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Comic actress Jillian Bell gets serious for a change

Jillian Bell picked up the Next Wave Award at the Provincetown International Film Festival.
Jillian Bell picked up the Next Wave Award at the Provincetown International Film Festival.Mae Gammino/Provincetown International Film Festival/Provincetown International Film Festival

Jillian Bell started taking improv classes when she was 8. When her parents had friends over for a couples’ night, she would take it as an opportunity to grace them with a matinee, “and they would put down their white zinfandel and show up to my show,” she said. And when she was 9, Bell interrupted her older sister making out with a boyfriend — to insist that they attend her impromptu puppet show.

Bell reminisced about her youthful comedic spark during a visit to the Provincetown International Film Festival last weekend to accept the third annual Next Wave Award, which honors emerging talent in film. Aubrey Plaza (2017) and Chloë Grace Moretz (2018) have also won the award.

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Not that Bell is emerging, exactly: The 35-year-old Groundlings veteran has had a varied comedy career, including writing for “Saturday Night Live,” acting in the movies “22 Jump Street” and “Rough Night,” starring in the Comedy Central series “Workaholics,” and starring in “Idiotsitter,” a Comedy Central web series that she wrote with Charlotte Newhouse.

Bell executive produced and played the title character in “Brittany Runs a Marathon” (2019), which opened this year’s festival. The movie won a US Audience Award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, was bought by Amazon shortly thereafter, and will open in select theaters on Aug. 23.

Director and screenwriter Paul Downs Colaizzo  based the script on his friend and former roommate, also named Brittany. In the movie, Bell plays a New Yorker who sets out to run the New York City Marathon and reinvent herself through the emotional and physical rigor of exercise.

“It’s about changing your little habits, and setting up accomplishable little goals for yourself, one at a time,” Colaizzo said Saturday.

To prepare for her role, Bell went to Pinterest and found “something called ‘Couch to 5K,’ ” she said. She said she lost 40 pounds in the process: 29 before shooting, and 11 during filming.

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Chatting with Vanity Fair’s chief critic Richard Lawson onstage at the Pilgrim House in Provincetown in front of dozens of festivalgoers, Bell acknowledged that playing a serious character was a “very big risk” for her, especially considering that her previous acting roles often skewed goofy.

“I really love a weird woman,” she said. “I’m always just like, ‘Hi, my name is Horse!’ ” she said with a laugh, pulling a funny face at the audience. “I had more fun playing roles like that.”


Nora McGreevy can be reached at nora.mcgreevy@globe.com