How Ms. Marvel star Iman Vellani went from fangirl to superhero

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·8 min read
How Ms. Marvel star Iman Vellani went from fangirl to superhero
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Like Kamala Khan herself, Iman Vellani is a fan. Long before she snagged the lead role in Ms. Marvel, the teenage actress was a self-professed Marvel geek — analyzing her favorite MCU films on Letterboxd, obsessively rewatching Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, and even rocking a Ms. Marvel Halloween costume in high school.

Now, she's trading that handmade outfit for the real thing, as Vellani makes her heroic debut as the star of Disney+'s Ms. Marvel.

The now-19-year-old Vellani says part of what first drew her to Kamala was that joyous fangirl energy: The character has only been around for a few years, debuting in the comics in 2013, but in less than a decade, Kamala Khan has become one of Marvel's most beloved figures. Not only did she break barriers as Marvel's first Muslim hero to headline her own comic series, but she quickly won over fans for her earnest relatability and teenage awkwardness.

Like her comics counterpart, the Kamala of the show is a young, Pakistani American teenager living in Jersey City. When she's not juggling family drama or her newfound superpowers, she's daydreaming about her favorite Marvel heroes — especially Brie Larson's Carol Danvers, whom she reveres. The result is a teenage heroine who might be one of Marvel's most relatable protagonists yet — not a god, nor a billionaire, nor a globe-trotting superspy. Instead, she's just a girl from Jersey City, trying to do the right thing and follow in her idols' footsteps. (Perhaps the closest comparison is the teenage Spider-Man — but even Tom Holland's Peter Parker had the Avengers on speed dial.)

Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel / Kamala Khan and Matt Lintz as Bruno
Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel / Kamala Khan and Matt Lintz as Bruno

Daniel McFadden/Marvel Studios

Like Kamala, Vellani is also new to the superhero game. Ms. Marvel is her first on-screen credit, and she landed the role as a high school senior. (It was one of her off-screen idols, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, who surprised her over Zoom to tell her she got the part.)  But Ms. Marvel's filmmaking team say they were immediately drawn to how much Vellani connected with Kamala, sharing the character's optimism and joyous energy.

"There is so much of Kamala in her because I think Kamala has the same type of view of the world," explains Sana Amanat, who co-created Kamala in the comics and is an executive producer on the show. "She looks at the world with eager and hopeful eyes, and I think Iman does that, too. You can't help but root for her and be drawn to her. There are just so many similarities that it felt like such a natural fit to see her put on the costume for the first time [or] see her go into the Khan house for the first time. It just made sense. There's no other Kamala than Iman Vellani."

With the first episode of Ms. Marvel out now, EW sat down with Vellani to talk about her journey to the Marvel universe.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've said that even before you joined the show, you were a longtime fan of the Ms. Marvel comics. What was it about Kamala that you loved?

IMAN VELLANI: The fact that she was a fan first, and [being] Muslim and Pakistani was not the entirety of her personality, which is the way I'm used to seeing most young Muslims in mainstream media. She just felt so different, and her culture wasn't something that she neglected. It's so important to showcase children of immigrant parents who are proud of their culture and don't neglect it and aren't ashamed of who they are.

Honestly, it was really inspiring for me because I felt quite dismissive of my culture growing up. Seeing Kamala use her culture as something that guides her and affects her moral code, I thought that was really admirable.

When you joined the show, did you talk about that with Sana Amanat, who co-created Kamala in the comics?

I was absolutely fangirling over Sana. [Laughs] I admire her so much. I watched all her interviews and her TED Talk after I read the comics when I was 15 or 16. And knowing that she is a very big part of my life now… I'm truly so lucky to have someone like her in my life.

A lot of those conversations at the beginning were mostly just them asking me about my life. I was like, "I can contribute more than this!" and they're like, "No, tell us who your favorite teacher was! Tell us what your favorite subject was. Who did you like in high school?" It was all these questions about high school and growing up and balancing culture and religion and coming of age and everything that comes with being 16 and all the growing pains. It was like therapy. I was spewing all these stories at them, and they incorporated so much of that into the script. I think it made the characters and the story as a whole really real.

MS. MARVEL
MS. MARVEL

Marvel Studios Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan in 'Ms. Marvel'

One of the things that's so fun about this show is how different it feels from some of the other Marvel projects. It can be a big, serious superhero story, but it's also funny and awkward and distinctly teenage. As an actor, how did you want to balance the big superhero moments with the teenage angst?

Honestly, I was quite reliant on our directors. Life is not all just rom-com-y. There's a lot of ups and downs, especially when you're a teenager. I think when you're in high school, you just feel things so intensely. All your emotions are so heightened: your crushes, your friendships, minor inconveniences. They just feel like the end of the world. So, we wanted to channel all of those things that come with coming of age. Plus, I just lived it! I was 17 when I got cast. The character was 16. So, I was just learning from my own experiences and projecting that onto Kamala.

Was there anything about making this show that surprised you?

I ended up becoming really in touch with my culture. I've listened to Bollywood music willingly now. That's a huge character development for me, I must say. [Laughs] I would scream when my parents played it in the car, and now, I have the songs saved on my phone.

It's so wonderful: I got to go on this journey with Kamala of reconnecting with my roots and finding the value in how important it is to be in touch with that side of yourself. Otherwise, it's just going to get lost, and you're never going to find out who you are. You're going to become a watered-down version of someone else. Seeing Kamala come to terms with all the 50,000 things that make her her really inspired me.

That's something I've always loved about Kamala in the comics: She's very specific, but her growing pains feel so universal.

Yeah, she represents everything about being a teen and everything about fan culture. She's just so unapologetically herself. I think that's wonderful, and it's hopefully a good palate cleanser coming out of Moon Knight and Multiverse of Madness. This is a show that's very character driven. All of our cast is wonderful, and they've brought so much of themselves into the world. Every single person on our show has their own connection to the source material, and I think we've made something super specific.

When I spoke to Sana Amanat a few weeks ago, she said you have a huge interest in filmmaking and working behind the camera. What was the biggest learning experience for you on Ms. Marvel?

Our directors from episode 1, Adil [El Arbi] and Bilall [Fallah], really took me under their wing and let me shadow them and asked me for my opinion. I had a different perspective on filmmaking. I watched a million movies in high school, and we had a very similar taste, so they used me and my perspective on how a young person sees these movies and the types of references I would make. So, I got to be a part of this collaborative experience, and they also taught me so much. It was essentially the greatest crash course on film I could have ever received.

What was the day on set where you geeked out the most?

AvengerCon. AvengerCon is what my dreams look like. [Laughs] I had so much fun filming there. It was very distracting: Every time we would cut, I'd be wandering off set, just looking at all the little Easter eggs that our set dec people had put up. I stole so much from that set, too. I took boxes home.

So, what did you take?

I got a lot of posters, a lot of T-shirts, a lot of hats and sunglasses. I got some cool mugs and Funkos. Just everything that was there! On my first day, my assistant and I went around taking photos of everything I wanted to steal, and on the last day, when I said bye to people, she put things in bags and we shipped everything home. [Laughs] My closet is now a mini AvengerCon.

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