“Embiggen!” Ms. Marvel yelled her catchphrase as her fists swelled up to the size of a tractor. She brought them down on an Ultron Bot, smashing the giant arachnid robot. With that one word, history was made, the first time a Muslim superhero was featured on American television. And for Kathreen Khavari, the voice behind Ms. Marvel (alter ego Kamala Khan), a glimpse of hope for positive and realistic portrayals of Muslims.
“She’s just such a fun-loving character and we can see someone who is Muslim and who is funny,” Khavari, 33, told me over the phone. “That’s not something that’s portrayed in mainstream.” Kamala Khan and Kathreen Khavari have a fair amount in common (aside from the alliterative names). Both are first generation Americans with immigrant parents—Khan’s are Pakistani, but Khavari’s parents are from Iran. Both are funny. And both like to play, Khan with her fists, and Khavari with her characters.
Obviously you can’t see Khavari in the animated Avengers Assemble, where Ms. Marvel made her TV debut last week. But you may recognize her from Brain of Terror, a short film she made that went viral back in 2014, where a young Middle Eastern American woman falls asleep watching Homeland and dreams she’s a terrorist as eleven different voices and aspects of her identity inside her head debate what it could possibly mean.
Her inspiration for the video came from being a woman of Middle Eastern descent trying to work as an actress in America. When Khavari was just starting to pursue acting—after working in the field of infectious diseases with a Masters degree under her belt—she found that her agent in New York kept sending her to auditions for Middle Eastern characters. Because this is America, I’m sure you know what that means: terrorists.
“As she found out I was Middle Eastern, the only roles she would really send me out for were very, very stereotypically Middle Eastern roles,” she said. "They were all very negative, and it was really disheartening.”
Khavari described being sent to audition for a role where not only was the character a terrorist, but a terrorist undercover as a sex worker, an intersectionally offensive role that was so poorly written, the casting director apologized. “It was just so bad, and I was just like what the fuck is this? What am I doing? I’m born and raised here, I have family in the Middle East, and no one that I know fits any of those profiles of the violent or the victimized,” she explained. “For me it was just really difficult to go out for those.”
“Especially I think when I see Middle Eastern males sort of play these very violent, angry, misogynistic characters, heartless and ruthless, it makes me feel like it’s disrespectful to my dad, who is the kindest person that I know. “
When Khavari landed in Los Angeles, she made a conscious effort to find representation that understood her goals and the types of roles she was going for. She said recent auditions and roles have been a far more positive experience. She recently had a small role in Christopher Guest’s upcoming Netflix film Mascots, where she plays a hotel clerk. “It had nothing to do with why she was different from everyone else, culturally speaking," she said. "She was just a woman who’s living in America who happens to be of a certain descent. She was treated as a human being first and foremost.”
Khavari has continued to produce videos featuring hilarious and sometimes refreshingly harsh commentary on American culture, and has made more videos featuring her Brain of Terror characters.
And of course Ms. Marvel, who appears in Avengers Assemble three times this season but has been bumped up to a series regular for the next season, is another character Khavari enjoys. “She’s a fun character. I love her lines, I love her spunk. She’s brave, she’s interesting, she’s funny, and she happens to be a brown superhero which is very cool. That in and of itself for me is a lot of fun,” she said.
She was pleasantly surprised by the voiceover casting agent’s dedication to finding an actress who better culturally represented Khan, especially in a time when not only are onscreen Muslim and Middle Eastern depictions pretty harmful, but white actors are taking the few “relatable” Muslim roles. Recently Adam Rayner (white!) was cast as the lead in Tyrant a show about a Middle Eastern family, and two screenwriters penning a Rumi biopic said they wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to play the titular character (he’s apparently not pursuing the role).
“It just really feels like there is no regard for authenticity at all,” Khavari said, clearly frustrated as an actual person of Middle Eastern descent looking for roles that don’t insult her or her culture. She understands that entertainment is about the money, and casting someone like Leo basically guarantees success. “But that only holds true if everyone else you’re casting around him is Middle Eastern or representative descent. If they’re not then that is a bullshit excuse. That’s just laziness.”
“We’re still considered diversity casting to fill a diversity quota and that’s just annoying because it’s just the fact that 'ethnic' is different from everything else," she said. "We’re all representations of the U.S. We’re all Americans, and it’s still incredibly frustrating, so while I’m getting these really amazing auditions there’s also road blocks along the way.”
But as slow as the progress has been, it’s still being made. Khavari cited comedians like Aziz Ansari (“Who did a lot to put brown people on the map”) and Nasim Pedrad, former SNL cast member who will be producing and starring in a show about an Iranian American family, as inspirations.
“My goal in this industry and for any person of color who is kind of trying to get in and stay in Hollywood is just to show other perspectives and show Middle Easterners that are normal like everybody else that have feelings like everyone else,” she said. She wants to put more of herself and other women like her into the zeitgeist.
“We need more voices, and we need loud voices,” she said.