As the 19-year-old Canadian reflected on what it’s been like having “Captain Marvel” star Brie Larson as a mentor during her introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe — where she plays Kamala Khan, the Muslim teen hero she once cosplayed as — another Marvel star, “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” lead Simu Liu, sent her a text.
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“Okay, life is weird,” Vellani giggled, looking at the notification. “It’s super weird that the same people I look up to are now acknowledging my existence. Like, what do you do with that? I don’t know.”
Working to find the words to describe her journey from Marvel superfan to superhero and having the support of Larson, Liu and “Eternals” star Kumail Nanjiani — who tweeted his congratulations to the teenager after her casting, writing “Your work is going to mean so much to so many people, myself included. I can’t wait.” — Vellani settled on “honored.”
“The fact that I have these people by my side is more than I could have ever asked,” she explained. “Just the fact that people at Marvel know my name and now people like Kumail, Simu and Brie truly just want to protect me and take care of me and guide me throughout this very daunting process, it means the world.”
Two days later, Vellani’s world got even more surreal as the newcomer, who makes her acting debut in the Disney+ series, posed for photographers and fans on the red carpet outside the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood for the launch event. By the time she made it to Variety’s interview position, she was adorably overwhelmed.
Asked how she was coping with the fanfare, she responded, “Brain’s blank. Feeling absolutely nothing, but I’m going with the flow.”
Taking a quick breath, Vellani pivoted her focus to the importance of the moment — Ms. Marvel is the first Muslim superhero to lead a title in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and its potential impact on audiences. “This night is so much bigger than me,” she noted. “We’re making television history in a lot of ways.”
The six-episode series is now streaming on Disney+ and chronicles Kamala’s coming-of-age journey. Kamala’s Muslim heritage is foundational, with her Pakistani American cultural identity woven into the fabric of her world and the story behind those powers. For her big night, Vellani, who is Pakistani Canadian, chose to wear a gown by Indian designer Gaurav Gupta as a nod to her own South Asian lineage.
“I hope [audiences] find comfort in Kamala because I definitely did when I read those comics the first time,” she added.
Read on as Vellani details how her transformation from Marvel superfan to superhero came about — it all started with a WhatsApp post — as she teases her future in the MCU with her first big screen appearance alongside Larson in 2023’s “The Marvels.”
What did you think you were auditioning for?
This was my first audition ever. My aunt got the casting call through a WhatsApp forward and it was literally a blank page that said like “Ms. Marvel Disney+ Casting. Send headshot and resume here.” Looked super sketchy, but I did it anyway.
I fully knew what I was going in for and, when they sent back the self-tape scenes, I knew exactly which comic books they’re pulling those scenes from. I was like “Oh my god, this is like actually real. It’s not a scam.”
What do you remember about seeing the “Ms. Marvel” comics for the first time?
My first introduction to her was through “Ironheart”; she was on the cover of one of the comics and I was like “Who is this brown person?” I just went into a wormhole, falling in love with the character and the creators Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson. I watched their TED Talks and all their interviews and I was like “They have the dream job. I want to be them. They’re brown and they’re working at Marvel.”
That was so incredibly eye-opening for me because I didn’t realize there was space for someone like me in the industry — and I know that sounds super cheesy or whatever, but it’s so true. Beyond representation on screen, seeing ethnic names in the credits matters so much. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in high school; I just wanted to try everything behind the camera, because I was really in love with the tech stuff, so seeing these people thriving working at Marvel was so inspiring.
On top of that, Kamala was a Pakistani Muslim superhero fanatic; I was a Pakistani Muslim superhero fanatic. And [the story] wasn’t about her being Pakistani, or about being Muslim, it was about her being in love with superheroes and having this innate desire to want to help people and do the right thing because she has powers. She doesn’t know how to fight — she’s a 16-year-old kid — but she knows that she has to use them for good. She had such a strong moral code and I really admired how her family and friends were also part of her story and her friends. It felt very close to home. It felt like my life, like the comics were written about me, literally.
What was it that convinced you to send in that self-tape?
[I thought,] “My 13-year-old self is going to regret it if I don’t even try.” I had some acting experience; I studied theater in high school, but high school theater does not compare to Marvel Universe, let me tell you that. I wanted to give it a shot because of how much love I have for the character.
How did you relate to Kamala’s story of self-discovery? What did you notice about the way the production team planned to translate those stories from the comics to the screen?
I personally felt very disconnected from my culture growing up. Not to say my parents didn’t try — I fully grew up watching Bollywood movies, listening to the songs. I grew up with all four of my grandparents; I have so much access to my roots.
Kamala at the start of our show is figuring out how religion and culture play into her day-to-day life; it’s not something she neglected, but she doesn’t immediately see the value in it. We use phrases from the Quran to guide her in her hero’s journey.
Kamala getting her powers and me getting this part really went hand-in-hand. We went on this journey of self-discovery together. Saagar [Shaikh], who plays my older brother, was a wonderful mentor for me, because he already went through the phase of neglecting his culture and then accepting it. I was in this middle awkward phase and he made it feel so comfortable talking in Urdu or making Bollywood references. It was a “Wow” moment for me.
Part of that journey deals with pronouncing Kamala’s name correctly and how she eventually gets the confidence to tell people that they’re saying it wrong.
Iman is kind of hard for people too. In elementary school, there was a teacher who would always call me an Apple product — like I-Man, iPod. I hate it when people emphasize the “man” because my name means “Faith”; it’s a very important Arabic word, especially in the Quran.
You’re used to people not getting it and you grow up wanting to change your name, hating your name and not seeing the significance of these words. Kamala’s name in Arabic also means “Perfection,” or a miracle. Names are so important and, I can say this for myself, as soon as I come to terms with how cool my name is and how rare it is for people to have a name like mine, it’s a big step to take in self-acceptance.
How would you describe this series’ tone? What were some of the inspirations?
It’s a great palate cleanser coming out of “Moon Knight” and “Multiverse of Madness.” “Ms. Marvel” brings a really fresh, warm perspective and a very light-hearted touch to the MCU, bringing back everything we loved about “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
It has a very universal charm with the way we balance fan culture, religion, action and coming of age. We also definitely cater to a younger audience who can hopefully connect to the awkwardness and confusion of growing up and are comforted by the fact that you don’t have to have things figured out. Even a superhero doesn’t have things figured out.
What did you see in the mirror when you stepped into your Ms. Marvel gear for the first time?
My 15-year-old cosplay. It’s crazy that there’s this beautiful, tailored suit made for me. All I could think about was the Ms. Marvel costume I made with my grandma. It was a weird full circle moment and makes me very emotional.
The first trial we had was a very rough piece — we were stitching and cutting while I was on my body, the lightning bolt was made out of a piece of paper, we were figuring out where things go. Being a part of that process and being able to give input was really awesome.
What do you remember about making that costume with your grandmother?
I went to the thrift store, spent $10 on a giant blue t-shirt made of thick material, got some red leggings. I had this bracelet that I put yellow duct tape on to be the bangle. I had an eye mask that I cut holes in to be the mask. And then I remember painting on that lightning bolt, on my bedroom floor, just like Kamala does in that one frame of the 2014 comics run.
One of our directors, Meera Menon, gave me this this notebook with that frame printed on it, and it hit me that I did that when I was a kid. Again, full circle.
The only difference is that this time you have superpowers. What was the most challenging part of pretending to have superpowers and what was the most fun?
Because this was a new power set for the MCU, we’re building as we go, so whatever we establish now is going to be canon for the rest of the MCU. You have to be careful about your physicality, because it has to stay the same.
A lot of it was having conversations with our VFX supervisors, [asking] “How heavy is it? How hard is it for me to manifest it? How big is it? How much space do I have to leave in a frame?” Because if my hands here [motions to the outer corner of the Zoom frame] then you’re not going to be able to VFX anything in there.” We had to be super specific about it. It’s an amalgamation of a lot of people’s thoughts and opinions, and now Kamala has these really cool powers.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
What was the key to figuring out what your motion would be?
She’s a 16-year-old kid, probably doesn’t know martial arts or any sort of fighting, so she’s probably copying everything she sees the rest of the Avengers do. So, we wanted to incorporate like a lot of Black Widow callbacks and Captain Marvel poses because this was really the only show where we could be as cheesy as possible and it’d be okay. This is Kamala’s life. She lives in fantasy land and she finally gets this fantasy — of course, she’s going to take full advantage of it. Over the course of time, she becomes her own version of a superhero — still clumsy, because she’s not perfect — but more unique poses.
When your casting was announced, reports mentioned you’d appear in future movies, but when did you find out that Kamala would also be in “The Marvels”?
It was a night shoot when they were announcing everything at Disney Investor Day. Right before they announced “The Marvels” cast, I get a text from Disney PR, I get a text from Brie Larson and I get a text from our producers all at the same time saying I’m in the movie and then they announced it on the screen. I was like, “Thank you.” I had a hunch I was going to be in it, but more of a cameo role, not an actual main character, so it was cool.
Brie Larson reached out to you when you first got this role – what was your first conversation with her like? What was something that you had always wanted to ask?
She was the sweetest. I was really shy and I felt like everything I wanted to ask would have been stupid, but she didn’t make me feel like that. She has such a warm presence and made our Zoom call intimate, telling me all about her experience. She was like, “Seriously, if your mom needs to talk to my mom, we can make that happen. Anything you need.” Any time I had any issue on set, I would text her and she’d make herself so available to answer my questions, as silly or small as they were.
She really wanted to be there for me, because even though she was already an established actor, being in Marvel changed her career forever. The sheer amount of attention you get being a Marvel actor is completely unmatched to anything else in this industry, and she wanted to prep me for that mentally and hold my hand throughout it.
There are so many young heroes joining the MCU right now — is there someone from another show or movie that you’ve gotten a chance to spend some time with?
I just had dinner with Xochitl Gomez [who stars as America Chavez in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”] a couple of weeks ago. She’s the most amazing, tiny human ever and I love her. We really got along and it’s nice to have that shared experience, because she shot “Doctor Strange” in the same place we shot “The Marvels,” so we were just bonding over being in London and what that was like because we were both the youngest person on our set.
What was it like working on “The Marvels” with Brie, director Nia DaCosta, Teyonah Parris — this amazing group of women leading that charge?
Nia DaCosta is my favorite human ever. I think she’s so talented and so caring and considerate. She’s very much an actor’s director. Like after she gets a take she wants, she’s like “This is yours. Do whatever you want. Anything we haven’t tried, just do it.” She would always give positive reinforcement, even if she didn’t have any notes. She’s be like “That little thing you did with your hand, I really liked that.” And I’m like, “Oh, wow. She noticed!” She really cares and checks up on you.
Brie and Teyonah are the same. Standing next to them, sharing a screen with them is so empowering. I didn’t want to be the one to continually just gush over them, so I had to hold back a little bit, because they took it very seriously, and I’m just like, “Oh my God, I’m in a movie.”
Just like your friendships with your fellow MCU actors, you’ve also got a special relationship with Kevin Feige. Are you the only person who knows what’s going on with Phase Four? Do you know the full arc?
Oh my god, I like to think so, but then again, he could totally just be humoring me.
But honestly, I just like hearing Kevin talk. I ask him so many questions every time I see him, I ask them just so he can talk about things that he wouldn’t normally talk about. I’m like, “So Kevin how much how many hours of sleep do you get? Do you put your socks on left foot at first or right foot?” These tiny little things, it’s so mundane.
How have you adapted to holding in all the Marvel secrets? What is your trick to keeping them in?
I love it. It’s power. For some people, money and owning businesses is power. For me, it’s Marvel secrets. I vowed to Kevin that I will never drop any secret. If it happens, I’m retiring.
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