By Chris Azzopardi
Rest assured, I’m not spoiling anything when I say Jillian Bell runs a lot in “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” All that sweat and all those tears aren’t exactly taken from the 35-year-old actress’ life – in case you hadn’t noticed, this is about Brittany and “her” running but it could very well metaphorically dovetail with Bell’s career and the infinite miles she’s clocked to get to her own finish of sorts: a starring role.
For her first lead part in a film, Bell portrays out writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s real-life best friend in his heartfelt debut feature, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in February. When we first meet Brittany, her life is in shambles. Landlord issues, job issues, friend issues, and according to her doctor, a less-than-ideal BMI issue. So, she runs. Short jaunts at first, then longer, steadier stretches. But as she trains for a marathon, Brittany learns that self-acceptance and personal growth aren’t just the result of going the literal distance.
Starring concurrently in bisexual director Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust,” which premiered recently at SXSW, Bell’s credits also include a smattering of comedic TV series like Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” and “Idiotsitter.” Film-wise, she starred alongside Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon in the bachelorette-party-gone-wrong farce “Rough Night” and “22 Jump Street,” her mainstream breakthrough, playing the scene-stealing, deadpanning rival to Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill’s doofus cop duo.
Bell phoned recently to chat about wine runs with a dear gay friend, shooting a scene with Bob the Drag Queen and her commitment to telling LGBTQ stories.
(Chris Azzopardi) In real life, do you have any gay friends who’d run a marathon with you?
(Jillian Bell) (My friend) Kyle would actually be amaaaazing at running a marathon. He would be cheering the entire time. The only thing: He would want to stop midway to just grab a little bit of rosé, which would make us very sick for the rest of the marathon.
Conveniently, he might already have that in his Hydro Flask as you run.
You know the ones that are attached to the hat and you just slurp out of them? That would be Kyle’s situation. But he’d be a blast. We’d have so much fun. We’d probably laugh the whole time.
Do you have LGBTQ friends in your life who’ve pushed you to be a better version of yourself in the way that Brittany’s gay friend, Seth, does in the film?
Absolutely. One of my best friends is Fortune Feimster. She’s hysterical. She is the coolest friend of mine. We did (The Groundlings’) Sunday Company together and then we ended up living next to each other in apartments. Then, when she moved into a house, I moved into a house nearby. I keep telling her I’m stalking her for the rest of her life.
She’s had me on her podcast and we’ve talked a lot about our careers because we’ve both been very blessed to have some great stuff happen. She’s always encouraging me; I’m always encouraging her. And she’s kind of my touchstone of someone who just makes me very, very happy. I think she’s been so smart in her career – the decisions that she’s made and what she’s decided to do and what it says about her – and she’s one of my best friends and I’m a big fan of hers.
I love Seth and how supportive he is of Brittany – but what I really love is that he’s not just the token gay best friend. He also has a whole, full life of his own. Remember when gay characters only existed in films for the sake of the female protagonist? This feels like progress.
I know, I know. This was written by Paul and he is a gay man, and the character he wrote that was basically inspired by his own story is Seth. This is sort of a love story for her of what she went through and how she achieved these goals, and Seth is a very important character in this movie. He’s always so positive and encouraging, and you’re right: He’s seen in the light that is different from a lot of films as the gay best friend. I think that that is such a wonderful and important thing.
And of all the families portrayed in the film, he seems to have the most together, stable family unit.
Yeah, he’s married, he has a kid, and all he wants is to have another kid and get in better shape in his life and he’s doing great. He’s a successful human being and that is important to showcase in film. It makes me really sad when it isn’t and so I’m just happy that our film is a part of doing something hopefully right.
Do you find that gay male directors have a special way or a different sensibility when it comes to telling a female-centered story?
I can only speak to my relationship with Paul and how we worked together, and there were moments where we would just cry together and moments of great strength. And we had moments where we would laugh till we were on the floor. We just had each other to lean on throughout this whole process, and it was a big bonding moment. Not only was he doing this almost for the second time in his life, because it’s about his real-life best friend, but it was his first film that he was directing and that he wrote, so that was a huge achievement. We just had a really strong connection and we both were very passionate from the beginning about this story and how we weren’t sure if people would get it. We’re so excited now that, for the most part, people are understanding what this story is about. That makes both of us very happy.
Before you began filming, you said it was going to be very challenging because of how the movie deals with women’s perceptions of their bodies. But you also were hoping it might be more therapeutic than difficult. Well, you’ve done the film. Was filming this like therapy?
You know what? Both kind of happened. And I was expecting that. Sometimes you spiral out after these things, sometimes it’s therapeutic. It was both, but in a healthy way. It just sort of made me look at my relationship with my own body and how I was talking about myself. I can only speak from my perspective, but sometimes you’ll look at other people, some of your best friends, and think, “Oh, they’re all wonderful and beautiful and lovely and smart,” and then you’ll go home and you’ll say awful things to yourself that you would never say about anyone else. I just felt like this movie hits on that and how society treats you but also how you treat yourself. What it feels like to choose yourself for the first time.
By doing this project, I also felt like I was running my own marathon. I didn’t really want to address (these themes) in either film or television unless it was doing it right, and this is the first film that I read that was sort of a transformation story, but it wasn’t like “girl gets skinny, girl has a better life.” To me, that’s very important to put out there for women and men. I shouldn’t say I’m surprised, but it’s been overwhelming how many men relate to that and how difficult it is when you don’t come out looking like Adonis. It’s a lot.
By the end of her journey, I was weeping. Because – shocker! – gay men have body image issues too.
Awww. I’m so glad you liked the film and you related to it. This is why we did it. I haven’t seen a movie like this in a very long time, maybe not ever, where I thought, “These are real humans, this is a real human story.” There are raw emotions here, and there’s vulnerability in a way that’s so beautiful and isn’t always showcased in film. I just really wanted to be a part of that kind of storytelling.
Your filmography has been very LGBTQ-inclusive. As Alice in ‘Rough Night,’ you were the perfect ally-friend to Blaire and Frankie, played by Zoë Kravitz and Ilana Glazer.
Absolutely! We wanted to get them back together! I mean, how cute is that couple? And they were always fighting with each other and we were like, “You like each other! Get back together!” I was so happy with that ending too, because I don’t think I was around when they were shooting that part of the scene where they end up being back together at the end and I loved the way it was handled. It was so beautiful and real.
Also beautiful: that cameo from Bob the Drag Queen, who was the DJ while you girls danced to ‘My Neck, My Back (Lick It).’
Oh my goodness, Bob the Drag Queen. Amazing! We had a really good time. I think that was our second day of shooting, and I remember I was so nervous because my character was the one that had to know the dance perfectly because she holds onto her college memories for dear life. So, I was in my own head about the dance – and then everybody else was losing their minds over Bob! I was like, “I’m so excited to be working with you too!” We were so thrilled that we got to work with Bob.
While writing for ‘SNL,’ do you recall any LGBTQ-oriented sketches you wrote?
I’m trying to remember. It’s funny: I just did an interview today where they were showing a clip from something that I wrote and it was a sketch called “Your Mom Talks to Megan Fox,” and it was just a mother talking to Megan Fox and how funny that conversation would be. But, actually, I’ll be honest with you: I did not get a lot of stuff on the air (laughs). I don’t remember most of my sketches, but I’ll say this: I don’t remember anything really making it on.
As Cynthia in ‘Sword of Trust,’ you play a lesbian. Is this the first lesbian character you’ve played, and what can you tell us about her?
I’m trying to think if it’s the first lesbian character I’ve played – it might be, technically! I will just say I believe it was originally going to a woman who’s a lesbian – I wanna say that (laughs) – and they called me last minute because she had to go shoot another project, which is very exciting! But I’m hoping I did it justice. We had the best time shooting. Michaela (Watkins, who also stars alongside Bell in “Brittany Runs a Marathon”) and we were … I would say careful. We wanted to make sure they seemed like a real couple and they really cared about each other. I think that comes across in the movie, that they would do anything for each other. It’s really sweet.
As a comedian, are you conscious of what lines should and shouldn’t be crossed when it comes to queer content?
Absolutely. One of my good friends is nonbinary and we’ve been trying to figure out a way to showcase more artists in the LGBTQ+ community. We would love to do something where there’s an actress who wants to work with a new up-and-coming director who is trans, or a nonbinary short film where it’s showing them being the one who saves the day when there’s a plane attack. We are just like, “What are interesting stories we haven’t seen before in making people superheroes or just showing normal life?” Like in our movie, with Seth. Just showcasing more of that.
There was this sort of unofficial questionnaire online, and they were asking a bunch of questions about what they have and haven’t seen in film and television. The amount of LGBTQ people that wanted to be seen but also not killed off immediately was so upsetting to me and it opened up my eyes to the fact that that happens and how sad that is and, you know, if they’re gonna do a remake of “Harry Met Sally,” what is the gay version? I’m curious to see that. I would love to see that. I would pay for a ticket to go see that film because we’ve seen it the other way for so long.
Speaking of role reversal, what’s the latest on the Disney remake of ‘Splash’ with Channing?
Yeah, we’re trying – we’re trying! It’s being written right now. Really excited about it. Anything to work with him again because he is a doll of a human being and, I mean, it would be such a dream come true. I would be playing, basically, the Tom Hanks part, and what is more thrilling than that?
And, to boot, Channing as a merman.
Yes, Channing as a merman! I’m giving the people what they want. That’s what I’m trying to do.
At the very least you’re giving me what I want, so thank you.
Yes, I’m doing this for you, Chris. (Laughs)
— As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.