Just a few years ago, she was a superhero-loving high schooler in Markham. Today, she’s a global superstar. Inside the rise of Ms. Marvel
Iman Vellani was a Marvel scholar long before she became Ms. Marvel. As a student at Unionville High School, she would spend all her allowance money on Iron Man comics. In 2018, the aspiring actor was chosen as one of the faces of TIFF’s Next Wave after telling the selection panel that, if she could be part of any movie, it would be Iron Man.
Her superfandom is what ultimately earned her a spot in the Marvel universe. In 2020, she auditioned for the role of Kamala Khan, a light-bending teenager from New Jersey who’s just as much of a superhero nerd as Vellani. During the Zoom audition, producers could see all the Marvel memorabilia in Vellani’s bedroom as she asked them an endless string of insider questions about the series. “I wanted to know everything, and they were like, ‘That’s Kamala,’ ” she says. “I don’t even consider this an acting job.”
Vellani was supposed to study integrated media at OCAD U, but she postponed those plans to take on the role. Marvel ended up becoming her higher education. She moved into an apartment building in Atlanta with the rest of the young cast. When they weren’t shooting, they were hanging out like dorm mates. “Everything you see on screen is how our relationships are in real life,” she says.
Vellani says being asked for her input and treated as an equal, particularly by first-episode directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, helped ease the intimidation of suddenly stepping into her dream role. In her enthusiasm, she sometimes volunteered opinions without being asked—even to the big boss. Vellani recalls an epic email she wrote to Marvel head Kevin Feige with some of her ideas. His response? “New phone, who dis?” (He responded 10 hours later and ended up incorporating some of her suggestions into the show.) “I do not keep chill. That’s my secret,” Vellani says. “I am constantly freaking out. Honestly, they like it.”
They also used it. Marvel didn’t show Vellani the set for AvengerCon, a fictional convention for Marvel fans that appears in the first episode of Ms. Marvel, so that they could capture her genuine reaction onscreen. Her awe remains palpable even now. “The sheer amount of manpower that it takes to make one fight scene is absolutely insane,” she explains. That’s partly because stunts need to be repeated for hours. “You’re using muscles that you didn’t even know you had,” says Vellani, who hated gym class in school. “My first day, I was so sore just from being in a harness all day.” She did Pilates-based training in order to build her strength and stamina. Though, as Vellani puts it, Kamala doesn’t need a six pack. She’s a 16-year-old kid who eats fries every day.
Vellani is still weirded out by her overnight fame: appearing on Jimmy Fallon, being hounded by adoring fans, getting immortalized in a Ms. Marvel action figure. “It’s so strange,” she says. “My friend is in Italy right now, and she’s seeing my face on billboards.” She credits her mentor and Marvels co-star Brie Larson with helping her feel more at ease in the industry—and in her supersuit. “It’s not comfortable,” she says. “It has a million different pieces.” When she griped about wearing it, Larson replied, “Oh my god, finally someone understands.”
Hair and makeup by Claudine Baltazar / Plutino Group