Vegas native Jillian Bell is quickly becoming comedy’s most beguiling star.
She may be best known for playing the socially awkward Jillian Belk on Comedy Central’s Workaholics, but the way Jillian Bell has pursued her career reveals a poise and savvy that her near-namesake can only dream of.
It’s little wonder that Jillian Bell became a performer. “I grew up around a lot of characters,” she says of her Vegas childhood. “My grandma was the first woman behind a front desk at a Las Vegas casino, so I’m used to a Christmas where Grandma shows up in leather pants and has amazing red hair.”
The daughter of an advertising executive father and a mother who planned events for high rollers in the casinos, Bell, 30, is that rare creature who can claim true Sin City roots. “I was born and raised here,” she says. “I feel like there aren’t a lot of us out there.” The actress and comedian certainly made good use of the show-business culture of her city: She started taking improv classes in the backyard of a local teacher at the precocious age of 8. “I guess my mom trusted her enough just to drop me off,” Bell says. “I think she could tell I just wanted to act, tell jokes, and make people laugh.”
She continued to refine her technique while a student at Bishop Gorman High School, and halfway through her freshman year at UNLV she convinced her parents to let her take a semester off and run the Hollywood gauntlet. “I told them if it didn’t work out, I’d come back the next year,” she recalls. “But I knew that wouldn’t happen.” While her first few auditions were a bust, Bell quickly found a home with the lauded improv company The Groundlings. “That was my schooling,” she says. “They taught me how to write, character work, everything.”
Her talent was soon noticed by the godfather of TV comedy: Saturday Night Live honcho Lorne Michaels. “He asked a few of us to audition for the show,” Bell says. “A couple weeks later, I found out it was a no, which was devastating because it was all I wanted.” A silver lining came in the form of a different job offer: to be a writer on the show. “That was my first writing job,” she says. “I was 25. That was insane!”
A year later, missing the stage, Bell returned to LA, where she was tapped almost immediately for the pilot of Workaholics, Comedy Central’s dystopian office sitcom. She plays Jillian Belk, a well-meaning if bumbling assistant. “I’m lucky enough to be on a TV show that I think is so well written,” she says, “and I get to work with my friends.”
Since then, Bell’s profile has continued to rise, most notably with this summer’s release of the film 22 Jump Street, in which she stars with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. In addition, her Web series, Idiotsitter, has been picked up by Comedy Central. “It’s about a girl who gets out of grad school and needs a job, so she takes a position as a babysitter for a wealthy family,” Bell explains. “When she shows up, the ‘baby’ is a 20-something screwup on house arrest.” Bell and writing partner Charlotte Newhouse, whom she met at The Groundlings, hope to start shooting in February.
And as if that weren’t enough, a script they’ve been working on titled Let’s Get Married has been optioned by MGM. “We feel very lucky because everything we’re writing is somehow getting bought,” Bell says. “I think my mom must be paying everyone.”