Amidst many media meditations on the state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe following the release and lackluster box office performance of The Marvels, 21-year-old actress Iman Vellani has been a bright spot for the film on screen and off. Her star-making turn as Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel marks her silver screen debut after her successful Ms. Marvel series, and she spoke with Observer about everything from a superhero’s hectic schedule and stunt work to her own involvement in Marvel comics.
It’s looked like a pretty whirlwind press tour for The Marvels since the end of the SAG strike. How has jumpstarting that whole press process been?
Literally went from zero to 100. It’s so weird. I felt like I couldn’t acknowledge the movie’s existence even in my head until the world got a hold of it. We’re very lucky that the strike ended right before the film got released—we went straight to the El Capitan theater and saw all those fans watching the movie, and they were screaming and so excited that we were there to support it. It’s been wonderful but pretty crazy. I haven’t been able to process any of it, I don’t think, but one day it’ll all just hit me that suddenly I was on billboards.
What was the transition like for you, going from playing your character in a long form series versus Marvel’s shortest film yet?
It is weird, because [The Marvels] felt like I had a lot more time. To put it into perspective, we shot six hours of content for Ms. Marvel in like, a little over 100 days. On The Marvels, we had like almost two hours worth of content in 80-something days. It’s almost the same amount of days to shoot a lot less stuff, so it was nicer for me. I could take a step back and since I knew that we were doing one scene a day, I could just focus on that scene. It was a little more relaxed, to me. I know Nia [DaCosta, the film’s director] probably wouldn’t say so, but coming straight out of the TV show, it was nice to take a beat and to have other people in the scene with me who are also in super suits.
Was it back to back going from Ms. Marvel to The Marvels?
Yeah. We wrapped Ms. Marvel and then in a couple weeks, I was in London for The Marvels. Everything was still pretty fresh, I was in the same headspace coming from the TV show to the film. There was no in-between time. I was Ms. Marvel for like, two years straight. Can’t complain!
This is the first MCU movie that’s female-led in directing, writing, and its stars, so how has it been to be a part of something that’s so purposefully female fronted in an otherwise masculine superhero culture?
It’s pretty cool! I’ve been exposed to so many creative people who are female, who are Pakistani, who are Muslim and they’re just bringing their own unique voice into the project and into their job. Nia especially, she’s so good at finding the emotional nuances in every scene, including action scenes. It’s nice to look at these films through a female perspective.
I think Marvel comics have always championed that idea of finding that perfect version of yourself, or the idealized version of yourself, and that’s what superheroes are for. That aspiration to be a better version of yourself and be like these heroes that are much larger than life is such a universal feeling, regardless of gender identity. I think a lot of people will hopefully recognize that and relate to our characters, especially Kamala. She’s been the audience surrogate, and so many people, myself included, live vicariously through her.
Nia DaCosta is also the youngest director in the MCU, so as one of the youngest members on the Marvel roster, how do you think that younger focus impacted the film’s DNA?
That’s funny, I just make fun of her for being old and millennial. There was a day on set when she bent down for something and her knees cracked and I just went, “My God, how old are you?” I was just surrounded by millennials on this entire shoot! But Nia just understands Kamala on such a cellular level. She also grew up being an uber nerd for all these characters, so we definitely bonded over that a lot.
The Marvels has gotten a lot of attention for its use of cats in several key scenes. What was it like working with your feline co-stars?
You know what, I was really excited, and then I met this cat named Tango. Tango is not my friend. I wanted him to be so badly, but I think he was just scared of the environment or the shininess of my super suit, and he clawed my super suit and then clawed me. I still have scars on my hand from him. He’s a little difficult, a bit of a diva. But the flerkittens, they were very cute and very cuddly. I got to work with one named Snuggles, it’s the one Kamala carries while she puts up the hard light wall for the last guy at the S.A.B.E.R. Station—cutest thing ever. It was like the equivalent of having therapy dogs on set. Adorable.
Was the film a really big action upgrade for you?
On Ms. Marvel, Kamala was still learning her powers and a lot of the time it was just me falling, so we wanted to level Kamala up in this film. My first day of stunt training, the show hadn’t come out yet so all the stuntees were like, “Ok, so you tell us what you can do, because we don’t know your character.” So it was really up to me and my stunt double to create a new personality for Kamala with the way that she fights. We came to parkour moves, so there’s a lot more parkour in this film, and Kamala using her powers to swing around things and jump over things. I thought that was a really clever use of the hard light.
Because it’s in space, there’s a lot of wire work in the film. Brie’s kind of like a vet for wire work at this point, so me and Teyonah were letting her lead the way. It’s mostly core strength. You don’t realize how much the training actually comes in handy until you do, like, a three minute plank in midair while hovering on wires. You’re using muscles you didn’t even realize you had! It’s kind of embarrassing half the time. Your hair doesn’t move in space like it does in real life, so we had bald caps and then tracking dots on our head so they can CG our hair later to move in the anti-gravity way. So you’re bald, you’re in a tight super suit, you have so many wires on you, and it’s a dead silent room because everyone is just letting you do the scene—it is so embarrassing. It’s always the coolest scenes in the movie that are the most embarrassing to shoot in real life. So I’ve been humbled many a time.
There are a lot of thinkpieces talking about the state of Marvel and the concept of superhero fatigue. But what are your thoughts? Do you think superhero movies and superhero content are still going strong, or do you think maybe the genre is going through a transition period?
Not just superhero movies, I think Hollywood and content creators in general are adjusting to the times. The same fans that watched Iron Man are now 15 years older, of course people’s tastes are changing and the worldviews of the viewers are changing. But as a comic book reader, I don’t get tired of it. It really depends on a good story. I don’t think it’s a superhero fatigue, honestly. I think it’s just a fatigue of lackluster stories.
I think there’s a lot of fun stuff that’s coming in the future, and I’m very excited for fans to see what Marvel’s cooking up. I’m honestly pretty positive. I’m just as big of a fan, I’ll still see things Thursday night, the day it comes out. The excitement’s still there. The Marvels is a fun movie, it’s a good time. I think people will be surprised at how much fun they’re having. A lot of the time you forget that movies are entertainment, and they’re just a couple fun hours of escapism.
Speaking of comic book fans, you’ve written a couple Ms. Marvel comics this year. Can you speak to that experience, as a different way of portraying Kamala?
It’s been the most surreal experience ever to see my last name on a comic book. I started reading Ms. Marvel comics when I was 15, 16 years old, and they were one of the first comic series that I read in its entirety. All my love for Kamala started with comics, and the fact that I now get to contribute to the actual Marvel comics canon that, who knows, one day could even be adapted into the MCU? That’s crazy to think about, to contribute to the actual source material.
Can you leave us off with one sentence on why people should see The Marvels if they haven’t already?
This movie is like reading a really fun, engaging comic book, and I think it’s a little cheesy and corny in all the right places. Allow yourself to enjoy it!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.