For most of her film career, Las Vegas native Jillian Bell has been the comedic equivalent of a coked-up grizzly bear in a sushi bar — bursting in and causing unimaginable chaos before beating a hasty retreat, leaving onlookers buzzing about what, exactly, it was they just witnessed.
She’s had small but gloriously over-the-top roles as a violent drug dealer (2014’s “22 Jump Street”), a gun-wielding pimp (2016’s “Office Christmas Party”) and a meth-loving school teacher (2017’s “Fist Fight”).
As an up-and-coming actor, Bell couldn’t have asked for better exposure, but those parts didn’t exactly scream “relatable.”
“They’re out there, and they’re odd, and they’re delicious,” the 35-year-old Bishop Gorman grad says. “But they’re very different from playing a role like this that comes from a very raw, grounded place.”
‘This is a big one’
“This” is Brittany Forgler, the New York City party girl at the heart of “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” who visits a doctor looking to score some Adderall only to be told her health is in grave danger and will continue to be until she drops at least 45 pounds.
The aspirational film, opening Friday in theaters nationwide, is a showcase for Bell as she mines real human emotions while Brittany struggles with her body image, her relationships and the psychological toll that can overpower a person once they lose what she notes in the film is the weight of a Siberian husky.
The Sundance hit marks Bell’s first leading role on the big screen and her first time executive producing a movie.
“This is a big one,” she says. “I’m in every single scene of this film. … For this, you have to really put yourself out there, and I did. And I’m so thankful that no one has said anything that’s been soul crushing.”
Aside from the physical training that helped Bell lose 40 pounds — 29 before filming began, 11 during production — “Brittany” presented an even more daunting challenge: letting moviegoers see behind the sassy, aggressively foul-mouthed facade she’d mastered. “I was terrified about taking it on,” Bell admits.
The character still deflects with humor. “I applied to get a dog from a kill shelter,” Brittany says at one point, “and they told me I couldn’t give it the kind of future it deserves.” But when she finally musters the courage to take the first few steps toward changing her life with a run, Brittany eyeballs herself in the fun-house-mirror reflection of a sidewalk hot dog cart and is reduced to tears.
The moment is devastating.
“Actors are very vulnerable human beings for a living,” Bell says, “so to hear that people think I didn’t do a terrible, terrible job makes me very happy.”
Far from it.
“Brittany” was one of the biggest feel-good surprises at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Before it received the fest’s coveted Audience Award, Amazon delivered a massive $14 million to acquire its distribution rights.
The “Brittany” sale was eclipsed this year only by the $15 million New Line paid for the Bruce Springsteen-soundtracked coming-of-age story “Blinded by the Light.” For comparison’s sake, in 2016, “Birth of a Nation” sold for a record-shattering $17.5 million. The previous second-biggest sale had been “Mudbound,” which Netflix bought for $12.5 million the following year.
Bell remembers screaming and crying on a Los Angeles freeway when she got the call from writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo telling her “Brittany” had been accepted into the festival. Few things during the surreal whirlwind that has been her 2019 — including co-hosting an hour of her sister’s favorite show, NBC’s “Today,” last month and making sure she got to be on camera — have topped the night of the film’s unveiling in Park City, Utah.
Following the “Brittany” premiere party, Bell rolled into her Airbnb about 1 a.m. to find her family and friends were still up waiting for her.
“We just all sat around in our PJs, laughing and talking about what a wild experience it was. … I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life. The people I love the most surrounding me and us all just really taking it in together.”
Ready for new opportunities
Bell is nearing the end of her own marathon.
“Brittany” filmed in 2017, including scenes during the actual New York City marathon, a first for any feature film. As an executive producer, she started working on the movie seven months before production began.
Bell has been promoting it seemingly ever since Sundance and has been putting off new projects until after the European press junket.
“I would love at some point to try directing,” she says of her plans. “But I feel like this is definitely going to open up new opportunities for me.”
One of those might finally be that remake of “Splash” she sold, with her in the Tom Hanks role and her “22 Jump Street” co-star Channing Tatum as the merman, all the way back in 2016.
“I had it pop up in my Facebook feed as a memory from, like, 85 years ago,” Bell jokes, but she swears it’s still happening.
She’s excited to see what comes next now that she’s shown Hollywood a different side.
But that vulnerability, something she’d never tapped on-screen, isn’t far from the surface.
“I’m always just hoping that the next project I do won’t be the one where somebody says, ‘You know what, Bell? You went too far with this one. You opened yourself up, and none of the goods were actually good.’ ”
Following her Hart
Jillian Bell is headed back to television.
At least her voice is.
The actress stars as moody, purple-haired teen Violet Hart — who lives in her family’s “office nook slash my bedroom slash art studio slash pantry and general store slash the junk drawer where I sleep” and uses a bulk package of paper towels as a chair — on the Southern-fried animated series “Bless the Harts” (8:30 p.m. Sept. 29, Fox).
The role is a reunion with “Harts” creator Emily Spivey, with whom Bell worked as a writer during the 2009-10 season of “Saturday Night Live.”
“Emily Spivey was sort of like my Mama Bear at ‘SNL.’ She definitely looked out for me,” Bell says. “We’d have nights where we would just go and have a drink in her office and chat about what we were trying to accomplish and all of our dreams. She’s always made me laugh. Her voice is so distinct and hysterical.”
“Bless the Harts” boasts even more “SNL” connections, with Kristen Wiig voicing Violet’s mother and Maya Rudolph as her meme-obsessed grandmother.
“I’m just madly in love with both of those women,” Bell says. “I mean, they’re my icons.”