The Dawn Of Iman Vellani

The star of Disney+’s Ms. Marvel is on a fast track to Hollywood. Except for the part where she still lives at home.

By Carrie Wittmer

This has to be a scam.

That’s what Iman Vellani thought when she heard Marvel was seeking a young actor to play Kamala Khan, the first Muslim superhero to star in her own Marvel comic book, for an upcoming Ms. Marvel TV show. “My aunt got sent the casting call through a WhatsApp forward chain,” says Vellani, still sounding skeptical years later. “So she sent it to me. She’s like, ‘You like this character, right?’”

Everyone in her family knew Vellani loved Khan — she’s a lifelong comic-book nerd, and she always felt a special connection to Khan, who, like her, is a teenager of Pakistani descent. But it didn’t seem that simple to Vellani. She was living in suburban Canada, and her only connection to Hollywood was a “drama teacher who knows Edward Norton’s wife,” she says. And it came in over text? “I’m like, ‘Yeah. That’s not real. You know that, right? Casting calls don’t come like this. I don’t know what they look like, but it’s not that.’”

Valentino dress, Talent’s own rings

On paper, Vellani didn’t look like the next Marvel star, either — her only other acting credits are student projects she made herself. Marvel has historically hired established stars or at least experienced, if not yet mega-famous, actors. Yet the studio has given Vellani her own show, Disney+’s Ms. Marvel (premiering June 8), which follows Khan as she juggles high school and newfound superpowers, as well as a prominent role in 2023’s The Marvels, in which she stars opposite Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Spend a few minutes on Zoom with Vellani, though, and it’s clear why the Marvel machine has invested so much in her. Sitting in a sparse bedroom in Los Angeles sporting a brown muscle tee, a lazy updo, and minimal makeup, Vellani exudes wild enthusiasm about almost everything, whether it’s her Billy Joel fandom (“He is my god”), her Trader Joe’s obsession (“This is not that exciting, but America has an abundance of amazing protein bars”), or her love of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. (“I think part of me has died forever, honestly,” she says of Tony Stark’s death in Avengers: Endgame —the only Marvel movie she refuses to rewatch.) You don’t even need to know what MCU stands for to want to root for her.

Every piece of content about a Muslim was so focused on the Muslim part. That’s all they could see.

Preen by Thornton Bregazzi clothing, Bea Bongiasca earrings and blue necklace worn as bracelet (left hand), Notte Jewelry rings (on pinky fingers), Talent’s own rings and bracelets

Vellani, now 19, was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but her family moved to Markham, Ontario, a small city about 20 miles northeast of Toronto, when she was 1 year old. (“I went [to Pakistan] once when I was 5 for a wedding,” she says, “and all I remember is getting food poisoning, so not the best trip.”) Vellani can’t pinpoint when acting came into her life, having grown up in a very academic family — her father is an accountant, her mother a nurse, her older brother an engineer — but she does recall a lifelong love of cinema. “Since I was a kid, I was always so enamored by Hollywood and movies,” she says, and she means it. She “got really into weird arthouse films” and counts Agnes Varda, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, and Quentin Tarantino among her favorite directors, but she also considers 2008’s Mamma Mia! a “cinematic masterpiece” (which, correct). Looking back, even her normal suburban childhood has elements of a mythical origin story: She studied in the same high school performing arts program that fellow Disney+ show star Hayden Christensen did.

When she finally answered Marvel’s casting call with “the one photo” she had of herself and her “very academic” résumé, Marvel sent material from the show for a self-tape. Vellani knew exactly which Ms. Marvel comic books it pulled from, but this deep into the process, she was still a little suspicious of the whole thing. Or maybe she was scared. Or both, because she kept making excuses not to do it. “I was freaked out for some reason,” she says. “Then literally 3 a.m. the night it was due, I was like, ‘I’m going to regret it if I don’t do it.’” Consider it her Spidey sense tingling: Two days later, she got a call. “They’re like, ‘Do you have a lawyer? We want to fly you to L.A.’ That was literally their sentence. I was like, ‘I don’t know? No?’”

Tod’s windbreaker, Armani Exchange jacket (worn under), Joanna Laura Constantine earrings, Notte Jewelry necklace, Talent’s own bracelets

I related a lot to Tony Stark’s inner conflict of what does it mean to do the right thing and be a good person?

Suddenly, Vellani was on the verge of joining the film franchise she’d been obsessed with for years. So Vellani and her father flew to Los Angeles for screen tests… in February 2020. You can imagine what happened next. In the early days of the pandemic, Marvel sent Vellani an email letting her know she was still in the running, but then it was crickets, she recalls. Vellani started to panic: Universities have acceptance deadlines, but she couldn’t exactly demand that Marvel meet one. “I was literally going insane for months,” she says. Then, in June 2020, Marvel asked Vellani to do screen tests over Zoom — not even MCU stars are impervious to Zoom meetings, it turns out. Vellani found out she was cast on her last day of high school.

Vellani’s passion for Marvel spills out over Zoom — she’s like a late-aughts Tumblr fan account in human form. She inches closer to the screen as she spouts off some of her hot takes. She thinks the first Thor movie is the most misunderstood Marvel film and the first Iron Man is the best. “Obviously, Tony Stark, a middle-aged white dude and me, a 16 year-old brown kid — they’re not the same thing,” she says. “But I related to a lot of his inner conflict of what does it mean to do the right thing and be a good person? And how can you be a good person when you’ve done so much wrong, and how do you eradicate those errors?” (She loves the character so much, she won’t entertain the idea of meeting Robert Downey Jr. “No, I don’t think I can,” she says, her voice dropping into a whisper. “I’m very serious.”)

Valentino dress, Bea Bongiasca earrings, Talent’s own rings, Simon Miller shoes

And don’t even get her started on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the latest film in the franchise. “I have so many opinions, which I don’t think we have time for,” she says, waving her hands as she dives into them anyway. “Here’s my TL;DR. I love Sam Raimi.” But she did not like what they did with Black Bolt, the Marvel hero who (spoiler alert) briefly appeared in the film but was promptly (and gruesomely) killed by the Scarlet Witch. “I don’t care what anyone says. He’s my guy. I think they did him dirty. I did not appreciate that.” She even texted Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige immediately after watching the movie to say as much. This happens a lot. “Every time I talk to Kevin, we have this argument where I say, ‘The MCU is not 616,’” she says, referring to the name for the Marvel Universe’s main Earth continuity. “He’s like, ‘It is because I said so.’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s 199999’ [a different Earth continuity previously outlined by Marvel]. He hates it. So, we keep having this argument, and then they put 616 in the movie. I’m like, ‘Kevin, you know it’s not 616.’ He just sends me a sad face. I was like, ‘Great.’”

Vellani gets more excited talking about Ms. Marvel and The Marvels. Several times, she has to stop herself from saying something that will get her in trouble with Marvel’s spoiler police. She doesn’t want to earn a reputation as the next Tom Holland, who famously spills secrets about MCU films to the press — and even to Vellani herself. Last year, Ms. Marvel was filming in an Atlanta studio next to where Holland was shooting Spider-Man: No Way Home when a Spider Suit-clad Holland visited her during hair and makeup. “I was half dressed, literally a bra and biker shorts,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I am half naked right now.’ But he was so nice.” They chatted about work. “He was like, ‘What’s your show even about?’ I was like, ‘What's Spider-Man about?’ He fully shows me a photo of him with Tobey Maguire!” she says, grinning. (At the time, the crossover of Spider-Mans past and present was rumored but not confirmed.) “I get we’re both in Marvel, but I didn’t need to know that before it happened.”

Staud top, Joanna Laura Constantine earrings, Cast red necklace, Talent’s own gold necklace

Vellani’s interest in playing Khan goes far beyond her obsession with the comic books and the MCU. “She felt so different than every other Muslim teen that I’m used to seeing in mainstream media,” Vellani says. “They just feel oppressed, or they need to separate themselves from their religion or culture to find themselves. But Kamala didn’t feel like that. It was just a part of her life, and it’s a part of my life. It’s just a part of my schedule. This is the time I wake up. This is the time I eat breakfast. This is the time I pray. This is the time I do soccer practice. It felt so normal for me.”

I need to live in a place that grounds me. L.A. is definitely not that. You can’t escape the industry here.

Staud top, Etro pants, Joanna Laura Constantine earrings, Cast red necklace, Talent’s own gold necklace and bracelets, Bea Bongiasca yellow ring

She’s getting fired up. “Every media and piece of content that was out there about a Muslim was so focused on the Muslim part,” she continues. “That’s all they could see. That didn't allow a character to be an individual at all. It was immediately labeling someone as a representation of their culture or of their religion.” To her, part of what makes Ms. Marvel a win for diversity on screen is that it almost shrugs off the milestone. “It wasn’t a story about a Muslim girl. It was about an Avengers-obsessed, fan-fic-writing nerd who just happened to be this Muslim girl. I thought that was so refreshing to see, and I really needed that growing up.”

Vellani herself has enjoyed the rare luxury of living her life like a normal person who just happens to be an MCU star. When work isn’t taking her around the world to places including Atlanta, Bangkok, London, and Los Angeles, Vellani still lives back home in Markham. “It’s a nice town,” she says. “I think I need to live in a place that grounds me. L.A. is definitely not that. You can’t really escape the industry living here. The billboards are so in your face. The people, they’re so weird. [But] I love them.”

Valentino dress, Bea Bongiasca earrings, Talent’s own rings, Simon Miller shoes

She knows her life is about to change forever — she just can’t fathom how yet. “The fact that people are going to see this is crazy. The fact that people are going to know my name and associate my name with other famous people is crazy,” she says. It’s the rare moment in our conversation when Vellani seems to be at a loss for words. “I’ve essentially been given a countdown to fame. What do you do in two years? How do you prep for something this huge? I’ve seen it happen to the Tom Hollands and Chris Hemsworths of the world — but you can’t even begin to put yourself in those shoes.”

Staud top, Etro pants, Joanna Laura Constantine earrings, Cast red necklace, Talent’s own gold necklace and bracelets, Bea Bongiasca rings

Top Image Credits: Preen by Thornton Bregazzi clothing, Bea Bongiasca blue bracelet, Notte Jewelry green ring, Talent’s own rings and bracelets

Author: Carrie Wittmer

Photographer: Julia Johnson

Stylist: Oliver Vaughn

Hair: Amanda Lee

Makeup: Alexandra French

Manicure: Emi Kudo

Art Director: Shanelle Infante

Set Designer: Dane Johnson

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Video: Alex Van Brande