DUBAI: In 2014, a young girl named Iman Vellani was browsing Marvel comics at her local bookstore in Canada when she saw something she had never seen before: a face that looked like her own. It was Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, the first Muslim superhero in the company’s decades-long history. She didn’t know it, at the age of 19 in the “Ms. Marvel” of the Disney + series, she would be the one who would bring Kamala Khan to life.
“Playing her is the most surreal thing ever. The only reason I got into comics was because I saw her as a girl like me. She was a Pakistani-Muslim superhero fanatic. was a Pakistani-Muslim superhero fanatic. It was just crazy, because I didn’t think a story like that was possible, because I had never really seen it before. This comic held mirror in front of me, and I completely fell in love with her,” Vellani said during a recent media roundtable.
Vellani herself has yet to properly process what happened to her. After all, she was cast while still in high school as an unknown with no professional credits to her name, whisked off to another country to come face-to-face with her hero, Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios. It’s hard to fault him for going through the whole experience like it was just a wonderful dream.
“I was basically in shock for a year and a half,” she said.
Playing her favorite character, however, proved to be more than just a chance to connect with the cinematic universe she so fervently released online throughout her formative years. It also allowed her to explore her identity as a Muslim and a Pakistani herself – something that hadn’t come easy, having grown up with friends who weren’t part of her culture.
“Being Pakistani was a part of my life that I was very dismissive of and felt disconnected from my culture before this show. I was born in Pakistan but moved to Canada when I was one year old. I didn’t have any Muslim or Pakistani friends,” Vellani said. “I felt that isolation that comes with not feeling understood. As close as I am to my school friends, they will never really know my experiences and I will never really know theirs.
On set, Vellani found herself surrounded by South Asian actors she grew up seeing on TV, and Sana Amanat, co-character creator and director of content and character development at Marvel, herself. even Pakistani-American, took Vellani under his wing.
“Honestly, one of the most important things for me is having brown friends for the first time in my life,” Vellani told Arab News after the roundtable. “I was sitting on set with my co-star Rish Shah and listening to Bollywood music; it’s something I’ve never done before in my life with anyone other than my parents. I had never had the chance to socialize with people from the same background as mine, and it really made me see things in a new way.
During the roundtable, she praised Amanat, describing her as a “big sister” on set. “I felt so removed from the film industry and wanted so much to be a part of it growing up,” she said. “I’m so grateful to have been able to work with so many women and people of color behind the camera. I couldn’t be happier that Marvel is taking steps to be more inclusive and create space for a character like Kamala I hope it opens a lot of doors.
Fittingly, her journey is not unlike the one Kamala Khan herself undertakes in the comics – a coincidence that Vellani didn’t miss.
“I think it’s so cool that there are so many parallels between Kamala and me; that we both went on the same journey of self-discovery, learning about our family and our heritage as the show progressed. And now I couldn’t be more proud to be a Muslim and to be a Pakistani. It’s corny, but it’s true,” Vellani said.
Playing the role of Kamala Khan was a daunting task at first for Vellani, who struggled to naturally act like a character she adored so much.
“It was really difficult, because I felt like I had to put on a face: ‘I act, so I have to be in character.’ And that was my first character — my very first role,” Vellani explained.
Once again, the women of Marvel have helped her through this ordeal.
“Marvel’s amazing casting director, Sara Finn, held my hand through the whole process and said, ‘Look, we cast you. We want you. Be yourself. You don’t You don’t have to put on a face. It’s not you. You’re already Kamala.’ It was all the comfort I needed,” she said.
Despite her lack of familiarity with being in front of a camera, Vellani had one invaluable experience that the show’s writers lacked: being a teenager in 2022.
“The show is written by 30-somethings and they write for 16-year-old characters. It often hasn’t been the most realistic thing in Hollywood,” Vellani said. “I really appreciate that the (creators) spoke to us as humans. Our principals called me and said, ‘We want to hear from you. What was your high school experience like? Ultimately, they’ve brought so many of my real-life experiences — and everyone else’s — into the show, and I think that shows how important it is to have those conversations.
After all, while identity is certainly part of “Ms. Marvel,” this isn’t a show that just tries to capture the Muslim-American experience — it’s also about being a teenager, and any the pain and shame that comes with it.
“We really wanted to lean into that cheesy coming-of-age vibe because sometimes being a teenager is so embarrassing and scary. When you’re a teenager, everything is so exacerbated. Small inconveniences feel like the end of the world,” says Vellani. “We wanted to embrace all of that. I think our show is pretty self-aware of how cheesy it is.
It’s been a steep learning curve for Vellani, who will become a global star almost overnight when the series comes out, and goes straight from filming “Ms. Marvel” to filming the next “Marvels” movie, which will be released in 2023, in which she will star with Brie Larson.
“I really had to learn to slow down and take care of myself. It has been such an amazing and exhausting experience that if I don’t stop and take care of my own needs, I won’t be able to do it,” she told Arab News.
Vellani is well aware that breaking new ground as Marvel’s first Muslim superhero means she’ll be tied to that phrase for life. But she’s smart enough not to let that define her.
“It’s an honor and a privilege that Marvel trusts me to bring it to life,” she said. “But I don’t go to work every day thinking, ‘Oh, I’m the first Muslim superhero.’ I would never be able to do anything that way.