consistency work somewhat soothing. “I need a schedule because I can be quite impulsive and spontaneous,” she said, reflecting on her newfound celebrity. “It’s crazy to think that your life, even though it’s not always documented in a very public way, everything you do, everything you post is a moment that people in the media will capture and it’s solidified there. Every person you date, it’s going to be there on the Internet. Every job you take. Every interview you do. It’s all documented....Having some kind of organization through all of the chaos of being an actor gives me sanity and comfort,” Mendes said. “I think rituals and having routines, no matter where you are, is what brings you home."
Which is to say, now that she's in summer hiatus, she's still not slowing down. Mendes recently filmed a romantic comedy called The Stand In and a thriller-drama called Coyote Lake—what she refers to as “the perfect hiatus project” because it involved flexing some muscles that she doesn’t always get to use as Veronica on Riverdale. “I think people are really going to associate us with our characters,” she said. “I was really honored that with the last film I did that they would offer a role to me that was very different from Veronica, not knowing if I was capable of playing something different than Veronica. Because I know that, I know what I’m capable of,” the actress declared.
“Being Latina, everyone is always going to want to be like ‘Fierce, sexy, strong, confident!’—which is great, I think that’s definitely a good type of personality to portray and it’s empowering—but Latinas can be the goofy, nerdy, quirky, vulnerable women that I think is usually associated with white girls,” Mendes said, just before dropping a plate full of veggie straws on the ground in a legitimately unplanned punctuation of her point . “See!"