By Samantha Simon
Updated Nov 13, 2018 @ 9:00 am
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Camila Mendes loves playing a bold character — and there’s no denying that she’s damn good at doing it. Her portrayal of Riverdale’s most sophisticated teen, Veronica Lodge, has had us hooked for three seasons now. Known for her ruthless takedowns of anyone who crosses her or her friends, Veronica is certainly no angel. But compared to Mendes’s latest character, the reformed mean girl comes across as downright innocent.

Mendes takes a raunchier turn as a college student named Morgan in The New Romantic, now playing in theaters and available to watch on demand on November 13. Morgan is a sugar baby, a young woman who dates older men in exchange for gifts and a lavish lifestyle. While the concept of sugar babies may seem controversial to some, for Mendes, taking on the role was a no-brainer. “I was really drawn to Morgan because she's just so confident with herself,” Mendes tells InStyle. “It’s empowering to play that type of character.”

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Morgan’s bluntness plays a key role in the film when she encounters Blake (Jessica Barden), a college senior who’s given up on finding love. “The minute Morgan meets Blake, she invites her in, gets her a drink, brings her into the bathroom and pees right in front of her,” says Mendes, laughing. “Then she offers her money to stick around with this guy.”

Blake takes her up on the offer, setting the plot into motion. “Morgan is kind of this perfect catalyst for change in Blake's life,” says Mendes. “Because to Blake, Morgan is very self-assured, knows what she wants, and is in control of her sexuality — or just fully sexually aware of herself. She embraces her sexuality and isn't ashamed of it. I think that intimidates Blake, and it causes her to investigate her own inner life and how she feels about her sexuality and what she wants.”

Credit: Courtesy of The Orchard

When it came time to prep for the role, Mendes didn’t have to learn too much about the world of sugar babies. In fact, she already knew the ins and outs of the business thanks to a former peer. “In college, I knew a girl in my acting class who was a sugar baby,” said Mendes, who graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of Arts in 2016. “She actually wrote a few skits about it for our screenwriting class, too. She and I would talk about this life quite often during class and in between classes, and I kind of got a little insight into what that life was like. I thought it was all very interesting.”

Perhaps because of that inside look at the sugar baby lifestyle, she places no judgment on women who live it IRL. “I'm a firm believer in just having no shame in what you do and what you choose to do with your body,” she says. “And that’s the thing about sugar babies: They have a choice. They've chosen to do this and — like Morgan says in the movie — you don’t have to do anything you don't want to do. You are totally in control of your situation and if you ever feel for a second that you're unsafe, you have the option to leave.”

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“I don't think it's any different from going on a date with someone when you're not a sugar baby,” she says. “You're exposed to the same type of risks going on a date with someone as a normal person. Either way, you could be put in a situation where you’re taken advantage of or something.”

From the real-life stories she’s heard, Mendes knows that the potential for meeting a creepy suitor definitely exists — but, on the other hand, so does the possibility of finding actual romance. “My friend — who’s a hardcore feminist and would always stand up for herself and her lifestyle — would tell me things like, ‘Sometimes I go on a date with a guy and I'm like, okay, this guy is weird or he’s obsessive; I'm never gonna see him again.’ She cuts that off. And then there are guys she goes out with and she's actually like, ‘Hmm, I'm kind of attracted to him.’”

In that way, Mendes says, the sugar baby lifestyle can be empowering — even feminist. “I think it can be, 100 percent,” she says. “I think people shouldn't be ashamed of it and should have the freedom to make their own decision about it. If it empowers you, do it. If you don't feel comfortable with it or if it doesn't feel empowering to you, don't do it.” Of course, that decision process should involve a bit of self-reflection. “It’s important to ask [yourself], ‘Well, why doesn't it feel empowering? Is it because I, myself, am not comfortable, or is it because I'm afraid of what people will think? Or is it because people have told me that this is a bad thing, or I have an idea of this lifestyle that is negative?’ It's worth asking the question as to why you're making those kinds of judgments.”

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Of course, the thought of being a sugar baby is just entirely unappealing to some people — especially for true romantics. “I've been in love many times and I love being in love, so I can't see myself being in a relationship where I'm not in love, truly,” says Mendes, who’s currently dating Riverdale co-star Charles Melton. “But you never know what's going to happen down the line. If I'm older one day and I feel like I just want someone to provide for my kid, maybe…but do sugar babies have kids? I don't know [laughs].”

And just as she’s not entirely ruling anything out for her own life plan, the same goes for her Riverdale character. “I think Veronica would totally approve of the sugar baby lifestyle, 100 percent,” she says. “Veronica is a hustler and definitely a feminist. But she’s 17; she’s in high school. So probably not in the near future, but maybe later down the line.”

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For now, Mendes and her alter-ego are happy in their respective relationships. So it’s no surprise that when it comes to finding love organically in the ever-changing — and digitized — dating world, The New Romantic star is far from cynical. “I don't think romance is dead,” she says. “I think it's just shifting. I know guys who are not on dating apps and are very romantic and adhere to more traditional ideas of romance, but then I also know one guy who's always on his Tinder profile and really invests a lot into it. He loves to flirt and say cute things online and over text.”

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Of course, that’s not always such a bad thing. “There are ways to express romance through technology — and technology is a point for relationships to get started,” says Mendes. “I’ve never been on a dating app, personally, so I can’t speak from experience. But I know from people that I know who have found relationships on them, that it can be a real starting point. Dating apps help people have access to love, and I don't think that's a negative thing.”

Spoken like a true romantic.