Camila Mendes Is Getting Back to Her Roots

Camila Mendes poses for photo in sheer black top and black stain midi skirt.
(Image credit: Justin Wilczynski)

Welcome to Portrait Session, an intimate photo and interview series featuring some of our favorite people of the moment.

Following seven seasons and 137 episodes of Riverdale and successful roles in Netflix's Do Revenge and Hulu's Palm Springs, Camila Mendes set a new Hollywood goal for herself: to bring Brazilian American stories to screen. As a first-generation Brazilian American, Mendes knew that's where she was eventually headed but didn't quite have the when or how figured out yet—until Rudy Mancuso's coming-of-age musical Música came into the picture and presented her with an exciting opportunity. "I was like, 'Oh, he's doing it. I want to be a part of it. I want to be a producer on this because I have so much more to offer than just my acting here," Mendes tells us over Zoom.

Raised in Virginia and Florida by two Brazilian parents, Mendes had the South American country's rich culture ingrained in her from an early age, but she admits she didn't always wear her culture proudly. As a teenager who one day wanted to act, it was discouraging to not see any Brazilian American actors represented on screen. That all changed with Música. In working on the project and getting to showcase the duality of being first-generation Brazilian American, Mendes found she could finally step back into her culture and allow it to be at the surface of who she is.

Música, as Mendes describes it, is a "non-musical musical." From the visionary mind of the Vine-turned-YouTube star in his directorial debut, the semi-autobiographical film follows an aspiring creator named Rudy who, like Mancuso, has synesthesia, a neurological condition where your brain routes sensory information through multiple unrelated senses and causes you to experience more than one sense simultaneously. In his case, Rudy hears rhythms from everyday sounds, like car horns and bouncing basketballs, which prevents him from focusing in regular conversations. A college student and part-time street performer, Rudy lives with his Brazilian mother in Newark, New Jersey. Nearing graduation with no solid career plans in sight and a long-term relationship on the rocks, he meets Isabella (Mendes)—a down-to-earth Brazilian American woman who works at the local fish market—and finds himself caught between two women. Chaos, hilarity, and fantastic (non-traditional) musical numbers ensue.

The film is an endlessly charming, feel-good watch that is proof we need more Brazilian American stories on-screen. For our latest installment of Portrait Session, we talk to Mendes about the moment she was sold on the film, the scene that gets her every time, and, yes, that stunning Vanity Fair Oscars party red carpet look.

Camila Mendes poses for photos wearing black sheer top and black silk skirt.

(Image credit: Justin Wilczynski)

Let's talk about how the film first came to you. What stood out to you about Mancuso's pitch of the project? Was it an immediate yes for you?

I actually wouldn't say it was an instant yes, but it obviously intrigued me because of the Brazilian American aspect and the musical aspect because it wasn't like any other musical I had seen before. It's not a traditional musical. We keep calling it a non-musical musical. And I loved this idea of depicting synesthesia in a cinematic way. Not only is this a Brazilian American film, but it's such a unique and interesting film outside of it being a Brazilian American film. I love that we got to be represented in this really beautiful, cinematic way.

I think the hesitation was I actually didn't know much about Rudy as a director. … As soon as I met with him on Zoom, it was an immediate yes because he was obviously so brilliant and smart and funny and charming and knew exactly what he wanted from this project. I remember … logging off of Zoom and thinking, "This guy is a visionary. I want to be a part of this movement."

You signed on as a producer of the film and also produced your last project, Upgraded. Why was it important for you to have a voice on that side of the camera?

I had been wanting to produce Brazilian American stories, and that was a goal of mine that I was trying to do post-Riverdale. I knew that's where I was headed, but I wasn't ready for it yet. I didn't feel like I had that time to really bring that to the screen, and when Rudy was already doing it, I was like, "Oh, he's doing it. I want to be a part of it. I want to be a producer on this because I have so much more to offer than just my acting here." I have a creative voice as a Brazilian American, but also, I feel like I can represent the women in this project in a way where they are not two-dimensional or feeling a little bit stereotypical. I don't want Isabella to be this perfect girl, and she's so chill and has no problems whatsoever. And I didn't want Haley to feel like such a cold, career-obsessed person. It was really important to me as a producer that both female roles were fully realized, and they had really valid arguments for the things they wanted and that ultimately the problem wasn't Isabella or Haley. The problem was obviously Rudy and what he wants and figuring out his path.

Outside of her being Brazilian American, in what ways did you connect with Isabella and her story?

I love how grounded she is. I think I'm pretty grounded as a person, but I can also be pretty in my head about things and overthink everything. I can be a Haley sometimes—very future oriented—so it's nice to play a character that is so rooted in reality and is just taking life day by day and living presently. That's something that I have to really actively try to do. That really drew me to Isabella, understanding that perspective.

Camila Mendes poses for photos wearing black sheer top and black silk skirt.

(Image credit: Justin Wilczynski)

The heart of this story is rooted in the Brazilian American experience and Brazilian culture. What do you hope audiences take away from seeing these two characters and their stories on-screen?

The obvious answer is that I hope Brazilian Americans feel seen in their duality because there is such a culture clash between Brazilian values versus American values, and that's a really hard thing to navigate as a Brazilian American. I also hope that it's not just Brazilian Americans that will benefit from this movie. Anybody who is a child of an immigrant can relate to this story. This is an immigrant story or first-generation American story. I hope they feel seen in their experience and also learn to embrace their own duality.

Has your family seen the film yet?

Oh yeah. Multiple times.

What was their initial reaction?

Absolute joy. They've obviously seen a lot of Brazilian films, but I think it's so wild for them to see their culture finally be depicted in Hollywood and getting this type of visibility. I think they were all really excited, and they were so excited to see me speaking Portuguese in a movie and hearing all of these Brazilian songs they grew up listening to. I don't think they were prepared for how Brazilian it was, so that was amazing. I feel like there was a period of my life where I wasn't wearing my culture proudly because it didn't feel like that was serving me in my life. … As a teenager who wanted to one day be an actor, I didn't see other Brazilian American actors out there, so I stored that part of myself away because I didn't think it was useful to me, and I thought it was holding me back. It's also really nice for my family to see me stepping into my culture more and embracing it and letting that part of myself be more active and at the surface of who I am because it is such a part of me. That culture is so ingrained in me, and I was really scared to reveal that. Also, when you are a first-generation American or a child of an immigrant, you get this imposter syndrome where you're like, "I can't really call myself Brazilian because I didn't grow up there. I wasn't born there." I was raised by Brazilian parents who spoke Portuguese to me every day and would cook me Brazilian food and made me listen to Brazilian music and instilled Brazilian values in me, so I feel very connected to the culture. I think there's a guilt that you feel for even calling yourself Brazilian. It's been really nice stepping into that confidence and embracing my culture.

This isn't your typical musical. Instead of big traditional music numbers, scenes burst to life with the surrounding environment coming together like a symphony. Do you have a favorite musical scene you get excited for every time you watch?

Oh yeah. I love the park scene because that was our first two days of filming, and I don't think I was prepared for what that was going to be like. I had no sense of what Rudy was really going to do. When he sent me the script and showed me the little short that he made of the very first scene of the movie, which was in the diner, I had an idea of what it would be like, but the park scene is so much larger in scale. It was such a choreographed thing. Every performer had an earpiece with the rhythm because they couldn't actually play the music, so it was such an intricate process. I remember being like, "Oh, it's that kind of movie. This is crazy. I've never seen anything like this." I think about that day fondly because it was a really beautiful experience, and it set the tone for the rest of production.

Camila Mendes poses for photos wearing black sheer top and black silk skirt.

(Image credit: Justin Wilczynski)

You happened to have two rom-coms come out within two months of each other. Are you in your rom-com phase? Do you think we're in a rom-com renaissance right now?

I do think we're in a rom-com renaissance, but I don't necessarily think I'm in a rom-com phase. This is the only other one that I have coming out. I don't have any more. I didn't plan it. I did shoot them in the same summer, but they are so different. Música, to me, is so much more than a rom-com. Upgraded is cozy and nostalgic, whereas Música is a very fresh take on a rom-com and a very fresh take on a musical. And it's a fresh take on an immigrant story. It's unlike anything anyone's ever seen. To call it a rom-com feels like… Not that there's anything wrong with rom-coms, but it feels like it's doing a disservice to how all-encompassing this movie is.

Side note: I have been obsessed with your style lately. That Vanity Fair Oscars party look—I gasped! It was so stunning.

Thank you. I'm happy you liked it. I'm not going to say I'm lazy, but I can be quite practical about things, and I was like, "Molly, I don't know that I want to walk around with a fucking metal bra with a train." I was like, "It's a party. I don't want to be that girl who is dragging a train around. Everyone's tripping over me." By the way, everyone was tripping over me. It was a nightmare. But Molly was like, "Do it for the photo. Please, Cami, do it for me. I've never been more excited!" She was right. It was worth it. I loved that look so much, and I'm really happy with how it turned out. I just laugh at myself because it's so hard for me to be that extra, but it's necessary sometimes.

That was the moment to do it. What do you like about working with Molly Dickson, and why do you think she's a good match for you?

It's so hard to put into words. I can tell you personality-wise why I love her, which is that she is like a ball of joy and positivity. I never see Molly angry or stressed out or falling apart. She'll joke and say that she's always falling apart. … But she's always in such a good mood, and the worst thing could be happening at that moment, the most stressful thing, and she just laughs it off. You never see her sweat. There's always a solution, and I need that because it can be so nerve-racking before events to wear a certain look. You don't know if this thing is going to break or if this is too tight—everything is just swarming in your head. To have somebody who is so positive around you really takes you out of your head. Stylistically, why I feel we're a good match, that's harder to describe because it really just comes down to… I just think that she gets me. Everything she pulls for me is something I see myself wearing. Even if it's a little bit out of my comfort zone, I still understand why she pulled it for me. She really understands my body and the things that I like. A lot of things she pulls are very chic and effortlessly cool because I don't like to do too much. I don't like to go over-the-top too much. I think that's where me and Molly really meet, where our stylistic interests meet. But yeah, I adore working with her, and I feel like it took me a minute to find the right match. Now that I've found Molly, I'm like, "That's it. There's no going back."

Camila Mendes poses for photos wearing black sheer top and black silk skirt.

(Image credit: Justin Wilczynski)

Música is now streaming on Prime Video.

Photographer: Justin Wilczynski
Stylist: Molly Dickson
Hair Stylist: Kat Thompson
Makeup Artist: Jen Tioseco

Executive Director, Entertainment

Jessica Baker is Who What Wear’s Executive Director, Entertainment, where she ideates, books, writes, and edits celebrity and entertainment features.