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Ms. Marvel's Travina Springer Discusses Muslim Representation, The Comics, And More - Exclusive Interview

The wait is finally over for the MCU's groundbreaking series "Ms. Marvel" that features the Universe's first Muslim superhero, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani). Though Kamala's teenage antics are a big part of the series, "Ms. Marvel" also shines a spotlight on the Khan family as a whole. Travina Springer's character Tyesha Hillman is presented as a big sister figure to Kamala, as Tyesha is the fiancé of Kamala's brother Aamir Khan. Like Springer herself, Tyesha is a convert to Islam, adding a layer of authenticity to the character.

Before landing her "Ms. Marvel" role, Springer appeared in a number of films and TV shows, including the 2010 movie "Valentine's Day" as a sign language interpreter, the Clint Eastwood film "The Mule," and shows like "The New Shade of Black" and "Unfair & Ugly." In addition to her film and TV credits, Springer also has roots in comedy and ASL.

Springer spoke to Looper during an exclusive interview where the actress discussed the Muslim storylines in "Ms. Marvel," why representation is so critical for young viewers, and what it's been like to tell her own story. She also revealed what it was like working with Iman Vellani, how the comics inspired her role, and what MCU team-up she'd like to see for her character in the future.

The MCU's first Muslim superhero

Kamala Khan is a trailblazer as the MCU's first Muslim superhero. What was it like working with Iman Vellani and watching her bring Ms. Marvel to life?

Oh my gosh. It was really amazing working with Iman, considering that she had no acting experience prior to this. She was a delight. As you can see for yourself, she was a delight. She hit the ground running, and  she fully embodies who this character is. The casting was spot on. It was really, really a treat to play with her and see her develop over the series as an artist. 

Did you have any fun moments with her on- or off-set? And did you give her any acting tips or advice?

I felt like I did. Even playing the character that I do in the series, and our relationship on- and off-camera, I did feel a responsibility as an actor who is a little more seasoned than her to offer my support. I constantly was checking in with her like, "Are you okay, do you have everything you need?" And [tell her] that you can advocate for yourself and ask for the things you need. And we would all hang out after hours when we weren't working. 

[Filming was] very much still [happening] within the pandemic — a lot of things were going on, so we were in our bubble. We were tested. We were the safe [about it], and we would hang out. It was always fun to see her progress when she would be working out — she got so strong. I was so proud of her. She was kicking butt. 

The most diverse MCU project of all time

This is the most diverse slate of cast and characters we've ever seen in the MCU. What has the experience been like to be a part of that?

It's been really phenomenal and exciting. This is a groundbreaking opportunity, not just for us as actors and the creators of the show, but also for audiences to see so much inclusion — it was in front of and behind the camera. It's truly an honor to be a part of something that I really think is going to be historic on so many fronts. I'm excited for everyone to see it. ... One of the main things I'm looking forward to is normalizing people of color on the screen in characters like this who just happen to be a particular heritage and happen to [follow] a particular religion. They're humans. And here's a story that everyone can enjoy, and everyone has access to.

The beginning of this show was really a love letter to Captain Marvel with Kamala's own twist on the superhero. Was Brie Larson involved at all in the creation of the show, and did you get a chance to meet or talk with her?

Oh, that's a fun question. I see what you did there. The fans are just going to have to wait and see as the show unfolds. That's a good one, though.

The 'Ms. Marvel' cast and creators tell their own story

From the writing to the directing and the casting, "Ms. Marvel" is told by voices of the Muslim community both on and off the screen. What has that collaborative process been like, and what is it like to be able to tell your own story in that way rather than having writers form characters not having been a part of the community?

This is my first time having a character that was so in alignment with who I am as a person, and the first time that I've seen this much diversity and inclusion on a project in front of and behind the camera. It was comforting, it was exciting, it was healing, especially in a time when there was so much going on in the world. To be surrounded by so many people of color, and to be surrounded by so many women, and to be surrounded by other Muslims on set was just amazing. As a Muslim woman myself, it was such a treat and something that I savored every moment of because when will this ever happen again to be in an environment where I felt seen, and my opinion really mattered?

I was able to be very hands-on with how my character carried herself and even how she dressed herself or styled herself because I had a very personal connection with her in an understanding from an Islamic standpoint of what her scarf meant and how she would wear it and how she would carry it because I know people like Tyesha.

Did a lot of the actors have their own input in their roles, and was that a collaborative process with the writers and directors? Was it open, or was it keep strictly to the script?

There was a lot of space for us to have our influence as authentic characters to the story, which was really nice, to be able to give input and feedback. But also because there was so much support already there with the script, with the directors, and with the producers who were of similar backgrounds. So there wasn't a lot that needed to happen, but there was definitely space for us to have collaborative input, which was great.

Honoring the OG comic books

Did you do any research on your character from the comic books? Were you already a fan, or did you want to go into the film with fresh eyes?

I absolutely did research. I dived in as soon as I found out about the project. I researched and found as many issues of "Ms. Marvel" as I could. And it's so good, there's so much richness in the source material. So yes, I did a lot of background on Tyesha to find out who she was, and I was thrilled to discover there were a lot of things that were similar, also things that were different [about her], but things that I understood about her too. I think the comics are so great ... and it's a treat to be able to have source material because [in] a lot of [projects] you don't have anything. It's like this is my interpretation. So it's a nice Cliff's Notes to pull from and then make your own spin [on it] because "Ms. Marvel" is inspired by the source material. That's exciting.

Did you find yourself bringing anything or pulling anything that you learned from the comics into the final product?

I'm not sure if there's anything specifically that I pulled from the comics to the final product because there was so much there in the material. And the mindfulness of what her relationship is with Kamala and her relationship to Aamir, that's in the comics. Maybe having that internal knowledge about her deep love for everyone [came into it]. And also, maybe I did bring in the fact that Tyesha, even in the comics, is very self-assured, and she's not afraid of choosing her own path and going her own way. So yes, that definitely informed my choices for Tyesha in the series.

When life imitates art

You touched on this a little bit, that you share a similar background with your character Tyesha. If you're comfortable sharing, what, if any, of your own experiences as a convert to Islam did you bring to the role?

The biggest thing that I brought as a convert and my personal experiences would be my confidence in carrying Tyesha because it's something I didn't have to research [to] understand [her]. It was very much my lived experience, and the background knowledge and the understanding of who she is, why she wears the hijab and how she does it, and even how she would carry it herself. The choices that she would make that are different than the choices that I would make as a Muslim, but there's a value being an authentic actor in the role, which is really exciting. And again it was really great work with the casting. I'm so grateful that Sarah Finn brought me in. I'm so protective of Tyesha, and very, very honored to play her. There's never been someone like her before that I've seen on a scale like this.

Definitely. How do you think projects like this help young fans feel seen, valued, and confident in their culture and show aspects of themselves that they don't often see in big shows and movies?

This series and projects like this absolutely help young folks feel seen and heard. People in marginalized groups want nothing more than to see themselves represented in [an] equal way to how majority groups are seen. It's so powerful for someone to watch and see that there's a possibility for them to be a superhero or [for] them to be the ones to save the world. It really starts with imagery. There's so much power in imagery and storytelling, so much [so] that minds and hearts can be changed through storytelling. I really can't wait to see the results of this — I want it to be normal [and] not a big deal in the future. And hopefully, [it opens] up the opportunity for more representation in our media ... this is just the very beginning, that's what my hope is.

A taste of the '90s

While the series doesn't take place in the '90s, there's a smattering of homages and references throughout the show. Are there any '90s songs, fashion trends, or references that you'd like to see in potential future seasons?

Any potential songs? [Taking a moment to think] No, that's not a good one.

Don't censor yourself. You can pick whatever you want.

I was like, the "Electric Slide." I don't know if that's from the '90s. Oh, man. I don't know. Anything with bright colors and hair. Maybe it'd be fun if there would be a party or something where we could all dress up in '90s attire. C+C Music Factory, that's a good one. Probably before your time.

I'm a '90s baby! So out of all of the adults on the show, your character seems to clock Kamala's teenage whims and deception the best. Can you tease how that relationship might develop down the line?

In the comics, they have a really special relationship, and Kamala looks up to Tyesha. It's going to be sweet to see how that dynamic develops in the series.

Kamala's story certainly isn't ending with the series as Iman is already slated for "The Marvels." If Tyesha appears elsewhere in the MCU, what are some heroes you'd like her to team up with or villains to face off against in any potential future projects?

It would be really nice to see Tyesha kicking some butts dressed really well, you know what I mean? Practicing her intelligent attorney skills. I think it would be cool if Tyesha gets to visit Wakanda for whatever reason just because, I mean, it's Wakanda and they're so technologically advanced, and it's in the motherland. So maybe me and Aamir could take a trip there for some reason — and then I can use my intelligence and my possible powers to help save the world.

I love that. 

Staying mum about the project and future storylines

What have been some of the greatest joys and challenges of taking on this project? And have you had any fan reactions so far?

One of the biggest joys is that I get to be introduced to a broader audience playing such a phenomenally created and special character that hasn't been witnessed before by a broad audience. And I'm really, really excited to play and to be seen as a character that is so groundbreaking and important to be seen for visibility purposes — someone who is also very much authentically close to who I am. That's really special and a joy, and I'm really excited for people to see that. 

When I read the material, I was like, "Oh my God, this is me." So that's really exciting. One of the challenges is having to have kept this under wraps for so long. You can't share it [or] talk about it. So I'm looking forward to not having to be so close to the chest anymore. ... And the fans, I would say that some of the responses that I've seen from fans, they're really excited and grateful. I mean, when do you see Black women, Muslims, who are fabulous and then very nerdy, but devout and converts? I've never seen this before. So it's exciting that Disney is leaning into more inclusive stories like this.

I can't even imagine having to hold that in for years. 

It's a lot. But I'm excited. The wait's almost over. We're almost there.

Can you tease anything about Tyesha's storyline this season, and where do you hope her story might go in the future?

Could I tease without getting attacked by Marvel? I'll say one of the things that I'm so excited about on this show is the costumes department — chef's kiss, it's so good. I really cannot wait for more of that to be seen. That's all I'm going to say. I would love to see more Black girls in the Marvel universe. So anywhere [Tyesha] gets to highlight her special powers and strengths in a way of uplifting her community, that would be great.

Hopes for Hollywood's future

What advice would you give to kids or even adults dealing with harassment for their religion, culture, or identity, and what do you hope to see from Hollywood in the future to continue combating these issues?

Kids who feel different or ostracized because of their cultural-religious beliefs, they should stand firm in who they are, be affirmed by their communities, and understand that they're not alone — and that people are often mean when they don't understand things. And I know it sounds cliché, but things will get better. And I hope that the media, Hollywood in particular, does a better job of normalizing differences because the truth of the matter is everyone is different. Even if people look the same, even people's families, cultures, and practices are very different. I would like there to be more inclusive visibility and representation in art, so young people can feel seen and normalized, and feel normal in their skin because it is really hard.

It is hard when you're the only one. I definitely relate to that. I moved a lot. My dad was in the military, and I was often sometimes the only Black girl in the classroom. And feeling different is normal. That won't go away. But maybe just leaning into their communities and understanding that the world is much, much bigger than their small school and neighborhood and town, I promise you.

There's often an air of mystery when it comes to auditioning for MCU projects. What was your audition process like and what initially drew you to the role?

So much mystery. I was like, "What is this that I'm reading for?"

Did they call it a goofy name?

Yeah. Everything was coded. Everything is so secret. My reps didn't even see my tape. It was very cryptic, but the material was so well written. And so, for me, it was easy to do because I connected with [Tyesha] on such an authentic deep level that it was really easy to bring her to life and bring my interpretation of her to the screen. It was really cool to see, once we started pairing up, that I was going to be working alongside Saagar Shaikh, who is a friend of mine. It was like another gift from the universe.

Working with the film industry's greats

You were also in the movie "Valentine's Day," which had a massively star-studded cast like Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, and even Taylor Swift — among a ton of others. Who did you get a chance to work with on that movie? What are some standout memories from that cast?

It was interesting. I got to be in a scene with McSteamy. Yeah, that's what he was called at the time. That's Eric Dane. And Jamie Foxx and Jessica Biel. What was interesting is that my scene was being filmed during Ramadan, so it was the holy month, and I was fasting. I remember being so hungry and all this lovely food was at catering. It was really beautiful, so I was taking boxes, putting [them] away, waiting for sunset. I do remember that I was so hungry. And Jamie Foxx was really funny. They kept having me just improvise a bunch of takes, so that was a really cool experience to have early on in my career.

You also worked with Clint Eastwood on "The Mule." Were you nervous at all working with such an iconic director, and what are some memories you had from that set?

I might have been a little bit nervous getting ready to work with him. But I'll say that, before we went to shoot, we were in the trailers, and he was in the makeup trailers. He was so nice and so complimentary, so polite. It was really lovely meeting him. Everyone calls him The Boss. And his directing style is a lot different because he'll just say, "And that's it," or "That's all of that." There's no "cut." There's no action. That's it. So it was really a unique experience. We were out in the dessert, it was 106 degrees. But he didn't only direct us, he was in the scene with me. So I've acted with him as well, and that was really nice. After our first take, he was like, "I'm going to try something." And we literally improvised the rest of the scene, so that was something that was really phenomenal.

Deaf representation in entertainment

You're fluent in ASL and do a lot of work with nonprofits like the Deaf West Theatre. Can you share a bit about your work with these organizations and why deaf representation, especially in shows like "Hawkeye" and Theater ASL productions, are so important?

Yes. I did a fun touring show. It was a children's show with Deaf West years ago. And that was a really wonderful experience getting to be hands-on with that and use my skills with ASL and my love for art and acting together. The visibility of the deaf community has exponentially increased since the pandemic, which I'm really excited about. I've always had an awareness because of my proximity to deaf culture, but it's been really nice to see the hearing world become more aware and more inclusive for providing accommodations with visual media and even on Instagram and with videos that people make having captions. That goes to the other point that, when you have more visibility, there's also more mindfulness around it. A lot of people don't have mindfulness around it.

So it's important to have that representation so people can feel seen. And then people who aren't of those communities can also have awareness and be more inclusive in their actions in the way they carry themselves. I'm really excited to see that and see more authentic casting being done in projects featuring deaf performers or stories. That's really important to me, and I'm so glad to see that's happening, like in "CODA."

Travina's favorite movies and dream collaborators

Do you have a favorite movie or TV show of all time?

All time?

I can't even answer this question myself.

Yeah, what is yours? That's a hard one.

I have three.

Okay, good, because I probably can't have one. Go ahead.

So "Clueless" is my favorite go-to. I'll watch it over and over again.

As if!

Exactly! I interviewed Alicia Silverstone, and it was the highlight of my life. And then "Supernatural" has always been a favorite TV-wise, and then anything "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter." So I gave you four [laughs].

Those are good. Oh wow. Goodness, I'll have to add that. "Clueless" is really a classic. I love that movie. I remember being like, "How do people in California, how aren't they sweating in their clothes?" They wear long sleeves. Because I'm from Florida. But w hen I got here [to L.A.], I get it now. ... This is a throwback, but I think "A Different World" is so good and so funny. And it's one of those shows that has done so much for the culture that it's timeless. ... I'm going to sound so corny, but I love "The Sound Of Music."

Oh, that's a great one.

I know all the songs, all the words. I love "The Sound Of Music." ... "Bridesmaids" is another good one. I should say something classy like...

I feel like "The Sound Of Music" was classy.

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight." That's a great one.

Okay. There we go.

Barry, where are you? Barry, hire me.

That leads me to my next question: Is there a director or actor from any time period that you've always wanted to work with?

Oh yes. You can throw Barry Jenkins on there. He's so talented. Ava DuVernay. Michaela Coel. Oh my gosh. She's so talented and so funny. She's so good. To do something opposite her would be really fun. Any time period? I'm going to [have it] as soon as we hang up.

Dream roles in her future

Do you have a dream role that you'd love to play from any time period — if it's existed before, doesn't exist yet, or is a future role?

I love period pieces. Anything from 15, 20 years ago on back. I love those so much. I've done one before, but I'd love to do something again where we go back in time because I love history, and the things that happened in that time in the news and recreating that world with the information that we have. I love that. I was just watching "Candy" on Hulu, it's a wild one. But it's a period piece, and it's so fun because they can pull from accounts from other people and then the clothes they get to wear. I'm also a sucker for rom coms. I would love to be in a rom com that's really silly. 

You also have a background as a comedian. How do you use those skills to enhance your acting roles?

When I have an opportunity to really just bring myself to a role, that's what I do. And comedy is not really a thing that I try to force. It's just how it shows up in who I am. If there's an opportunity and a role to add levity with comedy, I always lean into that if I can. Even with "Ms. Marvel," I had opportunities to have some of that, which was really fun. Levity is great when it's appropriate, and I like to bring that into my characters or my roles when possible.

Is there anything upcoming that you want to plug or anything else that you want to chat about?

I have something coming up that I can't talk about now, but I cannot wait to share it when I can. The other thing that I am really excited to be working on is my first solo show. It's terrifying, but I feel like it's really rewarding. I'm putting that out there, that's what I'm working on right now, and hopefully, I get to put it up in the next few months here in L.A. It's going to be a very personal journey about self-discovery, understanding, and acceptance. I'm excited for people to see that too once it's ready.

Is that a comedy show?

It's going to be probably a hybrid between standup and storytelling, but it will not just be comedy at all.

Does it have a name yet?

Oh yes. As of now, it's called "Extra." Like, "Why is Travina extra?" You're going to find out essentially. That's the log line.

New episodes of "Ms. Marvel" air Wednesdays on Disney+.

This interview was edited for clarity.