BWW Exclusive Interview: A Reflective Conversation With Kind and Talented Actress Jillian Bell from 'Brittany Runs a Marathon'
Talented actors are frequently labeled with being an "overnight success." The idea of arriving in LA on a Greyhound bus and walking right into a feature film role is one of those urban myths that keep millions of people coming to Hollywood. Hard work, rejection, depression, anxiety and uncertainty are frequent hurdles that can whittle down even the strongest marble. The traits that make for a successful acting career are true talent, tenacity, and being good to people around you. Jillian Bell is such an individual. Her successes have been growing like comedy kudzu as a result of her bright spirit and comedic brilliance. Bell consistently shines in her memorable performances in feature films, animation, and multiple series regulars on television. She has been working and booking like a champ since the early 2000's. Just a fraction of her work includes "22 Jump Street", "Curb Your Enthusiasm", "Workaholics", "East Bound and Down", Her own show "Idiotsitter", the new FOX Sunday night comedy "Bless The Harts", and a comedy filmed in Birmingham, "Sword of Trust." Some of her heavily anticipated films are "Bill and Ted Face The Music", and the gender-switching remake of "Splash."
As this year comes to an end, Bell's 2019 triumph is "Brittany Runs a Marathon", a touching film that showcases her dramatic relatability that touches the viewer's heart. Based on a true story, the film follows the evolution of a young woman living in New York City who is deep in a rut, both physically and mentally. She chooses to better her life by running. Taking one step at a time, Brittany gains stride and motivation from her support and herself. The strength of a positive spirit resonates heavily with the audience. The film is available on Amazon Prime and well worth watching for her emotional resonance in the lead role.
Bell's comedic brilliance rings strong with tones similar to Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, and Madeline Khan. Her skilled approach in delivering characters with an abundance of hilarious nuances but grounded in the real world provides for memorable work. Far from an overnight success, Jillian has been working hard her whole life to bring the laughs. Over ten years ago while living in LA, I had the privilege to be in a collective of sketch comedy artists with her. We all were hungry to put up original shows. She stood out then as incredibly talented but also genuinely kind to all. It's of no surprise that she got accepted into the iconic comedy school, The Groundlings, and later hired as a writer at "Saturday Night Live." Her career has been running forward ever since. Bell and her sister Breanna are also owners of their own fashion company, Neon Witch. Recently I was able to catch up with Jillian and chat over the phone about her journey so far in comedy and her life.
David Perry - "When you were growing up and watching comedy, did any movies stand out from the rest that inspired you, even up to today?"
Jillian Bell - "We only had a few VHS tapes when I was younger and some of them are still some of my favorite movies of all time. "Beetlejuice" was huge for me. I loved seeing Michael Keaton play such a wild maniac. I believed in that character and everything he did because he knew who that character was. I remember thinking how could he be so wild, and yet feel so grounded in the truth of who that character is? The biggest movie memory for me was all of the performances in "Clue." It was huge for me and still is my favorite movie."
JB - "Because they were all character actors playing the leads. Each actor made wild but believable choices to the character. You know, now that I think about it. That was a big thing for me. I never really thought about it that way, but I do love people who go to extremes, but when it feels right within the world where that character lives."
DP - "It's such a fine tight rope to walk between going overboard and not enough. Those gold performances in "Clue" makes it stand out as one of the best ensemble pictures ever made."
DP - "Yeah, they are all thrown into a room. They are all in each other space but leave room for each of their characters to deliver a great moment."
DP - "That's an interesting observation. None of those performances suffer from offer suffocation."
JB - "I think that's the part of it. Not that there's a problem in comedy today, but I do think that a lot of it is rushed to who can say the funniest thing first. At times, you just want to see something where everyone is giving each other space to create these iconic moments."
DP - "What lead you to start doing improv comedy?"
JB - "I was lucky enough to take my first improv classes when I was eight years old. My parents were looking for a creative outlet for me. I've taken some piano classes, and swimming classes, dance classes. None of those things were kind of my thing. They were trying to find something that I excelled in and enjoyed. As soon I started classes I fell deeply in love with improv. Most of the other parents put their kids in the class to help them break out of their shell. I just adored it, and certainly did not need to come out of my shell. (Laughs)"
DP - "You've been in collaboration with so many funny people that you've been friends with. That's a wonderful gift. In "Workaholics", you can tell your energetic natural chemistry with tAdam DeVine, Blake Anderson, Anders Holm, and Kyle Newacheck."
JB - "Yeah, we met during a showcase of different sketch groups in Los Angeles. Whenever they were looking to bring a woman into some of their live shows, they reached out to me. I did it because they were so wonderful. They made me laugh and I thought their comedy was brilliant, and I also just loved playing a weird aunt. (Laughs) When the guys were offered the deal with Comedy Central, they asked me "Hey, if we write you in as a weird woman in this office would you like to do it? I said absolutely, with no hesitation. At the time I was working as a writer on Saturday Night Live. I came home to LA and we shot that first season of "Workaholics" during my summer off at SNL. Then it was a year of waiting until we found out we got picked up. SNL did not offer me a second season, so I ended up back working at a talent agency that I worked at. I was struggling and needed to make money. Which can be very, very humbling. Because you're returning to 9 to 5 job after being a writer on SNL and shooting a whole season of a television show. Life is pretty wild that way."
One of Bell's films released this year is the comedy "Sword of Trust." Cynthia (Bell) travels with her girlfriend Mary (Michaela Watkins) to Birmingham to receive the estate of Cynthia's Grandfather who has recently passed away. The only item inherited to her is a passed on family heirloom, a union general's sword from the civil war. The ladies arrive to quickly unload the sword for cash. Mel (Marc Maron) owns a pawnshop and runs it with his dim-witted clerk Nathaniel (Jon Bass) After appraising the item online, they discover it is a valuable sought after artifact by white supremacists, proving that the south won the war. When Nathaniel (Bass) reaches out to sell to the racists, the comedy shenanigans begin. The dialogue in this hilarious film is completely improvised by the actors.
DP - "How was it for you coming to Alabama to film "Sword of Trust?"
JB - "We had so much fun shooting in Birmingham. We shot the entire film in eleven days. Like any Lynn Shelton movie, we got a scriptment. It's a combination between a script and a treatment. In each scene, it kind of tells you what's going to play out, or what will happen in the scene. Then you kind of decide how it plays out. We improvised the entire thing. She didn't even have us do rehearsals because if you waste something in a rehearsal, and then forget to use it in the real thing, then you've wasted good material."
DP - "You and SNL alum Michaela Watkins share wonderful chemistry that pops on screen. Did you feel that bond when you first met?"
JB - "Michaela and I met years ago doing the Groundlings. I was such a fan of her work. I knew her sketches on SNL and she just blew up from there. I always wanted to work with her. When "Brittany Runs a Marathon" came around we were trying to find a perfect person to play the role of Kathryn. I immediately thought of her. We were lucky enough to get her. When "Sword of Trust" came along, another actress playing my part had to drop out because of another job, and Michaela brought up my name to Lynn Shelton. It just so happened that I could do it and Lynn was down with me trying to take on this part. We met up and had so much fun creating who these characters were. The only thing we kind of had written was the kind of journey that we're going to go on, and that they were a couple. Then we figured out our dynamics. What would their relationship be like? Why we wanted the money? We created all this fun backstory together. Some of it we worked out weeks before and some of it the day before we shot. (Laughs) It really kept us on the edge of our seat."
DP- "One the things that stand out are the structure of the comedy bits but also the dramatic beats as well. Everyone brought wonderful realism to his or her performances. Was it easier for you to deliver comedy or to do the drama?
JB - "It was sort of a combination. We leaned on Lynn a lot. She was the captain of the ship and told us what we needed from each scene. You would feel it out too, you know. When we shot in the back of the van, it got to be a more dramatic scene. We were in a tight space together, and when you're in tight spaces, you tend to reveal a little bit more of yourself I think, and we got closer in that scene. Some of the other scenes felt to be the time to be a little bit brighter. It's interesting. When it came time for us to see the final product, we were unsure about what the movie was going to be like. We played around with a lot of different tones. There were some parts that felt like a broad over the top comedy, and other times it felt like an indie drama, so it was cool to see it all come together before our eyes."
DP - "I love the balance of comedy and drama in the film and there were so many unexpected moments took me by surprise. One of them was Marc Maron's monologue in the van.
JB - "Mark is an exceptional monologuist. He's so great in that scene. I remember after we watched it for the first time at SXSW. All of us coming out and saying wow! We knew it on the day we shot that scene that it was there. To see it all come together was incredible."
DP- "How is it like for you to see your films up on the big screen with a live audience?"
JB- "It's amazing actually to watch the film for the first time with an audience because first of all, you don't know what you are about to watch. You don't know what footage stayed in the film or how much got cut out. I remember Lynn saying to all of us in an email, "I am so sorry. I had to cut so many of your babies. You provided so much gold and a lot of it is on the editing room floor." You never know. You never know if you're going to end up as a glorified extra in a scene, or one of the leads. Sitting there and watching it with everyone was amazing. In terms of a screening with an audience, it is always the best-case scenario when seeing it at a festival. The energy is high and everyone is excited to all be there seeing it for the first time."
Jillian has an incredible support team in her sister Breanna and their mother Tanzy. Sadly her father Ron passed away, but his sharp sense of humor and big heart is mirrored in his girls. Breanna and Jillian are sisters and also the best of friends. How rare is that, right? Breanna shares her thoughts looking back on Jillian's talent from a young age. "People are always saying they remember Jillian being so funny as a kid. I don't remember her trying to be purposefully comical. I think she just had a light about her. She studied comedy though for as long as I can remember. Always watching SNL, movies, sitcoms. Now looking back I can see just how much she was paying attention."
Moving to Los Angeles can seriously strain your temperament, talent, and at times your soul. The Bells are blessed to walk together in this journey and gain strength from each other's support and love. Breanna notes that "LA can be very, very tough and lonely. Even once you have some success. It's got high highs and low lows. My mom and I are here to make sure she stays as even as possible. Since Jillian and I work together now we are good at reminding each other that some event she gets to go to may seem important, but a family dinner surrounded by dogs is where it's really at."
Having a big heart and being kind are commodities that open doors in every career. Show business is no exception. Breanna finds Jillian's good nature is an equal reflection of her talent. "I'm so proud of her talent and her instincts but I'm most proud of how she treats people. Jillian authentically does not see one person being "higher up" or "more important" than another in a town where that is pushed down your throat daily. She's always been like that."
Breanna and Jillian are also in business together with their T-Shirt fashion line Neon Witch (neonwitch.com). The fun attire is expressive with visual boldness and celebrates a strong spirit. Jillian writes "When my sister and I came up with the line, we said we wanted this to be for "bold, outspoken women." And from that came Neon Witch. Neon colors are bold and bright. Witches were women who weren't afraid to speak out, to stand up for what they believed. Plus, who doesn't want to be a witch?"
Jillian is juggling many hats. Between shooting, traveling, promoting and finding time to eat and sleep can be a carnival. She takes it in stride with a positive balance.
DP- With all the highs and lows that have that you've gone through what have been some things that have helped you stay the course in this crazy industry.
JB - You know it's interesting. I feel like in this last year, turning thirty-five is the first time I feel like I somewhat have a balance.
DP - "What helped you get to that place?"
JB - "I've been working on it for a while. I was kind of stuck for a long period. I was saying "Well I'll just get through this job, and then I'll kind of work on everything, and try to balance myself out." Then a friend of mine said, "Hey things are going pretty well and you're working pretty consistently. I don't think the answer is going to be in the time you have off. It's gonna get to the point where you don't have time, and you're never going to get to that place of being happy, or working on yourself because you won't have the time to do you want to have that balance." I wanted to get to that place where you feel good about yourself, feel healthy, and feel sane like you were talking about. I feel like this year I started to put that in line and put that first. When I do, it helps me in return to handle the ups and downs of this business. It's so crazy to go from finding out that you get that role you were hoping for, to the next day co-hosting the "Today Show" which I was lucky enough to get to do. It can mess with your mind if you don't have a good support system, and aren't doing healthy things like meditating, therapy, going swimming, or doing normal fun good mental health activities. Those negative things can mess with you. I think I've made that more of a priority now, and to look at everything in a more healthy way."
DP- "That's powerful and positive affirmation."
JB - "I just try to take the less exciting and downer stuff, and turn it into less of a downer. If that makes any sense." (Laughs)
DP - (Laughs) "It does to me. That place is a hard road to walk to. It's like when you were a kid and you would stand in the middle of a seesaw. You could stay in the middle of it, and feel like "OK, now I'm good. Now I'm surfing this seesaw."
JB - "Yeah that's true because you can see both sides of it. It's like saying, "Well I didn't get that job that I wanted, but if I had, I would not have this great experience I am having now."
DP- "I live by that belief. Knowing one door closes, and one door opens is part of progression."
JB - "Exactly."
DP - "There is something to be said about those reflective moments. I am a religious person so I often look at how God plays the long game. Sitting back saying "OK, you're not gonna understand this now, but two years from now you're going to click with it, and you're gonna say oh yeah OK now I get it."
JB- "That is so true. I try to keep that in mind as well. Because you never know what thing you could be missing out on if something you hoped for had worked out. It's hard to think of it all the time. I have an easier time thinking about that in my career than in other areas of my life, just sayin!" (Laughs)
DP- "You mentioned your support system. I know your mom and sister are so very incredibly special and helpful to you. What is it like to have a Tanzy and a Breanna in your corner?"
After I asked her this question, and even though I'm talking to Jillian over the phone. I can feel her glow with thankful, joyful emotion as she continues with a giant smile on her face.
JB - "I don't know how I would do without them. I truly couldn't. They are my everything. My mom and my sister help me with day-to-day things, they help me in making big decisions. Like whether or not to take jobs, they read scripts for me and fill me in on what the story is about, and whether or not it feels like something to fall in love with. I mean, I read everything, but it is nice to have that extra opinion. It might be something I've never done before or this one might challenge you in a good way. They are incredibly smart, supportive, and kind. They always have my best interest at heart. I don't know what I would do without them. I'm incredibly, incredibly lucky."
DP - "I've got two brothers and the three of us all have that similar type of connection and relationship. Even if they're not there physically you can feel them there spiritually."
DP - "Oh yeah, that's what it is like for us. Truly, I would be lost without their support. I remember my mom helping during one of the big panic attacks I've had in my life. It was the night before we were shooting a pretty big scene in the movie "22 Jump Street." I remember being so nervous and got into my head to the point where I felt like I can't say these words. I don't know what's happening in my brain but the dialogue will not come out. I was so fearful of shooting the next day that I thought I'm going to ruin the movie. I'm going to have to leave. I don't know what's going to happen. My mom called me and she stayed on the phone with me from the night before to the next morning. For like two hours I started to get tired, but I was still so nervous. She just said "I'm just going to be on the other end of the line so why don't you lay down and know that I'm here. I'm breathing I'm on the phone. You can say something to me if you need to or you want to talk to me but stop talking so you can rest a little bit". When I woke up the next morning she was still there. I said "mom?" and she said, "You are good."
DP - "That incredibly touching. How did you feel when you got to set that morning?"
JB - "I showed up, and they had changed all of the dialogue for my big scene. (Laughs) I thought to myself, "Well now you can only do your best!" I mean they changed everything, and it was a sort of freedom, an unexpected answered prayer in some weird way. I will never forget how my mother was there for me that night. I mean that was one of million nights, but that one stands out to me."
JB - It's been a build-up to this moment. We shot "Brittany Runs a Marathon" in October of 2017, and then it was about a year of editing. We were able to ship it to festivals, and then January of this year we got into Sundance, which was so exciting. It's taking a while to get to this part. It's been a build-up, but a wonderful one that we can't believe we're a part of."
After over an hour of wonderful and lengthy conversation, we had to say our goodbyes through the joyful laughter. For years I have joked with Jillian that one day she's going to land a role in a huge blockbuster like "Star Wars." When that day comes, I will be first in line to buy her action figure at the store to celebrate a friend's success with a toy of her character. With the consistent and dynamic success of Jillian's work, it now feels as if that action figure will be replaced with an Oscar. After you watch "Brittany Runs a Marathon", you will see why Jillian is a bright star on the screen, and to those around her.