Iman Vellani on her career-defining moment as Ms. Marvel, the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Creative Direction and styling
The story of Ms. Marvel goes a little something like this…
Kamala Khan is a teenage girl on a journey of self-discovery—because she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. Her Muslim heritage and Pakistani-American cultural identity are woven into her world, which is why her family can seem like they’re from another planet. And high school is a different dimension on its own. Kamala is smart, savvy, and a fan fiction scribe who escapes into daydreams about possessing powers. Fantasy becomes reality when she discovers a magical bracelet that gives her cosmic powers. She takes her new responsibilities seriously because that’s what you do with great power. All the while battling nefarious characters in between homecoming and homework.
Iman Vellani’s origin story is not unlike Ms. Marvel’s. The 19-year-old Canadian is a big fan of the Avengers and superheroes of her world. She was first introduced to Ms. Marvel comic books and fell in love with Kamala Khan for her strong moral code and innate desire to help others. Iman felt like the comics were literally written for her, which made the casting call for Ms. Marvel even more serendipitous. She created a self-taped audition, submitted it at 3 am for review, and got the call—Iman made her acting debut as the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Although her journey in Hollywood has just begun, Iman is otherworldly in her performance. She bursts into our homes with an electric presentation that’s poignantly authentic. Iman has a strong vision and understands what the Marvel audience wants. She brings a refreshing perspective to a universe we thought we already knew. It’s honest and quite striking. This may be her first acting gig, but Iman is a pro at bringing her character depth. Her future as an actress knows no bounds, much like that of Ms. Marvel. The parallels are remarkable for both Kamala and Iman. They both discovered their strengths—Iman’s is her staying power.
Hi Iman, it’s such a pleasure to meet you! Where are you calling in from?
I’m in LA, flying out back to Toronto today though. It’s a night flight, so I’m chilling for a bit.
Well, thanks for chatting with me. I’m so excited to hear you’re launching your career with this huge role. I was reading your story and felt like I could relate to you—I was such a book nerd and knew I’d somehow become a writer. You, on the other hand, were into comic books. Did you always know you wanted to be a superhero?
I think, everyone does. But it’s not something you say like, “Oh, I’m gonna be in the Marvel universe.” So, so few people can say that. And the weirdest part of all of this is that I’m one of the few people that can say that. I’m part of this little group of people that have experienced a very similar thing. Marvel works very differently than other productions in the industry. So, yeah, it’s strange. I never would’ve even imagined it. I wanted it. I see these attractive, fit people on these posters on my bedroom wall and I’m like, “God damn.” I couldn’t see myself on those posters.
And yet here you are. It’s remarkable. Before all of this, you were creating fan fiction videos, right? What is the story behind all of that?
I got bored during quarantine. So, I have comic books, action figures, and posters, so I made them as a joke. Then I sent it to Kevin Feige, and then he was like, “Oh, this is good.” Now, the intro for the shop is stop motion. I’ve been traveling a lot these last two years, and I like to carry action figures and comics just to decorate. Like, one bag is just decorations for each apartment that I’m in.
I travel a lot for work as well, so I completely get that. I always bring a few things with me to make it feel more like home. What else do you bring with you?
I have a mini foam roller because this job makes your body hurt a lot. You’ve got to stay limber. I also like having a water bottle as just a comfort bottle to have around me.
But mostly, I have this one Ironman poster, a retro one that I like to hang up everywhere. It’s so beat up now because I’ve been traveling with it, putting tape on it, ripping the tape off—it’s like, so destroyed. But it’s stuff like that; mostly a bunch of comic books.
Speaking of Ironman, it’s no secret that you’ve always had a thing for Robert Downey Jr.?
I don’t know, I just have some weird affinity towards him. Now, I’m realizing in interviews I literally sound so obsessed, which I am. But, I sound legitimately crazy. I do have an Ironman thing, though.
I think that’s endearing! I’m pretty sure I had a bunch of Leonardo DiCaprio posters as a teenager. So, tell me all about Ms. Marvel. I’d like to hear your thoughts on who she is and what you wanted to bring to this role.
What attracted me most is that she’s just not like a conventional superhero. She’s a teenager fighting these larger-than-life threats. She doesn’t know how battles work. She doesn’t know where she belongs in comparison to the rest of the Avengers. She just doesn’t know how to balance being a kid, doing homework, religion, relationships, and also saving the world.
Clearly, she has a lot going on.
Yeah, there’s a lot going on in this kid’s head. But, she does know one thing for sure—she has to use these powers for good. I found that admirable because I used to doubt myself a lot in high school and I feel like those Ms. Marvel comics really, really got me through it. Kamala is just so unapologetic about who she was. She never changed when she was around a boy or a teacher or her friends. She was just Kamala. I think a lot of my abilities are very similar to hers. And it’s just being an absolute nerd about things and gushing over them.
I agree, she’s incredibly brave to be so authentic to herself.
Ms. Marvel is really a character for the fans. Apart from the Muslim-Pakistani thing, of course, that was very cool when I found out she had a very similar background to where I was from. But at the heart of it, she represented everything about fan culture for Marvel fans. They are so intense. Being a Marvel fan is so much work because you have to be a part of all the Reddit forums and break down trailers, theories, and posters. The show kind of appreciates that and encourages people to continue doing that.
That’s one of the things that makes Kamala and the show so unique—you can connect with the characters on different levels.
We want to appeal to kids, but also to 50-year-old random dudes who are Marvel nerds. We want everyone to see themselves in Kamala, regardless of how old they are, because she’s that universal character.
You touched on representation a little earlier, but when I was growing up, there were little to no Asian leads on television. If they were, they were caricatures or hypersexualized. It’s so incredible to see more inclusion and diversity in the media now. What does it mean for you to be the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel universe?
It’s great. Being the first of anything is kind of scary, I think. But you know, those comics had a huge impact on me. I think it was the representation because I know how lonely it can feel to grow up without it. I didn’t even know representation was something I wanted. Growing up, I loved Suite Life on Deck, but I didn’t see anything wrong with them until I read Ms. Marvel. And I was like, “Wait, what? Can this exist? Can I be in this world?” And Marvel was my life. Seeing a character like me in that element was just so crazy and eye-opening. That shifted my perspective on how Muslims are seen in mainstream media and how I look at my own culture.
“What attracted me most is that Ms. Marvel is just not like a conventional superhero. She’s a teenager fighting these larger-than-life threats. She doesn’t know how battles work. She doesn’t know where she belongs in comparison to the rest of the Avengers. She just doesn’t know how to balance being a kid, doing homework, religion, relationships, and also saving the world.”
That is incredible. I believe awareness can empower us to elevate our perspective to make a more positive impact on the world.
I felt quite disconnected from being Muslim and Pakistani. Not to say that my parents didn’t try, because they definitely did. They spoke to me when I was a kid. I grew up with my grandparents, watched Bollywood movies, and went to the mosque. I did everything, but I just still didn’t want to be brown. I hated that about myself until I got to do this show and work with so many cool South Asian and Muslim creatives on and off-screen. They were so in touch with their culture and that made me want to go back and reconnect with mine. I think Kamala is going through a very similar journey throughout the course of the show. She’s rediscovering her identity as well as how religion and culture can elevate her hero’s journey.
That’s beautiful, I think you captured something profound here. So many people are going to be able to connect with Kamala and, more importantly, what you’re experiencing on your journey.
I think it’s wonderful because now I get to share that with this character.
Along with the other incredible characters on the show! It’s such a dynamic cast, you can tell there’s great synergy between everyone. I’m sure you have plenty to share, but I’d love to hear about one of your favorite behind-the-scenes moments.
Our cast is so much fun, and we’re also so young. This was essentially my college experience because we all lived in the same apartment building in Atlanta.
If we weren’t hanging out on set, everyone was at someone’s apartment. And so, we really bonded. I guess one of my favorite scenes was the date scene in episode two. It’s with Rish Shah, who plays Kamran, and he’s one of the easiest people to work with. I remember when we were casting Kamran, we went through so many attractive random guys, and I was like, “God, this is hard.” I had to read with all of them, and then he showed up. He was British, cute, and we just clicked instantly. I got on a call with our producers right after all these auditions, and they were like, “So who did you like?” I told them, “Rish—you have to make his character British. I don’t care what you do. Just, just get him in there!” Every scene I’ve ever done with him was easy. I just had to memorize my lines. I didn’t even do any more prep because I know we just have chemistry and can say things that are not in the script and have each other’s backs. I felt really in character, and especially as a new actor, I had a lot of self-doubt at the beginning. Saagar Shaikh, who plays my older brother, is also in that scene. He would not follow the script at all. Half of that scene is just all of us randomly saying things that ended up working. It was really funny because we could not keep our shit together the entire time.
It sounds like you all had so much fun together! I’m sure that helped you feel more at ease and sort of getting out of that “imposter syndrome” mindset.
Definitely. Because I’m like, “Oh, why me?” I don’t know if I can even act. It gave me some confidence in all of it. Yeah, it was a good bonding moment for all this. It’s so important. When you’re with the right people you’re working with, it brings something out of you.
If Ms. Marvel were to venture into new worlds the way you are, where do you think she would want to go?
Gosh, she’d be hanging out with America Chavez, and then they’d just travel through different universes together. I don’t think there’s a specific one. I think it would be hilarious for these two dorks to travel the multiverse and cause chaos and then fix things along the way.
That would be a movie I would watch. I loved what you said just a little bit earlier about, you know, like self-doubt and coming into yourself and exploring. If you could give yourself some advice before going into this, what would it be?
I think about that a lot. I’m like, “would I do anything differently?” I’m really happy with how the show turned out, and I’m really happy right now in my life. But I guess if I did have to say anything, trust your instincts. People tell me that all the time, and I’m like, “Yay.” But it is a big deal just knowing that you got the part for a reason. I was really going through a lot of imposter syndrome when I first got cast. I fully believe that I came out of nowhere. I had zero experience. My resume was literally my volunteering credits within my community. I couldn’t believe it for like the first year. Seeing my face on buses is super trippy, but it is real. Um, yeah, I just wish I could process all this sooner and allow myself to kind of take care of myself better and be kinder to myself. I would say that to my younger self. Just be kinder. I’m new, and I’m not going to be perfect on my first try, and that’s fine. But yeah, I will just be kinder to myself and have fun while doing it… you know, don’t let it get into your head and ruin the fun.
Absolutely. You’ll always have those moments, and they’ll just look different throughout your life—I think it’s really smart that you’d want to give yourself a little more grace. We all want to be good at what we do, and it’s easy to get hard on yourself—especially as a young woman in this industry.
Yeah, and as a teenager, I went through so many freaking growing pains, and racial and general insecurities. And now when everything’s on-screen, you’re finding insecurities you didn’t even know existed in yourself, nobody else can see but you. It was rough at the beginning, but now, everything has been amplified. You can already feel it.
You are literally putting yourself out there! You’re very early in your career, and you obviously have action-adventure down. I’m curious if you’re interested in doing any other types of genres? Perhaps a romantic comedy or theater?
Definitely not rom-coms! (Laughs)
Do you ever watch romcoms?
I only watch those cheesy eighties romcoms. Those are the best ones. Pretty Woman… I’m so against it. Some of these films did not transcend time. I don’t know. Maybe one day! I just don’t see myself in that genre. Honestly, I can’t even see past next week! My head is all in Marvel and I’ve yet to think about the outside world and other career stuff. I get freaked out easily. So I’ll see what comes my way, obviously, that’s the right point of view. I mean, just to be open when the right opportunity comes along, and as long as I’m passionate about it, I’ll embrace it, whatever it may look like.
“I felt quite disconnected from being Muslim and Pakistani. Not to say that my parents didn’t try, because they definitely did. They spoke to me when I was a kid. I grew up with my grandparents, watched Bollywood movies, and went to the mosque. I did everything, but I just still didn’t want to be brown. I hated that about myself until I got to do this show and work with so many cool South Asian and Muslim creatives on and off-screen. They were so in touch with their culture and that made me want to go back and reconnect with mine.”
Irinel de León/Mane Addicts
Exactly, anything is possible. More on that topic—if you weren’t acting, what do you see yourself doing? Do you have any hidden talents or passions we don’t know about yet?
I couldn’t tell you two years ago and I still can’t! I was a very confused high school kid, and I didn’t know what I was good at and what I enjoyed doing. I knew I was passionate about two things, and they were movies and Marvel. I was like, “Wow. I couldn’t make a career out of that, obviously.” I was going to go to university for integrated media, which is essentially working with different mediums to make art. I think film was something I always wanted to do. I just never really saw myself in front of the camera. I’m honestly like a sponge absorbing all this knowledge. I’ve gotten to work with so many cool people, and I’m learning a lot from them and just observing how they work. And, you know, we’ve had four different directors on Ms. Marvel alone, and then five, if you include The Marvels. So I’m really, really lucky that I’ve gotten to see such a diverse range of people who are so included in their craft and also work within Marvel and Disney’s agenda.
That’s kind of the best way to approach things anyway. Our culture puts a lot of emphasis on having things figured out, but I don’t think that’s how life works. There are tons of people who find their true or new passions later in life.
I don’t get it either.
Next year, you’ll be following up with The Marvels, I’d love to hear more about your character going into that space.
It is pretty exciting to see the differences. I thought the TV show was big. But the movie—is HUGE. I can’t talk about it. Really. It’ll be something we just have to look forward to. All I can say is that it’s a lot of fun, and I get to share the screen with Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris, who are both so freaking badass in their costumes. Being able to stand next to them in a super-suit was really empowering for me because, as Ms. Marvel IN Ms. Marvel, I’m the only one. And you know, as soon as you walk out in costume, everyone stares at you, and you constantly remind yourself to have your stomach sucked in… but in this movie, the women were so comfortable in their skin, it just made me feel really loose and free. It’s inspiring to see how they just made it their own instead of fulfilling certain kinds of expectations, especially in a universe as big as Marvel.
I can’t wait to see it! I am so grateful that you were able to spend some time with me today. Before I let you go, I do have just one last question for you. Now that you are a superhero, who is the most super person you know in real life?
God, I have a few. Okay! My mom, for sure. She’s like a woman who literally does it all. And I know we say this about all moms, but I think it’s true! Mothers—They’re a force of nature. I’m not easy. And I have an older brother. We live with all four of our grandparents, which was like, wow. My mom just got her Ph.D. while she’s working and makes really good food. I just couldn’t do what she does. I also really admire our producers on our show, Sana Amanat and Jenna Berger. I was just with them the other night. They ended up becoming like my older sisters. We’ve gotten so close beyond work, and we can just chill and watch a movie. They’re forcing me to watch romcoms. (Laughs) Sana Amanat co-created the character of Ms. Marvel in the comics. And I had been admiring her for years and years and years. I was so starstruck by her just because I saw her name in these comic books that I adored. And so it’s just so wonderful that my first experience in Hollywood has been with these two wonderful women. I’m always sitting next to them and just shadowing them because producing—it is a very difficult job. They have to coordinate between every single department, and, on top of that, they are writers, so they have such a special connection to the comic books. I would always refer to them for notes and stuff. I can’t even imagine how busy their emails are, but I’m happy that we could have them on our show.
Thank you, I can’t wait to watch you do some truly super things—and have a safe trip home!
Thank you, bye!