Health & Fitness

Jillian Bell: What if I enjoyed what I was doing and focused less on how I looked?

The comic actor and former Saturday Night Live writer talks about her first film lead, in Brittany Runs a Marathon, and how the characters insecurities over body image fed into her own experience

Comedy

When Jillian Bell was filmed by a small movie crew running the New York marathon last year, onlookers assumed she was doing it for real. Some recognised the actor, others just clapped and cheered anyway.

The Red Tea DetoxThe Red Tea Detox

Bell, now 35, has spent the past 10 years as a secret weapon, briefly unleashed, in a series of big Hollywood comedies (and a couple of Paul Thomas Anderson pictures). She was a withering bridal shower guest in Bridesmaids, an unlikely pimp in Office Christmas Party and, most memorably, a stunningly insulting and deadpan foil to Jonah Hill in 22 Jump Street. That film was a showcase for Bells particular gift: extra-dry delivery of wildly strange dialogue, much of it improvised.

Jillian makes me want to quit show business and realise I am a complete fraud, said Hill during the press tour, because she is the funniest person I have ever met in my life.

Jump Street took $330m (256m); prospects are rather more modest for her first film as a lead, Brittany Runs a Marathon, about which critical buzz has gathered pace since its debut at Sundance earlier this year. Loosely based on a friend of the films writer-director, Paul Downs Colaizzo, Brittany is a New Yorker in her late 20s, mired in toxic relationships and self-destruction. Attempting to score some prescription drugs from a doctor, she is informed that she is dangerously overweight and urgently needs to lose 40lb (18kg). Brittany pulls on her trainers, steps away from social media and changes her life. She was flawed, and joyful, says Bell. In pain and then hilarious the next moment. She is, she says, unlike anyone she has played before.

Bell
Bell as Brittany.

The film carefully negotiates its way around fat-shaming territory, not subscribing to the idea that life becomes perfect once you achieve your target weight. Brittany realises it was never about losing weight, it was about growing up and taking ownership for yourself, says Bell, who lost about 18kg before and during the shoot; she wore padding for the marathon scenes (she didnt run the whole thing, in fact) because the film-makers were concerned she looked too slim. But we were not going to shy away from how society treats you if you lose weight, and how that can sometimes seep into your own values.

In one scene which Bell says is the hardest thing she has ever shot Brittany is unspeakably cruel to a woman larger than herself. She spoke beforehand to the actor playing the woman, because Ive auditioned for or played a role like hers before and it doesnt feel fun. Does it seem important to play women who arent always dread word likable?

She smiles, likably. I think its important to play women as real human beings. A lot of times the word likable comes up, especially as a writer. They want to make sure that all the women are very likable and I think thats unfair because weve had a lot of male characters who are incredibly unlikable that we root for. Im hoping women start to do that more: play characters who are flawed and make mistakes.

Since the 28-day shoot, Bell has regained about half the weight she lost and feels, she says, more like myself. She is overweight only by Hollywood standards. To anyone else, she looks, sitting in a black jumpsuit on a sofa, a plate of biscuits between us, completely normal albeit wildly pretty.

Yet Bell has struggled with her body image. She wasnt sure if making the film would help, or exacerbate the problem. Theres only so much you can shake off the character. You have to figure out what your own story is. And [after making the film] I feel Im in a much better place. Its still rocky at times, but I try to be as kind to myself as I can. Brittany Runs a Marathon, she says, made her realise how much she beat herself up. What would it be like if I really enjoyed the things I was doing and focused less on how I looked? To look at all the seeds that have been planted in my brain from a very young age of what women should look like, and re-examine those thoughts and see if theyre feeding me or not? And most of them were not feeding me.

Bell
Bell as Brittany.

Still, it must take some deep inner confidence to believe be, as she says, weirdly of the opinion that she wouldnt change herself to better fit into the film industry. Not like Hollywood would change for me, but I just thought if I get an opportunity to show what I can do, hopefully it will be enough. I know that its probably a lot easier if youre going the route of comedy over drama. She has heard some horror stories, but never been advised to lose weight to get work, although she also says there have been numerous casting calls for roles for curvier women that didnt feel they were worthy of love. I was like: I know a lot of women who look like me and they have love in their lives and love for themselves. Where are those roles?

Bell grew up in Las Vegas, where her father worked in advertising for many of the casinos. Little things were odd, she says, like slot machines at the grocery store. She always wanted to perform, going to improvisation classes when she was eight and starting an improv group at high school; her dream, from childhood, was to be on Saturday Night Live.

Bell in 22 Jump Street.

As a teenager, she began to have panic attacks, which continue to this day she had one flying to London. She is eager to be open about anxiety: I would have liked to know when I was younger who was also going through this and that I wouldnt feel as alone. She once had an attack in the middle of filming, she says: I got through it, but it was really hard. I thought I was going to quit, but, thank goodness, I had another job I had already committed to. The people there were very warm, and I was very open about what happened.

Bell moved to LA when she was 18, and worked at a talent agency before landing small roles in the likes of Curb Your Enthusiasm (in the episode The Bare Midriff, as Larry Davids distractingly unclad assistant), and as part of the Groundlings comedy theatre. At 25, she tried out for Saturday Night Live: she failed as a performer, but was signed on as a writer although only for a year. I was disappointed not to have performed on it. But Im a really big believer in the whole everything happens for a reason thing. A few years after that my dad passed away and I wouldnt have been around to spend time with him, I wouldnt have got the dog I have in my life now, [if I had been] stuck in New York for a long period of time.

Plus, she then shot the telemarketers sitcom Workaholics, whose fans included Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast her in The Master (as a woman in Phillip Seymour Hoffmans group therapy scene) and in Inherent Vice (as a weird waitress to Benicio del Toro and Joaquin Phoenix).

Bell has written a film she hopes will start shooting next year, and runs a production company with her sister (with whom she lives). She is also in the next Bill & Ted instalment, and a gender-swapping remake of Splash, in which she will play opposite her Jump Street co-star Channing Tatum in the mermaid role.

Why does she think reboots of those old films are so popular? I think its a simpler time. It feels very chaotic in the world right now, especially back in America and I think people miss the times of not having cellphones and just experiencing the world. A lot of the films in the 80s and 90s really explored relationships, and whimsical things, and things just felt lighter. People need to laugh, she says, more than ever. And people need to feel hope. I think with our movie too, theres a lot of hope in there, and hopefully its inspiring to people. The biscuits on the table remain untouched, and the next day I put on my running shoes.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is released in the UK on 1 November

The Red Tea DetoxThe Red Tea Detox

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/oct/25/jillian-bell-what-if-i-enjoyed-what-i-was-doing-and-focused-less-on-how-i-looked

The Red Tea Detox
The Red Tea Detox The Red Tea Detox The Red Tea Detox The Red Tea Detox

Leave a Comment

You may also like