How did your role in Ms Marvel come about?
My role in Ms Marvel came about in a very routine fashion, however, it was during the deep pandemic and we were all at home. I got the audition as one does and I was told to self-tape. At that point, we were not going out and meeting people so I had to ask a friend who lived in Los Angeles to do it with me. She kindly agreed and we did it over zoom – me in my living room, she in hers. I saw the words Marvel studios and I tried not to get excited because that’s just the way we get trained – not to be excited, treat it like any other audition and forget about it. Two weeks later, my agent told me there was some significant interest. I still just put it behind me until one day while returning something at TJ Maxx, my agent called and said he was getting Don the president of the company on the other line, that is when I knew I had gotten the role. I had an out-of-body moment, my thoughts were racing and I thought to myself “oh my God! I am in the Marvel universe”. I left TJ in a daze without returning my stuff, I came home, sat on the couch and my career flashed before my eyes. I probably shed a few tears because I knew that it was going to be life-changing.
What about your role in Ms marvel makes it significant to you? Why is it relevant?
My role in Ms Marvel is not just significant to me or relevant to me it is much bigger than me. There has never been a Muslim American family as protagonists in a series in this country‘s history and there certainly hasn’t been that in the Marvel cinematic universe so the significance of that is epic. It was a watershed moment in the history of TV. We shifted the needle a little. Our art has to reflect the populace and America is not just a white country anymore so not only is it a new day for TV but it is really important for us to show that America is made up of many different people.
Are there any personal experiences that connect with your role and story in Ms Marvel?
As far as personal experiences that connect me with my role in Ms Marvel, I have played about 15 roles as a South Asian mother. There was an instant connection growing up in Mumbai and being South Asian – it is in my blood. Muneeba is in my blood, I know that woman even if we have different backgrounds.
What do you love most about Ms Marvel?
What I love most about Ms Marvel is that it has never been done before. We shifted ground here and we are showing you a Muslim Pakistani middle-class family in Jersey City. We are giving you a glimpse into our lives in an authentic way – we show you how we eat, get married, our ceremonies, Bollywood dance. We give you a slice of life that has never been given and seen before on TV.
In doing so I hope we show the general population we are just like everybody else.
As an Indian-born actor, what has your experience and journey in the industry been like? Is there anything that could be better in the industry?
There is a lot that can be improved in the industry. My 30 years of experience and journey in this industry have been quite unique. When I started, I was told to change my name, rely on my white-passing, get a Dialect Coach to get American dialect and try to pass as Italian or Greek otherwise, nobody was going to hire me. And nobody did. They did not know what to do with me. I was too white to be ethnic and too ethnic to be white. The industry does not see you beyond the identity that they want to see you as. That has to change.
I am a woman in her 50s of Indian nationality and Persian ancestry and I constantly have to battle the trifecta of ageism, sexism and racism in this industry. I can do much more than just be your mother. I can be a doctor or a lawyer or a villain – I would make a great villain by the way. Working in the industry for the time I have has led to me gaining experience and knowledge that I am able to bring to the workplace.
Youth is the valued commodity, age is not and that has to shift. We are extremely capable women. Regardless of age, we can run a set, we can write our own lines, and we can even direct a scene. People need to respect that.
In the past 10-20 years, the culture has shifted slightly, but the industry still needs to realize that, like I said earlier, our art and stories must reflect the populace.
During the six weeks that Ms Marvel was playing, a lot of young women and their mothers wrote to me saying, “thank you we have never seen ourselves on the screen before”.
I am not sure when I decided to start acting. In India, between the ages of 16 and 23, I did a lot of commercial print modelling, and a lot of dancing with dance companies and amateur theatre as well. Alongside this, I was also doing a master’s in psychology and came to a crossroads: to either do a therapist training program or use a ticket I got to New York because of some dance shows I did and come to study acting. My acting mentor, my high school drama teacher said “you have something you should use it.”
At 17 years old, I remember watching Meryl Streep in the French Lieutenant‘s woman at the Sterling cinema and being impacted by it. I was inspired and believed I could do it too. I was always very taken with film and the Hollywood industry as a young girl. I devoured the magazines and thought it was this great other life.
I do not say this in a victimized way but as far as support goes I really did it on my own. No parent wants their child to struggle and perhaps mine were the same, so not to sound bombastic but I was my greatest support and I still am. Of course, there have been many friends, family and colleagues who have been very kind to me and helped me along the way but in the end, you have to do this for yourself.
How can inclusive representation be improved?
I think inclusive representation can be improved by us being more organised. South Asians need to be better organized like other ethnic groups in Hollywood. You have to build a community. You have to build coalitions, you have to build organizations together to lift each other up.
As for studios, casting directors and agents, I would love for them to consider different races in different lights. Not just the ‘stereotypical’ light we are usually placed in. The Indian is not just the cab driver, the Black man is not just a pimp, and the Latino man is not just the delivery man. We can be many things and much more. Write for us as Shonda Rhimes writes for her characters in Grey’s Anatomy. Stop pigeonholing us.
I am what is considered ethnically ambiguous. I have even written a one-woman show about how to succeed as an ethnically ambiguous actor. Use me for that ambiguous role. Stop slotting us.
Issue 2 of our magazine-book series, Disruptors is out and features stories from over 60 women going against the grain and challenging the status quo. They share their personal and professional journeys, what it takes to challenge the status quo as a woman in today’s world, their challenges, milestones, legacy and much more.
Get a copy of Disruptors issue 2 and/or pay it forward for someone here: https://violetsimon.co.uk/product-category/magazine/disruptors-issue-2/