Actor Jillian Bell on losing weight and her 'sense of self' for new film

Gillian Wolski
Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
Brittany Runs a Marathon star and executive producer Jillian Bell lost nearly 20kg for her role. Photo: Getty Images.

In Brittany Runs a Marathon Jillian Bell stars as Brittany, an overweight, unfit and immature thirty-something New Yorker who, after a harsh wake-up call and lots of hard work, manages to run as a marathon just as the title suggests.

It marks the debut lead film role for the American actor and former Saturday Night Live writer who has previously played supporting characters in comedies such as 22 Jump Street and Rough Night and TV’s Workaholics.

The titular Brittany, it turns out, is a real person and best friends with Brittany Runs a Marathon director Paul Downs Colaizzo who has described the film as a ‘love letter’ to her.

Life imitating art

Even though the two Brittanys’ first meeting took place partway through the whirlwind 28-day shoot, the women were already bonded by their remarkably similar stories as Jillian explains in an exclusive interview with Yahoo Lifestyle.

Jillian, who is also the film’s executive producer, reveals that she spent the seven-month prep period quite literally following in her character’s footsteps.

“I was running and prepping meals and doing all that [for] half of the day then the other half of the day would be prepping for the film in terms of the dialogue and ... just really getting into the headspace of the character,” she says.

Just like Brittany, Jillian came to running as a complete novice but found her own unique way to inspire her to take that first step.

“I looked up on Pinterest to start which is very silly,” she laughs.

“There was a thing called ‘Couch to Five K’ and it just gives you really small goals that are achievable, because if I would have just gone out for my first run for like four miles I would’ve quit the film!”

Jillian as Brittany before her marathon journey began. Photo: Transmission films (supplied).

Jillian’s weight loss

The similarities don’t end there. In a humorous yet heartbreaking scene at the top of the film, a brusque male doctor instructs Brittany in no uncertain terms to lose 55 pounds or 25kg, which she eloquently equates to ‘the weight of a Siberian husky’.

Jillian admits she’s heard those same words herself.

“I’ve been in that circumstance where a doctor has said, you know, ‘I think you should lose a certain amount of weight’ and it does feel hurtful but it’s also a part of his profession,” she says.

“There’s a difference between a friend telling you you should lose some weight [...] and a doctor saying, I have some concerns,” she adds.

While Jillian is ‘all on board’ with the body positive movement, Brittany Runs a Marathon doesn’t tiptoe around contentious issues such as the fine line between ‘fat-shaming’ and legitimate medical advice.

“I don’t think [director] Paul shies away from anything in this film and I appreciated that. There wasn’t anything where it’s sort of like ‘oh well we shouldn’t dive into that or how society treats you if you lose weight or how men treat you if you lose weight,’” she says.

Jillian and the 'real' Brittany, Brittany O'Neill at the Brittany Runs A Marathon Sundance premiere. Photo: Getty Images.

‘The weight you should be’

This shift in treatment is explored in the recurring motif of Brittany racing to board the subway. When she was heavier, her pleas to ‘hold the doors’ went unanswered but once she sheds some kilos, a male passenger comes to her aid.

Other men start holding doors for her, smiling at her, treating her ‘like a woman’, all the while reinforcing the connection between her worth and her weight.

“I went through the same experience [as Brittany] after I finished shooting this film. I had a male friend who said ‘this is the weight you should be,’” she admits.

All in all, Jillian says she ‘lost about 40 pounds for the role’ which equates to about 18kg and while she ‘learned so much’ from playing Brittany, it didn’t necessarily make her happy.

“After I lost the weight, I came back to Los Angeles and started seeing people again [...] and if they didn’t comment on [my weight loss] or if they did, both I was upset about,” she explains.

Jillian admits she became ‘so focussed’ on how much she had physically changed that she lost a sense of herself.

“I sort of lost what I felt about myself, does that make sense? Like I lost what I thought was special about me and I started just focusing on whether could fit into a tight pair of jeans,” she says.

Brittany mid-way through her transformation. Photo: Transmission films (supplied).

Breaking free

In a scene later in the film, Brittany relinquishes her much-used scales to the top cupboard, and it seems as though Jillian has done the same, at least metaphorically.

“I definitely don’t look at that number anymore and it’s not because I’m necessarily worried about what it will say, I’m worried about what it will mean to me,” she says.

“I don’t want it to mean anything to me and it doesn’t show my actual weight,” she adds.

Jillian mentions the ‘amazing work’ by fellow actor Jameela Jamil who is behind the body-positive Instagram account @iweigh.

“It’s fantastic and one of the things she has is people post pictures of themselves and say ‘I weigh…’ and instead of it being ‘I weight 160 [pounds]’ it’s ‘I weigh my relationship with my sister’ or ‘my painting projects’ or whatever it is and I think that’s beautiful and I think it’s a great way to measure who you are as a human being,” she says.

Brittany with Jern, played by Utkarsh Ambudkar. Photo: Transmission films (supplied).

Lashing out

Just as Brittany appears to be making strides in terms of her emotional and mental health - she’s skipping beers in favour of staying in and kicked her toxic housemate to the curb - it’s clear that her journey is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back situation.

When an injury puts her marathon dreams in jeopardy, a despondent Brittany lashes out at her running friends and, in one particularly ‘difficult’ scene, verbally attacks an overweight party guest.

“It’s a real moment where you’re asked as the audience to empathise obviously with [party guest] Jasmine but also to look at Brittany’s character and say, ‘wow poor girl, she’s projecting onto someone else because of her deep-rooted insecurities’,” she says.

“It was a really difficult scene but if it wasn’t in this film and we didn’t target [Brittany’s] mental state in that moment and how emotionally unstable she was we wouldn’t be doing it service,” she adds.

Brittany pounds the pavement. Photo: Transmission films (supplied).

‘Not a weight-loss film’

It’s because of Brittany’s personal growth that Jillian doesn’t consider Brittany Runs a Marathon to be just about losing weight.

“I don’t look at it as a weight-loss film, I do look at it as a transformation and a lot of people think that that’s just physically but I really think it’s a ‘growing up’ film,” she says.

She’s not sure if the film could’ve been made in this way - and be received as well as it has - 10 or even five years ago.

“I think we’re in a different era, and I’m hoping that more films get made like this now… and it doesn’t have to be anything related to weight,” she says.

“I would love to see different kinds of people play the leads of films and tell their stories and show their struggles [as] people relate to that,” she adds.

So, does Jillian have any final tips aspiring runners, aside from searching Pinterest?

“Listen to something good in your headphones. I had like, Pitbull. I had a lot of Pitbull. It’s like, just him telling you that you can do anything you set your mind to,” she says.

“He also tells you to go to the club a lot. But I didn’t do a lot of the club part,” she adds laughing.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is in cinemas on October 31 and Amazon Prime on November 15.

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