Ms. Marvel star Zenobia Shroff talks Marvel motherhood

·8-min read
Ms. Marvel star Zenobia Shroff talks Marvel motherhood

There are plenty of parental figures and found families in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Ms. Marvel is one of the rare projects where family is as much of a superpower as flight, energy blasts, or punching things.

Iman Vellani stars as the teenage Kamala Khan, and although the show is largely about her and her journey toward heroism, Ms. Marvel also devotes plenty of screen time to the more mundane moments between Kamala and her Pakistani American family. Although the young heroine often finds herself at odds with her family's expectations, there's always a deep love between them — particularly between Kamala and her mother, Muneeba, played by Zenobia Shroff.

Like most teenagers, Kamala doesn't always see eye-to-eye with her mom, but their fraught-yet-loving relationship is the emotional core of the show. Shroff can be both heartbreaking and hilarious as Muneeba, and there's something joyous about seeing a quirky, sweet, and ultimately ordinary Muslim American family depicted on TV.

Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur in 'Ms. Marvel'
Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur in 'Ms. Marvel'

Daniel McFadden/Marvel Studios Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur in 'Ms. Marvel'

Shroff has been working as an actor for about 35 years, but it wasn't until 2017 that she landed her breakout role in The Big Sick, playing Kumail Nanjiani's mother. Now, Ms. Marvel might be her biggest role yet, and she tells EW that she immediately connected with the tough, loving Muneeba. Ever since the show premiered, she adds, she's received countless social media messages from teenagers who've identified with Kamala, but she's also been surprised by how many mothers have reached out as well.

"So many parents have written to me to say, 'Thank you. Thank you for showing how I am with my kids. My kids just love it,'" Shroff says. "That's the whole point. That's why we made it, so that brown kids all over the world can say, 'You know what? It's okay to dream.'"

With Ms. Marvel episode 3 out now, EW caught up with Shroff to talk about joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe and what she hopes audiences take away from the Khan family.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What did you connect with most about Kamala's story and Ms. Marvel?

I'll answer it this way: When I came to this country 30 years ago, there is no way in hell a show like this was getting made. Thirty years ago we were at the red light, 20 years ago we were at the amber light, and 10 years ago we were at green, but nobody was buying it. And now is our time. Just the fact that Marvel and Kevin [Feige] have taken a chance to make a show about the first Muslim superhero and the first South Asian family, that alone is the most exciting part. It was unheard of when I was pounding the pavement.

I love the relationship between Kamala and Muneeba. It can be complicated at times, but there's so much love there. What interested you the most about their mother-daughter bond?

It's a relationship like any other. There's not just the superpower angle. There's also the angle of raising a teenager, and I think that's shown very realistically — like, can I go out? Can I do this? And [Muneeba] is saying no. I should mention that Kamala is my 14th South Asian child. [Laughs] I have played 14 South Asian mothers before this. I'm the go-to, like, "We need a South Asian mother. Call Zenobia!" So my job was really to bring it and layer it, so people watching don't say, "Zenobia's doing the same old shtick."

They have such a deeply committed relationship to each other, but it's also fraught with a lot of tension and a lot of push-pull — not only around raising a teenager, but also other things. There are other aspects that Muneeba is trying to protect her from.

Iman Vellani is so extraordinary in this role. What was it like working with her as your onscreen daughter?

She just found this role off of WhatsApp, and she's this kid from Markham, Ontario. But Iman is a Marvel head, so she's just perfect for Kamala Khan. I think she hit the ground running. It was her film school, her acting school, her etiquette school. I was very cognizant of the fact that here was a young girl who had never faced a camera before, and I tried to stay very cognizant of that throughout the process, throughout the six episodes. Of course, towards the sixth episode, you see her finding her rhythm, after learning the language of set. But she was a total natural. She was always there for me. Muneeba and Kamala are so devoted to each other in their own dysfunctional way, and Iman and I were completely committed to each other from action to cut. That was really impressive for this young girl who had never done this before. She was completely present for me.

You mentioned how groundbreaking it feels to have this Pakistani American family depicted in a big Marvel TV show. What does it mean to you to see this kind of loving, quirky family on screen?

You know, there's been so much hate for Muslims, especially after 9/11, and that deeply entrenched hate has never left the American experience. In fact, I'm reading a book now that's called Untold, and it's untold stories of the South Asian diaspora. The story I read last night was about this very well-educated stockbroker who was spat upon by somebody in Arizona, saying, "You're a Muslim, and you are not to be a stockbroker." The point is that there's such deeply entrenched hate. As somebody who's lived here for 30 years, [it's a joy] just to see the show get made.

I hope it's like when we did The Big Sick, and I hope that it normalizes the experience that we're just another middle-class family, getting up in the morning, rushing through breakfast. Our children are late for school, and we are driving them for driving tests that they fail. I just hope that people see the normalcy of it all and the ordinariness. We're just like anybody else. We happen to be Muslim, but we are neighbors. We're part of the fabric of America, and the time has come to accept us as such.

Was there anything about joining this show that surprised you?

I will say that I come from the tradition of Ibsen and Chekhov and revering Meryl Streep, and I've done Heiner Muller, who's a German avant-gardist, and I've been in very leftist theater for a long time. Then suddenly you are in this thing where you're watching your kid [be a superhero]. [Laughs] But I will say, you get caught up in the magic of it. You start believing, and you go with the suspension of disbelief. I'm surprised at myself and how I'm really enjoying saying these lines and believing them. It's such a great departure, because when you've been doing it for as long as I have, you need a shot in the arm.

Mohan Kapur is so great as Muneeba's husband, Yusuf. What can you tell us about working with him?

I remember the first time I met him. We had these big Mercedes-Benzes that they would send, and he opened the van, and I came down the stairs, and he goes, "Hello, wife." I said, "Hello," and I knew in that moment we would be friends. Mohan and I both grew up in South Bombay, on two opposite sides of the same bridge. We didn't know each other until this moment, but we are the same age, and we went to school across from each other. So our shorthand and our baseline understanding of each other is so strong. He had never worked in Hollywood before, so he was very excited.

I love the scenes of Aamir's wedding in the third episode. There's that amazing dance sequence with you and all the different members of the family. What do you remember most about filming that?

That dance was amazing because we were so many of us in this ballroom, with all the choreographers. I loved it. I've been a dancer since I was 11 years old, and my mom had me dance. It was a long day, as they all are. We were dancing basically for 10 hours that day, in fits and starts, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

When you think back to filming, what was your most memorable day on set?

It was a very meta experience for me because during the six months of shooting, for five months, my own mother was dying, and she was at the other end of the world. So my head space was constantly with her in Mumbai, while I was in Atlanta. I'm mothering this child and I'm protecting her on set every day, but I couldn't protect my own mother. Does that make sense? It became very meta. There were layers with that. The whole experience in my head was all about this mother-daughter stuff. So you do what actors do, and you take everything, and you give it at action.

It was tough, but art always saves the artist, in a way. So I'm glad I had this work. I'm so grateful that I had this work so I could put all my emotion somewhere.

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