Iman Vellani in and as 'Ms. Marvel'
Iman Vellani in and as 'Ms. Marvel' Image Credit: Disney plus

There’s a telling scene in the first episode of ‘Ms. Marvel’ where Iman Vellani’s Kamala Khan stares wistfully at the Manhattan skyline as she tells her best friend Bruno: “It’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world.”

Some may not get the significance of this poignant statement or understand the fuss surrounding Marvel’s first Muslim superhero that is played by a young actress who once was a Pakistani immigrant herself, growing up on a diet of comic books and movies where superheroes of a certain type swooped in to save the day.

Seeing Kamala Khan lament over the gossiping neighbourhood aunties, celebrate Eid with her family and friends and endearingly crush on Shah Rukh Khan as she serenades his excellence in ‘Baazigar’ over ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ are moments that connect with brown girls around the world who have secretly harboured dreams of being the saviour of their own reality.

Such has been the power of ‘Ms. Marvel’ that even Malala Yousafzai, a global icon and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who survived being shot in the head as 15-year-old girl fighting for the right to be educated, also felt the need to comment on the Disney plus show on Twitter, while saying: “It is not every day that I turn on the TV and find a character who eats the same foods, listens to the same music or uses the same Urdu phrases as me. What a joy to see Ms. Marvel reflect the lives of a Pakistani immigrant family …”

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Iman Vellani Image Credit: AP

At the centre of it all is 19-year-old Vellani, who’s been entrusted to play this revolutionary character on screen. Yet, despite her newfound fame, the Canadian actress remains just as endeared by her role as she is about getting her big break and finding herself as the newest superhero to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Speaking at a media roundtable which Gulf News was a part of, Vellani spoke about her vision for Kamala Khan, her love for Marvel and its patriarch, Kevin Feige.

The world can’t stop buzzing about ‘Ms. Marvel’. What is the experience like of portraying this character, which is so revolutionary?

Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan in 'Ms. Marvel' Image Credit: Disney plus

Vellani: You know, it’s the most surreal thing ever. I really got into comic books when I just got into high school and Marvel [was] the only thing I ever talked about. I was very active on all the Marvel sub-reddits; I was like that kid obsessed with Marvel trailers when they came out and now the movies.

So the fact that I’m playing one of my favourite characters is just the most crazy, heartwarming experience ever. And I got to meet so many incredible people who are part of this project and people who are from a South Asian Muslim background. Because I didn’t really see many people from a creative side who look like me doing things that I wanted to do when I was a kid.

How do you feel about being Marvel’s first Muslim superhero?

Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan in 'Ms. Marvel' Image Credit: Disney plus

It’s an honour and a privilege, obviously, that Marvel trusts me to bring her to life. But I don’t really go to work thinking every day that I’m like the first Muslim superhero, because I’m never going to get anything done that way.

But, you know, the whole reason I got into the [‘Ms. Marvel’] comics was because I saw a girl like me. She was this Pakistani Muslim superhero fanatic, and I was a Pakistani Muslim superhero fanatic. And it was just crazy because I didn’t think a story like that was possible because I never really saw it before…. and I just completely fell in love with her.

Iman Vellani and Matt Lintz in 'Ms. Marvel' Image Credit: Courtesy of Marvel Studios

I do understand how important representation is because I felt that, you know, isolation that comes with not feeling understood really. As close as I get to my school friends, they’re never really going to know my experiences and I’m never going to really know theirs. But film and television shape how we see people in this world and such representation is so long overdue.

What was that transition like into becoming Kamala Khan? And what did you learn about her that that you didn’t understand as a fan?

Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan, Yasmeen Fletcher as Nakia and Matt Lintz as Bruno in 'Ms. Marvel' Image Credit: Disney plus

That it is really difficult because I felt like I had to kind of put on a face or, you know, I’m acting so I got to be this character. But Sarah Finn, my amazing casting director, kind of held my hand and was like, look, we cast you, we want you to just be yourself. You don’t have to go any extra mile and then try to put on a face, that’s not you. And that’s kind of all the reassurance that I needed.

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Iman Vellani in 'Ms. Marvel' Image Credit: Disney plus

On top of that, all of our creatives were almost using me as a great resource and getting advice because our show was written by 30-year-olds who were writing for 16-year-old characters. So I really appreciate that the producers and our writers and directors talk to us as humans… They brought so much of my real experiences into the show, and I think they did that for a lot of the other characters as well. And so it was it was pretty easy for me in that sense.

So having your debut in something as big as a Marvel series, are there things you’re afraid of concerning fame, or have you gotten any advice from the other Marvel stars how to handle all of it?

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Brie Larson as Captain Marvel Image Credit: Marvel Studios

Yes, actually, Brie Larson reached out to me I think two days after I got the part and she just talked to me on Facetime for a while. She’s been my greatest resource and mentor throughout this whole process even though she is an Oscar winner. Marvel completely changed her life. And I’ve seen it happen to Chris Hemsworth and Tom Holland as well.

But I can’t even imagine putting myself in those shoes and what this next year is going to look like. So it is daunting in that sense, but I just have so much love for this character and I want people to see what I saw when I picked up those comics for the first time.

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Iman Vellani Image Credit: AP

You know, she’s a fairly new character and only premiered in 2014 in the comic books. So yeah, I’m excited for people to see my interpretation and I want people to understand how likable she is to such a punk character. And I think the MCU really needs her.

Tell us how you landed the ‘Ms. Marvel’ gig in the first place?

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Iman Vellani in 'Ms. Marvel' Image Credit: Courtesy of Marvel Studios

I literally got cast on my last day of high school, which was the perfect graduation present, considering I didn’t get one during COVID. But my agent actually got sent the casting call through a WhatsApp forward, which is like the proudest way this could have happened and it looked super sketchy, but I did it anyway. Two days after I sent my tape and I got a call saying ‘get a lawyer, we’re flying you to LA.’

Rish Shah and Iman Vellani in 'Ms. Marvel' Image Credit: Courtesy of Marvel Studios

My dad flew with me to LA and I was like this is the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire life. I just wanted to, you know, use that experience as much as I could because I didn’t know when I’d be in a room next with Marvel employees so I just I really took full advantage of that. And I think they just saw that outside of the acting I was so in love with this world and that definitely gave me a bit of an upper hand.

Many people don’t know that before acting, you also directed a few shorts in the past. So what’s the dream - to continue standing in front of the camera or direct a film one day, perhaps even for the MCU?

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This image released by Disney+ shows, from left, Yasmeen Fletcher, Matthew Lintz and Iman Vellani in a scene from the series "Ms Marvel." (Disney+ via AP) Image Credit: AP

I’ve pitched for so many movies to Kevin [Feige, President of Marvel Studios]. I made those shorts for fun when I got bored in high school, but I never wanted to be an actor even though I went to school for theatre. But yeah, I kind of fell in love with the behind the scenes stuff, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I kind of wanted to try everything, and that’s kind of what university was supposed to be for. But that didn’t happen.

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Directors Bilall Fallah, left, and Adil El Arbi with Sana Amanat, one of the character's creators, on the set during filming of “Ms. Marvel.” MUST CREDIT: Daniel McFadden Image Credit: Daniel McFadden

However, I am getting essentially the greatest crash course on how to make a movie here. We worked with four different directors and three different cinematographers. There are constant crew changes every other episode and so between takes, I’m just watching people and the acting bit is working out pretty well so far. So I’m not complaining, but maybe one day I don’t know. As long as it’s a project I’m passionate about.

‘Ms. Marvel’ is a story about a teenaged girl who discovers that she has unique powers and she learns how to handle them and celebrate them, very similar to you, minus the superpowers of course. Do you agree?

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Iman Vellani in 'Ms. Marvel' Image Credit: Disney plus

My culture and being Pakistani was a part of my life but I was very dismissive about and I didn’t really feel very connected with my culture prior to this show. I was born in Pakistan, but I moved to Canada when I was one year old and so I didn’t feel like I had a connection to it.

I didn’t really have any Muslim Pakistani friends. So, yeah, just being on the show and seeing so many Pakistani and Indian actors that I grew up watching with my family was just so encouraging.

I felt so far removed from the film industry yet wanted to be a part of it so badly growing up. And so I just I’m so grateful I got to work with so many women and people of colour behind the camera. And I just hope that that this opens a lot of doors for people like me in this industry. And now, I could not be prouder to be Pakistani. It’s cheesy, but it’s true.


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Iman Vellani Image Credit: AP

“So my top favorite people, the entire world are Robert Downey, Jr. Billy Joel and Kevin Feige and he knows how much I’m obsessed with him. And I think he really likes how nerdy I am about the Marvel stuff,” on working with the President of Marvel Studios.

Did you know?

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Iman Vellani at the premiere of 'Ms. Marvel' Image Credit: AP

Iman Vellani will also feature in 'The Marvels' feature film along with Brie Larson, which comes out in 2023.

Don’t miss it!

‘Ms. Marvel’ streams in the UAE on Disney plus