Published Aug 20, 2019You've probably seen Jillian Bell in wacky supporting parts in Workaholics, 22 Jump Street and Eastbound & Down. Her performance in Brittany Runs a Marathon, however, is a surprising turn from comic actor: she delivers the most intensely dramatic performance of her career to date in the starring role.
The dramedy is so far out of her comfort zone that she felt some trepidation when she first read the script. "My manager sent it to me, and she gave me a warning that I will fall in love with the film, but that it will seem a little scary to shoot it," Bell says. "I thought, 'Oh man, I'm going to have to be very vulnerable, and it feels like a very personal film.' I related to it a lot; in the end, I didn't want anyone else to do it."
Brittany Runs a Marathon is about a woman who aims to get in shape after her doctor gives her some stern warnings about her health. But this is much more that just a body-makeover movie: Brittany is a directionless party animal who uses humour to avoid genuine human connection, and her training regime is as much about regaining control of her life as it is getting in shape. The hilarious wisecracks in opening scenes eventually give way to serious soul-searching in the second half.
With this role, Bell enters a long tradition of excellent comic actors who reveal unexpected dramatic talents.
"Robin Williams is one of my favourite actors," she says, "and getting to see him in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting — I will forever remember how I felt after watching those films. I thought, 'This is a comedic genius, and then he gets to do a dramatic role and he's blowing everyone out of the water.' It's part of being a comedian — you have some of that in you. You can relate to the drama of life."
Brittany Runs a Marathon is based on a friend of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo, and the actual Brittany came to set during shooting. Even though the filmmakers significantly embellished the real-life story, Bell still took pains to ensure that Brittany was happy with her portrayal.
"I was very protective of her, as was Paul," remembers Bell. "My main goal was to make sure that the real Brittany was satisfied with what we were working on."
Having delivered such a moving performance, Bell is eager to tackle even more emotional roles in the future — perhaps even more dramatic than Brittany Runs a Marathon. And if performances like that make her feel uncomfortable, that's part of the point.
"If you go outside your comfort zone, it might not feel great, but you'll feel like you've achieved something," she says. "That was my marathon."