Think about this: Camila Mendes only got out of college a little over two years ago.
The 24-year-old already has three residences (one in Vancouver, Canada, one in LA’s Larchmont neighborhood and a house she just bought her mother in Miami) and one giant starring role — on the hit show “Riverdale,” a modern adaptation of the Archie comic books.
On this day in mid-November, the NYU Tisch School of the Arts grad pops off a plane from Vancouver (where “Riverdale” shoots) to LA, spritzes some water on her makeup-free face, then heads to restaurant Le Petit Greek for our interview. In 90 minutes, she’ll meet stylist Jason Bolden to get into her strapless Etro cocktail dress and attend the People’s Choice Awards, where she’s both nominated and presenting.
But right now, one of the sexiest young women on television just wants some fried cheese. “You’ve got to try the Halloumi,” says Mendes. When the sizzling grilled goat cheese gets to the table, her big dark eyes get bigger.
“I’m, like, too busy to plan normal meals — but I’m getting used to this pace now,” says the petite brunette, who was born in Virginia to Brazilian parents before the family eventually settled in South Florida. “I moved around a lot as a kid. I’m starting to adapt — I sleep on planes. And this sounds really bougie and I hate that — but I now only fly business class. It’s really expensive, but some of my co-stars do fly coach — then people take pictures of them sleeping and tag them online. That’s not something I’m interested in!”
Viewers of all ages have become very interested in “Riverdale,” which in two and a half seasons has become both a media and ratings sensation. Inspired by Archie, which originated in 1941, it’s about teens in a prototypical small town: ginger-haired Archie and his two admirers, Veronica and Betty — the smoldering sexpot and the perky blonde. But in showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s version, the cute kids who hang in Pop’s Chock-lit Shoppe hunt down serial killers and investigate satanic cults. It’s 2018’s version of “Twin Peaks,” populated by younger, prettier people (it’s the CW, after all).
“I never read Archie comics till I got the part,” admits Mendes, who began acting at 16, but not professionally. “Now I buy them at flea markets.” She was still finishing her studies at NYU when she landed the role that would swiftly change her young life. “It’s crazy,” she admits of her burgeoning fame. “I thought it would be more gradual, like first I would do a ‘Law and Order’ episode.”
The comics are so ingrained in pop culture that they’ve become shorthand for throwback female archetypes — either you were a Betty (the good-girl virgin) or a Veronica (the dark vixen). Mendes, however, quickly became BFFs with her co-star, Lili Reinhart, even if they’re as different in real life as — well — Betty and Veronica.
“Lili doesn’t like to go out that much” Mendes explains. “I’m more the social butterfly. But we bond over our mutual sense of humor. She’s goofy. We’re the funniest people when we’re together.” (Their coordinated Halloween costumes? Pedro and Napolean from “Napolean Dynamite.”)
“Although our show’s not a very goofy show,” Mendes continues. “Let’s face it: It’s a soap opera. Cliffhangers abound! I love that people recognize its kitschiness. It’s a delicious guilty pleasure — we have the most insane stories.”
Mendes also embraces her character Veronica’s vibe as a silver-spooned heiress.
“Maybe it’s because I have small features,” she laughs. “I don’t think my face reads ‘struggle.’ Is that a really annoying thing to say? Oh, no! Sometimes I see my words on the page and I think, ‘Oh no!’”
Mendes does not hold back — perhaps due to her youth and the newfound zeal of sudden fame. She recently boasted to a magazine: “I’ll tell you anything.”
“I’m like that,” she tells Alexa, digging into a filet of Greek-style trout. “I’ve never been closed off. Still, I’m always grappling with that part of myself — I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I mean, I don’t have anything to hide — most of the time.”
Which must be why she posted a photo of herself embracing her then-semi-secret boyfriend, “Riverdale” co-star Charles Melton (Reggie Mantle), on Instagram in October — only months after a previous breakup.
“I did it because people were speculating,” Mendes says matter-of-factly. “I want to be able to live a normal life. Like, ‘Yeah, I’m dating this person — so what?’ But I am the kind of person who’ll keep talking and then all of a sudden, I’ve said too much. Still, I want to be able to kiss him and not think about it.”
Such refreshing candor — and out-loud introspection — is also likely why she’s got 13.7 million Instagram followers. “And most of my income comes from endorsements,” Mendes says. “Did I just share too much? Getting famous at this age does present a whole new set of issues.”
One serious issue she’s faced, endemic to young actresses, is an eating disorder, for which she sought professional help a year ago. “My older sister had an eating disorder, too. She had to go to rehab. And so when I started purging, I thought, ‘I’m not as bad as her — I’m fine.’
“My therapist asked me a question that was pivotal: ‘Are you scared of gaining weight — or unhappy with your body?’ For me, it was more unhappy with my body. But I feel nurtured by the body-positive movement right now — the backlash against body shaming.” Mendes now works with Project Heal, a nonprofit set up for sufferers of eating disorders.
In last spring’s film “The New Romantic,” Mendes focused on another hot-button issue for young women, playing a sugar baby who gets involved with older men who help put her through college in exchange for — well, you know.
“It was a fun role,” the actress says, laughing it off, though she knows women her age who are real-life sugar babies. “Yes, it’s very common now. Let me tell you something: NYU was $70,000 a year. I pulled out loans on my last two years. And I just paid ’em off! That’s what I’m going to be celebrating this New Years!”
She’s got a supporting role in the upcoming romantic comedy “The Stand-In,” and in the drama “Coyote Lake” (due out in 2019), she plays about the least glamourous girl you could imagine.
“She’s a tomboy who works with her mother, killing and dumping the bodies of cartel members who hover between Mexico and Texas borders,” Mendes says. “It’s my first lead role — and when you take on a lead, something turns on. It unlocks more of your abilities.”
It turns out she likes playing the opposite of glam: “I don’t care if I’m supposed to be sexy and sultry all the time — I like being ugly. Actually, I enjoy it! I can make the ugliest faces, trust me. And I’m not talking about pictures! I could make myself look really ugly right now.”
But what about the old premise that Brazilian women are the most beautiful in the world? “I’ve heard that,” she half-smiles. “And that’s the one thing I don’t have much to say about!”