Toronto·Video

How Ms. Marvel channelled her hometown of Markham, Ont. in a coming-of-age superhero story

Markham native and Pakistani Muslim actress Iman Vellani shares her experiences growing into her role as Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan in the upcoming Disney+ show.

Iman Vellani, 19, powers new Ms. Marvel series with her own high school memories

From Markham to Marvel: Iman Vellani is the franchise’s 1st Muslim superhero

2 months ago
Duration 4:58
Canadian actor and Markham native Iman Vellani speaks with CBC Toronto News at 6 host Dwight Drummond about how growing up in the GTA informed her character Kamala Khan.

Ms. Marvel star Iman Vellani says she loves nothing more than a blueberry doughnut from Tim Hortons every time she comes back home to Markham, Ont.

The Canadian restaurant chain comes as a welcome sign for Vellani after two years of "sensory overload" from landing the role of Kamala Khan in the upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) series, launching June 8 on Disney+.

Mirroring Khan's fictional background, Vellani says growing up as a Pakistani Muslim teenager helped with her first breakthrough role.

"I literally put my entire self into this show before we started filming," Vellani, 19, told CBC News. 

"Everything is just about my high school life, and they just put so much of that into the story," she said.

Her semesters at Unionville High School would play a bigger part in creating the live-action Ms. Marvel, who first appeared in comic book Captain Marvel #14 in 2013 and officially debuted with her own titular series in 2014.

The character would make her first TV appearance in the animated series Avengers Assemble in 2016, voiced by Iranian-American actress Kathreen Khavari. Ms. Marvel also became a main character for players of the Marvel's Avengers video game in 2020.

Iman Vellani plays Kamala Khan in the upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe series Ms. Marvel launching June 8 on Disney+. (Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

In the upcoming MCU series, Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-Muslim American in New Jersey, develops stretching and polymorphing abilities after her dormant supernatural genes are mysteriously unlocked. 

It depicts life in a Muslim-Pakistani household, as Kamala learns to control her newfound powers and keep up with her family traditions and high school responsibilities.

"I don't know if superpowers would have taken away from the awkwardness of my coming of age," Vellani quipped.

The role also gave her a chance to portray a coming-of-age story she experienced herself in Markham. 

But the opportunity almost stayed buried in her family's text messages.

"My aunt sent me a WhatsApp forward that she got through this entire forward chain of Ms. Marvel casting calls," she said, adding there were doubts over the seemingly fake message.

"They don't just come from WhatsApp."

Vellani said she sent her remote audition out anyway, and two days later, she got a call to go to Los Angeles.

Shortly after casting, Vellani sat with the show's producers and directors who began asking questions about her teachers, extra-curricular activities and high school crushes. 

'Oh my god. Brown girl. Who's she?'

This personal info was tied into the show's writing, helping Vellani slip into the teenage character, who also happens to be an Avengers superfan.

"I just had the fattest crush on Iron Man, and I wanted more Iron Man," said Vellani, adding she started as a lifelong MCU fan and frequently visited the Heroes World comic and game store across the street from her high school.

Her allowance eventually went towards a Marvel Ironheart comic, where she first spotted Kamala Khan on the cover.

"Oh my god. Brown girl. Who's she?" Vellani said about seeing someone like herself in a Marvel story.

Fascinated, Vellani would follow the character across a "wormhole" of Ms. Marvel comic books and Reddit fan forums. She also donned Ms. Marvel's red and blue costume one Halloween, years before Marvel would create a custom suit for her on the show.

Now a regular character in Marvel's sprawling universe, Vellani says she hopes fans can relate to Kamala "on a real cellular level."

"The show is a love letter to the fans," she said, adding every Reddit forum, art and cosplay matter for representing heroes of colour.

"And it's a lot of work being a Marvel fan. This fandom, we're 34 projects in. It's hard."

Vellani will appear in costume again for 2023 film The Marvels, where she stars alongside Brie Larson in a double sequel to Ms. Marvel and 2019's Captain Marvel.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Clement Goh

Digital Producer

Clement is a writer across TV and Digital with CBC Toronto. Since 2018, he has also worked in various newsrooms across the GTA covering city affairs, community events and entertainment. Outside, he is a resident gamer and keeps his popcorn close at the latest movie premieres. You can reach him with tips, story ideas and compliments at clement.goh@cbc.ca

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