“I spent all my allowance money on comic books”: Iman Vellani on her transformation from superhero fangirl to the star of Ms. Marvel

“I spent all my allowance money on comic books”: Iman Vellani on her transformation from superhero fangirl to the star of Ms. Marvel

Photo by Irvin Rivera

The new Disney+ series Ms. Marvel follows Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American high school student in Jersey City who idolizes Carol Danvers (a.k.a. Ms. Marvel) and discovers she has superpowers of her own. Khan, who feels a bit like a second-rate superhero, says in the first episode, “It’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world.”

Swap Jersey City out for Markham and you’ve turned the show into a biopic. In the lead role, the Markham-bred 19-year-old Iman Vellani is essentially playing herself. As a student at Unionville High School, she was as much of a superhero fan as Khan, discovering Ms. Marvel—the first Muslim to headline her own comic—in a store near her school. In 2018, her love for Iron Man convinced TIFF to make her part of its Next Wave committee, the same way she would convince Marvel to hire her for Ms. Marvel two years later; she showed them her room full of Avengers paraphernalia.

The electric blue slushy–fuelled hormonal kick of Ms. Marvel—full of multi-coloured animation and wry humour, vertiginous camera angles and jump cuts—mirrors the freneticism of the teenager at its core. Ahead of the series’ premiere on June 8, we talked to Vellani about where Iman ends and Kamala begins.

I know you have to audition to get into Unionville’s arts program. What was yours?
They sent us a monologue, and we had to perform that however we wanted. God, I was, like, 13—it was so long ago. I actually remember what I said after my dad called me! He was like, “How did your audition go?” I’m like, “Dad, I’m gonna be an actor!”

How did you join TIFF Next Wave?
I saw an Instagram ad and I clicked apply. Honestly, TIFF is funny. You want to be the one who’s seen the most movies and the most arthouse films, right? But when they were like, “So what’s your favourite movie? If you could be a part of any movie, which would it be?” I was like, “Iron Man.” I didn’t even hesitate. And they’re like, “Okay, that’s a fresh take. I guess you’re in the club.”

Were you into comics before you discovered Ms. Marvel in 2014?
I was a huge MCU fan and Iron Man fan. He’s my favourite character ever, and I was like, “I need to read more Iron Man.” My high school was right across from a comic bookstore, so I would just pop over there and spend all my allowance money on Iron Man comics. I picked up an Iron Heart comic with Riri Williams—who’s also getting her own Disney+ show, which is exciting—and Kamala was on the cover of that one. So, I was like, “Who’s this brown girl?”

Ms. Marvel could change her size in the comics, but in the show she has the power to produce a kind of structured light. You recently told SFX Magazine, “For all I care she could shoot sausages out of her fingers.” What about her attracts you?
I don’t think we root for a character because of their powers or because of their costumes. Have you seen Spider-Man: Homecoming? ’Cause I’m gonna make a reference. Basically, Tony Stark tells Peter Parker that if you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it. And I think the same thing applies. It was never about the powers or the costumes. These characters are at the heart of it. We relate to their humanity, and we relate to their morals and their values—why do they fight? Who are they fighting for? What keeps them going?

Vellani at a screening of Ms. Marvel in Toronto in May. Photo by George Pimentel

In the opening credits for Ms. Marvel, there’s a homemade video by Kamala that reminded me of one of the shorts you made during the pandemic, i don’t want to be alone :(. Did that influence—
That was completely my idea, I’d like to say! I made a Billy Joel music video where I got my Ms. Marvel and Iron Man action figures to, like, dance and stuff. I sent it to Kevin [Feige, president of Marvel Studios,] and my producers as a joke, and they loved it! So much so that they rewrote the intro. Now, it’s in the credits as a stop-motion video made by Kamala.

Kick ass! I also read that they incorporated some of your high school experiences into the show?
I remember telling them about my guidance counsellor who I was not too fond of—he would always tell me to, like, snap back into the real world. He fully told me I would fail math if I fast tracked it—I got a 90. We included a lot of stories like that in Kamala’s life and then brought that awkwardness and embarrassment of growing up into the show. Because, honestly, growing up is not pretty.

It cracks me up that you’re saying that when you’re still only 19. Ms. Marvel co-creator G. Willow Wilson has said, “A huge aspect of Ms. Marvel is being a ‘second string hero’ in the ‘second string city.’” Were you able to relate to that at all?
Even in the trailer, you see scenes of Kamala biking past the New York skyline. It’s like all the main heroes are in New York, and she’s in Jersey. I kind of felt that being from Markham, because I was like, “Well, all the big stuff happens in Toronto. I’m not in Toronto.” So I definitely did feel that comparison.

You told Esquire Middle East that growing up you, didn’t really have any Muslim Pakistani friends. I had a similar experience. What is it like going from that to being a representative of the community?
Honestly, it was weird at the beginning, because I hated wearing shalwar kameezes, which is the classic Indian attire. And now I have to wear them in the show, and I have to dance to a Bollywood number and be part of a brown wedding. And I’m like, “It’s so brown—like, are we sure we want to go this brown?” And then I was like, “Wait, but this is normal. This is my real life.”