'Ms. Marvel' star Iman Vellani reflects on representation for Muslims NPR's Elissa Nadworny talks to Iman Vellani, the Pakistani-Canadian actress who plays Kamala Khan on "Ms. Marvel," about what the show means for representation on television.

Marvel's first Muslim superhero to headline a comic makes her MCU debut

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Marvel fans will meet a superhero on screen for the first time next week. "Ms. Marvel" is the story of a 16-year-old Pakistani American girl named Kamala Khan who lives in Jersey City. She's a big fan of the Avengers, and at the beginning of the series, she goes to AvengerCon, an event for fans to celebrate earth's superheroes. That's where she discovers her own superpowers, enabled by a magical bracelet which belonged to her great-grandmother.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Did that come out of your foot? Are you OK? Hey. Keep me updated. And text me everything.

IMAN VELLANI: (As Kamala Khan) So weird.

NADWORNY: The show is Marvel's first solo series to feature a Muslim female superhero. It's also the first ever role for actor Iman Vellani, who plays Kamala. Vellani has been a fan of the comics for years, and I asked her what it was like to join the superhero universe she's loved for so long.

VELLANI: It's like when you walk into a room that you're not supposed to be in, but no one kicks you out. That's what's happening here. Honestly, it feels the same. I'm still gushing over the same people and enamored by this entire world. I just now get to kind of see the entire process.

NADWORNY: Well, it seems kind of obvious to say that a live-action show about a superhero would be super visually stimulating. But the thing about "Ms. Marvel" that's kind of magical is that the comic is weaved in, too. Like, there's an animation incorporated into scenes. Like, murals jump from building to building as you're walking down the street or, like, your texts are, like, animated in the bedspread. How did that kind of help you build Kamala's world?

VELLANI: Well, in high school for me, I just felt everything so intensely. All my emotions were so heightened - crushes, friendships, everything. It just - minor inconveniences felt like the end of the world when you're in high school. And so, you know, using animation to kind of help tell this part of Kamala's story was super helpful because we can just, you know, make the audience feel those butterflies that Kamala feels when a guy walks out of the pool. And, you know, it just it just elevated the storytelling even more. And I'm so glad that we could do this.

NADWORNY: I want to ask you about the relationship between Kamala and her mom. So Kamala has this very loving family, but the relationship with her parents starts to deteriorate a little bit, like, as she begins to rebel.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Kamala. Where have you been? What are you doing? I'm not recognizing you. Who is this rebellious girl sneaking out, lying to Abu (ph) and me?

VELLANI: (As Kamala Khan) I'm not trying to be rebellious.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) And I'm trying to protect you from yourself.

NADWORNY: You know, this is a show about a young superhero, but also a show about families. Can you talk a little bit about the role of Kamala's family in the show?

VELLANI: So yeah, I think her father, her mother, her brother, they all have a different impact on her. And they really are a part of the story. And I think it's so wonderful to show a child of immigrant parents who is proud of their culture and doesn't neglect it. I think it's so great to show a tight, loving relationship between parents and their children because how often do we get to see alive parents in the MCU? There's, like - the Wasp has parents, fine, but that's about it. Like, I think it's, you know, untapped market here.

NADWORNY: Did you draw on, like, your own experience with family for any of that?

VELLANI: Yeah. I also have an older brother. My relationship with my family is quite similar. It's funny because, like, the first episode, Kamala is asking her parents if she can go to a AvengerCon, and that hits so close to home for me. I would, like, have to ask my parents weeks in advance if I wanted to go to a party. Like, I had to get it in their brain, and then we'd have to compromise on what time I'm going to have to be picked up. And it'd be, like, before midnight. I'm, like, the party starts at midnight. And they're, like, no, if you're not coming home by 11:30, you're not going. And so yeah, now I'm a free woman, but...

NADWORNY: Oh, my gosh.

VELLANI: I felt the struggle.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about, like, your family and growing up.

VELLANI: I also was born in Pakistan. And we moved to Canada when I was 1. But my parents really did kind of try to make me as connected with my culture and religion as possible. But me growing up in Canada and being so enamored by American pop culture and Hollywood, I was super dismissive of being Pakistani and being brown in general. And so it was never something I really saw value in up until filming the show where I was just - my eyes were so open. I was, like, meeting so many cool brown people and Muslims and South Asians that are so in touch with their roots. And that really made me kind of go back and reconnect with mine because that's how we bonded. Saagar, who plays my older brother, was a huge influence. Rish, who plays Kamran, we would listen to Bollywood music together. And I've never willingly listened to Bollywood music unless my parents played it in the car, and then I'd just be screaming for them to turn it off. But yeah, it's so cool. I can kind of find myself again.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about bringing Pakistani culture, bringing the Muslim religion to a major streaming platform like Disney+.

VELLANI: Yeah. I mean, Marvel is, like, literally one of the most accessible franchises in the entire world. And film and TV totally shape how we how we see people in this world. And I really do think this is going to kind of inspire more Muslims and South Asians to tell their story because, you know, this is one singular representation of the Muslim experience, if you will. And so I don't think we can represent all 2 billion Muslims and South Asians, but it's a start. And I think it's great that we're showing, you know, Muslims on screen having fun. Like, what? Every time you picture brown people, it's either like they're super serious or they're a terrorist or whatever. And so I think it's really great that we can, you know, bring some humanity to this culture.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Was there ever a moment on set where you were like, oh, wow, this is both, like, super familiar and super, like, celebratory in a way that I never saw?

VELLANI: Yes. Oh, my God. Eid - that was huge. I was like, oh, Eid. And, like, everything in Episode 3, which was a lot of wedding preparations for Ahmer's (ph) wedding, and I was like, this is literally a family gathering for me. I - there's so many, like, brown extras and background actors on our set, and they all, like, were speaking Urdu or Hindi. And I'm, like, how is this Marvel? Like, how are we filming a superhero show right now? This is literally what a typical Saturday at my house looks like.

VELLANI: Iman Vellani is the star of the new series "Ms. Marvel" launching on Disney+ on June 8. Iman Vellani, thank you so much for speaking with me.

NADWORNY: Thank you so much for having me.

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