MEET MARKHAM’S MARVEL- LOUS IMAN VELLANI
The young star shares her journey from TIFF Next Wave jury member ( and cinephile) to the first Muslim superhero
BY RADHEYAN SIMONPILLAI
HOT SUMMER GUIDE
Marvel released video of Iman Vellani finding out she would be joining their universe. It’s a recording from a Zoom conference call that caught Vellani at a bad time. She was hanging out at her friend’s place in June 2020 when the Marvel brass rang. Vellani takes the call outside on the driveway. The typical brown brick Markham home with a gigantic garage stands behind her as she hears from studio president Kevin Feige that she’s about to fly off and become Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel. “Kevin Feige’s on my phone right now!” she gushes in the video, not realizing the call was being recorded. “I can’t comprehend this right now!” “There’s no way to really transition from Markham to Marvel,” says Vellani, two years later, speaking to NOW on a Zoom call that feels much less earth- shattering. Vellani is back on home turf as her new series Ms. Marvel is about to drop on Disney+. She’s squirming throughout our interview. Having to talk about yourself isn’t easy for anybody, never mind a 19- year- old who is both acting and finding herself in the spotlight for the first time. But she’s adorably awkward about it, using humour and big breaths to calm her nerves in a way that perfectly suits Kamala Khan. The series is about a self- conscious teentry. ager who discovers superpowers thanks to some dorky Captain Marvel cosplay. Vellani, a self- described Marvel stan playing a version of herself, is incredibly charming, funny and heartfelt in the role, nimbly carrying the series on her shoulders. When I tell her this, she squirms again. Vellani processes what the last few years have been. In brief: her Marvel fandom is being rewarded; she’s been given the chance to connect with her Pakistani and Muslim roots; and she’s now able to inspire the next generation of teens who previously may have doubted there’s space on screens for them, whether they are Muslim, Pakistani, Canadian or from Markham, where diversity thrives. ( The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.) NOW — When did the casting process begin for you and how did kind of the pandemic play into that? Iman Vellani — I started my audition process in February 2020. It was all through a WhatsApp forum that my aunt received. She sent it to me because I’m a huge Ms. Marvel fan. I read all the comics when I was in high school. I dressed up as her for Halloween. She was very much a prominent character in my life. And my entire family knew that. I wasn’t ever going to go into the acting world, but this was just something that felt so fated that I had to I sent my self tape. Two days later, they call me to L. A. Then I’m in L. A. with my dad and it was like the greatest time of my life just being in that room with so many Marvel producers. Then the pandemic hit and my next screen test got cancelled. They just sent me literally one email and were like, “You’re still very much in the running. We just have to figure some stuff out on our end. I was like, “okay, well, I got to figure out university but great.” I was like, “Do I accept college applications or what?” June hits and they ask for another screen test over Zoom. I thought it went terribly. But clearly not. A week later, literally on the last day of high school, I got the call on my friend’s driveway. The Ms. Marvel poster really stands apart. Your typical Marvel poster is like, “there’s your hero and there’s the sidekick and there’s the villains.” This one shows Kamala’s parents, brother, best friends and ancestry. I don’t think there’s other Marvel posters that really hit on family and community in the same way. Not since maybe Black Panther. How does that speak to what this show is and why it stands out? I think it’s incredibly important to show children of immigrant parents who are proud of their culture and don’t neglect it. For Kamala, her family is her rock. It’s her guiding voice throughout her hero’s journey. They really motivate and encourage her to just be a good human, because that’s what a hero is. It’s not about the powers or the fancy capes. It’s about their motivations: why they fight and who they’re fighting for. Kamala just has so much heart. And a lot of that comes from the characters in her life. Also, she’s the only superhero besides I guess the Wasp whose parents are both alive. So that’s cool. You know, parents, we love them. I think it’s great to show a tight- knit family. And that’s the case for a lot of South Asians. You’re working on this show and you get to meet Muslim and Pakistani people from all over the world. I think that’s a way to discover the diversity of being Muslim. What did you learn from collaborating with all of these different people on set? I grew up quite disconnected from my culture. My parents tried the best they could. I grew up with all four of my grandparents. I went to mosque. I had family friends who are Pakistani. But I never felt connected to that part of me. I think it was because I was so enamoured by Hollywood and American pop culture. Being brown and Hollywood never really went hand in hand. I never saw myself represented in that light. I felt like I can’t be myself if I want to be a part of this world. And now here I am in this world, and I’m working with so many incredibly talented South Asian and Muslim creatives who are so in touch with their culture. They’re such talented people. They just really made me learn a lot about my culture. Seeing them be this cool and be so in touch with their roots made me really go back and reconnect with mine. And my parents are so happy about that. The storytelling here is very interesting. You mentioned that Lady Bird and Scott Pilgrim are influences. I see the Scott Pilgrim visual styles. And from Lady Bird, I totally see that mom- daughter dynamic [ in Ms. Marvel] but with curry on top. A lot of the directors talked to me about my real- life relationship with my mom, school friends, culture and religion and trying to fit into high school. Lady Bird was a wonderful inspiration for us to just kind of tap into that mother- daughter relationship. It’s a theme that travels throughout the entire show all the way from [ episode] one to six. We really wanted to make the core of the show the family and showing how complicated these relationships can be, especially postpartition, when so many families were separated. There’s a lot of rough history there but I think we cover it very well. We just wanted to make sure we tell this one story as specifically as possible. Because we cannot fall into that routine where Hollywood just puts one brown person on screen and tries to generalize two billion South Asian and Muslim people into this one person. That’s impossible. We have to have so many different types of stories in order to represent as many people as we can. What’s up with the lack of social media presence? I’ve never met someone your age that doesn’t have a public Insta or Tiktok account. Social media can be a lot. It can be an extra job. I really don’t need one of those right now. I kind of just want to keep my distance from it. I don’t think I’m mentally mature enough for it just yet. We’ll get there. I do understand the importance of it. But right now I just see more negatives than I do positives. I love that. These are very healthy decisions for you. But you do have Letterboxd ( social media app to share movie reviews). And I stalked the shit out of that. That’s like the one thing I forgot. That and my Vimeo were the only things I never took down. But can I tell you why I love your Letterboxd account? I don’t know many 19- year- olds ( especially ones who love Marvel) who love Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Taxi Driver, La Jetée, The Master, [ Lee ChangDong’s] Burning and Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. What is going on, Iman? I was going through a phase in high school where I thought I was really artsy and would only watch art- house movies. I joined the TIFF Next Wave committee. At least on my side, I felt there was this unspoken competition of who has seen more obscure movies. I really just went through a whole phase of like Czechoslovakian and French movies. Agnès Varda is my favourite director. Also, you’re exposed to an entirely new world when you watch movies with subtitles. Film and TV literally shape how we see people in this world. And if you’re only watching Hollywood movies or only movies of a certain genre, that’s fine. But you’re not going to be exposed to that many people. And there’s so many different cultures. People have made movies about them. They just need more recognition. When I was growing up as a little film nerd teenager, it was hard for me to get people from Scarborough to come with me downtown to watch independent films. You came from even further away, Markham, to become part of the TIFF Next Wave committee and program films like Minhal Baig’s Hala and Jenna Bass’s Flatland. It’s crushing to me that this was just a phase, as if you’re no longer into the arthouse film stuff. No, no, no – I’m very much still in that whole cinephile world. It’s so incredible that we got to experience that and highlight so many fresh and young voices – marginalized voices and Canadian voices – all who are making movies about this coming- of- age experience. We are 12 kids who all had a very different coming- of- age experience. We were able to program a very eclectic mix of so many movies from so many different genres, all which shed light on parts of the world we haven’t seen before or stories we haven’t heard from yet. It’s so powerful to give teenagers that type of voice. I’m reading your Letterboxd. You’re such a witty commentator. As a film critic myself, I’m like, “Why can’t I have her humour?” If you did not become Ms. Marvel, what did you see yourself becoming? I’m seeing you maybe pursuing filmmaking or film criticism. I was always so fascinated by film and cinema. It was so unattainable for me. I went to an art school but no one was really going into the arts afterwards. It was just something to be on your resumé. That kind of made me a little sad. And I didn’t really know what I could do here – what I can do in Toronto. I did apply to film school. But I also applied to more academic courses and programs. I was going to go to OCAD for integrated media, which is essentially working with different mediums to make art. Because I didn’t know what I was good at. I just wanted to try everything. And now I’m here. I am working with four different directors and three different cinematographers and so many incredibly talented Muslim South Asian creatives who all are just bringing so much of themselves into the work. I’m like a sponge absorbing all of this film knowledge. I’ve gotten the greatest crash course on film. I watched your short on Vimeo: the experimental Push and the stop motion animation videos. Oh my god. I’d like to say, none of those were serious. I was bored during the pandemic. That was it. You were more productive than most teens I know during the pandemic. Telling immigrant parents you’re going to go into the arts can be a struggle. In the same way that in Ms. Marvel, Kamala’s passion for Captain Marvel is suppressed by her mom. How did that play in your household? My dad did have a fantasy of me becoming a dentist. But I think my parents saw this coming as soon as I started the arts program at [ Unionville High School] and the type of work that I was showing my family. Stuff like Push, for example, they were like, “I don’t get it. It looks good, I guess.” But they were so supportive. My parents really didn’t care what I did as long as I had passion for it and some sort of path. It was hard to see myself in the arts world. My brother is an engineer. My mom’s a nurse practitioner. My dad’s an accountant. I didn’t really have anyone who is in the arts in my community. It is kind of daunting to take that on and to be the representative for that. Hopefully this does inspire more South Asian creatives to tell their stories and put themselves out there because there is space for them there. Are you finding a community among Canadian Marvel people? Because now there’s Tatiana Maslany ( SheHulk), Simu Liu ( Shang- Chi) and Devery Jacobs [ who is joining an upcoming series called Echo]. I have spoken to Simu. He was very sweet. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan who’s in Never Have I Ever, we’re like best friends. It’s nice to have that little community of people who get it and see just how monumental something like this is, especially for Canada and for South Asians and Pakistanis and Muslims. We’re representing so many people. But getting back to the “from Markham to Marvel” thing, it seems so distant, so far away [ to make it]. But then again, you went to the same high school as Hayden Christensen. We take pride in Hayden Christensen. He was in the same drama program that I did. After my news got out, my drama teacher was thriving. He taught Darth Vader and Ms. Marvel. How crazy is that?