TORONTO – When Toronto’s Iman Vellani auditioned for Disney Plus’ “Ms. Marvel” two years ago, she was only 17, and her bedroom was decorated from floor to ceiling in “Avengers” paraphernalia.
Iron Man and Captain Marvel were favourites, but so, too, was Ms. Marvel, also known as Kamala Khan — the young Pakistani-American teenager living between two cultures who dreams of being an artist and, like Vellani, also fangirls about Captain Marvel . Until, of course, one day she sneaks out of the house to attend AvengerCon and discovers she has special powers.
“I fell in love with the comics just because I saw a girl like me,” says Vellani, now 19, of her first ever screen role. “She was a superhero fanatic and she wasn’t ashamed of it or her culture. It helped me reconnect with my own roots. Kamala getting her powers and me getting this part went hand in hand, so I felt like we went on this journey of self-discovery together.”
Marvel only recently took to spotlighting more diverse superheroes, particularly with 2018’s “Black Panther” and 2020’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which stars another Torontonian, Simu Liu.
As Vellani’s Kamala says in the show, “It’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world.”
Or Muslim girls, if a long history of film and television have ever had anything to say about it. But Ms. Marvel has been breaking barriers for nearly a decade. When she was introduced in the original comic book series in 2014 by writer G. Willow Wilson, Kamala became the first Muslim character to headline a book at Marvel Comics.
“Film and TV shape how we see people, and so when Muslims are represented in a very one-note type of way, that’s how you come to see those two billion people in the world,” says Vellani, who is Pakistani and Muslim.
“We want to do justice and get the ball rolling on accurate representation, and this is just one story of one girl and one family. But I really do think we’ve tried our best to create a character who can give people hope and show them why the comics are so monumental. I really hope it has the same impact that the comics had on me.”
That sounds like considerable pressure, particularly with the show set to stream all over the world — including Pakistan — but Vellani isn’t feeling an ounce of it.
“I think the work is going to speak for itself,” she says. “Just me being in this light is going to be inspiring enough for a lot of young Muslim and South Asian people to see that there is space for them in this industry. This is such a different character than the types of Muslims and South Asians I’m used to seeing in mainstream media. It feels so fresh and so real and so much like the real experiences that I had growing up.”
That’s largely due to the incredibly diverse cast and team behind the camera, including creator and writer Bisha K. Ali, co-executive producer Sana Amanat, directors Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Meera Menon. Even the costuming, art and soundtrack are checked with South Asian and Arab artists.
“The fact that my first ever job in Hollywood is with these many women and these many South Asians is absolutely insane,” says Vellani. “It’s unheard of. Working with all these incredibly talented creators who are so good at what they do, are so cool in general, and in touch with their culture, it made me proud of my Pakistani roots.”
In fact, Vellani says, it was especially inspiring just getting to talk about “being brown” in the industry, a common discussion topic among the cast and crew while they occupied an apartment building in Atlanta during shooting.
“It was constant parties and hanging out, all the relationships you see on screen are very much how they were in real life,” says Vellani, adding that her connection with co-star Rish Shah was especially grounding in a way many South Asians living in the West might find familiar.
“He was the first person I willingly listened to Bollywood music with, without my parents playing it in the car and me screaming to turn it off. We were just two brown people who never listen to this stuff, sitting in silence, listening to this music, appreciating it and bonding in a way that our characters would. That’s a core memory
Vellani has always wanted to be in the industry, and her aspirations never wavered. When she was part of the 2019-2020 TIFF Next Wave Committee, a group of young film buffs and aspiring filmmakers, she was asked who would play her in a movie? She answered Iron Man — the character, naturally. She noted, too, her hope for greater diversity in the industry and her dreams of one day becoming a cinematographer.
Today, she says cinematography was the first gig that came to mind. Still, acting was never the goal. For Vellani, it was always about being behind the scenes, which is what makes “Ms. Marvel” even more of an unexpected experience.
“I didn’t know what I was good at, I didn’t know what I enjoyed doing,” says Vellani. “High school was really confusing for me. My entire family is very academic; my brother’s an engineer, my mom’s a nurse practitioner, my dad’s an accountant. I didn’t have anyone in the arts to look to, but that was the only thing I found joy in. So it was hard for me to break out of that and find people that I connected with, which is why TIFF Next Wave was a great opportunity. … It’s so important to find people who are like-minded and connect with your passions.”
When it comes to what’s next, Vellani has one aspiration: “Do everything, work with everyone, and plan nothing, because that’s what got me here.”
The one thing she’s certain of is that things are about to change in a big way. And while she’s had about two years to prepare, for from shooting to release, “it still all feels so crazy.”
Fortunately, even though acting isn’t something her family always totally understood, they couldn’t be happier.
“Marvel’s the only thing I ever talked about growing up, and now it’s still the only thing I ever talk about, but they actually have to listen now, which is pretty cool,” Vellani says, with a smirk.
“My dad was super excited, he was like, ‘Oh, nice! So this is Marvel’s way of paying me back for all the money you spent on merchandise, early movie tickets, T-shirts and comic books?’ Let’s just say he’s been reimbursed.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2022.
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