Jillian Bell Has Played a Pimp, a Drug Dealer, and a Brawling College Student — but Brittany Runs a Marathon Pushed Her the Farthest
The comedian opened up about mental health, Keanu Reeves, and her most dramatic role to date.
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You could be forgiven for mistaking Jillian Bell for a punchline-generating machine — the kind of improv-bred actor who goes for the joke at all costs — judging by the strength of her comedic portfolio alone. But sitting down with her on a steamy, overcast August day, she delivers neither “bits” nor well-rehearsed soundbites. In fact, it's difficult to reconcile the Bell I meet with the larger-than-life characters she’s embodied in blockbusters like Office Christmas Party (in which she memorably played a leopard print-clad pimp) and 22 Jump Street (in which takes on the role of a college student who fist fights Jonah Hill).
She’s humble, brushing off praise with a self-deprecating remark, and personable, following our interview not with disinterested small talk, but an earnest dialogue about how I'd go about answering one of my own questions: What is one thing I wished more people knew about me?
In her upcoming film, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Bell sloughs off her character actress guise and steps into the title lead’s running shoes. She plays a twenty-something woman (based on a real life, marathon-running Brittany) who, by her own measurement, is falling behind — with her career, her personal life, and personal health. When tasked by her doctor to lose 55 lbs (in her words, "a medium-sized working dog"), Brittany takes up running and decides to train for the storied New York City marathon. But, of course, getting fit is just the pretext for the ultimate goal: getting her life together.
Bell didn’t simply memorize lines for the role; she immersed herself in Brittany’s world, which meant taking up a new hobby (and losing 40 lbs in the process), and going on an emotional journey all her own. “I fell in love with who she was from the page and just wanted to make sure I showed that as best as I could,” she tells me of her self-imposed decision to train like Brittany.
In an exclusive interview with InStyle, Bell talked all things Brittany Runs a Marathon, her inspirations, and, naturally, Keanu Reeves.
InStyle: I know you went on Brittany's weight loss journey with her, and you took up running. So aside from the actual process of running and losing weight, did your experience parallel hers at all?
Jillian Bell: I feel like I definitely struggled emotionally while I was going through both. It's really interesting to be going on that journey and doing good things for my body and working out. I was feeling a little bit good. I don't like the word better, but I was feeling pretty good while I was doing it.
But I'm also memorizing dialogue where she's struggling with how she feels, and so there was always a constant back and forth with what's the character and what's happening in my own real life. But I feel like Brittany was ... going through moments where she felt really good and moments where she was not as confident as well. So I guess in that way it was sort of a parallel.
So would you ever consider running a marathon yourself?
No [Laughs]. I feel like going 26.2 miles — that's a big deal. And I am supportive of people who want to do it and think it's an incredible accomplishment. But I would just be excited to do 5K or a half marathon. That would be pretty cool. I would love to do that.
Going off of that, what's the craziest thing you've ever done to get in character or prepare for a role?
This is probably it. I mean, deciding on my own that I wanted to lose 40 lbs just to experience what she went through and to connect to the character more emotionally, is why I did it. But I have to say hands down, that's got to be the thing I did that was the wildest.
Brittany’s fitness journey is definitely an important part of the movie, but the marathon in question also represents something more — it’s this symbol of personal growth and evolution. Is there anything in your own life that has taken on that sort of significance?
Ever since I was 17, I've dealt with anxiety. I've had panic attacks starting at that young age. And so for me it's just always about how do I make it easier on myself.
When it first started happening to me, I didn't know what was happening with my body. I felt like I was dying. I was in a classroom and I didn't know how to leave. Like I just remember I got up and I think I nodded as if I needed to go to the bathroom, but I just walked out. It feels like you are running a marathon. Your heart starts racing and you don't quite know what to do. And now that I know what they are, I am able to handle them a little bit better when they come at me. I don't have them as much, but I like to meditate and see good friends and eat healthier foods. And even the projects I do, I like to make sure I feel like I'm in a safe environment. But all of it is helpful.
There is a real life Brittany. How did that inform your performance, as opposed to playing a fictional character?
You know, I was sent a video of her by Paul Downs Colaizzo. He's the writer-director, and this movie is sort of a love letter to her. They're best friends. He sent me the video of her trying to raise money so that she could run the marathon. And through that, I got a sense of who she was, and her spirit. And then I didn't end up getting to meet her until we were shooting.
So many of the characters that are in Brittany Runs a Marathon were not in real Brittany's life. So because of that, I think Paul and I wanted to work on creating [a different] character, because so much is affected by the people in your life and the environment. We didn't end up getting to meet until later. But I did still want her to feel proud of it. This was a movie that was inspired by her life.
That must be an incredible feeling.
How cool is that to say my life inspired a film, and is now inspiring other people to do things like sign up for the New York City marathon? I've heard so many people say that they're doing that now and I always like to relay it back to Brittany Neil because that's the greatest compliment you could get.
I loved the depiction of Brittany's friend and this pretty unmistakably toxic relationship with the character Gretchen [Alice Lee]. I feel like everyone has had a friend like that and that sort of relationship isn’t depicted in media very often.
Especially in your twenties. Especially in your twenties. I feel like in your thirties, you at least try to start to get out of that, but it is a big part of your twenties as you sort of realize, well who am I surrounding myself with? And how do I feel after I've hung out with them? Do I feel depleted? Do I feel like I could go run a marathon? It's important to look at your friendships and see who's building you up and who might not be on your team.
Do you think the movie provides a good example of how to deal with that sort of friendship?
I think it at least shows it, and it shows the conversations. You can see how Brittany feels after she hangs out with Gretchen. You can feel like her shoulders rise up or were dropped depending on if Gretchen's letting her down again and if she makes it about her, and if she encourages her to do things that are not within her life plan at that moment. I think all of it is important to talk about. And normally this isn't really in films.
You have this background in improv. How does that affect your scripted roles? Do you bring that?
Usually most of the roles I do are comedic and they ask for you to take a lot of improv. So you sort of get used to, Oh well I'm going to go in and do the script and that'll be fun. And then sort of riff with whoever I'm playing with.
With this, it was very different. Paul is a playwright, and usually for most playwrights the word is sort of like God. They like to stick to the script. So there were only a couple of scenes in the film where we improvised a little bit, but barely.
So you are working on two pretty major reboots right now — Bill and Ted Face The Music and Splash opposite Channing Tatum. Did you have a connection to either of the original projects growing up?
I remember loving Bill and Ted['s Excellent Adventure] when I was a kid. It's so creative and it's great storytelling and those guys are so funny. So I just went to New Orleans and shot my part, and I was there for the first day that they were getting back into character, which was wild to see. I can't wait for people to see it.
And then Splash. If you go back and watch it tomorrow, it holds up. The thing that I love about it too is when I think about Splash, I think about the romance. But really when you watch it, every scene is funnier than the last. It is so hysterically comedic and it's brilliant. But I do love the idea of this sweet love story where it's just two people that have been linked for a very long time.
So speaking of Bill and Ted, there's been this Keanu Reeves resurgence recently. What are your thoughts on this renewed obsession with him?
I think it's probably very odd and funny to him, but I love it. This was the first time I got to meet him, and he is so great. He's like this wonderful human being that is also a little bit of a mystery. But it's great. I mean, who doesn't love that? I think that's why the internet loves him so much. He does very sweet things and offers people a chair if there's not enough chairs in the room. But then you know, he's like an enigma.
Truly. So since basically the beginning of your acting career, you've worked with all these huge names, Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, Kate McKinnon, etc., etc. Has anyone sort of acted as a mentor to you?
You know, it's interesting. I got a chance to work with Catherine O'Hara for a pilot that never went, but when I moved to Los Angeles, I wanted to write her and ask her to be my mentor. And I think I told her that when we ended up working together. I was so embarrassed and didn't want to say anything. But slowly but surely, every day I would ask her, "So you were Beetlejuice, what was that like? So you did Waiting for Guffman, what are your thoughts?" I just wanted to know more and more. To me, she was always someone that I really looked up to. So to get to work with her was huge.
You have this supercool T-shirt line, Neon Witch. A lot of the designs put a humorous spin on mental health issues. Is it important to you to wear clothing that makes a statement?
I honestly thought [they] were cool, first of all, but [I also liked] talking about something important and being able to own it. To walk into a room and say, "Yeah, I have trouble with anxiety," because I do. But to also tuck it into a cool pair of jeans and feel like I've got a cool outfit to go out in.
It's a conversation starter for a lot of people. And it was great because when we put it out I was hoping people would understand the message behind it. And for the most part it seems like everyone has. Maybe there's someone out there who hates us, but for the most part people get it and say, "Thank you. I feel seen and I feel like I can wear something that feels fashion friendly but also says something."
What are you most excited for next?
Oh, I'm writing a movie. I'm working on the rewrite. I've done a few drafts, but I can't talk too much about it, but I will say it's like female driven and I'm very proud of it.
What's a statement you're dying to put on a T-shirt that you haven't yet?
I wanted to make Dateline shirts, but I wasn't sure if I would get sued. I wanted to make like Keith Morrison and Josh Mankiewicz shirts.
That's so funny. How would you describe your personal style?
A little off, but in a fun way.
Which celebrity have you been the most starstruck to meet?
Tim Curry. That's my hero.
Which role do you get recognized for most on the street?
Probably Workaholics and Office Christmas Party. A lot of people know me as a pimp.
What's your favorite item of clothing that you own?
Oh, I got these new black slingbacks from Alexander Wang and they've got studs all around the toe and I just think they're so cool.
If you could only watch three movies for the rest of your life, which three would you choose?
Clue, Singing in the Rain, When Harry met Sally.
What did your childhood bedroom look like?
Oh my gosh. My childhood bedroom had posters all over the wall. I would say 70% was NSYNC. 10% Edward Furlong, 10% Will Smith, and I have another 10%, right? Is that the right math? Who was the last? Oh, New Kids on the Block. Really old posters because they weren't back [together], they hadn't come back when I was in high school, but I was still rocking out to them in high school.
What is one thing you wish more people knew about you?
That I adore a dog. I adore meeting a dog more than anything. Like if I'm blue, just bring a dog over to my house. I already have two, but you know what I mean? Like when I'm shooting on location, if someone brings a dog to set, it's the best day I've ever had.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Brittany Runs a Marathon is in select theaters nationwide Aug 23.