DUBAI: In 2014, a young girl named Iman Vellani was browsing the Marvel comic books at her local bookstore in Canada when she saw something she’d never seen before: A face that looked like hers. It was Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, the first Muslim superhero in the company’s decades-long history. Little did she know, at the age of 19 in the “Ms. Marvel” Disney+ series, she would be the one to bring Kamala Khan to life.
“Playing her is the most surreal thing ever. The whole reason I got into the comics was because I saw in her a girl like me. She was a Pakistani-Muslim superhero fanatic. I was a Pakistani-Muslim superhero fanatic. It was just crazy, because I didn’t think a story like that was possible, because I never really saw it before. This comic book was holding a mirror in front of me, and I just completely fell in love with her,” Vellani said at a recent media roundtable.
Vellani herself has still to properly process what’s happened to her. After all, she was cast while still in high school as a complete unknown with zero professional credits to her name, whisked off to another country to find herself face-to-face with her hero, Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios. It’s hard to blame her for walking through the entire experience as if it’s just some wonderful dream.
“I was basically in shock for a year and a half,” she said.
Playing her favorite character, however, turned out to be more than just a chance to connect with the cinematic universe that she posted about so fervently online throughout her formative years. It also enabled her to explore her identity as a Muslim and a Pakistani herself — something that hadn’t been easy, growing up with friends who were not a part of her culture.
“Being Pakistani was a part of my life I was very dismissive about, and I felt disconnected from my culture prior to this show. I was born in Pakistan, but I moved to Canada when I was one. 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 get to my school friends, they’re never really going to know my experiences and I’m never going to really know theirs.”
On set, Vellani found herself surrounded by South Asian actors she had grown up seeing on television, and Sana Amanat, the character’s co-creator and Marvel’s Director of Content and Character Development, herself Pakistani-American, took Vellani under her wing.
“Honestly, one of the biggest things for me is just 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; that’s something I’d never done before in my life with anyone but my parents. I’d 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.”
At the roundtable, she praised Amanat, describing her as a “big sister” on set. “I felt so far removed from the film industry and wanted to be a part of it so badly growing up,” she said. “I’m so grateful I got 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 creating space for a character like Kamala to exist. I hope that opens a lot of doors.”
Fittingly, her journey is not unlike the one Kamala Khan herself takes in the comics — a coincidence not lost on Vellani.
“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 could not be prouder to be Muslim, and to be Pakistani. It’s cheesy, but it’s true,” Vellani said.
Performing as Kamala Khan was a daunting task at first for Vellani, who struggled to act naturally as a character she adored so much.
“It was really difficult, because I felt like I had to put on a face: ‘I’m acting, so I have to be in character.’ And this was my first character — my first role ever,” Vellani explained.
Once again, the women at Marvel helped her through it.
“Marvel’s amazing casting director Sara Finn held my hand throughout the whole thing and said, ‘Look, we cast you. We want you. Just be yourself. You don’t have to put on a face. That’s not you. You’re already Kamala.’ That was all the reassurance I needed,” she said.
Despite her lack of familiarity with being in front of a camera, Vellani did have some invaluable experience that the writers on the show lacked: Being a teenage girl in 2022.
“The show is written by 30-year-olds and they’re writing for 16-year-old characters. That has, a lot of times in Hollywood, not been the most realistic thing,” Vellani said. “I really appreciate that the (creators) talked to us as humans. Our directors called me and said, ‘We want to hear about you. What was your high-school experience?’ In the end, they brought so many of my — and others’ — real experiences into the show. I think it shows how important it is to have those conversations.”
After all, while identity is certainly a part of “Ms. Marvel,” it is not a show that just attempts to capture the Muslim-American experience — it’s also about being a teenager, and all the pain and shame that comes with it.
“We really wanted to lean into that coming-of-age, corny vibe, because being a teenager is so embarrassing sometimes and cringy. When you’re a teen, everything is so heightened. Small inconveniences feel like the end of the world,” says Vellani. “We wanted to embrace all of that. I think our show is quite self-aware about how corny it is.”
It’s been a steep learning curve for Vellani, who will become a global star almost overnight when the show comes out, and who is going directly from filming “Ms. Marvel” to the set of the upcoming movie “Marvels,” releasing in 2023, in which she will star with Brie Larson.
“I’ve really had to learn to slow down and take care of myself. This has been such an amazing and exhausting experience that if I don’t stop and look after my own needs, I won’t be able to do it,” she told Arab News.
Vellani is well aware that breaking ground as Marvel’s first Muslim superhero means she will be connected to that phrase for life. But she’s smart enough not to allow it to define her.
“It’s an honor and a privilege that Marvel trusts me to bring her to life,” she said. “But I don’t go to work every day thinking, ‘Oh, I’m the first Muslim superhero.’ I’d never get anything done that way.”
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