In the new film Brittany Runs a Marathon, the title character is about to take the quite literal first step in turning her life around, a jog around the block, when she catches herself by the front door. In this moment of hesitation, frozen at the precipice of something—or maybe nothing!—she compulsively worries her thumb over her fingers. It’s not a quirk of the character, though, but rather the actor portraying her.
“That’s the thing I genuinely do when I’m very nervous about something. It’s a weird little tic I have,” says Jillian Bell. “I thought it might be good for people to see a little physicality and the kind of thing you tend to do when you’re about to do something that genuinely scares you.”
The hand tic is far from the only authentic detail from Bell’s life that she lent to Brittany Runs a Marathon (which is out in theaters in limited release on August 23). In fact, she ended up giving more of herself over to the role of Brittany, who is based on a real-life friend of writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo, than any other that she’s ever played before. In order to convincingly convey the struggle of a woman suddenly training for a marathon after floating down the path of least resistance in life, Bell took up running and decided to lose 40 pounds.
“Nobody asked me to do it,” she says of her physical transformation while filming the movie. “But I thought, I’ve never done something like that before. And that’s what Brittany goes through, and I just thought it would help me connect to her emotional state, and it really did.”
Anyone familiar with Jillian Bell’s catalog of quirky characters knows that emotional verisimilitude hasn’t exactly been her forte in the past. She’s probably best known for stealing the show as a weird, sweet officemate in Workaholics, and stealing the show as a weird, antagonistic dorm-mate in 22 Jump Street. She also cocreated the Comedy Central series Idiotsitter, in which she plays a weird, bold heiress in need of a tutor.
Bell’s singular timing and delivery had made her a fixture in comedies but often in small, somewhat similar parts. She was looking for a chance to play something outside of her comfort zone, perhaps even a fully formed human being, when Brittany Runs a Marathon came along.
The script arrived with a preamble from Bell’s manager. She warned the star that she was going to read the first 10 pages and probably be a little unsure of where it was headed, but that she should definitely keep reading because the message is really beautiful, and it’s different than anything she’d ever been sent before. Bell’s interest was piqued. She dove into the script.
Relating to Brittany
Brittany centers around a New Yorker in her late twenties who doesn’t nearly have her act together. She overindulges in everything but ambition, content to be a ticket taker at a local theater and “funniest friend” of an Instagram influencer in need of a sidekick. Then one day, when Brittany feels hungover, heavy, and in vague despair about her general state of affairs, she spontaneously decides to go for a jog, like her neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins), who is always annoyingly out for a run. Somehow, that day’s short jog ends up spurring her on to further attempts at fitness and the goal of running a marathon and, yes, perhaps some self-actualization along the way.
Not only was Bell excited for the chance to play a character so different from her usual range, she also couldn’t believe how much she related to Brittany.
“There are certain lines where I thought, ‘Oh, someone has been bugging my phone, listening to me, and then they made a script about it,'” she says. “It felt like it was more me than not me a lot of times when I was reading it.”
Bell met with Colaizzo, and the pair quickly realized they were on the same page about how to portray Brittany. As they headed into production, they had a lot of conversations about what each line meant, with a special focus on Brittany’s sense of humor. The character starts out cracking jokes all the time, in part because she’s a naturally funny person but also as a defense mechanism to avoid things she’s uncomfortable talking about. Near the beginning, when Brittany’s influencer roommate, Gretchen, toasts her as her “funniest friend,” you can see a brief flash across Brittany’s face that this compliment is actually a complete catalog of what Gretchen feels Brittany brings to the table.
For Bell, someone looking to break away from comedic roles, this moment resonated.
“[Hearing something like that in real life] makes people feel like that’s their worth. Sometimes it makes them feel like that’s their only worth, which is upsetting,” she says. “I could relate to it at times, and I thought it was something I haven’t really seen in a movie.”
In this regard, Brittany Runs a Marathon mirrors the trajectory of its lead character. As it goes along, out of necessity, it becomes less funny. By the time Brittany’s character is deep into marathon training and hits a crossroads with Gretchen, the movie has long shed the laugh-a-minute pace of someone vying to make sure they’re still your funniest friend. In the space where jokes might have gone, there’s soul-searching, a reordering of self-image, and of course, a lot of scenes featuring running, which Bell actually had to do.
Run, Brittany, Run
She had very little experience exercising in the past and did not enjoy it. However, she also knew that the first day of shooting should probably not be the first time she ran during production. Just like her character, she took up running and struggled with it, but she kept doing it. Two months before the start of shooting, she supplemented her runs by meeting with a trainer at a gym and she “probably cried almost every session,” she says, but she kept doing it.
“I decided to see what it felt like to get up in the morning and do a meal prep and put on the running shoes and push myself to do it. And how difficult that could be. I think people don’t often talk about that struggle or the emotional struggle that comes with it,” Bell says. “I was just so tired of seeing the same scenes in movies of, like, girl decides to do something that causes her to lose weight and then her life’s perfect because she’s a size four now. I’m done with that messaging. It’s not healthy for anyone.”
Brittany Runs a Marathon doesn’t shy away from the actual difficulty of transforming one’s self, whether it’s physical, emotional, or career-wise, and the depiction is made searingly real by the experience infused into Bell’s performance.
After wrapping up a role that so blurred the lines between her own life and her character’s, though, the actor emerged on the other side unsure of, well, how to be.
“As soon as we finished shooting, I had this moment where I thought, ‘Okay, well I did all of that for Brittany, now where do I want to be for myself?'” Bell says.
The answer: in a state of balance.
“I still like running. I still like to eat healthy, but not all the time, because I’m a human being,” she continues. “At first, I would beat myself up if I didn’t eat healthy. But then I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you are doing what happens in this movie, you have got to give yourself a break.’ So I try to have a balance now of running and eating healthy and also going out for a night with a group of friends and having a good meal and just trying to figure out how to not beat myself up when I do things that feel good in the moment.”
As the work she put into Brittany Runs a Marathon continues to reverberate through Bell’s thoughts on health and wellness, it has also changed her in one other way: she now has an informed opinion about method actors like Christian Bale, who have a tendency toward extreme weight loss or gain with nearly every performance.
“I think people who do that constantly, like, how are you living your life? Are you okay?” she says. “Because it took a lot out of me, and I don’t know if I’d do it again. Maybe? Maybe if it feels right for a character. For this, it felt really right, and it really connected me to her in a way that I hold very, very dear.”