The comedic scene-stealer is poised to break big with her role as a reluctant runner in the charming Sundance hit

By Jessica Derschowitz
August 15, 2019 at 08:30 AM EDT
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With a title like Brittany Runs a Marathon, you’re not wrong to expect that the film centers on a someone looking to tackle that storied 26.2-mile distance. But if you think the breakout Sundance hit is just about running, then you might need to take a lap.

Jillian Bell stars as the titular Brittany, a gregarious, hard-partying New Yorker who starts to change her life — physically, but also in the ways she values herself and the people around her — as she begins running, first panting through a sweaty loop around a city block and eventually setting a goal to run the famed New York City Marathon. “The first time I read the script, I went through a lot of different emotions. I was sort of terrified of it,” Bell, 35, tells EW. “I laughed a lot. I cried. I walked away from it saying, ‘I have to try to do this script. I really hope they’ll allow me to be a part of this film. It’s going to be something very special.’ I related to the character so wholeheartedly that I would have done anything to do it. It seemed like a real challenge that I wanted to take on.”

It’s the first leading role for Bell, who’s best known for scoring laughs in comedies like 22 Jump Street and TV’s Workaholics. “It was huge for me,” she admits. “I had never done a project that had more drama in it. I’ve never been the title character. It was a big undertaking, but I really wanted to be the one who did it. This movie really spoke to me — there wasn’t a part of her journey that I hadn’t experienced in some other version of my life. I’ve never trained for a marathon before, but I can imagine that there’s a lot of things in people’s lives that feel like a marathon. I’ve always struggled with body image and exercise and all those things. For me, this felt very personal.”

“It was so clear to me that [Bell] had such a personal resonance with the story, and most importantly that she wanted to protect the character and the story that we were telling,” says writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo, who based the movie on his real-life friend Brittany O’Neill, who really did begin running as part of an effort to kick unhealthy life habits and ultimately ran the New York City Marathon in 2014. “[Bell and I] both cared deeply about what we were putting out into the world while still making something that was fun and funny and entertaining and inspirational.”

Amazon Studios

To prepare to play Brittany, Bell (who notes that she “had never done a ton of exercising” previously), had her sister film her when she went out on her first few runs, so she could see how she carried herself as a newbie without experience or special workout gear, before training with a professional to work on Brittany’s journey from reluctant runner to aspiring marathoner. She also chose to undergo the same physical journey as her character, losing 40 pounds as she was shooting so she could better understand the things Brittany was going though and the emotional aspects of undergoing that kind of life change. “It was helpful for me to experience everything from start to finish,” she explains.

But, it’s important to note, the film forgoes the tired weight-loss-as-life-fixer trope and taps into something far more real: Brittany begins running and it changes her life (and yes, her body), but her happiness ultimately isn’t tied to her weight. And, perhaps even more importantly, Brittany doesn’t magically become a different person once she’s thinner — she still has to deal with her personal baggage and evaluate the relationships in her life (toxic friendships, new running pals, a potential love interest). As Bell puts it: “[This story is] truly about a woman deciding to choose herself first… how challenging that can be, especially in your late 20s, and looking at your friendships and analyzing who is bringing something to your life and who is not.”

When Brittany Runs a Marathon premiered at Sundance earlier this year, it earned rave reviews and was picked up by Amazon for a reported $14 million. When it arrives in theaters Aug. 23, it’ll probably inspire more than a few people to sign up for a road race, or possibly lace up sneakers for the very first time, but the film’s message transcends athletics — it’s about the marathons we all have in our lives, whatever those hurdles may be, and how we overcome them. “I had always told [the real Brittany] that this movie is about distance traveled,” Downs Colaizzo says. “It’s about how far you can go when you are starting at a place you don’t want to be and you can end up in a place that has a better view.”

“It’s a different look at a transformation story,” Bell agrees, “something that I had never seen and something that I definitely wanted to see, even since I was a young girl. I just have never seen a film like this.”

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