Malala Goes Hollywood: How the ‘Stranger Things’-Loving Activist Wants to Shake Up TV

Photographs by Zoe McConnell

Malala Yousafzai is one of creative leaders honored for Variety’s 2022 Power of Women presented by Lifetime. For more, click here.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is comparing herself to the monster from “Stranger Things” as she shows off her double-jointedness. “I am Vecna,” she declares while bending her fingers way back, emulating the slimy talons of Jamie Campbell Bower’s dastardly overlord of the Upside Down.

Zoe McConnell for Variety

Yousafzai may be a messenger of peace, globally recognized for her work campaigning for girls’ education, but she’s also lost a lot of sleep devouring the stunningly violent fourth season of the hit Netflix series, which she binge-watched with her new husband, Asser Malik. Growing up in Swat Valley, Pakistan, the TV enthusiast watched shows such as British sitcom “Mind Your Language” and ABC’s “Ugly Betty” to improve her English and decipher Western culture. Now, inhaling the latest TV programs is technically her job. “I am a producer,” says Yousafzai proudly. “I want my name to be there in TV shows, documentaries and movies.”

At 25, the youngest Nobel laureate in history is at a new juncture in her life. Living in London, away from her parents in Birmingham, England, for the first time, the Oxford University graduate heads her own film and TV production company, Extracurricular. “When I fill out forms that ask for a profession, I always struggle, because I’m trying to figure out what my role is,” she says. “I feel like I’m an activist and a storyteller. I’ve been doing activism for more than a decade now, and I’ve realized that we shouldn’t limit activism to the work of NGOs only: There’s also the element of changing people’s minds and perspectives — and that requires a bit more work.”

In 2021, Yousafzai struck a multiyear programming pact with Apple TV+ through Extracurricular. Overseen by former Berlanti Productions executive Erika Kennair, the company’s first slate of projects is now in the works at the streaming service.

“You’re often told in Hollywood, implicitly or explicitly, that the characters are too young, too brown or too Muslim, or that if one show about a person of color is made, then that’s it — you don’t need to make another one. That needs to change,” Yousafzai says. “I’m a woman, a Muslim, a Pashtun, a Pakistani and a person of color. And I watched ‘Succession,’ ‘Ted Lasso’ and ‘Severance,’ where the leads are white people — and especially a lot of white men. If we can watch those shows, then I think audiences should be able to watch shows that are made by people of color, and produced and directed by people of color, with people of color in the lead. That is possible, and I’m gonna make it happen.”

It’s an unusually warm day for London in late August, and Yousafzai sits just out of the direct sunlight at a picnic table in Battersea Park while a member of her omnipresent security detail hovers a few tables over. She’s not wearing the bright headscarf she normally has on for public or formal events, but still a few passersby recognize her. They smile and keep their distance.

People tend to view Yousafzai as if she were Yoda: wise, aphoristic, superhuman.

“They’re not necessarily wrong,” says Vee Kativhu, Yousafzai’s best friend from Oxford, and a YouTuber and education activist. “They’re right in the sense that she’s amazing; she’s a force to be reckoned with. She’s a change-maker, and she’s helping so many people around the world. I don’t think people understand to what extent she’s really doing the work.”

Kativhu says that what people don’t see is the funny, down-to-earth girl who tells the worst jokes. “She thinks she’s hilarious, which does make me laugh,” Kativhu says. “But her jokes are dad jokes.”

Yousafzai left Birmingham, her home of 10 years, earlier this year to make the move to London, which is more convenient for her work with Extracurricular and her advocacy organization, Malala Fund. It’s closer to Heathrow and Gatwick airports — handy for all her international travel. There’s also the fact that she and Malik needed some space from her parents in their first year of marriage.

Yousafzai’s eyes shine when she speaks of her husband. Their headline-grabbing nuptials in November came as a shock to her supporters, as she had expressed her wariness of marriage just months prior, telling British Vogue, “I still don’t understand why people have to get married. If you want to have a person in your life, why do you have to sign marriage papers? Why can’t it just be a partnership?”

Those comments became a “controversial topic,” says Yousafzai, but she had genuine concerns. “In the society and community that I come from in Pakistan, marriage meant more compromises for women,” she says. “Many women were expected to give up their jobs, to give up their education. Even though I knew things may not be as challenging for me because of my education and what I’ve built for myself, that fear was still inside me.”

“I’m not sure there is anyone who knows the struggle and the value of an informed and educated life more than Malala Yousafzai,” says Angelina Jolie, a mentor to Yousafzai for the past 10 years. “She fought for hers, nearly losing her life. She fights for others and now will be supporting film projects that contribute and share important narratives.”

Of course Yousafzai hasn’t compromised her work or lifestyle for Malik, a cricket industry professional whom she met through friends at Oxford in 2018. She did surprise herself, though, by getting married at 24. “For me, it was finding the right person who would support me in the work that I do,” she says. “And his presence makes me feel over the moon. I feel so much joy. And that has been my life since I met him.”

UTA partner Darnell Strom, Yousafzai’s agent since she was 16, compares the strategy for Extracurricular to what Barack and Michelle Obama have set up with their production company, Higher Ground. That company, which has a deal with Netflix, won the 2020 documentary feature Oscar for its film “American Factory,” and has produced features like the Michael Keaton-led “Worth” and the children’s series “Ada Twist, Scientist.”

“The Obamas were definitely examples of people who came from outside the industry traditionally but were also great storytellers and had this kind of international reach,” says Strom, who helped create the Malala version. “She was 22 when she started the company,” Strom says, “and there hadn’t really been that example from a Gen-Z perspective. I think what Apple saw was that Malala is one of the few people who is cross-generational in her reach.” That is, parents are inspired by her, and so are their kids. “She’s a young example of someone who has done something to try to help change the world,” Strom says, “which is very important to the younger generation.”

Zoe McConnell for Variety

At Berlanti Productions, Erika Kennair was busy working on “The Flight Attendant” when she received a call from UTA about Extracurricular. “They said Malala was starting a company and that she’s looking for somebody to run it,” explains Kennair. “At first, I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m your gal; I’m doing a show about an alcoholic flight attendant and a stalker.’” The agency simply said, “‘Talk to her. You’re going to be surprised,’” Kennair recalls.

At their meeting, Yousafzai spoke at length about some of her favorite shows at the time — adult animated sitcom “Rick and Morty” and Netflix comedy “Sex Education.” Kennair was stunned. Yousafzai told her that she wanted to make those kinds of programs, with a rich diversity at the heart of them.

“I’m a Cuban woman,” says Kennair, “and a lot of the time, shows about people of color — and particularly women of color — are very trauma-focused. It’s not about iconic personalities and characteristics; it’s more about the things put on people.”

Yousafzai, says Kennair, does not want to be known for the worst day of her life. Instead, she wants to be defined for all of who she is and what she does, both good and bad. But Yousafzai’s brand comes with certain assumptions — that the company will focus on only documentaries; that all the shows will be serious; that the entire slate will be G-rated. Upon launching, Extracurricular received submissions of “the world’s most depressing books,” says Kennair, when, in fact, the company was looking for work that would inspire viewers to get off their couches and do something.

The deal with Apple, which was born out of CEO Tim Cook’s longtime friendship with Yousafzai, does require a certain type of project that’s a “fun, surprising story that brings people together,” says Kennair, but also has “four-quadrant prestige.” Kennair says, too, that there’s room for “juicy stories” and even some darkness. “Malala,” she says, “has probably the darkest sense of humor I’ve ever encountered.”

Indeed, Yousafzai’s wide range of interests and nuanced personality is mirrored in Extracurricular’s first set of projects. The slate includes a feature documentary with A24 about South Korea’s matriarchal Haenyeo society of elderly fisherwomen, currently in production; a scripted series based on Asha Lemmie’s coming-of-age novel “Fifty Words for Rain,” about a woman’s search for acceptance in post-World War II Japan; and a feature film with “Don’t Look Up” director Adam McKay and his production company, Hyperobject, based on Elaine Hsieh Chou’s book “Disorientation” — a satire about a college student’s revealing dissertation about a young poet.

“What I hope to bring to the table are the voices of women of color,” says Yousafzai, on the park bench in the shade, “and debut writers and Muslim directors and writers. I hope we can have a wide range of perspectives and that we challenge some of the stereotypes we hold in our societies. And I also hope that the content is entertaining, and that people fall in love with the characters and have the best time together.”

Yousafzai does not like to dwell on her past. So when the discussion turns to the circumstances around her evacuation from Pakistan, she says, with a wave of her hand, that “the story is there in my book.” But an important anniversary is looming: On Oct. 9, it will be 10 years since she became, at 15, a survivor of a ruthless assassination attempt on a child by the Taliban.

In 2012, the Afghanistan-headquartered group, which had slowly been stripping women of their civil liberties in the region, targeted Yousafzai for her father’s activism — at the time, he was operating the Khushal School for girls in Mingora. So they shot Yousafzai in the face while she was riding the bus home from school. She was flown to England for lifesaving emergency treatment and has been there ever since.

She makes a point of saying she’s not, technically, a refugee. Her family received visas to enter the U.K. But they didn’t choose to uproot themselves from their home in Pakistan. “It was unplanned,” she says. “I was unconscious — in an induced coma — when I was brought to the U.K., so I don’t even remember it. I remember my last day of school in Pakistan, but I don’t remember anything from what happened in the school bus till when I woke up in a hospital in Birmingham.”

All she recalls is being grateful to be alive.

Britain has embraced Yousafzai and her family. Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium erupted in cheers when she emerged to make a rousing speech at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in late July. But there’s an unmistakable incongruity between Yousafzai’s ambassadorship for Britain and the country’s humanitarian track record. Britain, after all, is the same nation that’s trying to send asylum seekers arriving in the U.K. to Rwanda on a oneway ticket.

The very mention of the Conservative government’s controversial hard-line policy, which is stalled due to legal challenges, sends a shadow across Yousafzai’s otherwise measured face. “I hope that the U.K. is kinder to refugees,” she says. “I hope the U.K. is kinder to people who leave their homes because of dreadful, inhumane situations, and I hope they realize this is not something that they would want to happen to themselves.”

Her message has always been that we should hear the stories of refugees. “When I go to a refugee camp and meet them, my goal is not to be their ambassador or representative — they can speak for themselves. My goal is only to bring attention so that the camera is shifted towards them.”

In her book, “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban,” Yousafzai hints at a future in politics, and maybe even someday returning home to Pakistan as a leader. At Oxford, she completed a degree in the university’s prestigious Politics, Philosophy and Economics program — the same course that has produced at least four British prime ministers.

“I don’t want to get into British politics for sure,” she says, speaking a little louder to be heard over the labored wheezing of an English bulldog that shuffles past. “This activism for girls’ education and gender equality is already a form of getting involved in politics. So I’m not sure if I’ll become the prime minister of a country.” Still, she adds, “We’ll see in the future.” After a beat, she says mischievously, “Maybe that is also a political answer.”

Styling: Karen Clarkson/The Wall Group; Hair and Makeup: Caroline Barnes/The Wall Group; Manicure: Chisato Yamamoto/Caren; Set Design: Lisa Engel/Propped Up; Dress and boots: Stella McCartney; Scarf: Dar Al Hijab;