When I meet Jillian Bell for the first time, she compliments me on my Air Force Ones. I tell her I don’t wear heels that much any more, on account that I’m a runner, training for a marathon, with the need to look after my feet, and on that, oh-so apt note, we start to talk about her new film, Brittany Runs A Marathon. I wrote about the film, when it premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival in January, for Runner’s World. Based on the real-life of runner Brittany O’Neill, who was the roommate of director Paul Downs Colaizzo, it’s the story of a woman who overcomes life’s challenges by tackling the New York City Marathon.
Nadia Neophytou: What I like a lot about the film is that the authenticity is there, which is so fantastic.
Jillian Bell: We’ve been hearing that from a lot of runners which makes me so happy. I know [director] Paul’s pleased.
NN: I know when you first started getting into running, you were looking up 5K programs on Pinterest and things like that?
JB: I was looking at ‘Couch to 5K’ because I was like, ‘how do you start?’ It is one block at a time, which is sort of the message of Brittany Runs a Marathon.
NN: When you were transitioning into being a runner, what was the hardest thing for you to get your head around?
JB: I think it was just convincing myself. It’s such a mental game that I didn’t realize, you can convince yourself to keep going. You’re not actually tired, your body, your brain is saying, ‘well that’s enough, you did plenty for the day.’
NN: And you wanted it to be right, so you recorded yourself running?
JB: Yes, my sister filmed me going on different runs and I was kind of looking at how I was holding myself and holding my body, and my fists too tight and I was wearing the wrong shoes — all of it was not working. (laughs) I was actually running one time and I was wearing the wrong kind of sweatpants, which were not great to run in. And they were falling down the entire time, and I was just holding them at one point and just swinging with the other arm. But you learn.
NN: That’s one of the things I love about this film, you don’t just make the decision to do something and it naturally works out. That’s not life, that’s not running.
JB: Yes, it’s not just, ‘oh, she’s really good at it and her life comes together perfectly’ and that’s the end of the film. It’s a very different kind of a story, especially for a transformation type film.
NN: You didn’t have to make that physical transformation yourself but you wanted to go through that experience of training and losing weight?
JB: Yes, I thought it would connect me to the character better. And there were certain parts of the script that I read and thought, ‘oh it’s so funny, I relate to so much of her journey, but I don’t understand why she’s getting upset in this moment,’ and I thought that maybe that would help me connect to it a little bit better. And it did. It informed me what it’s like to plateau for the first time or have an injury and not be able to run as hard as you would like to. I remember I got sick with a cold and flu, I think, at one point, and I couldn’t do my workouts and I was going backwards at times. And I think stuff like that is never really talked about in these types of movies and I just thought it was cool. I thought it was a cool way to tell this story. And Paul did such a great job of focusing on this character and really exploring the ups and downs that come when you make a big life change like this.
NN: And getting injured, nobody really talks about what happens in that time!
JB: Right, what do you do when you have so focused on one goal and it’s all taken away from you like that?
NN: Paul told me there was no rehearsal time, that it was filmed so quickly?
JB: It was our version of the marathon – we were just sprinting through the whole shooting process. I know Paul really enjoys rehearsals, I don’t love rehearsals as much because I feel like you get stale or you tend to do things that you wouldn’t have done if you were in rehearsal. Some things just work better when you are there live and doing it with a camera crew, which sounds so weird, but it really does, being in that setting really makes you feel like you are really in a doctor’s office or you’re really in the marathon. But I think what we did, was we took those 28 days I believe it was, and we just tried to get as much done as we could. We were running from scene to scene.
NN: It’s also great to see you in this role, a lead role, which you deserve so much. We get to see you comedic, but also dramatic. Were you itching for something like this?
JB: I had been. I think I reached out to my manager and agent and said, ‘I am just so lucky to get to do these comedic roles and they are very fun and broad and I really love playing eccentric women, (laughs) but I want to do something that was a little different and go out of my comfort zone.’ And this was something definitely out of my comfort zone. But I really enjoyed doing it and I would love to do it again.
NN: What was the hardest part of the comfort zone part that stretched you the most?
JB: Well, physically, I went through a lot and, emotionally, I also went through a lot. It is true that when you go through a big physical transformation that there’s a lot of emotions attached to that and some of them take you by surprise. They are not always what you think they are going to be. And shooting some of these scenes, some of the scenes were really difficult to shoot. There were a couple in there, definitely near the end that were tougher.
NN: It’s Paul Downs Colaizzo’s directorial feature film debut but it speaks to a woman’s experience in a way that you might not think a man writing it would get?
JB: Yes, I was very surprised when I found it was written by a man. One of my first questions to him was, ‘how do you understand the female and the female brain so well?’ And I think he’s very empathetic and he also had Brittany O’Neill, who is the real Brittany that this story is inspired by, helping him looking at drafts and checking out everything that we were shooting and making sure that it felt authentic, not only to her story, but to a real woman’s story. And then when I became a part of it, I came on as a producer and he was always open to just discussing what part of this doesn’t ring true and what does. And we were always having those conversations.
NN: Well, congrats on the movie. And keep running – if you still are running?
JB: I am!