How Jillian Bell Trained for Running and Comedy in ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’

Edmund Gwenn once said, “Dying is easy. Comedy is Hard.” Perhaps he would also say, “Running is easy. Comedy is hard.” Marathon runners might disagree but how many of them tell jokes? Jillian Bell did both in Brittany Runs a Marathon, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. She’s had decades of experience in comedy, but the film required her to take up marathon training too. 

Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs a Marathon
Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs A Marathon | Amazon Studios

Inspired by his friend Brittany O’Neill, Paul Downs Colaizzo wrote and directed Brittany Runs a Marathon. Bell plays Brittany in her first leading role after 10 years of roles on television episodes and supporting characters in films like 22 Jump Street, Rough Night, Office Christmas Party and Workaholics. Bell spoke with Showbiz Cheat Sheet about her career and her new movie. Brittany Runs a Marathon opens Friday, January 23.

Jillian Bell got a young start in comedy

Jillian Bell’s story began before paying audiences ever saw her, let alone TV and movie audiences. She grew up in Las Vegas and found opportunities to be funny there.

Jillian Bell
DAILY POP — Brittany Runs a Marathon’s Jillian Bell stops by the studio | Aaron Poole/E! Entertainment/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

“I think I just always liked making my parents laugh,” Bell said. “I always liked being a bit of a class clown and I really enjoyed getting into theater classes as soon as I could. I took an improv class since I was eight years old in Las Vegas. Mostly because I think my parents were just sort of like oh, where do we put this tiny woman who’s got a lot of energy?”

Jillian Bell turned comedy into a career at 18

In addition to taking improv classes and any theater opportunities, Bell made a go of professional comedy as soon as she was an adult.

Jillian Bell
Jillian Bell | Rich Fury/FilmMagic

“I really liked creating characters and sketches,” Bell said. “I started pretty early. When I moved out to L.A. when I was 18 and started taking classes at the Groundlings. I just enjoyed it. It really makes me happy if I can make someone laugh. Still to this day, it makes me very happy.”

In 2009, Jillian Bell booked TV gigs

Jillian Bell’s first two professional jobs were episodes of TV shows, one long forgotten but the other was legendary.

“The first professional gig I had, I was a costar on a show called Worst Week,” Bell said. “Then the second was doing Curb Your Enthusiasm. It was a pretty crazy second job.”

Jillian Bell enjoyed playing funny roles in other people’s movies

Whether it was 22 Jump Street, The Night Before or Fist Fight, Jillian Bell enjoyed playing the roles asked of her, large or small. 

Micah Stock, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Paul Downs Colaizzo, Jillian Bell. and Michaela Watkins
Micah Stock, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Paul Downs Colaizzo, Jillian Bell. and Michaela Watkins | Araya Diaz/Getty Images

“Oh, it’s always a blast,” Bell said. “That’s one of my favorite things to do is come and pop into a movie and have a good time with the cast and the crew for a couple of days and then bounce out before anyone gets tired of me.”

Jillian Bell used her improv skills in ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’

Jillian Bell said most of Brittany Runs a Marathon was scripted. However, there were a few moments where she was allowed to go on extended improv runs. Pay attention to the scene in which Brittany greets every attendee to a theater.

Jillian Bell
Jillian Bell attends the premiere of Amazon Studios’ “Brittany Runs A Marathon” | Rich Fury/FilmMagic

“There are a couple of moments of improvisational runs throughout the movie but most of that was we’d run it a few times as is and then Paul was like, ‘How wild would she go in this scene?’” Bell said. “ I just was sort of like, ‘Well, I think she would just be distracting a lot and the scene called for her not wanting her boss to fire her or call her out on being late again. So yeah, from there, we just had fun riffing.”

Humor is a defense mechanism in ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’

Brittany is a funny character but some of her humor comes from a painful place. She is making jokes to deflect attention from herself and put up a wall so people won’t get to know her real self.

Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs a Marathon
Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs a Marathon | Amazon Studios

“That character is like the person who lives to tell a joke and puts her humor first in a way where she doesn’t really get hurt,” Bell said. “Especially when there are moments throughout the film where she’s putting on a British accent. We sort of used that as a way for her to escape from who she really is and hide a little bit. 

Jillian Bell had to run for ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’

Then came the physical challenge. While Jillian Bell did not have to run a full marathon herself, she still had to play someone training for one. 

“At first I didn’t have a trainer because I wanted videotapes of how I held my body the first time I started running, because I wasn’t a runner,” Bell said. “I thought that was important for showing the progression in the film of how she holds her own body while she’s running.”

For Brittany’s more advanced scenes, Bell did consult a professional.

“Anything related to the later parts of the film and you see her, now she’s been running a year, year and a half,” Bell said. “Then I got a professional marathon training runner who came and showed me how to hold my body and posture.”

Jillian Bell will next be seen in ‘Bill and Ted Face the Music’

Jillian Bell will still play funny supporting roles in other movies. For example, she’s got some fun scenes in Bill and Ted Face the Music.

Bill and Ted | Orion

“I play a couples therapist and I get to interact with Bill and Ted, which is very exciting,” Bell said. “I just shot that in New Orleans and we had a blast. Getting to see those guys get back into character is something I’ll never forget. I was a huge fan of the movies when I was a kid and now getting to be a part of the third one was mind-blowing.”

Bell is also developing a remake of Splash in which she would play the human who falls in love with a merman. “It’s being written currently so we’re working on it,” Bell said. “I hope it comes out in the next year or so. That would be so wonderful.”