Acting naturally

SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer
SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer

Far from the Hollywood glitz, Kelly McGillis still practices her craft, but has come out and settled in to a "pretty simple" life in Collingswood.

Posted: July 15, 2010

Moviegoers of a certain age remember Kelly McGillis as Rachel, the Amish widow of Witness (1985), a milk-fed madonna who looks as though she stepped out of a Vermeer and into Lancaster County. Or as Charlie, the smoking-hot flight instructor to fighter pilots in Top Gun (1986), one who makes pupil Tom Cruise look like her key ring. Or as Kathryn, brainy assistant D.A. in The Accused (1988), who convicts witnesses to rape as accessories.

After this trifecta that established her as one of the screen's most sought-after leading ladies, McGillis flew off the Hollywood radar. Intentionally. She married, had two daughters, sailed across the Atlantic, divorced, thrived in regional theater, and confronted her addiction issues.

Last year, she matter-of-factly told a reporter that she is a lesbian, a disclosure that punctured (or not) 14 million heterosexual male fantasies. Now 53, McGillis lives on a leafy street in Collingswood. Saturday she will collect an Artistic Achievement award from the gay and lesbian film festival, QFest.

Fresh from weeding foxgloves in the garden of her 1920s kit house, McGillis and her corgi, Buddha, greet her guest. The goddess-next-door wears her years - and face - proudly. In the mode of Vanessa Redgrave, she is handsome and unadorned.

Except for a suite of lithographs depicting vignettes from Shakespeare, the simply furnished house is like its owner. No photos of famous friends. No trophy mantel. Franklin, her white cat, and Walter, a marmalade, find their light and meditate.

"My life is pretty simple," McGillis says, stroking Buddha's ears. "I live my life in loving service. I go to the prison in Camden, talk to women there about addiction and recovery."

McGillis has not turned her back on the stage and screen. She's working on TV and film projects (The L Word, Stakeland). She taught acting during the years she lived in Mohnton, Pa., a Berks County hamlet, from 2001 to 2008.

"I'm paying dues I never paid before," McGillis observes of her modestly scaled gigs. In 1983, she went from Juilliard to star billing, skipping the apprentice and journeyman stages. "I'm not reinventing myself," she says. "I'm reintroducing myself."

Kelly Ann McGillis was raised in Newport Beach, Calif., an upscale community. Her parents were "very yacht-y."

McGillis was a young teenager when she hit her mature height of 5-foot-10. "At 13, I thought I was 20." At one point, she tipped the scales at 200 pounds. "I was rebellious, strong-willed, driven."

Practicing tough love, Dr. and Mrs. McGillis asked their daughter to leave a few years later.

She had dreams of the New York theater world. She waited tables, heard about the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts. Figuring that cracking Broadway would be easier with Juilliard as a base, she took a two-year degree at PCPA and wed Boyd Black in 1979. They divorced in 1981, by which time she was at Juilliard in a class that included Kevin Spacey and Elizabeth McGovern.

"I loved Juilliard. I was a leading lady in an ingenue's body. My goal was to be a New York theater actress," she says, chin upraised in a parody of stage diva.

"It never crossed my mind that movies were a possibility," says McGillis. "By movie standards, I am a big girl."

But screenwriter Philip Epstein (Casablanca) wanted her for Reuben, Reuben, an indie film about a boozy poet who finds his muse in a peaches-and-cream undergraduate named Geneva Spofford.

"I panicked. At the time, Juilliard frowned on students who worked outside school" (which is why McGovern left without a diploma), McGillis recalls. "Since I didn't graduate high school, it was important to graduate Juilliard." Her disapproving father worried that it was a skinflick.

She took the movie and completed her course work. Arching eyebrows in mock horror, she says, "Alas, I flunked my tap class."

Right before she shot Reuben, Reuben, two intruders raped her in her apartment. "At the time, I don't think I was capable of articulating how I felt. I thought I must have done something to make it happen."

She self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. "I couldn't afford a therapist. I carried [the anger] for a long time." Likewise the medication.

When Reuben, Reuben was released, critics hailed her radiance and stillness, calling her a screen natural. Though she assumed she'd never get another screen offer, she won a role in the Tom Hanks comedy Bachelor Party, and was booted. "I was told I wasn't sexy enough! I had never been fired from a job in my life. I was almost suicidal."

She returned to waiting tables. Then director Peter Weir and actor Harrison Ford dropped in to gauge her interest in the one about the Philadelphia cop hiding out in Amish country. "Had I done Bachelor Party, I wouldn't have been available to do Witness. God does work in mysterious ways."

McGillis made seven movies between 1984 and 1989. She prepared for Witness by living with an Amish family. She liked working with Ford ("nice, quiet, aloof"), Viggo Mortenson ("intelligent, kind, compassionate") and Weir ("intuitive, creative, fatherly").

From the slow buggy rides of Witness to the supersonic fighter planes of Top Gun, where she and Meg Ryan were the only women in the squadron of macho men: "Making the movie was like summer camp. I had a blast. Tom [Cruise] was generous, kind, loving."

"The Accused found me," she says of the role in which her character helps rape victim Jodie Foster bring charges against bystanders who failed to intervene. "I was offered a choice of either lead, and I did the lawyer because I didn't want to do the victim part. Felt that wouldn't be acting; that would be therapy."

"I don't watch my movies," she says. "I don't live there; I live in the here and now."

The movie that killed the love for making movies was Abel Ferrara's The Cat Chaser (1989). "It was the most hateful experience of my life," she said of working with the tough-guy maker of tough-guy movies. Recently married to Fred Tillman, she thought, "If this is what acting is going to be, I won't do it." She walked into her trailer, shaved her head and swore never to act again.

She and Tillman got onto a boat, got pregnant and had Kelsey, the first of two daughters, followed by Sonora. "I wanted to be a mom."

It took a couple of plays - Nina in The Seagull, Shakespeare seasons at Washington's Folger Theatre - to remind McGillis that she did love acting. What she didn't love was abuse.

"With motherhood, my life became less self-centered," she says. McGillis started doing television. "As a parent, I could parachute in and out of a TV shoot and not have to spend 12 weeks away from the kids."

In 2001, her marriage on the rocks, McGillis relocated from Key West, Fla., to Mohnton, with her daughters. There she faced her addiction (Mohnton was near a halfway house where she spent time) and also her sexual preference. Still, she did not come out until last year.

"I believed that coming out would limit the roles I would get. It happened to Ellen DeGeneres."

"Yes, I had skirted the issue," she admits. "But when my kids moved out, I asked myself, 'Do I continue to skirt it or do I just say it?' " Then a reporter asked her about her sexual identity. "I answered honestly."

Mostly, McGillis thinks private lives are private: "Don't want to know everything about everybody, do you?"

In her "I've got to be true to who I am" phase of life, McGillis is militant about saying no to elective surgery. "Yes, I got Botox. I got a boob job. But I got them removed."

"When you do one tweak, you feel a need to do others. What is the psychic damage of a 20-year-old face on a 75-year-old body? What is the prospect of a whole generation of kids whose plastic-surgeried parents can't express emotions because their faces are immobile?"

"Thank God for Helen Mirren!" she says, citing the actress who avoided elective surgery and whose third act is more momentous than her first two.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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