Iman Vellani is living the dream. The fan-turned-Marvel phenom has not been shy about expressing her enthusiasm for the MCU as she continues to star in its projects. Her love is immediately evident thanks to the backdrop of our recent video chat—her office—which is packed full of Ms. Marvel memorabilia, from comic books to special posters from her first-ever TV show. Then there’s what Iman is wearing: an eye-catching manicure that features Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Monica Rambeau’s colors, which suits her T-shirt that simply reads “Nia DeCosta,” paying homage to her director on her latest MCU film, The Marvels.
In The Marvels, Iman puts an even bigger stamp on her character, Kamala Khan, as she partners up with two of Kamala’s biggest heroes and puts her own spin on the Marvel canon. (And no, we’re not just talking about her beef with Kevin Feige about whether or not it’s Earth-616 or 199999.)
Cosmopolitan spoke with Iman about her life in Marvel’s world, penning her own comic book, and yes, all the wild things that fans saw happen at the end of The Marvels.
The last three years have been a whirlwind since you joined the MCU, I’m sure. So I just want to start off by asking, how are you?
The first two years were so back-to-back crazy, because we went from the show to the movie, and then immediately into press for the show. And then I finally got this chunk of time, like this year, to just take it easy and reflect and realize how crazy my life has been. So it’s been a lot of therapy and just processing because it’s huge. It’s one thing being a fan and then being a part of the thing that you’re a fan of, it’s surreal on every single level.
Outside of the social media and the noise, I have such a good support system within Marvel and the friends that I’ve created in Hollywood already. It’s honestly been very nice to kind of just talk to them because my parents—they’re wonderful and they’re trying their best to understand—are so far removed from all of this. I’m extremely lucky to do this and about the people that I have in my life to kind of process this all with, so I’m good.
Both you and Kamala are kind of going through similar stories, I mean, minus the superpowers. But both of your lives have had this major change that most people won’t ever get to experience, especially so young.
I know! I literally live vicariously through Kamala. It’s weird. With the movie, Kamala is leveling up. She’s better at using her powers. She’s going to space. She’s meeting her heroes. And for Iman, it was very much a big thing. I’m working on a big blockbuster movie. I’m working with Brie Larson and Sam Jackson. Like, it’s crazy. What’s good about that is I can channel a lot of my own excitement and enthusiasm into Kamala. It’s like, It’s just the character. I’m playing out the character. I’m acting. It’s not me.
The Marvels was the first time you got to really work with other people in this universe, unlike Ms. Marvel which was kind of in its own bubble. What was the first day on set like?
The first day with actual actors doing a scene was at the Khan house with Sam Jackson. We had like all his scenes the first month of filming and I remember it was my birthday on the first week of production. I just turned 19, and I was only in one thing that was a hand-acting moment. They really didn’t need to put me in makeup or anything, but they did. And it was because every single person wanted to film and sing me “Happy Birthday” with Sam Jackson, Brie, Teyonah Parris, and all the Khan family members. Kevin Feige also came to visit that day. So I had all these people, all my idols, singing me “Happy Birthday,” and we all ate cake in the backyard set of the Khan house. It was the most wholesome thing ever.
That moment just made it for me. It was such a welcoming environment. I felt like people were humoring me a lot of the time, like, Oh, she’s the fangirl. You’re the little nerd, let’s answer her questions or whatever. But people genuinely cared about what I had to say. And I think that was so refreshing. It’s very intimidating to be on a project when you’re the youngest one, the most inexperienced one, and you’re working with A-listers. It’s very scary. For them to welcome you and ask you questions about your life and your passions just changed the entire experience. We very much became friends very quickly.
It’s still a very rare thing to see women, particularly women of color, in some of these big superhero roles. How is it getting to play Kamala and seeing how she inspires a new generation of Marvel fans?
I’m extremely lucky that this is my literal second job in Hollywood. So far, I’ve only worked with women, female directors, and directors of color. All the creative people I’ve been exposed to behind the cameras are mostly Muslim or people of color and they’re just bringing so much of what makes them special into the work that they do. And that’s been a very wonderful learning opportunity for me, because it just gave me more of the liberty to do the same.
Nia has her own relationship to the Ms. Marvel comics and she wanted to channel a lot of that into how we use Kamala in the story. Teyonah has so many stories and such good advice to give me about like when you’re doing press and, A lot of people are gonna ask you about representation and what that means and how you handle it. You can’t represent everyone. It’s a battle. Kamala is not the epitome of the 16-year-old Muslim, Pakistani girl. She’s a very specific human. Hopefully, that specificity inspires more creatives to kind of tell their own story and realize that the work’s not done just because you have one superhero. It’s not even close, you know? I’m very, very proud of what we could bring to this and hopefully, this gets the ball rolling on more similar stories.
Kamala has also represented hope in this film. It was refreshing to see that especially since most characters have become jaded in a post-Blip world, but Kamala took the time to even reassure a Skrull child that “Captain Marvel will fix this.”
She’s definitely the glue of the group and also the most emotionally intelligent and mature. She’s very good at reading a room and realizing that, Hey, these Skrulls do not have a home. She’s realizing the stakes of this. I don’t think Carol is a very good born-leader. And Kamala kind of takes responsibility for herself to even give one girl the slightest bit of comfort, because that’s all she would want to hear. At this point, Kamala has had her powers for a while. She’s internalized what being a hero means for her and what her version of heroism looks like, because it’s very different from Carol, who’s a lonely cat lady in space recovering from amnesia, and Monica, who doesn’t want anything to do with being a superhero.
Kamala has romanticized the idea of being a superhero and seeing that Captain Marvel is not always the epic lady fighting battles in space—even though she’s going into this teamwork with such high expectations—she very quickly realizes, Okay,I need to level up here. I need to ground these characters. I think a lot of them, like Carol especially, have a lot to learn from Kamala and the type of positivity that she brings out onto the screen.
Oh, my God, it’s like the most…I still can’t find the right word. It’s just so cool. Honestly, I was so astounded that they were even letting me do this in the first place. I was like, How are you trusting me? I have no writing experience.I just have some ideas that you guys liked, I guess. But it was very sweet and I’ve had such a wonderful support system within Marvel Comics.
Sabir Pirzada, who’s my co-writer, also worked on our TV show. It’s literally like my fanfiction. And so I was like, Okay, let’s find the actual story and plot within all of this, hone in on that, and then everything else will work. Honestly, it was very scary going into the comics world, because it’s like, you can hold it. You see the actual value of your work and to think that the words that I wrote in my childhood bedroom, people are going to read, and they’re going to buy from their own comic book stores. I got to buy the comic books that I wrote from the very first store that I bought my very first comic book from was extremely, extremely surreal. It is a very personal thing, and very surreal to just see my last name on a comic book.
‘Ms. Marvel: The New Mutant’ by Iman Vellani and Sabir Pirzada
‘Ms. Marvel: The New Mutant’ by Iman Vellani and Sabir Pirzada
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Okay, but like, did you have a crystal ball? Because in the comics she works with the X-Men and now after that mid-credits scene, it seems like Marvel should be calling you soon to make this storyline happen in the MCU.
If it doesn’t happen, I’ll just write another comic book. And maybe one day they’ll adapt my comic book into a movie, because that would be the craziest thing ever—contributing to the actual source material.
It was very cool! I knew they were filming the post-credit scene, but actually didn’t know Beast was in it. But they had filmed it a long time ago and because I wasn’t there on set, I didn’t know what their actual plans were. And only when I saw the film last month or something did I see it. I flipped! I had a heart attack on my bed! And I called Nia and Mary Livanos, our producer, and I was like, You guys kept this from me this whole time! I’m honestly glad I could experience that as a fan because, it’s so cool! As soon as you hear Kelsey Grammer’s voice, chills…literal chills.
We also have to discuss Kamala and Hawkeye. This is something fans have wanted for so long, and while I’m guessing you can’t officially confirm Young Avengers, it does mean an exciting next step for Kamala.
It was weird meeting Hailee Steinfeld. It literally made me feel, Oh, now I’m a part of the MCU. Ms. Marvel is very slice of life and genuinely felt at times like we were filming an indie project with a bunch of Brown people. In the movie, I was getting so comfortable with me and Brie and Teyonah and Zawe Ashton, who played Dar-Benn. And then we would have moments where Valkyrie comes and then Hailee comes and Sam and I’m like, Oh my God, it is connected universe. This is crazy.
We were bonding over supersuits and where this would probably go in the future. But, as of right now, I have no idea. I think Kamala is definitely an underdog in the MCU and under-utilized. So obviously, I’m biased. But hey, I think I think there’s a lot of story left to tell there. I want to see more of Kamala’s community, her friends, her family, her mosque. So, yeah, there’s a lot I think we have to do.
You talked about Kamala being a leader, but she’s also still quite young.
Literally in high school. She’s a baby. Honestly, I look at it like how the comics have been balancing whenever she’s in a team-up and also her solo, ongoing series. Because she’s been a part of the Champions, and I think she’s the leader of the Champions, and then she also has her stuff on the side. I wonder if there’s a way to balance both of that because I want to see Kamala just being Kamala in her own community. I love Jersey City. I think it is its own character in the comics and our show. There’s so much life there and it would be, unfortunately, sidelined just for a team-up.
I think it would be nice to see a Young Avengers. Hopefully, that happens soon. And I think Kamala would make a very good leader because she also has such wild fantasies of what team-ups should look like and what her ideal team-up would be. She’s romanticized this whole idea of heroism, so it would be very fun to kind of see her guide all these other Young Avengers, who are also like fans of the Avengers. Hawkeye is a big fan of Hawkeye. I cannot say anything more.
To bring it all back to the beginning of your journey, what would be the biggest piece of advice you would give to your past self as she got started?
Don’t be mortified every time a celebrity is in your presence. They also breathe the same air that you breathe. You can be a human. You can speak dialogue that’s more than one word. I think that would be the biggest thing. Every time I would meet Sam or Kevin Feige, I’d just clam up. Now I’m normal, I’ve humanized famous people. So it’s much easier for me to have conversations with them and I get so much out of them. I’m like, I’ve missed two years of conversations because I’ve been scared.
Also, don’t care what people think about you. Because being in a Marvel movie is really embarrassing. You’re in front of a green screen, pretending the world is ending in a flashy suit, VFX dots on your face. Or whenever we’re doing space scenes or crazy flying scenes, you’re in a bald cap with a tracking dot headband. You feel really insecure a lot of the time, but no one’s looking at you. Because everyone’s there to make you look good. At the end of the day, the VFX people are focusing on VFX. Your hair and makeup are focusing on your hair and makeup. I was very insecure at the beginning that everyone was watching me and that they were judging me. They’re not. Out of all people, your crew members understand.
Tamara Fuentes is the current Entertainment Editor at Cosmopolitan, where she covers TV, movies, books, celebrities, and more. She can often be found in front of a screen fangirling about something new. Before joining Cosmopolitan, she was the entertainment editor over at Seventeen. She is also a member of the Television Critics Association and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.