In January, photos from the filming of Spider-Man: Far From Home appeared to show a Muslim woman in a hijab on the set, and people started to wonder who she could be. The woman in the photos is Zoha Rahman, a law graduate from Pakistan.
She plays a student in Peter Parker’s class in the film. Rahman's appearance in Far From Home is the first time a hijabi actor has been credited as a main cast member in a Marvel movie.
BuzzFeed News spoke to Rahman about acting, adjusting the hijab to be more trendy, and her experience on the Far From Home set.
This interview contains one Avengers: Endgame spoiler, for those who have still not watched it.
What was it like going from your educational background into acting?
Zoha Rahman: It was a slow transition for me because I was still at uni. I was still studying law, and that’s how I got into acting. So it was still part time, and when I started my master's, I decided to do it full time. I decided to take a big leap of faith and do acting, and now I’m still doing it. I will do it as long as I can because it's truly what I enjoy doing the most — I’m happiest when I’m in front of a camera or with a script to learn.
What was acting in a hijab like for you?
ZR: Well, I don’t wear the hijab apart from when I pray, but I was still very conscious of not treating it as just part of a costume. It's not just a hat, and I was always mindful of respecting what I was representing.
In terms of everyone around me, I definitely felt a bit of hesitation from those who had only seen me in a hijab. Keep in mind, wardrobe and makeup are the first things we get done on set, so most people did not see me without one until we had our first cast and crew gathering, where some people didn't recognise me.
It was a very “Clark Kent/Superman” moment for me, or should I say “Peter Parker/Spider-Man”, especially in Europe. But the best part for me was being able to give my input. I styled the hijab myself and I worked with the wardrobe team, deciding on styles to wrap it and on certain costume details, as sometimes I felt the sleeves were too short or there needed to be tights under a skirt in order for the outfit to be modest enough for a hijab-wearing teenager, with no compromise on style.
What do you think about the trend of hijabs in some films and TV shows often looking like kids' hijabs or an outdated style, and how did you approach styling your hijab?
ZR: Usually when you see a hijab in the movies or on [a] TV show, it’s usually a tight, unflattering fit that's, quite frankly, a ready-made version of what an actual teenager would never actually wear. I took ideas from a lot of hijabi-style bloggers on Instagram, a lot of whom are actually my friends, and a lot of them wear hijabs, so there's a lot of inspiration out there. When I first went into wardrobe for fittings, they actually gave me a piece of cloth — well, it was a scarf. I guess it had a single stitch in it and there was a hole for the face. Not to say anything wrong about the wardrobe department, but honestly, they didn’t know what they were doing.
I said, “Guys, what is this?” They said: “Oh my gosh, do you know how to tie one?” I was like, yes, I do, and they were so relieved. I could see on their faces that this was something that was really troubling them.
They said they needed to cater to continuity, obviously, because for them, having the hijab in the exact same place all day was important because that’s what you need for filming.
What can you tell us about your role?
ZR: I can tell you I had a really great time. The best memories we had [were] when we were waiting to go on set. We were all in our little tent. We would play such silly games — we always had a deck of cards; always we would make up games to play. We had a good time, but I can’t tell you much about the story.
What was it like working with the cast?
ZR: It was really amazing. Obviously I was quite nervous on my first day. I didn’t know what to expect, but everyone was so professional and so friendly because we were together for such a long time. We became such good friends. It was really great.
What was a memorable personal moment on set?
ZR: On one of the biggest sets, I remember I had a member of the security team come up to me as I was walking to get lunch. She was wearing a hijab herself and was a woman of colour. She politely asked me if I was a Muslim and if I wore the hijab myself. I told her that yes, I was a Muslim, but I didn't wear the hijab. She hugged me super tight and said, “Mashallah, I am so happy to see someone like you in such a big movie; I can't wait to tell my daughters.”
Her warmth and genuine happiness meant so much to me; I definitely went back to my trailer and let a few tears fall, and it just reinforced how badly I want to keep fighting the careless representations in mainstream media afforded to people of colour. Since then, I have had so many messages from fans of the MCU telling me they can't wait to see me onscreen, or that they are so excited to finally have someone like them or like their mother for them to look up to. The support I have received so far has been incredible, and I hope I can make all these people proud.
There were a lot of people talking about you online. Did you see any of the responses?
ZR: I was told by one of the people on set to go take a look at Twitter, because I don’t really use Twitter. I have an account, but I don’t go on it. I was unsure what I was looking for. So I just typed in “Spiderman hijabi”, I think, and I saw all of the comments [and] loads and loads of pictures. I think there was a massive surge when Tom [Holland] put me on his story as a joke because he was filming downstairs and we were trying to distract him from the window, so he put up a video of us.
What were some of your favourites?
ZR: I think my favourite one was I will build Jon Watts a shrine. That was hilarious; I loved that one. There were loads which were really heartfelt. I got lots of messages on Instagram from people [who] said that they are so proud to see a hijabi in the movie, that they wear the hijab, their mother wears the hijab, and they’re really looking forward to seeing the film in cinema.
How did the role actually come about?
ZR: It came about like any other role. Casting directors asked me to audition. They liked my audition. I actually didn’t know that I was auditioning for Spider-Man until I was in front of the camera at the audition and I had to sign an NDA and I had five minutes to learn the script and perform it in front of the camera. That’s when I was like, Don’t panic, this is fine. You can do this; it's just like any other role.
What was it like working on it before Endgame came out?
ZR: Our scripts were blacked out, so if there were any spoilers for Endgame, we didn’t know. It was like, a lot of people messaged me like, “Did you know Tony was going to die? Did you know this was gonna happen?” And I was like, “I genuinely didn’t know because it was all blacked out on the script.”
And then afterwards, did you go back and look at it?
ZR: A lot of things made sense because what I know from Far From Home and what happened in Endgame, I’m like, “Oh, that makes sense now; I know that’s what happens,” but...you did feel like you were a bit in the dark. They [were] very confidential and were super, super strict. They just say, “Keep this month and this month free and we’ll just tell you,” and it’s always like...so I was flying with them into — I think it was Prague — and they were like, “We can’t tell you; we can’t tell anyone.” But it's me flying; I need to pack! And they were like, “We’ll let you know.” They eventually did let us know.
Spider-Man: Far From Home is out in cinemas worldwide now.