For a 19-year-old nobody making their debut in a blockbuster Marvel TV show, Iman Vellani seems remarkably relaxed. “I did not take the audition seriously,” chuckles the Karachi-born, Ontario-raised actor, peering into the lens of her phone during a Zoom catch-up with NME. “I only auditioned because I love Ms. Marvel and I love Marvel comics. I was shooting my shot, and here we are!”
Ms. Marvel, about a teenage Avengers fangirl called Kamala Khan who discovers she has superpowers, debuted on Disney+ last month. The season finale airs on Thursday, in which Kamala has to use everything she’s learned so far in order to confront shadowy organisation Damage Control and save the lives of her friends. After that, she’ll join up with Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) for the megabucks Captain Marvel film sequel in 2023.
The show actually finished filming two years ago, at the height of COVID-19, so Vellani is only now learning what it means to be the face of a monster franchise. We’re talking about the press intrusion; the constant online barrage from fans; the complete upturning of her life beyond all recognition. On top of that, she’s had to deal with becoming the first Muslim lead in an overwhelmingly white space – a job that has made her an instant role model to millions, and a target for abuse to others.
Yes despite rave reviews from critics, Ms. Marvel predictably upset a vocal minority who weren’t happy about its diverse main character. For Vellani, the hate felt more personal given the similarities between her and Kamala. Like Khan, Vellani is a Marvel obsessive. Like Khan, she was pushed into the spotlight suddenly. And like Khan, she has had great responsibility thrust upon her.
“I feel like I have aged 20 years in the last two”
Luckily, and perhaps surprisingly given her tender age, Vellani was totally prepared. “I feel like in the last two years I have aged 20,” she says. “I got cast on my last day of school and was immediately having meetings with and making conversation with adults. And now most of my best friends are in their thirties.
“I feel like I’ve lived [a whole life] but I’m still only 19. I haven’t really experienced life yet. The people that are on the posters on my bedroom wall, that I grew up looking at every morning, I now have their contact info and we’re talking about shared experiences, it’s incredible.”
Hey Iman, how’s your first press tour going?
“It’s honestly so cathartic to finally talk about the show. For a long time, it felt like this little indie movie that we were making. It makes me really happy that this character is getting the light she deserves.”
How are you coping with the attention?
“It’s trippy and weird because people are very possessive over celebrities. People can access them whenever they want through a Google search or Disney+. That’s scary – and, you know, that’s not me. I think I’ve kept my real self quite private. I am still processing the fact that the show is even out and that people know my name.“
Do you feel any responsibility in being the first Muslim lead in a Marvel series?
“Here’s the thing, it felt very close to home for me. I have a very similar family dynamic to Kamala’s. A lot of the words and phrases that are being thrown in the show are being used in my day-to-day. I don’t feel the pressure.”
How important was Kamala’s heritage to you?
“For some reason, every time we see Muslims and South Asians [on screen], especially teenagers, they’re never proud of their culture. It’s always something that’s dragging them down. That’s so not true. Kamala’s story has always been about using her cultural identity as something that motivates her and guides her. That was really important to us [when making Ms. Marvel].”
Sharing so much with your character is going to make it harder for people to separate you…
“I know! I feel like I’m cosplaying on a bigger scale! It’s a very vulnerable place to be in because my genuine happy place is Marvel and the MCU. When I’m sad I’ll rewatch Iron Man. But it’s not like I’m the one person in the world who is allowed to watch Iron Man. It just shows how personal these movies and these characters are and the impact they have.”
How do you deal with the negative reactions?
“I know they’re there. It’s something we knew was going to happen going into this. It happened when the comic books came out in 2014. I’m all for constructive criticism as long as people have a legitimate concern or suggestion or something real. Then I care. But all the hatred I’ve seen has no basis, no merit, it’s just purely for the sake of hating – and that’s fine. You’re not gonna impress everyone. We hit our target audience and we hit an entirely new audience that didn’t know they were gonna fall in love with this character – people who have never seen themselves represented in a positive light before.”
“The review-bombing is laughable. I think change is scary for a lot of people”
Have you heard about the review-bombing?
“I’m not on social media. I hear things that my mother tells me though. It’s honestly quite laughable and I think change is scary for a lot of people. And having a show that surrounds a 16-year-old girl who’s Pakistani and Muslim and a superhero is scary for a lot of people. I think this is just gonna rip the Band Aid off and hopefully people will fall in love with her.”
Even the haters?
“This show is for Marvel fans. If you’re a real Marvel fan, if any of those review bombers consider themselves a Marvel fan, then this show’s for them too. We wanted Ms. Marvel to be a love letter to Marvel fans. So yeah, I don’t care about them!”
What can you tell us about the season finale?
“It’s directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah who directed episode one, so a lot of that fun animation and quick Edgar Wright-style editing is coming back. Visually, it’s quite fun to look at…“
What does Kamala get up to?
“We see Kamala become her own version of what a superhero is. She stops trying to be this watered-down version of [her heroes]. In episode one and two she was copying Black Widow poses and continuing to wear that Captain Marvel costume because that made her feel more comfortable. Now she has her super-suit and goes into full fighter mode. She’s a fully-fledged superhero – and it’s really empowering and badass. I think people are gonna have a lot of fun watching [the finale] and their jaws are gonna drop.”
It must have been fun to do that Black Widow pose in front of a camera, right?
“It was awesome! With those Black Widow poses, a lot of the montage in episode two wasn’t choreographed, it was just me having fun! Any idea that we had, we’d just do it. The crew was more than welcome to be like, ‘what if you did this?’ and I’d be like, ‘okay, let’s film it!’ We got all this footage of me trying different things. It felt like a fun collaboration.”
It’s surprising to hear you had so much freedom on the set of a Marvel show…
“I know, it’s crazy that they trust me to change my lines on the spot. I felt comfortable doing it which is what was so strange!“
“When people see the finale, their jaws are gonna drop”
Have you got any plans for your career post-Ms. Marvel?
“Nope! I didn’t even know I could do this. Ms. Marvel came out of nowhere and so I decided I’m not going to plan my future. I’m just going to see where life takes me. If it’s an indie thing then great, if it’s Fast and Furious 29 then great. I don’t know! I’m going with the flow here.”