Jillian Bell On How 'Brittany Runs A Marathon' Tackles The One Thing Transformation Movies Leave Out
There are many ways I could start a profile about Jillian Bell and her new movie Brittany Runs a Marathon — and yes, all of them are clichéd. "It's a marathon, not a sprint," is one that could be used to describe Bell's career. "It's not about the destination, it's about the journey," could describe the film's core message that taking care of your insides is more important than the miles in a run or the number on a scale. "Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it," which is something Oprah supposedly said, and since it's Oprah, it's probably right.
I won't begin with any of those things, though, at the risk of sounding like a shiplap home decoration you'd find in T.J. Maxx. But they would all work — just not in the way you'd expect.
I first met Jillian Bell in January 2019. We were at Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where Brittany Runs a Marathon premiered for the first time. It was one of two days Bell felt most nervous about the film, she tells me seven months and over 2,000 miles later in Bustle's New York office. The other "nerve-wracking" day for Bell was the day the film's trailer came out. "I'm not the type of person that looks at the internet a lot, especially in regards to any of my own work," she says, "but that was one [day] that I just wanted to make sure that people weren't getting triggered."
Hollywood has a history of mishandling "transformation movies," or films that suggest being thin or conventionally "pretty" are the answer to internal happiness — which, to be fair, Brittany Runs a Marathon is not. There are movies, such as She's All That, The Breakfast Club, and Grease, that tell the story of a person (probably a woman) who changes her look and is suddenly happy and finds value in her life (or worse, gets the man). So it is understandable for Bell to worry that people may see the Brittany trailer and get triggered assuming it's another movie about a woman who is told to "get healthy," loses weight, and is suddenly happy. But to think that this is that story, again, would be wrong.
"You can't help it sometimes," Bell says about how the previous handling of "transformation" films may alarm some viewers. "Sometimes some people see something and they just get upset, and I've been there before."
Brittany Runs a Marathon tells the story of a millennial woman (Brittany) who is unmotivated and cast by her friends (despite not all of them actually saying it out loud) as the "funny fat friend." Surrounded by seemingly happy people, Brittany compares herself to them, and focuses on what she doesn't have. Her sister and brother-in-law are happily married; her roommate is about to hit 20,000 followers on Instagram; her neighbor is so rich that she has an apartment in Manhattan and uses the much smaller, much less glamorous Astoria apartment in Brittany's building as a photography studio.
You realize she hasn't been working on her insides...
Minutes into the film, Brittany goes to the doctor in hopes of getting an Adderall prescription to help her "focus," but instead leaves with the advice that she should lose between 45 and 55 pounds (or the "weight of a Siberian husky," as Brittany points out) to bring her BMI down to a medically "healthy" number. While Brittany's motivation to transform herself (both her body and later her life) through running starts out "a little bit superficial," as Bell puts it (though it is a medical advisement), training for the marathon eventually turns into something that she's doing for herself — a new and rather foreign concept to her.
But something people don't talk about often enough in movies that surround weight loss and physically changing your body is mental health, which the film actually tackles. For Brittany, the numbers on the scale go down, which she views as an achievement, but she also starts to suffer mentally. "I realized people are going to be watching this and they're going to think, 'Oh, she's getting better,'" Bell told me at Sundance. "That's the word that really upsets me, like when people start losing weight, 'Oh, it's better.' Honestly with this, you realize she hasn't been working on her insides."
By her own accord, Bell decided to mirror Brittany's transformation through exercising and a "strict plan of eating." "I wanted to explore that journey and connect to the character better," she says now. Her own running career, pre-Brittany was "non-existent." "I was kind of embarrassed when I exercised," she notes. "During training I would just start crying because I was like, 'I know I'm not doing it the same way the other people are doing it.' I was beating myself up."
Upon returning home and establishing a new relationship with food and exercise, Bell says she felt stronger from her training — it also played a big part in her stamina while shooting since, yes, Bell did run throughout the film, including during the 2017 New York City Marathon — but also felt "unhealthier" at times.
"I started comparing myself to people, and I hate that," she says. "I had never had that before, by the way."
If you know, you know what Bell is talking about. The comparing to strangers on the street, or pulling your shirt away from your body to see how much room there is (which Brittany does), or the constant critique of your own person. We are taught at a young age to be a certain shape, and when you change your body — whether it be by your own accord or not — it is never snap-your-fingers-and-be-happy. Changing your body, no matter the impetus, comes with a cost. You can feel resentful of the pressure to do so, as Bell did at times. You can also feel alone. "I started to have moments where I’m like, ‘I’m so alone in this,' 'I’m the only person experiencing this,’" Bell told me at Sundance.
Showing the highs and lows of Brittany's mental health throughout the film was important to Bell and director/writer Paul Downs Colaizzo, who wrote the film about and for his real life friend, Brittany O'Neill. Without diving into the degree at which someone's mental health can be affected by transforming their body, films often glorify the idea that the story is lose weight, be happy, end of story. "It's actually unhealthy that we don't talk about [mental health]," Bell says. "One of the things that was most important to Paul and I is that by the end of the movie, I am wearing a little bit of a bodysuit. Not a lot, but a little bit because she shouldn't be at her thinnest," she says, noting it's not always "realistic" for women to maintain their happiness and mental health while also keeping every lost pound off.
It was equally as important for O'Neill, the real Brittany, to see the emotional and mental struggles that came along with her real life journey on screen. "My mental health is very wrapped up in my issues with body image and my own self-worth," O'Neill says over email. "Running and building confidence while changing my body had a big effect on that, both positively and negatively."
When Bell returned home from filming, replanting that seed of "What do I want to feel? What do I actually believe?" with regard to her own body wasn't easy. "It's a struggle. It's a daily relationship I work with," she says, comparing it to a marriage. "I know this is the one for me, but we work on this relationship."
And then there's the other aspect of your body visibly changing — other people are going to notice, too. For "onscreen" Brittany, that means her coworker's boyfriend seeing her for the first time, not recognizing her, and saying she looks like a "whole new person." For Bell, that also meant red carpets and public appearances.
"It was emotional," Bell says about the anxiety of people seeing her for the first time after shooting the film. "It was hard because if people didn't bring it up, I was sort of like, 'I've worked so hard on something you think about it in terms of work...' But then if someone said, 'You look better [than before]...' that's horrifying."
There are more important things to me than what I weigh. It's just not that exciting to me anymore.
In January, Bell told me about a guy friend who, after seeing her post weight-loss, told her, "This is what your body should look like." "I was like, ‘You have no idea how damaging what you just said was,'" she recalled. Another time, someone in the industry told her, "Aw man, I hope you're out there getting laid right now." An alarming comment, to say the least, when you consider what the subtext is: You were probably not getting laid before. "It's so dangerous to equate weight loss and beauty — it's so dangerous."
Before and after photos also surfaced of Bell's transformation. One shows Bell posing on a red carpet, completely glammed up (the "after") opposite a photo from her movie Rough Night, with a slice of pizza hanging out of her mouth (the "before"). "It's so dehumanizing to the 'before' [person]," she says about these so-called before-and-afters. "You spend a lot of time in that body, and as that person. Also, just get a life," she quips. "There are more important things to me than what I weigh. It's just not that exciting to me anymore."
There's a scene in Brittany Runs a Marathon that is so hard to watch, that upon seeing the movie for the second time, I considered skipping it. Despite building what she believes to be the ideal body, Brittany hurts herself — because bodies fail us, which is why it's so important to work on your insides — and is unable to run the New York City Marathon, her end destination. It is a devastating blow for Brittany that ultimately puts her at her lowest and most unstable point. While drunk at her brother-in-law's birthday party, Brittany verbally attacks Jasmine, a "nice overweight woman" as Brittany calls her, who is attending the party with her husband. Brittany says that they make an "odd couple," and that she's just "getting at what everyone thinks when they see [them] together." Her brother-in-law scolds her and tells her to shut up, which is when Brittany goes for the jugular:
"Wouldn't you rather know the truth than walk around with a dumb smile on your face? ... He doesn't love you. You can't love someone that you don't respect."
"I felt sick after that day," Bell says now. After filming that scene, Bell gave the actor who plays Jasmine, Sarah Bolt, her number. "I was like, 'Call me tonight if you want? I'm not going to feel good, I don't know how you feel.'"
It's rock bottom for Brittany's journey. At this point she's lost her job as a house sitter, she has completely pushed her friends out of her life, and is bubbling with so much self-hatred that she takes it out on a woman who, despite her own self-judgment and other people's judgments, chooses to be happy. "I don't know that I'll ever shoot another scene that was as hard as that," Bell says.
Although Brittany the character and Bell the actor are different people, they've shared a life-altering journey together. "I went through a lot, and I think it's important to talk about," Bell said at Sundance. By not talking about the emotional journey of changing your life drastically, we do a disservice of silencing the mental journey and making it all about the physical one.
Days before the release of the film, Bell may be in the final mile of her journey, but there is still a long way to go. She desperately wants there to be a "solve" for growing up with fixations on bodies and size and shapes and weight — something she still deals with today. "I know that's just part of growing up in this world," she says. "At least with movies like [Brittany], it feels like a step in the right direction for women to be able to see themselves." And just like Brittany's first block, sometimes all you need is to take that first step.
Photography by Lauren Perlstein
Hair by Seiji at The Wall Group for Redken
Makeup by Fabiola using Shiseido at TMG-LA.com