‘As Young Actors, We’re Encouraged Not to Have Boundaries’

April 15, 2024   |   Written by Asia Milia Ware

Two childhood friends reunite to reminisce about their theater-camp days and post-rehearsal mozzarella sticks at Applebee’s. It sounds like the plot of an indie comedy, except it’s real life and both women are actually famous actresses. Before Hollywood — a starring role on Riverdale for Lili Reinhart and one in Dora and the Lost City of Gold for Isabela Merced — they were two aspiring actresses in Cleveland, Ohio.

Merced, 22, was around 8 or 9 years old, and Reinhart, 27, was entering her teen years when they met at a community theater program. “You always seemed like my older sister in a way that was really cool,” Merced says to Reinhart. While they haven’t been in a film or television series together yet (though they look forward to the day it happens), they remember being in Annie together. (Merced played Annie and Reinhart played Lily St. Regis.)

“I found footage of that recently that my mom took,” Merced says to Reinhart. “You were such a star. I was watching it like, No way she was serving this much in community theater, that’s crazy.” Merced was a star herself, Reinhart says. “Our community theater center did a lot of shows and we always knew Isabela was going to get every role that she wanted.”

The actresses reconnected in adulthood at a Gen-A photo shoot with Armani Beauty last January. Gen A is a group of the next generation of young talent curated by Armani including Camila Mendes, Chase Stokes, Michael Evans Behling, and Chris Briney. Through Gen A, they come together in a series of photo shoots and at film festivals to discuss beauty, mental health, and their careers. Reinhart, who admittedly “doesn’t do well in brand-new environments,” remembers feeling comforted when she saw Merced on set.

“To be a part of something with people in my industry who I look up to and admire and who are doing good work, to be grouped in with those kinds of people, is very validating,” Reinhart says. “I think it’s cool to think about how the kids who will go to the same community theater as us can see us doing this together and be like, Wow, they took the same stepping stones as us,” says Merced.

Here, the friends discuss their upcoming projects, finding makeup favorites, their mental health, and more.

On make-up:

The Armani Eyes to Kill mascara has been Reinhart’s go-to for years and hasn’t left her makeup bag. “I wore that mascara on Riverdale for seasons.” Merced’s first Armani Beauty purchase was its cult-favorite Luminous Silk foundation: “It was always a classic go-to, but there was a moment in the YouTube tutorial space where everyone was using that.”

As a preteen, Merced watched beauty tutorials on YouTube, applying her foundation with her hands and trying to blend properly. Now, she mostly finds beauty-trend inspiration from people around her. Reinhart, on the other hand, like most Gen-Zs, turns to TikTok. “I’m chronically online, unfortunately. It’s embarrassing. TikTok is an everyday thing for me.” She does go to YouTube sometimes, but not for beauty videos. Instead, she uses it to watch meditation sound-bowl videos.

On mental health:

“I’m trying to meditate every day; that’s my goal right now,” Reinhart says. For how long, I ask? “A week,” she blurts out while laughing. Committing to her mental health is more important than ever. “Depression has looked different for me in different phases and chapters of my life. It just affects me differently. There are different signals to me that tell me I’m depressed. Now, at age 27, it’s different from when I was 20, just a little bit different. Because I struggle, it’s a constant motivation to find solutions. I’m not a passive person when it comes to my mental health. I know that depression is not something that has a cure necessarily, so I’m not searching for a cure. I’m searching for whatever’s going to help me find peace, whatever it looks like. I don’t know what it looks like, but I’m always on the hunt for things that will bring me ease and soothe me,” she says.

Mental-health battles are something Merced, who struggles with anxiety, feels like comes with being an artist. “You have access to far more emotions or hybrids of emotions,” she says. The actress turns to her dogs when she needs peace. “They have no judgment and no words to say. They just are there, and I think I aspire to be like my dogs. I don’t want to be a person who judges, I don’t want to be a person who has really high standards and accepts everyone as they are and be okay as I am.” For her, with a schedule that’s been busier than ever, it’s “hard to be a good friend or a good anything when you’re always working and alone,” but it’s something she’s working through as her life continues to change.

On their careers:

“Booked and busy” is how Reinhart describes her friend’s life. “I just admire Isabela’s career and work ethic. It’s so clear and so easy to tell when someone is at the steering wheel of their own career,” Reinhart says, looking at Merced. “Especially young people in the industry, you can sometimes tell when people get caught up in something or lose sight of their own creative vision and passion.” Merced smiles, sinking deeper into the couch and subtly blushing, suddenly showing a bit of timidness. But Reinhart is right; there’s a grit about Merced, and her credentials show it. She’s working on a handful of movies for this year; the one she’s most excited about is Turtles All the Way Down, a romantic drama based on the John Green novel. “The script is inevitably good,” Merced says. Her character, Aza Holmes, is someone she relates to, which made the film even more special for her. “She’s someone who struggles with a lot of OCD and anxiety,” she says, but when her character reconnects with her childhood crush, those become barriers to her love and happiness.

Reinhart’s next project is a limited series, Hal & Harper. “No one knows anything about it,” she says. “It’s a gorgeous story about grief and growing up under the shadow of grief, but it has a sense of humor, so it’s really beautiful. I was depressed when I finished reading it because I wanted to read it for the first time again.” Her character is gay and in a long-term relationship, and “being bi, it was cool to tap into that side of who I am on a TV show. I haven’t done that before,” she says. Her favorite part of the show is that it portrays humans as faulty. “I appreciate seeing a real woman in her 20s being messy. That’s real and I relate to that. I can be a messy woman,” she says, smirking. Merced agrees: “I’m messy on purpose. It’s just fun to be messy sometimes.”

On boundaries:

“No one is going to make Lili do something she doesn’t want to do, and I respect that,” Merced says. “Being young actors in this industry, we’re built to have no boundaries and encouraged not to draw the line anywhere.”

Their ideal night:

Their next adventure is Venice Film Festival, where they’ll be traveling again with Armani Beauty. Reinhart’s ideal night is being at the hotel bar and dancing, mostly in her room. “The thing that stops me from dancing is paranoia because I get paranoid while out and about. So I dance mostly in safe environments where I can dance without anybody watching.” She’s quick to end a night of having fun and going to bed, “with good food, preferably chicken tenders and fries.” She’s a homebody who prefers binge-watching movies or rewatching TV series like Lena Dunham’s Girls (which she rewatches every few years).

Merced, on the other hand, loves dancing. She doesn’t think people dance enough anymore because they’re too consumed with being on their phones when they’re out. Her dancing takes the form of a music salsa night with her mother and brother. “I love going out with my family; it’s very fun,” she says. “Plus, my brother will always drive because he doesn’t drink,” she adds with a laugh. Her nights at home are often spent with her family, usually playing with Legos while her mom makes one of her favorite Peruvian meals. “When she cooks a meal, it just really changes the trajectory of my night.”