Jillian Bell Talks ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ and the Importance of Transformation

For many, their late twenties is a time to settle down, for others it is an age where they need that extra kick in the pants to become something. This is certainly the case for Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell), a New York City theater employee and the heroine of “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” who finds herself feeling stagnant and unhappy at age 28. Her initial instinct is to visit the doctor to obtain an Adderall prescription, but she’s in for a rude awakening when he informs her that she must lose around 50 lbs or risk facing health problems.

While Brittany’s first reaction is to feel body-shamed, understandably, she takes it upon herself to make some changes. Unable to afford a gym membership, she decides to start running with the goal of participating in the next New York City Marathon, and what transpires is a rocky two-year journey packed with plenty of humor, struggle and heart. 

Bell opened up to Entertainment Voice about her journey in making “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” which was inspired by the real-life experience of a close friend of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo.

“It was the first movie I ever read that told this kind of a transformation story, where it wasn’t just someone gets thin and then their life is great,” she said. “It’s different, and it’s emotionally very rocky, and she goes through a lot.”

Although she hadn’t ran seriously since she was on the track team in middle school, Bell stepped up to the challenge when she signed on to play Brittany. Surprisingly, what could have been grueling film prep turned out to be quite enjoyable for the actress. 

“It was important for me to do that sort of journey, starting from nowhere with nobody’s help, because I wanted to see how difficult it is, and sort of the way I held my body, because I felt that was important for the beginning of the film, because Brittany starts sort of out of nowhere. I felt it was informative to the script and what we were shooting.”

As they only had 26 days to film, and because they couldn’t shoot the scenes in linear order anyway, Bell and the crew had to be creative. “Actually, for about half the shoot, there were days where I was getting into prosthetics and a body suit,” she revealed. “My actual body is in the film for probably about, gosh, ten minutes. But all of it was handled so beautifully and everyone was very cautious and careful, and it was really a great environment to be around. Our cast and our crew really supported me.”

Still, Bell took it upon herself to get in shape in the days leading up to the shoot, making use of a trainer. “I wanted to go through the exact physical journey that the character goes through in terms of weight, so I lost 40 pounds. I lost about 29 pounds before the film started, and then I lost eleven pounds during shooting, and it really did help me connect to the character better.”

Bell’s dedication paid off, as Brittany is an easy character for the viewer to not only root for, but also identify with, especially young women. Even those who have not dealt with weight issues will relate to Brittany’s other struggles, particularly her toxic relationship with her vapid roommate and best friend, Gretchen (Alice Lee).

“In your twenties and thirties, at least in my experience, you have these close friendships and you realize one day either you’ve grown out of them or they don’t make you feel better about yourself,” said Bell. “Usually the test of a good friend or a good boyfriend is when you’re done hanging out with them, are you exhausted? Or are you feeling like you could go and hike up a mountain? I think that’s a true test of who you should surround yourself with in this life.”

Brittany finds a champion in an unlikely figure, Catherine, her seemingly uptight, wealthy neighbor played with compassion by Michaela Watkins. Watkins and Bell have superb chemistry together, their working relationship going back to their days as performers at the Groundlings and, most recently, playing partners in the indie comedy “Sword of Trust.” It should come as no surprise that Bell herself asked Watkins to be there with her when it came time to take on her first dramatic role.

“She really felt like she would like somebody that she could trust and lean into for the Catherine part because she was going to be so laid bare doing this part,” revealed Watkins to EV. 

Catherine, a woman who is outwardly a model NYC career woman and mother but deep down is battling demons, becomes the perfect foil and unlikely supporter to Brittany, encouraging her in her running and goals. Watkins spoke about the importance of playing a woman who supports other women. 

“The more strong, fortified happy women we have, the better the world is, and I feel like Catherine understands that,” said Watkins. “She sees Brittany and doesn’t see a broken, asshole neighbor. She sees a young woman who’s struggling and has a lot of potential, and cracks the door for her to say, ‘There’s this other avenue if you’re ever interested.’ It’s such a light, soft touch, and only later do we find out that she herself has been to the depths of Hell and is in some ways still in it.”

Also in Brittany’s court is Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an artist-type with whom she eventually finds herself in a relationship. Ambudkar brings his usual charm to this manchild role, although it becomes apparent that Jern is using humor to mask his own insecurities. 

“It is a real relatable story,” explained Ambudkar. “I think everyone wishes they could do something different. Everybody has a project they haven’t started yet because of fear, laziness, lack of time, whatever reasons. I think this movie does its best to treat that feeling honestly and hopefully inspire people to take that first step in whatever endeavor they’ve been putting off.”

Jern and Brittany meet dog-sitting at the same house, and what could turn into a toxic relationship turns into a supportive one, as both are in the same place many people nowadays nearing 30 find themselves in, ready to make changes in order to becomes the people they really want to be.

“I think I have many friendships that were born of [shared experiences],” said Ambudkar when asked if he ever forged a bond like the one Jern and Brittany come to have. “That development of intimacy is really special, and I cherish the ability to do that, where I don’t think I had the ability to do that earlier on in my career and in my life.”

Before she can achieve her dream, Brittany must first reach a nadir, and Bell and Downs Colaizzo deserve props for not shying away from showing her ugly side. At her lowest point, her self-hatred causes her to lash out at Jasmine (Sarah Bolt), an overweight woman she meets at a family barbeque. According to Bell, this scene was just as difficult for her to shoot as it is for the viewer to watch.

“[Bolt and I] sat with each other and talked about how it’s important for the film, and the two of us would never do stuff like this again. We’re going to move on, because we’re more than what we look like and what we weigh. I think that’s a really important thing to address and I think the film touches on it in such a beautiful way.”

That consideration Bell has when it comes to her co-stars has more than a little to do with her extensive resume of sidekick roles. Ambudkar explained how he and his co-stars’ respective backgrounds as supporting players played a role on set.

“We are all very willing passers. That’s how we buttered our bread. So when you have a bunch of us now in leading roles, we still take that mentality of collaboration into these leading roles, and I think the result is that you don’t get that myopic one person is the lead and everyone else falls in line. You get a real, true ensemble with one shining leading woman who does not carry herself that way, and I mean that as a compliment.”

“Only recently have I stepped into leading roles,” added Watkins. “Usually we [character actors] are relegated to these side roles who service these ingénue leads, and I was just so happy to see a voice given to the side parts [laughs].”

Ambudkar went on to praise Bell for being an excellent captain of sorts on set. This is a sports movie, after all. “She was going through so much emotional exploration on this movie, and it was really taxing and trying on her, and all of us sort of followed her lead. [She and Downs Colaizzo] set a tone and we all ran with it. When number one on the call sheet is showing up, positive, prepared, open, willing, vulnerable, my job is simply to meet here where she’s at.”

Bell returned the praise for her co-stars and talked of how she needed to remain open and exposed to tranform into character. “I had to be very vulnerable on set, always. There were days where I was just walking around the [cast and crew], just crying and crying to stay into character… Paul and I, we would have a scene that I was nervous about and people would just walk by and just pat me on the shoulder and keep moving because they know I have to stay in it. Those little things meant the world to me. It was a game-changer being surrounded by people that weren’t refusing to stay in their trailers or anything like that; they were people who were lifting you up.”

All of this leads to the marathon, and Bell detailed what she called a rewarding experience. According to her, these scenes were shot almost guerilla-style during the actual New York City Marathon. “We were shooting with, I think, a six-person crew. When were finished shooting in one location, all of us, me included, were all grabbing pieces of equipment and running to the next place and jumping into a van.”

Inspired by what she witnessed during the marathon, Bell hasn’t ruled out partaking in one herself. “I will say, training for 26.2 miles, your body just tries so hard, I can’t imagine doing that. But I admire anyone that does. Even 5Ks, I’m like, “Good for you.”

Brittany Runs a Marathon” opens Aug. 23 in select theaters.