Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Jillian Bell has a knack for making minor roles memorable. You might mistake her for her reckless and antagonizing Workaholics alter ego, Jillian Belk. Her awkward kiss-fight with Jonah Hill in 22 Jump Street was deliciously epic. And her kindergarten teacher in the bachelorette-party-gone-bad movie Rough Night stood out for being, by Bell’s own account, “desperately horny.”
In Brittany Runs a Marathon, out today, Bell is equally funny and memorable, but she’s also the movie’s star. The Amazon Studios dramedy follows Bell’s Brittany, a twenty-something whose sense of humor makes her a valued plus-one but is otherwise aimless and broke. While failing to score an Adderall prescription from a Yelp-recommended doctor, Brittany (based on a real-life friend of writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo) is gently nudged to lose weight. Rather than committing to an expensive gym membership, she chooses the more economical—and obvious—option of running outside.
After a few relatable, clumsy false starts, Brittany hits her stride, with the encouragement of her two running partners and personal cheerleaders, Catherine (Michaela Watkins) and Seth (Micah Stock). She acquires a newfound sense of potential, which she applies to the other obstacles in her life: her lack of career, her love of binge drinking, her fear of dating, and her toxic friendships. She also discovers what you lose when you decide to take yourself seriously. When Brittany raises the stakes and begins training for the New York City Marathon, running has become a metaphor for putting yourself at the center of your life, being your own advocate.
It’s a journey that Bell—who has excelled at playing the friend/comic relief—related to on a personal level. “[Brittany] is a character that’s usually portrayed as the sidekick who comes and roots on the lead, says a funny line, and walks out,” Bell says of her first leading role. “I’m done with that. What does she have to say? The script really surprised me—it’s a different way of telling the typical transformation story. I’m tired of seeing [a character] lose weight very easily, get size 4 jeans and everything’s perfect. We never see how hard it can be to make that first step.”
Brittany does undergo a transformation that includes losing weight, at a realistic and doctor-approved pace. But by the time she’s (spoiler alert) crossing the finish line at the marathon—in a sequence that will move and inspire even the most corniness-averse viewer—it’s clear that the relationship between exercise and self-worth is more complex than #body #goals. Like many of the projects we take on to become adults, a new fitness regimen involves self-care, sacrifice, and exposing yourself to the risk of failure.
Bell talked to ELLE.com about Brittany, training for the film, and the marathon that is getting through your twenties.
Were you a big runner before the film?
Not at all. I thought, Well, you chose a movie that’s called Brittany Runs a Marathon, so you should probably start running in real life. I didn’t want to get a trainer right away—I wanted to really experience how hard it is to change your life in that way: wake up, meal prep, put yourself out there. Exercising is emotional for me—I feel very much like I can’t keep up with what everyone else is doing. I tend to shame myself a lot. I decided to lose 40 pounds for the role, even though no one asked me to. I didn’t feel like I could understand what she was going through until I experienced it myself.
How did you dip your toe into the exercise game?
I went running and had no idea what I was doing. My sister took a video of me so I could look back at it for reference—I was wearing cropped sweatpants that were falling the whole time and shoes that weren’t made for going longer than a mile.
You’re in your thirties now. What was it like revisiting those awkward years in your late twenties?
The toxic relationship [Brittany] has with her roommate was really difficult to look back on, because I remember that feeling of being in my late twenties and thinking, Wow, I feel really bad when I hang out with, you know, Karen. There is no Karen, but…
There’s always a Karen.
There’s always a Karen! I never feel good after hanging out with that person, and I don’t know if they’re ultimately on my team—I don’t know if they’re rooting for me to win or if they relate in my sorrows. You have to weigh it out and see if you’re happier not spending time with the Karens of the world. Someone named Karen is going to read this and be like, “I’m not bad!”
My pain point would probably be bachelorette parties, but I assume you have a different view on that, having grown up in Vegas yourself.
I feel like my whole life was a bachelorette party. I didn’t have a fake ID or anything. I didn’t go out hard in Vegas until I was actually 21.
What did you do for your 21st birthday?
I was living in L.A. at that point so I went back to Vegas with a few friends. We went to some bars and clubs on the Strip. One of them was Coyote Ugly in the New York-New York Hotel—my friend decided to jump up on the bar and we immediately got kicked out. We also went to a burlesque show at Forty Deuce. Then we got a limo back to our hotel because it was too long of a walk—we were all in heels—and I lost my voice from screaming. I just remember thinking the next day, “We’re alive.” It’s such a cliché. I was so lame.
One of the most surprising scenes in the movie was when Brittany goes on her first online date, and instead of being a creep, the guy is a total gentleman.
He’s definitely a nice guy, but he’s not the right guy for her. It shows how awkward and uncomfortable it can be meeting up with someone and trying to get back into the dating scene. She’s just not quite ready for it. You may want to put yourself out there, but the reality can be shocking and alarming. Sometimes you have to retreat.
Did you ever have any odd jobs like Brittany’s gig house-sitting for a rich family?
I was a dog sitter at one point, which I really enjoyed because I love dogs, as you can tell from the movie. I also worked at Banana Republic at Caesar’s Palace. I did everything: I was a cashier, I folded shirts, I greeted guests. “Welcome to Banana Republic.” That was it, that’s what you got.