When the trailer for the latest Spider-Man film dropped back in January fans were quick to point out the unlikely appearance of a hijabi character.
Spider-Man: Far from Home, the latest film in the Marvel franchise, is due out this summer. And for the first time ever, the film will feature a character wearing the hijab.
We caught up with actress Zoha Rahman, who plays the part of Peter Parker’s Muslim BFF, to find out how she landed the role of a lifetime and what it means to feature the hijab in Hollywood.
Tell us a bit about your background, how did you get into acting?
My background isn’t exactly conventional. I grew up in Pakistan and immigrated to the UK with my family. I was studying towards becoming a barrister when I decided to take this huge leap of faith and changed my career path to become an actress. I’d already been modelling and acting part-time for a few years but, despite being passionate about it, always treated it like a hobby.
Acting isn’t considered a traditional career route in the south Asian and Muslim community. Did you face any backlash?
We are a people who have known centuries of strife and constant readjustment so it’s no surprise that the community want stability and prosperity for their children, hence why they encourage us to take a more secure career path.
The first few times that I got scouted, my father told me I should focus on my studies and not get involved. Then, when I got offered a movie role my mother was extremely against it. I felt like I was failing them so I’d hide my projects, but eventually they got too big and high-profile to hide.
And, because I worked so hard and persevered, they eventually began to realise that this wasn’t a distraction, it was a career I really wanted to pursue. Now they have magazines I’m featured in on their coffee table and proudly show them to their friends.
How did the role in Spider-Man come about?
My agency sent my profile over to the Spider-Man casting team and I was invited to audition. It was all extremely confidential and I had no idea what film I was auditioning for until I got there and was given my lines. Luckily they liked my performance and I landed the role.
I remember being at the train station when I got the call from production. I felt so many emotions at once: shock, happiness, nervousness and gratefulness.
I can’t elaborate much on my role – all I can say is that I’m Peter Parker’s friend and we go on an amazing European trip. You’ll have to catch us in the cinemas to find out more.
What was the experience of shooting a Hollywood film like?
Surreal. That’s the perfect word to describe it. In all my years of dreaming about working on a Hollywood set I never thought it would become a reality. It’s a sad by-product of the lack of representation on screen that actors like myself never truly believe in themselves getting to the ‘silver screen’.
It was a lot of hard work, very long days and nights, but I got a wealth of experience in just a few months so it was definitely worth it!
What was it like working alongside actors like Zendaya and Samuel L Jackson?
When you’re on set everyone is professional and friendly so it felt completely normal. We’d get our hair and wardrobe done, joke about, have lunch, do the scenes and go home. It was only when I got home and thought about my day that it really sunk in. I’d think to myself: ‘Did I really just do that? Did I really just hang out with so-and-so today like it was nothing!?’.
Did you face difficulty in landing roles due to your ethnicity before Spider-Man came about?
The difficulty already exists because the roles that are on offer for actors of colour, like me, are limited in the first place. It’s always a side-kick, or a best friend or a shopkeeper. The narrative is always informed by what the colour of my skin is or how I talk. I want to work towards getting into audition rooms where I’m seen as an actor who can play any role – not just the token Asian woman.
Why do you think Muslims are under-represented in Hollywood? How can we change this?
The representation that exists is careless. We are often caricatures, cast as negative or insignificant characters. I often feel like the Muslim identity is used as an agenda in the media – we rarely see someone who’s going about their life and just happens to be a Muslim. I do see a change, but it needs to be on a much larger scale.
Are you working on any new projects now? Can we expect to see you back on the big screen?
Absolutely. There are a few projects in the pipeline and I some that I’ve already started filming. I’ll continue to grasp every opportunity that comes my way and use it to create more space for underrepresented actors like myself, because this isn’t just about me. It’s about getting colour and representation on the big screen.