Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Comedic actress Jillian Bell plays the title character in the new film Brittany Runs a Marathon.TONY CENICOLA

Jillian Bell is a character actress, and not of the Margo Martindale variety. In her memorable supporting turns over the past decade in mainstream comedies and the FX series Workaholics, she’s played a lot of tough customers, including a woman whose drunken debaucherous behaviour at a bachelorette party accidentally kills a male stripper (Rough Night), a gun-wielding female pimp who tells her client she’ll be waiting at Whole Foods (The Night Before), and a snide college student who ends up shoving a gun at Jonah Hill’s face, while making fun of his advanced age (22 Jump Street).

“I play a lot of odd women,” says Bell, calling from New York during a publicity blitz for her Sundance Film Festival breakout, Brittany Runs a Marathon, which shows a vulnerable side of the actress and comedian. “Someone today told me, ‘There’s always an aura of danger about you,’ and I thought that was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.”

A former staff writer for Saturday Night Live, Bell grew up in Las Vegas with a dream of becoming a comedic actress. So she stayed home on Saturday nights to watch the cast members for whom she’d later write material, and she attended improv classes taught by her eventual co-worker, Jason Sudeikis. After joining the famed improv troupe The Groundlings in the mid-2000s, Bell auditioned for Saturday Night Live as a performer, but landed a coveted writer’s room position in the 2009-10 season. While working on the show, she says she felt afraid to pitch and perform her own material.

“When I was on the show, I didn't write anything for myself,” says Bell. “There was one time that I performed something I wrote, but it was too hard, actually, and I didn't do it again. I think I liked to save sketches, just in case there was ever a time I would be lucky enough to get to host. That's a real dream of mine.”

After years of being the funniest and most absurd performer in a movie, Bell finally has the star vehicle to make her hosting dreams come true. At Sundance this year, her low-budget independent film sparked a bidding war, resulting in a US$14-million sale to Amazon Studios.

In a slew of late summer superhero movies, an intimate indie film about a woman trying to change her life through running might seem like a crazy risk. But Brittany is a surefire crowd pleaser, thanks to a moving, perceptive screenplay by the film’s writer and director Paul Downs Colaizzo, who based the story of the film on his own best friend, Brittany, who went from a depressive couch potato to New York City Marathon runner.

Open this photo in gallery:

As Brittany, Bell is a hard-partying, erratically employed 28-year-old who tries to lose 55 pounds then sets a goal of running the New York City Marathon.TONY CENICOLA/The New York Times

The slightly more fictionalized film starts small with Bell playing a character in her arsenal: a woman who is loud, abrasive, unemployed, slovenly and in pain. Slowly, she begins to transform her life when she commits to running a single New York block. This initial spark becomes a raging fire as Brittany becomes an avid runner, eventually planning to run the city’s marathon. But change is hard as she battles her own internal struggle with self-hatred and trauma, as well as the expectations of people (such as her toxic roommate) who can’t accept seeing Brittany in a happier, healthier place.

While weight loss is often positioned by Instagram influencers and mainstream media as a catch-all solution for perfect happiness, the movie understands it’s the unhealthy thought patterns and toxic relationships that will kill you, not your carb consumption. With her vulnerability and physical comedic chops, she tackles both hilarious comic set pieces and tough emotional breakdowns. She even lost 40 pounds to mirror her character’s physical transformation in the film, although Bell admits her emotional journey was harder.

“I wanted to do this project immediately, but I was scared,” says Bell. “There’s parts of this film where I’ve said, 'Oh I’ve said that about myself, I’ve experienced this kind of toxic friendship, or I put myself in this situation that I shouldn’t have.’ Paul did such a great job of showing what it’s like to be a real human being – the ups and downs and the flaws and the joys that come with deciding to make such a big life change.

“So I was looking forward to it, but I was also stressed that I would be the thing that ruins this beautiful film. I related and that was the thing that scared me and pushed me to play the lead.”

Now with a Sundance-lauded star vehicle in theatres, Bell says she wants to be open to everything that comes her way, although there are a few roles she might say no to.

“I will say that I’ve probably been offered a woman who loves her cats over and over again,” she says. “Usually when you do one thing and it doesn’t go poorly, people will want to send you a script that’s very similar and it’s hard because you don’t want to let an opportunity pass you by, but in order to keep it interesting, you have to do things outside of your comfort zone.

“Making this movie was actually my version of a marathon. It was something I hadn’t tried before that I didn’t know if I would fail at, but I wanted to commit to it and go all the way. And I will say: I am so proud of the film that we made.”

Brittany Runs a Marathon opens Aug. 30

Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe