You know her as a pearls-wearing former socialite on TV, but Camila Mendes is nothing like the character she plays. Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, to Brazilian immigrants, Mendes moved around the country before settling in South Florida. She eventually moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting, and with persistence, she broke in at the agency she interned for, who dropped her first big audition in her lap. Before she knew it, she was the star of a hit primetime show with the fanbase to boot.
Mendes is also John Frieda’s newest influencer to help promote the Your Hair Talks, Make a Statement campaign to encourage all women to express themselves through their hair. We asked Mendes about the start of her career, her Latina heritage, and her hair story. Below is an edited transcript of our Q&A with Mendes.
Q: How did you know you wanted to be an actress?
A: I’ve wanted to be an actress for as long as I can remember. I can’t even put an age on it, but I’ve always just been a very performative child. My sister would write scripts, like little skits, and I would enact them for her. Then my mom saw how outgoing I was, and how I loved to perform. I was very goofy: So many home videos were of me just making really weird noises and playing these sketch comedy characters. So my mom put me in school plays in elementary school. I think I started making the audience laugh in one of the musicals, and I think I got excited about it and I just kept on doing it.
When we moved to South Florida, my mom specifically looked for a school that had a good arts program because she knew I liked performing. I went to a private school; it didn’t necessarily focus on the arts, but they had a great facility for the arts. Once I got into that school, I was inspired by the people around me. I started taking acting really seriously and made a life decision — I wanted to be an actress. My dad sat me down and was like, “Okay, if you really want this, I’m gonna support you. But let me tell you, these are the risks you’re taking, and this is what happens if you don’t succeed, and this is what happens if you do succeed.” He gave me both sides and said, “If you still want to do this, I’ll support you.” And I said, “I do.”
Q: So you went to NYU knowing there was an inherent risk in going down this path.
A: Yeah. For me, honestly, I thought, There’s no way I can’t make it because this is the only thing I feel confident about. There is a place for me in this industry. I love doing it and I know what it feels like when I’m doing good work. I’ve always had a confidence about it. Obviously I’ve had a lot of doubt as well, but I was very certain that this was the career for me. Everything I did — almost to an unhealthy obsession — was dedicated to being a successful actress.
Q: What was your first big challenge trying to break into the industry?
A: I think the audition process for getting into college was very harrowing. I applied to 14 schools, and I had to audition for every single one. I was flying around the country: I flew to LA, flew to Chicago, I flew to New York to audition for all these schools. It was so stressful because every school required something different and you had to kind of cater different monologues towards different programs. It was a lot — it’s not like I grew up in LA, I wasn’t a child actor.
Everything I learned, I learned on my own. I didn’t have parents that were in the business and I didn’t really have any friends that had pursued this. I really had no perspective. Like when I was auditioning for college, I didn’t know how they shot a television show. Even when I was on set, I was so baffled by the way that they shot stuff. I was thinking, Oh my god, this is how they do it? So I had no idea about any of that when I was auditioning for colleges — or even how to put on shows for theater. I just had no experience whatsoever.
Q: What goes through your mind when you’re auditioning?
A: I think first about the impression I make in the room, or on the tape. [The casting directors] have to see you as that role. You can hope that they have an imagination and that they can see what it would look like if your hair were down or what it would look like if you dyed your hair blonde, but the truth is they don’t really have that kind of imagination all the time. If I’m playing a prissy character or someone who’s uptight type-A, I would want to put my hair back in a tight bun. But if I’m playing a bohemian girl who’s like the cool girl at school, I would want to wear my hair down, with a middle part, kind of messy and wavy. Those two styles say different things about who you are.
Now I’m on a show where I play a character that’s very specific and stylized. People have only really seen me as one character, so I do whatever I can to show them a different side of me. I don’t want them to see that one persona on the tape, I want them to see a different character, and hair plays a big part in that.
Q: You really embody your character, even down to the hair. Can you talk to us about your hair journey? How does your hair impact how you see yourself?
A: I think growing up I was always really insecure about my hair. My hair was wavy but it wasn’t like a perfect consistent wave — it was very sporadically wavy, not really even. So I would often get keratin, and I got so much of it that it’s damaged my hair, honestly. I would get permanent straightening, and if I wasn’t doing that, I would just straighten it all the time because straight hair used to be the best thing. Also, a lot of Latinos don’t have pin-straight hair. Our hair tends to be a little bit frizzier, a little bit curlier, a little bit more wild. At the time, I don’t think women were really embracing that style. It was the same with my eyebrows — you know, thin eyebrows and straight hair were the thing. Now it’s like thick eyebrows and curly hair.
And I used to hate my dark hair. I wanted lighter hair so in my senior year of high school I tried an ombre, but it didn’t look good. It wasn’t like a gradual, nice fade into lighter hair; it was very stark, like the contrast between dark and light, and it was orangey and you could tell that my hair shouldn’t be dyed lighter, that it’s not the right fit for my hair. Then I just thought, Okay, I need to embrace what my hair naturally is, what my hair naturally wants to do. I needed to find what worked for me. It’s part of my look and I needed to incorporate it into my look rather than try to fight it.
Now I have even darker, bolder black hair and I’m thinking, Well, now I have this intense black hair and I need to match that boldness with the way that I dress — do I need to dress a certain way now that I have blacker hair? I think we all think this way because we think we have to fit these types that have been laid out for us. But once you start to stray away from what’s already been done, you start to realize that you are your own unique person and that you can build your own look that is individual to you. I think that’s when you really start to find your own natural beauty.
Q: What’s your hair routine now?
A: I try to give my hair a break as much as possible when I’m not shooting because they use so many hot tools and so much product on me on set. If they curl my hair on set and I’m not working the next day, my hair is like the lesser version of what they did: a little more lived-in. I don’t even touch it. Honestly, I’ve been using the John Frieda serum for as long as I can remember and that’s the only thing I do on my days off. I put a little bit on my ends just to add some moisture because my hair does get dry here. But that’s about it.
Q: Do you feel like your Latina heritage has influenced how you view your relationship to hair?
A: It’s completely changed. I think it’s because we’re embracing more ethnic looks and welcoming them into the world of beauty in a way that wasn’t dominant before. The ideal beauty was the tall, slender, white European type and now we’re incorporating so many different types of beauty. With that came a different type of hair, too: Now I dye my hair for the show and I have to get it pitch black, almost a dark blue black.
Q: Speaking of your Latina heritage, do you find that roles that are available today have evolved, or do you find more stereotypes of Latina tropes?
A: I haven’t really been asked to do any films explicitly because I’m Latina or to fit some stereotype, which is great. I haven’t noticed anything to be very on-the-nose Latina. The character just has to feel real and three-dimensional and dynamic and interesting. It can’t just be there to fill a quota or to simply be an idea of what this person is. I think nowadays there’s more accountability, and actors have more of a responsibility to choose roles that feel authentic, ones that they feel they can do justice.
Q: What’s next for you in your career?
A: I see myself, right now, doing other projects as much as I can, and I’m trying to do this because I want to play more characters. I want to keep things interesting and try to explore different types of people because, as much as I love playing this role, I think it does get repetitive when you’re playing the same character for as long as the show runs. And that’s all that people see and that’s all they know, and I think we’re all in a place of trying to break away from that and show people that we’re here to stay and this career as an actress is important to me. My interest has never been to be famous. I just want to have a successful career and I want it to have longevity and growth and evolution and meaning.