It’s Wednesday morning and Camila Mendes is gearing up for the debut of her latest role on the silver screen — Ana Santos in the movie Upgraded. The Prime Video rom-com is playing for one night only in theaters on February 7 and is sold out across the country ahead of its global release on the streaming platform on February 9. With it, the award-winning star is ushering in a new era in Hollywood where a Brazilian American is the leading lady in rom-coms.
In the film, Ana is an ambitious unpaid intern at an art auction house who dreams of opening her own New York City art gallery while trying to impress her intimidating boss Claire (played by Marisa Tomei). Fortunately, Mendes hasn’t had any toxic bosses, but she related to the character’s unrelenting ambition and pursuit of her career. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve always known I wanted to be an actor. Ana is very similar. She loves art and just wants to be in the industry that she loves. I share that sentiment with her when it comes to acting,” the NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate tells Refinery29 Somos.
She credits her work ethic to being the daughter of immigrants and to her Brazilian-American heritage. “My immigrant parents moved to the U.S. with no connections, no family, no relationships, nothing. My dad moved to the U.S. and worked his way up,” Mendes says. “You can be successful, but that doesn’t mean you stop working. You have to try hard — qualities my parents possess. I don’t feel entitled to my career or anything in this industry.”
After saving the day at an art sale, Mendes’ character Ana gets her big break and is invited to join Claire on a work trip to London. At the airport, she endures a nasty interaction with her less-than-kind colleagues, which wins her the sympathy of the airline attendant who bumps Ana up to first class on the international flight. In the lounge, she has a cringe-worthy meet-cute with a British hunk, William (played by Archie Renaux), who, as luck has it, is seated next to her in first class. It’s not as unusual as you may think — one in 50 people have found love on an airplane.
In the film, William presumes Ana’s the director of the New York office — not the intern. Ana responds that she’s the “youngest director in company history” and runs with the lie. The fib leads to a chaotic chain of events that puts Ana’s career on the line as she risks losing it all for love.
Unlike Ana, Mendes is not a believer in white lies — but she does feel there’s a power in faking it until you make it, which is ultimately what she finds the lesson of the movie to be. “It’s the power of manifestation. If you operate through the world like you’re an extremely successful boss, it might actually happen because you’re gravitating toward those opportunities and the right people are gravitating toward you. You receive the energy you put out,” Mendes says.
Whether playing Veronica Lodge on the CW’s Riverdale or Drea in Do Revenge, Mendes is no stranger to playing well-rounded Latina characters, but Ana is different from her other roles. Often cast as confident and sassy supporting Latina characters, Mendes says “it was nice to play a lead that wasn’t necessarily outwardly confident. She’s just figuring it out. She’s struggling and she’s not doing so well. She’s a little bit messier, sillier, softer, and I enjoyed being able to showcase a different side of myself.”
Such leading roles in rom-coms that center Latine stories are few and far between, with the exceptions of course being Jennifer Lopez and Christina Millian, though both don’t always get to play Latina characters when they are cast as the love interest. Still, Mendes is actually inspired by J Lo, who she calls a “great rom-com queen,” and notes the Puerto Rican actor’s classics Maid in Manhattan and The Wedding Planner as among her favorites.
“We don’t get to see Latinas star in rom-coms very often. I appreciate that in Upgraded, I get to play this character in a movie where I’m not tokenized,” Mendes says.
Being a Latina in Hollywood has been “really great” for the 29-year-old actor — mostly because of the Latine community. She recently went to an event at Jessica Alba’s house for Latines in Hollywood, and confesses that she and her peers have an Instagram group chat where they share news, nominations, and are constantly congratulating each other.
Since her debut role on Riverdale, Mendes has refused to conform to Latine stereotypes. “I want to ensure we create space for us to have great opportunities to play interesting, engaging roles. I just don’t see those opportunities being created,” she says. “Every award season, it’s very rare to see Latine representation. A huge part of that is that there aren’t enough roles showcasing how talented we are.”
Ana’s Latine heritage is never confirmed in Upgraded. There’s a scene where a colleague presumes Ana is Guatemalan and she responds by saying she’s from Florida. It’s a scene many Latinas in the United States know all too well — deciphering whether someone is genuinely curious about your heritage or if they’re trying to “other” you. Mendes explains the moment was intended to highlight the other character being ignorant and assigning the wrong ethnicity to Ana.
While Ana’s heritage isn’t addressed, Mendes played her as Brazlian American — and she influenced a few changes to the film to concrete Ana’s identity. For instance, she always ensures the characters she plays have a Latina name, ideally one that’s common in Brazil. “It’s subtle, but the name of a character is really important. If I can’t pronounce it in Portuguese, then I don’t want that to be her name,” Mendes says. “I want my mom to be able to say the characters’ names.” In Upgraded, Mendes changed her character’s last name to Santos because Portuguese surnames end with an “s,” not with a “z.”
It wasn’t just her character’s name she influenced — she also inspired the name for her on-screen sister, Vivian, naming her after her real-life sister. The names were important for Mendes, who served as an executive producer on the film, to create the undertone of a Latine family.
The relationship between Ana and Viv is what Mendes relates to most in the film. “It was really sweet. I literally asked them to name the character after my sister because I feel so supported by my sister. She’s my No. 1 fan and is always so extremely supportive,” Mendes says. “We have such a good relationship. Like Ana and Viv, there’s nothing I wouldn’t share with my sister, I can talk to her about anything. It was important to me that Viv was looking out for Ana and always rooting for her.”
A self-declared romantic in real life, Mendes is certainly in her rom-com era. It won’t be long until we see Mendes as a rom-com leading lady again. Her next project, Prime Video’s Música, is a Brazilian-American coming-of-age romance. Mendes stars alongside her IRL boyfriend and fellow Brazilian Rudy Mancuso who wrote and directed the film. “In Música, I get to do a version of representation that’s more celebratory — it’s a Brazilian-American story,” she says.
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