When Iman Vellani got the call that she landed the title role in the new Disney+ live-action series Ms. Marvel, she did something most first-time actors don’t: tried to contain her excitement.
The 19-year-old was hanging out with classmates on the last day of high school. Her friends didn’t even know she had auditioned. “So I didn’t want to get the part in front of them,” Vellani says. But that’s exactly what happened, as she stood there in her friend’s driveway. “I was trying not to have a reaction because my friends were watching in utter confusion. I failed.”
And who could blame her? For a self-described Marvel nerd, getting to play superpowered Muslim-American teenager Kamala Khan is about as exciting as it gets.
“I read all the comics when I was in high school … and I dressed up as Ms. Marvel for Halloween,” Vellani admitted during a Zoom interview earlier this week. Dressed in jeans and a denim jacket, with a white T-shirt underneath, her fingers and wrists accessorized with rings and bracelets, flashing a beaming smile, Vellani looked every inch the fresh-faced teenager she both is and plays. The actress, who now splits her time between her home in Markham, Ont., and Los Angeles, was in Toronto to attend an advance screening of the first two episodes of the series, which premieres on June 8, with family and fans at Cineplex’s downtown Yonge-Dundas multiplex.
While Vellani is the perfect candidate to play the iconic teen superhero, she almost didn’t send in an audition tape. First off, she’d only ever acted in school plays. Then, she scoffed at the WhatsApp message that her khaala (maternal aunt) forwarded her about a casting call for the show, thinking it was fake. But her family was well-aware of her love for all things Ms. Marvel and her mother convinced her to send in a headshot and résumé.
When she was sent back scripts for a self-tape audition, Vellani – the type of fan who can cite comic issue numbers and writers, buys comics with her allowance money and has a closet dedicated to Marvel T-shirts – knew exactly which comics they were referencing. That’s when it hit her.
“I was making excuses for myself out of fear ... Then 3 a.m. hits the night it’s due. My 10-year-old self is going to hate me if I don’t even try. So I quickly recorded it and then two days later, I get a call. They’re like, ‘Do you have a lawyer? We want to fly you to L.A,’ " she says. “That was in February of 2020. And the pandemic hit. So my screen test happened in June over Zoom, and it was super weird. But then I got cast on the last day of high school, and here we are.”
In her younger years, Vellani, who is Pakistani-Canadian, was a fan of Iron Man and Silver Surfer. She rarely read female-led comic books because they didn’t resonate with her. That changed when she discovered Ms. Marvel as a 15-year-old. “I was like, ‘Okay. Who is this brown person?’ I went into a deep dive of Ms. Marvel,” she says. She’s happy that the series is able to bring out the core themes of those comics she couldn’t stop reading.
“It was never about the powers or about the costume,” she adds. “Kamala as a character was so specific and resonated with audiences beyond the South Asian diaspora because she’s a fan at the heart of it … We wanted to make the show almost a love letter to Marvel fans.”
At the same time, the series does include inside jokes for a South Asian audience. There’s a reference to Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and one of his iconic movies that simply assumes everyone knows Khan’s celebrity status.
And Ms. Marvel offered Vellani a new window into her own culture, helping her discover hip-hop acts such as the Swet Shop Boys (one member of the duo is British actor Riz Ahmed) and Pakistani musicians such as Hasan Raheem, Talal Qureshi and a female duo dubbed the Justin Bibis (who were discovered after their cover of Justin Bieber’s Baby went viral in Pakistan). Raheem, Qureshi and the Justin Bibis’ collaboration Peechay Hutt for Pakistan’s beloved music show Coke Studio plays during closing credits of the second episode.
“I grew up very disconnected from my culture. Not to say that my parents didn’t try,” Vellani says. “I grew up watching and listening to Bollywood music in those movies, but it was never something that I thought was worthy of my time. I didn’t think it was cool enough, right? Because my eyes were on Hollywood.
“So now that I’m here, and I’m working with so many incredibly talented Muslim and South Asian creators on and off screen – and they’re so in touch with their roots, and they’re so proud of their culture. That made me go back and reconnect with my roots.”
Ms. Marvel is available to stream on Disney+ starting June 8
Special to the Globe and Mail
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