“It’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world,” said 16-year-old Kamala Khan in the first episode of the new Disney Plus series, “Ms. Marvel.” But Pakistani-born Canadian Iman Vellani is changing that superhero stereotype.
The 19-year-old from Markham is making her acting debut as Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, Ms. Marvel, who is also known as Kamala Khan.
Speaking in a Zoom interview the fresh-faced teenager said, “It’s unreal … and now here I am promoting the show, and so many people are liking it and enjoying it and connecting to Kamala. It means so much that people are finally seeing what I saw when I picked up those comics for the first time.”
Dressed simply in a denim jacket over a white shirt, Vellani is beaming as she talks about “Ms. Marvel,” which debuts on Disney Plus today. She is a self-proclaimed geek who loves comics and superheroes, just like Kamala. In fact, she feels like there was “very little acting involved.”
“It was mostly just me kind of thinking about how I would react in those situations. The directors and producers really encouraged me to bring as much of myself into the story as possible because they were like, ‘We want you. We hired you, and that’s what we want.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know who I am, but I’ll try … so all my little quirks and everything we put into Kamala and she’s a full-fledged human.”
The future is in her hands.
The fictional Kamala is a Pakistani-American teen who gets superpowers like the heroes she’s looked up to.
While Kamala is a huge fan of Carol Danvers, also known as Captain Marvel, Vellani loves Iron Man because she has a crush on Robert Downey Jr., but she doesn’t think she could ever meet him in real life. “I truly think I would implode,” she said. “Something’s going to happen and my body’s going to stop working or my brain is going to stop working, and that’s not going to be good for the future of Marvel,” she joked.
While Vellani loves playing Kamala, she is very much aware of the weight this role carries and the significance of a South Asian Muslim character being represented on such a massive platform.
“Film and TV shape how we see people in this world and so often Muslims have been either misrepresented or just played off as the diversity that they need for their screen. It’s so incredible that a company with as wide a reach as Marvel is providing space for a character like Kamala to kind of thrive and take up space and tell her story.
“They’ve done such an incredible job in hiring Muslim creatives and South Asian creatives, who all have their own attachment to the story and the source material. So their stories combined and me basically living Kamala’s life just created an incredible collaboration,” she said. “I really do hope that this inspires more people to tell their stories because this isn’t obviously the singular representation of the Muslim experience.
“It’s one story about one girl and one family, and we really want to do this one character justice because specificity is representation. As soon as you stop generalizing all two billion Muslim and South Asian people, then we can start having proper representation.”
Vellani was born in Karachi, Pakistan, before her family moved to Canada when she was one.
“I really do think that Kamala and I went on a very similar journey of self discovery. Her getting her powers and me getting this part really went hand in hand. I felt quite disconnected from my culture growing up. It wasn’t something that I thought was cool, and it wasn’t something that I really found value in.”
She continued, “Now I’m working with so many incredibly talented Muslim and South Asian creatives who are so in touch with their culture, and they’re cool people. I just look up to them and I am so inspired by them and I just think that they have the coolest jobs in the world.”
“Ms. Marvel” authentically captures the South Asian family dynamic that many will relate to, and Vellani certainly did. “In episode one, when Kamala was asking her parents if she can go to AvengerCon, that hit close to home for me. I remember anytime I wanted to go to any party, I would have to put it in my parents’ brain, like weeks in advance. Then we’d finally agree that I’ll be home by 11:30 pm and stuff like that.”
The show also has several references that South Asian audiences will identify with, including the reference to Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and his films like “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” and “Baazigar.”
Filming the six-episode series was a learning experience for Vellani, who had many surreal moments.
“I think meeting Kevin Feige was a big one. Being in my super suit for the first time, all I could think about was the cosplay that I made with my grandma. A lot of the fight scenes, just being hung up on wires and looking all badass and learning and training with my stunt double. Honestly, every day I work up and was just like, ‘I’m ready for work. I’m a superhero. That’s cool.’”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION