With outrageous roles in “22 Jump Street,” “Office Christmas Party” and this weekend’s “Fist Fight,”Jillian Bell has made a career out of pushing boundaries.
In “Fist Fight,” for example, she portrays high school guidance counselor Holly, who has a meth problem, tries her best to seduce a student and just wants to defecate in the swimming pool.
It’s a comedic style the 32-year-old Las Vegas native began exploring shortly before graduating from Bishop Gorman in 2002. During a night of one-act plays, followed by an improv show in front of friends and family members, the students found out they would be allowed to utter a mild swear word onstage.
“This is coming from a Catholic high school. There’s priests there. There’s nuns there,” Bell says, still sounding surprised by the freedom. “And we were so excited. You know, it’s kind of edgy. We can say this curse word onstage. And someone put it out there, they said, ‘Who is gonna be the one who drops an F-bomb?’
“And I was, like, ‘I’ll do it. Who cares?’ And I said it, and the air went out of the room. No one laughed at it. And I remember such panic and regret. And afterwards, my dad who (was) the sweetest, loveliest person of all time, was shaking his head. And my mom was walking around apologizing to all the teachers. So I guess I’ve always been a little into the danger of what’s too far in the comedic world. But it’s fun, you know? It challenges us.”
Bell’s comedy instincts developed at an early age when she tried to make her parents laugh to avoid a timeout. “And it worked,” she says. “And then I got less of a punishment. So I think I realized that there are benefits to being a comedian at a young age.”
Some of that sense of humor, no doubt, came from her late father, Ron, an advertising executive. “When my mom (Tanzy) and dad met,” she says, “he had a lampshade on his head because he was partying.”
Ron and Tanzy set Bell on her career path at the tender age of 8 when they enrolled her in an improv class. “I definitely knew from a very young age that I wanted to act, that I wanted to be a comedian,” she says. “But those classes were the first time I was like, ‘Oh, this could be something.’ ”
To help her explore that something, Bell’s sister Breanna moved to Los Angeles ahead of her and became an agent so Bell would have a support system when she arrived after high school. The sisters are in the process of starting a production company and a small clothing line. “And we live together,” Bell says. “It’s a lot, but it’s not a lot for us, because we’re, like, total best friends.”
Not long after arriving in L.A., Bell took in a show by The Groundlings, the improv troupe famous for churning out alumni including Paul Reubens, Phil Hartman, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy.
“I was blown away,” she says. “It was like I was seeing ‘SNL’ live right in front of me. And I wanted to be a part of it.” Bell started taking classes at 18, level by level, eventually making it into the Sunday Company, which offered the chance to perform weekly, when she was 24 or 25. “It just takes awhile,” she explains, “but it’s worth it. It taught me everything I know today.” Among her classmates was former “Saturday Night Live” star Taran Killam, who’s now starring as King George III in “Hamilton” — and no, she probably still can’t get tickets.
A writing gig on “SNL” followed, as did a memorable appearance on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s bare-midriffed assistant. She found roles in the Paul Thomas Anderson movies “The Master” and “Inherent Vice.” And she co-starred on the Comedy Central cult hit “Workaholics,” as Jillian Belk, before co-creating and starring in Comedy Central’s “Idiotsitter” in which she plays the idiot.
“I’m very much a perfectionist when it comes to working, and I think there’s something great and totally freeing about having something written like ‘Fist Fight’ and coming in and being able to play with everybody. And the script is already in a great place and being able to riff off of that,” she says of her specialty as a hired gun who can jump in, steal a few scenes and get out. “But there’s also something really enjoyable to me to get to create something from nowhere. Page one there’s nothing, and then, after a few months, you have a whole world that you’ve created.”
A few versions of the poster for “Office Christmas Party,” in which she played a drug-dealing pimp named Trina, featured Bell’s name above the title — along with those of almost every actor in the movie. But “Fist Fight” is the first poster that truly puts her in a starring role, behind only Ice Cube, Charlie Day and Tracy Morgan.
“I was completely shocked,” she says of seeing the poster for the first time. “It’s a crazy moment. I asked the director if he was sure it wasn’t a mistake.”
Bell’s life is only going to get crazier from here.
“Rock That Body,” in which she co-stars with Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon and Demi Moore, is due out June 16. And she sold a remake of “Splash,” with her in the Tom Hanks role and Channing Tatum as the merman, to Disney.
So when did she first realize that she was making it in Hollywood and that she could really earn a living at this?
“I mean, I feel like those are two different questions,” Bell says, humbly. “Because I definitely feel like now I’m making a living off of this. But I also feel like, every day, I’m not completely, 100 percent sure I’m making it.”