When I saw ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon,’ I saw so much of myself. So did star Jillian Bell. We had a candid conversation about fat shaming, the emotional effects of weight loss, and learning to love yourself at any size.
Getty Images / Gregg DeGuire
| Credit: Getty Images / Gregg DeGuire

All of my life, I have been fat. Plus-size. Overweight. Obese. No matter what word you use, I've heard it before, said to me in a whisper or a shout by bullies, strangers, well-meaning friends, and doctors alike. In recent years, I've embraced it and written about plus-size fashion and learned to love myself, but that doesn't mean the world sees me the same way. Pop culture rarely puts fat women in the spotlight, let alone with nuanced, interesting stories that aren't just about their weight or making them the butt of the joke. But in the new film Brittany Runs a Marathon, I finally saw a fully formed character who wasn't defined only by her weight.

In the based-on-a-true-story movie, which hits theaters on August 23, Brittany (played by Workaholics' Jillian Bell) is a 28-year-old who doesn't quite have her life together. She's still partying too hard, always late to work, and doesn't take care of herself. Then in a sad attempt to get an Adderall prescription from a doctor, he tells her that she has high blood pressure, her liver doesn't look great, and she falls into the "obese" BMI range. Though she laughs it off, it's a wakeup call, and she eventually gets off the couch and runs one block at a time, running a 5K and attempting to make it the full 26 miles of the New York City Marathon.

Through this journey, it isn't just about Brittany losing weight. It is about her learning to love herself at any size, and healing herself emotionally from the way she's been treated and put down about her weight. I haven't been through Brittany's journey, but I resonated deeply with the story and Jillian's incredible, emotional portrayal. So when I got the opportunity to sit down with Jillian, we had an open, honest conversation about the effects of fat shaming, the mental struggles of losing and gaining weight, and how we should all love ourselves more. We agreed that if we had this movie when we were growing up, maybe we would have both turned out differently—thankfully, young people seeing it now will have that chance. Read on for our full conversation.

Credit: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Rachael Ray Every Day: I absolutely loved this film. It's very rare to see a woman who looks like me—a plus-size woman—as the lead. Before reading this script, was that something that drew you to it? To feel like you were portraying someone who you could really relate to?

Jillian Bell: It's what drew me to it, and it's what also scared me about playing this type of a role. Usually I get to disappear and play a bunch of different characters. After I read the script, I was like "Oh no. This is so much like me." It was like when you say something out loud and then later on, you see an ad for it on Instagram. But because of that, I immediately felt protective of Brittany and I wanted to be the one that played her, because I knew I'd be so cautious about what the story was we were trying to tell. When I met [writer-director] Paul [Downs Colaizzo], he felt the exact same way, so I knew that I would be in good hands. We were taking a chance on each other. I have never been the lead character, and this was his first time as a writer-director. We were really leaning on each other to make sure we were telling the story the way we envisioned it.

You went a little bit method and you lost some weight for this movie, even though you weren't asked to, right?

Yes, yes. They didn't ask me to do it. I lost 40 pounds for the role. I really wanted to connect more to the character. There were certain parts where I was like, "That's taken from my actual life." Then there were moments while she was training for the marathon that I thought, "Oh, I don't quite relate to that. How can I?" I decided that that would connect me to the role a little bit better, and it really did inform me in certain places where I was a little lost about why she was having certain emotions. I had never been through that sort of process before. Getting into shape, doing meal plans, saying no to going to things that you might want to go to, and experiencing what it's like to plateau and really focusing in on a number and being obsessed with that.

What was the hardest part of having that journey for yourself? Was it the first week where you didn't eat a bagel or something as simple as that or running for five miles for the first time? Did you actually get to 26?

No. I did not get to 26. [Laughs] I probably got to about three or a little bit more than that, but for me that was good because I had never been a runner before. I had a lot of real moments that happened, from going out to dinner with someone and they put the basket of bread down and I couldn't just have a little bit of bread, to weeks in when I was in such an emotional state. I think that's the part that I didn't realize when I started doing the physical transformation—I didn't realize how emotional it would be. I started to also look at myself differently. I started to become a little bit more obsessive of how I look. I actually feel better for me when I have a little bit of weight on my body.

Why is that, do you think?

I don't know. I just feel like I'm less obsessed with what I'm eating, what I'm not eating, or how I look at my biggest or smallest. All of those things run in your head when you focus too hard on restricting yourself. I think this is a story for everyone. We show a little bit of everyone in this film. I think Paul does such a good job of writing scenes that show all sides of this background in the movie. It's not just a weight loss film—it's a motivational film. It really is about a woman choosing herself for the first time.

The scene with Brittany and her doctor where he tells her that her BMI is high was really powerful. Have you ever had that experience and had to face that realization?

Yes. I have gone to the doctor before and they mentioned that it would help if I lost a little bit of weight. It's very different between a doctor saying, "I'm concerned about your health and I want you to make a lifestyle change," and a friend saying, "I think you'd feel better about yourself if you lost weight." That's the difference between healthy and unhealthy. It's still a hard pill to swallow when you hear a doctor say that. It's really tough and I had never seen that in a movie before. It is one of those things that sometimes it can be a little triggering to see, but sometimes it also makes you feel seen.

Credit: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

I remember I was 12 years old at a doctor. He took one look at me and said, "You're too big. You are like a balloon that needs to be popped." I felt PTSD when I watched that scene, and I was fully crying.

That makes me so upset that someone put that into your brain, especially at such a young age. One of the reasons I did this movie was because I wish I had it when I was a kid. If I was able to watch a movie like this when I was younger, it would have changed my life. Can you imagine if you got to see that and just know that it's all okay, and every body type is okay? During different periods of my life, my weight fluctuates. Sometimes it means I'm happier. Maybe I've traveled.

You had a pasta tour in Italy, or something else fun.

Yes, exactly! Whenever I lose weight, it's so hurtful to me when people say, "You look great. You've never looked better!" When I got back from shooting Brittany and was the smallest I'd ever been, I had a good friend of mine—a guy friend who I know was not trying to be harmful—say to me, "This is the weight you should be." I said, "You can't even imagine what I'm eating and how much I'm running to try to stay at this shape. It's almost impossible." Those are such harmful words to hear.

It's not a backhanded compliment. It's like harmful compliment.

Yes! I feel like we should have a thing we can say if people say those things. Like, "I know you mean well, but that is harmful. I hope you correct yourself the next time you go to say something like that."

Some of the things said to Brittany are so incredibly hurtful, like when she's talking to her best friend in the bathroom and she says, "Fat girls always gain the weight back," and people make her feel like she's only her weight. Did that stir up emotions for you?

There are definitely things from my past that it stirred up. Being a woman, usually we're under the microscope and experience some scrutiny. The script brought up some demons, but I felt they were necessary demons to bring up. I also thought about how many times I've said or thought these things about myself. After I shot the movie, I made a promise to myself that I was never going to talk to myself in the way that I have been in the past, because I've gone down that road and it doesn't make me feel good. It's hard to avoid the negative completely, but it's better to live more in the side of trying to love yourself.

The other part of the movie that really stuck with me and got me was when Brittany dates for the first time since losing weight and has a hard time thinking that a guy could want her for more than just a hookup. That she doesn't feel deserving of love.

That's the biggest thing about this movie. Usually we see a transformation type story where someone loses a ton of weight and then they get the guy and the job, then roll credits. I was so tired of that narrative because there are real struggles throughout a story like Brittany's. I had never read a script that shows all the real-life moments, the good and the bad.

Have you ever been a lower weight and gone on dates and felt like, "Are people just giving me attention because of my weight"?

I dated someone briefly after I shot the movie, and I didn't feel different about my body in that sense. I felt different about my body in terms of people paying attention to me in general. More women than anything. It was messing with me because I was eating smaller portions and people were complimenting me. It's a real mindf—k because you start to take those things to heart. But now, after realizing I feel better with a little more weight on my body, I'm not as in my head. I'm not as judgmental about myself. It was important for me to get into a good mental place about everything I had just done. It's more important to me to look at myself at whatever size I am, whatever weight I am, and just say, "You're good enough."

The TV show Shrill and this movie have really made the word "fat" less triggering for me. In your life and in the industry, have you seen fat acceptance and body positivity recently compared to the start of your career?

I think that there's more, but I don't think that there's enough. I'm really hoping this at least inches us closer to being in a better place. We all go through different bodies. We all go through different life experiences, and I just think to not show that and eventually show it and not have to even address it would be even better. This is a step in the right direction, I hope.