‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’: Jillian Bell’s Dramatic Coming Out Is the Toast of Sundance
The comedy scene-stealer is earning raves for her first leading role in ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ at Sundance. We sat down with her in Park City to talk what it all means to her.
Brittany Runs a Marathon is a fairly straightforward title, as far as those things go. And after the film premiered to a raucous reception Monday at the Sundance Film Festival, audiences followed suit—at least in spirit. The infectious inspiration that swells in the dramedy’s final act is its own cinematic endorphin. I’ll be damned if everyone who saw the movie in Park City didn’t bolt out of the auditorium, lace up their Nikes, and register for a local 26.2-mile race, driven by a hope and a dream and cinematic uplifting. Brittany ran a marathon! You will, too!
Jillian Bell will not be running a marathon.
“Absolutely not,” the actress tells me in a lethally serious deadpan when I ask the morning after Brittany Runs a Marathon’s Sundance debut if starring in the movie inspired her to take on the challenge.
The 22 Jump Street and Workaholics scene-stealer is in the midst of an industry coming-out thanks to her ace work as the titular jogger, her first leading role in a movie and proof that she can nail an emotional scene with as much precision as she snipes her gut-busting one-liners. This is a big moment for her and her career, but her Sundance euphoria hasn’t fostered any sort of delusion.
“I think they’re superheroes, people who run marathons,” Bell says. “I don’t think I could ever do it. I would love to do some 5Ks, maybe a half marathon. But a full marathon I would leave to the superheroes.”
Brittany Runs a Marathon is based on writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s real-life best friend. In the film, Brittany is a hard-partying, underemployed single woman on the cusp of 30 who does things like sleep through an alarm—that goes off at 12:37 pm—and chug red wine instead of water before going to bed.
When she goes to a doctor to try to scam a prescription for Adderall, the doctor warns her that she is alarmingly overweight and that she needs to lose 45 pounds. “I feel you completely missed the point of those Dove ads,” she tells him in response.
Still, his comments strike a nerve that pangs each time she sees herself in the mirror. She scavenges for long-unused exercise clothes in the back of her dresser and sets a small goal: Run just one block. One block becomes several, several blocks becomes a few miles, a few miles becomes a half-marathon, and eventually the goal of the New York City big show. She also starts a strict diet, sets a target weight, and excises toxic influences in her life. “I’m not going to be your fat sidekick anymore,” she tells her roommate and soon-to-be-former best friend.
Producers didn’t ask her to, but Bell made the decision to start training and lose 40 pounds for the movie, the last 11 of which she dropped while filming.
“I’ve gone through so much of the emotional journey of her story, I also wanted to do the physical part of the journey,” Bell says. “I wanted to know what it felt like to go from being someone who hangs out on the couch for fun to training for a marathon and running and the whole physical journey of it.”
She found the process both confusing and transformative, alternately clutching those close to her even closer for support and wallowing in the loneliness and sadness of endeavoring something like this on your own.
Bell speaks about the experience with a carefulness but also a sense of purpose, aware of how delicate the conversation of weight and body image is, but also wanting to say something meaningful that could make a difference to the girls who watch the film and may have felt the feelings she’s felt about her weight. “You go through a lot of different things I think when you’re changing your life.”
Bell was named Most Likely to Succeed senior of her high school. “I’m still driven by that, just so the yearbook remains accurate,” she laughs.
She grew up in Las Vegas, which she acknowledges might sound like an insane experience to people who catch the factoid on her Wikipedia bio but which she maintains was her own normal; it’s what she knew. Her own normal was crazy.
Her sister’s first doctor had an office in Caesar’s Palace. For prom, her class went to see the Blue Man Group. Two circus performers lived across the street from her, a man who shot an arrow toward a woman holding an apple in her mouth. “OK, so there are bizarre things for sure about growing up in Las Vegas, but I loved growing up there.”
When she was 18 she moved to Los Angeles, promising her parents she’d be there for the equivalent of one semester, and never came home. “I auditioned for a Kelly Osbourne music video and was like, ‘I’m not going back. This is fantastic!’’” she once told Variety. She began performing with the Groundlings improv troupe, but worked at a talent agency for six years while auditioning. “My first job was at 24 or 25, which isn’t too late, but it takes a while,” she says.
Her first trip ever to New York City was to audition for Saturday Night Live, invited after Lorne Michaels and then-head writer Seth Meyers caught a Groundlings performance. She didn’t get hired as a cast member, but was brought in as a writer from 2009 to 2010. She soon started to get cast in comedies, developing a reputation as a comedy bulldozer in movies like 22 Jump Street, The Night Before, and Office Christmas Party and series like Workaholics, Eastbound & Down, and Idiotsitters, which she also co-created and wrote.
But Brittany Runs a Marathon was unlike anything she had ever read, or certainly been offered.
“I’ve been wanting to do something different than the big studio comedies,” she says. “It’s very exciting that I get to do that in the first place, but I’ve been wanting to do something that felt more independent. The first time I read it, I was scared of it. I was thrilled by it. I related to it more than any other script I’ve ever read.”
When Bell moved to Los Angeles, she was determined to never be involved in a project that that turned her body into a plot point. At the beginning of her career, she took several jobs breaking that role. “In the beginning I think it’s hard not to, because Hollywood likes to put you in a box,” she says. “Then this project came along and it was the first script I ever read where the story wasn’t a woman gets thinner and her life gets easier and better.”
She loses her words when she talks about the weight loss aspect of the movie and Brittany’s body image-driven self-esteem issues, starting and stopping several times and pausing to consider how she wants to articulate her feelings.
Brittany is a hilarious flare of sunshine, the most fun person in any room she enters, even turning her job as an usher handing out programs at a small theater into her own stand-up comedy venue. But she’s also a person who, once she decides to train for the marathon, becomes obsessively preoccupied with her weight. It’s a major point of the movie, and should be discussed. And Bell wants to discuss it.
“I just read an article that was saying 91 percent of women in America are unhappy with their bodies and diet to try to achieve the perfect body and perfect weight,” she says. “And only 5 percent of American women have the body they hope to achieve. It’s unsettling. It’s very troublesome, and I think it’s something we should all talk about.”
“There is a difference between doing something good for yourself and wanting to be healthy, but I think, for a lot of women, we equate becoming healthy with becoming beautiful,” she continues. “Those are very different things. This movie touches on that.”
One can imagine how complex her own feelings about Brittany’s journey are. She’s someone who has struggled with her own body issues and works in an industry that demands that anxiety stay on an actor’s mind. Starring in a movie that forced her to confront those feelings directly was a complicated experience.
“I think a lot of times we pigeonhole people in our industry because of what we look like and what that equates,” she says. “In making this movie I wanted especially teenage girls to see this film and know there is a difference between someone trying to do good things for themselves and beauty and weight.”
As she talks, it’s visibly surreal to Bell that this breakout moment—her first leading role met with such a positive response at Sundance—is for a performance so personal to her. There’s so much of Brittany she relates to, though she laughs at one major area in which they differ.
For her 27th birthday, she went out all out and reserved a Hummer limo for herself and her sketch comedy friends to make a rare sojourn to a club in. They arrived and were immediately concerned that something was wrong, that something had happened to the club. No one was there. “They were like, you got here too early,” she laughs. “So I’m very much the opposite of Brittany.”
While a marathon may not be her future, there’s still much to look forward to. She has three big comedies coming in the pipeline, and is set to co-star with Channing Tatum in a remake of the 1984 comedy Splash, the twist being that Tatum will play the merman and Bell the updated version of the Tom Hanks role. And the buzz for Brittany Runs a Marathon is so new, she still has no idea what impact it could have on her career.
“I feel like I’m in a really solid place though of just being real about what is all of this,” she says. “At the end of the day I still will go home and lay in my bed and watch Dateline episodes and hang out with my sister. That to me is like real life. All of this feels like a bonus, a very exciting bonus.”