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How Camila Mendes Proved to Herself and Others ‘I Actually Really Know What I’m Talking About’

Fresh off the final season of "Riverdale," the actress came into her power by producing Prime Video films "Música" and "Upgraded," two Outstanding TV Movie Emmy contenders that she also stars in.
'Música' and 'Upgraded' producer/star Camila Mendes visits the SiriusXM Studios.
Música' and 'Upgraded' producer/star Camila Mendes visits the SiriusXM Studios.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Given everything “Riverdale” threw at her and her castmates, Camila Mendes left her seven season, 137 episode run on the hit CW show having found her power.

“‘Riverdale’ was one of the most bizarre, fun landscapes to play with, and so the challenges were endless and I think there was never a dull day as an actor especially,” said the actress who played Veronica Lodge in the inventive Archie Comics adaptation. “There was a technical training that ‘Riverdale’ taught me that now I feel like I can do anything because we did it all on that show. There was no stone left unturned.”

Speaking to IndieWire over Zoom, Mendes clarifies that she had already shot the two Prime Video films she has been promoting this year, Outstanding TV Movie Emmy contenders “Upgraded” and “Música,” before the series came to an end, so she ended the series feeling “very happy that those two projects were kind of going to take me in this new direction.” On screen, that direction may seem like a path toward becoming the queen of romance movies pegged for streamers, but Mendes’ true metamorphosis has come from her work behind the scenes as an executive producer on both projects.

“My relationship to producing has transitioned a bit where it started off as a protective measure and a way of taking control. So it was coming from a place of ‘I don’t trust myself in the hands of others and I want to make sure that I have creative authority to give my input and I want to be in spaces where my input is valued,’” she said. “And then it evolved into I actually find that I enjoy it a lot and I am better at it than I thought, and I have the personality for it, and I have the strength and the confidence for it, and I actually want to do it now because of my passion for it.”

In hindsight, her work on “Riverdale” really did amplify those skills. “Now I can see just how much ‘Riverdale’ has helped me as a producer because being on a show for that long, you really get to observe every role and understand the worth and the value of that role and the part that they play in the larger mechanism that is filmmaking or network television,” said Mendes. “And then you really see the difference between every director and how differently they operate. You get to absorb all that information and then see the outcome over and over again, and you get to compare and contrast and see how certain episodes that you thought were going to be awful then ended up being really good, and how they were saved in the editing room.”

RIVERDALE, from left: Camila Mendes, Lili Reinhart, KJ Apa, 'Chapter One Hundred Twenty-Two: Tales in a Jugular Vein', (Season 7, ep. 705, aired Apr 26, 2023). photo: ©The CW Network / Courtesy Everett Collection
Camila Mendes, Lili Reinhart, and KJ Apa in ‘Riverdale.’The CW Network / Courtesy Everett Collection

Of course, she still left “Riverdale” with the same fears of any actor exiting a long-running teen soap opera. “When you commit to a show for that long, I feel like your options are very limited in what you can do outside of that,” she said. But soon she realized she had also been limiting herself.

“For so long I was just like, ‘I’m an actor. That’s all I am.’ Just stick to that, stick to what I know what my strengths are. And my strengths aren’t in anything else, it’s in acting,” said Mendes. “And with time, I realized that I don’t know why I was putting myself in a box and I realized that it’s actually okay to be expansive and to expand your areas of expertise and to grow. There’s so much to be excited about as a producer, and there’s a part of me that really likes to be in control and really likes to lead and be at the forefront of the creative process. And then there’s a part of me that likes to surrender and just be the actor listening to someone else’s vision.”

Being fully in charge as a director hasn’t felt like a task she’s quite ready to take on, “but producing felt like an avenue for me to let that part of myself exist, the part that wants to have that creative power,” she said. “Also now I’m excited by the idea that if there’s a type of role or type of project that I want to do, and I don’t really see it coming my way, I know that I have the strength to make it happen for myself and get a writer that I really love and put them together with the director that I really love and just assemble a team of people that excite me. We have the power to do that,” added Mendes. “And once I realized that, producing became so much more than just a way to protect myself.”

The actress and producer has already made it a practice to surround herself with familiar creative peers, starting with her literal Day One, Rachel Lynn Matthews. “She and I met on day one of orientation week at NYU,” said Mendes, and now they’ve taken their experience starring and producing “Upgraded” together into launching their own company Honor Role, which just premiered its first official project “Griffin in Summer” at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival. “This industry can be so challenging that it really is helpful to find your community and to keep coming back to that community,” said Mendes, who also went to college with her “Música” co-star Francesca Reale. “And of course, you can always expand and work with new people and go outside of your comfort zone. But I love the idea of getting into a creative groove with someone. And I really found that with Rachel.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 07: (L-R) Rachel Matthews, Camila Mendes and Marisa Tomei attend the Prime Video's "Upgraded" New York Screening at iPic Fulton Market on February 07, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Rachel Matthews, Camila Mendes and Marisa Tomei attend the Prime Video’s ‘Upgraded’ New York Screening.Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Plus, the benefit of working alongside Matthews is that their partnership can still be in service of each other’s acting careers. “We’re so creatively aligned where we don’t even really need to give as much as a look to each other to know that we are thinking the exact same thing. And that’s essential for me too, because then I know that I book something during the time that something else that I’m producing is filming, then I know I can trust her to lead that charge and be a creative voice for the both of us,” said Mendes. “When you know that you have people you can trust in this industry, that’s everything because it’s such a collaborative medium. You really can’t do it alone.”

Getting into her contributions to “Upgraded,” a more international, romantic spin on “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “Música,” an ambitious debut from writer/director/star Rudy Mancuso about processing things like his love life, his Brazilian culture, and his career future through his synesthesia, Mendes seems particular about wanting to push the types of movies she loves, whether it’s romantic comedies, coming of age films, etc. forward. “I don’t think those genres get enough credit. And I was so happy to see just how well received both of those films were by critics and people alike. And that’s always the best when it can make an impact on the industry in a certain way and also with the people,” she said. 

“People have gotten really lazy with those genres. And so when I see someone doing it and I see a script where it’s like, ‘Oh, this feels exciting,’ and it feels like it’s taking that thing that we used to love, but putting it through a new lens, that’s what excites me,” said Mendes. “‘Upgraded’ feels like a romcom, even though it’s got the workplace element, that feels more like it fits in that genre really well. And ‘Música’ to me is so much more about Rudy’s journey through life and his journey as a creative artist. And there’s romance in it, but there’s romance in a lot of movies that aren’t romantic comedies, right? Romance is a part of life.”

Although she has more of a supporting role on screen in “Música” than “Upgraded,” Mendes was still key in fleshing out the narrative. “My biggest contribution to ‘Música’ was rewriting some of the dialogue with the female roles in particular, and nothing in a drastic way, but just making sure that we were carving out the necessary beats that I felt needed to be there as a woman because I was so afraid of creating this dichotomy between these two female characters,” she said. “I didn’t want people to be thinking that the problem was Haley or Isabella, the problem was Rudy. And so we needed to carve out certain beats in Haley and Isabella scenes so that you feel like they’re really justified in what they want.”

‘Música’Prime Video

Giving that kind of critique exemplifies her growth as a filmmaker. “It’s hard as a young woman. Immediately, there’s not an inherent respect there. And I feel that, especially because I’m an actor where I can feel it constantly, people doubting me and my producerial abilities, and because now it feels like everyone in Hollywood is producing, and that’s fine. It’s great. Everyone should be taking control of their careers and driving that ship. But I have all this experience under my belt. I actually really know what I’m talking about and what I’m doing. Why do I have to keep proving that to people? But so is life,” said Mendes. “This is how it goes in every industry. You just have to prove yourself until the work speaks for itself.”

Soon to be 30-years old, Mendes says her approach to her career is still “paying attention to my gut and what creatively excites me,” rather than establishing a niche for herself as the face of quality streaming movies. “Everyone’s always hesitant to put themselves in any kind of box no matter how great that box is,” she said. “That wasn’t a thought out strategy, like ‘I’m going to do these two Amazon films in the same year, and they’re both rom-coms, and this is my rom-com era,” joked Mendes. “I just saw two great films that I wanted to be a part of, and I don’t really care where they end up.”

Mendes is drawn in by the projects themselves, more than their distribution platform. “I’d rather do a good quality rom-com on a streamer than a theatrical release that I’m not excited about,” she said. The trick with streaming has just been to make something that sticks with its audience. “I don’t like the idea of watching something forgettable. I know that those serve a purpose in life, and we need those because sometimes you just want to turn on something and be mindless, but I think there’s a way to kind of be mindless, but still feel like you’ve walked away learning something and taking away some sort of positive message.”

Even just the aspect of her being a Brazilian American lead in both “Upgraded” and “Música,” and how that can just be an added piece of characterization for the former film, yet be central to her role in the latter. “It shows you that representation can be done both ways,” she said.

Camila Mendes attends Netflix and Elle's Celebration of Latinas in Hollywood.
Camila Mendes attends Netflix and Elle’s Celebration of Latinas in Hollywood.Presley Ann/Getty Images for Netflix

At a time where films like “Upgraded” and “Música” would have difficulty landing any sort of theatrical release, Mendes appreciates the way in which being part of the Emmy race for Outstanding TV Movie adds to the conversation on why these stories matter. “I’m just really grateful that there’s a space for these types of movies to be recognized,” she said. “There’s so many great streaming films that need their recognition.”

However, she jokingly calls Outstanding TV Movie “the mystery flavor of Emmy categories,” alluding to the continued blurred lines between what films made for platforms like Prime Video and Netflix deserve Emmys, Oscars, or no awards run at all. “I still don’t quite know what the category is, and I don’t think anybody does,” said Mendes. “But I’ll take it.”

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