Previously Known For: Witness, Top Gun and The Accused
|Currently Known For: Acting Teacher in Asheville, North Carolina, and upcoming films: Mother of All Secrets, Julie Loves to Gamble and Annie Cook|
“I don’t think there is anything more beautiful than a woman who wears her age gracefully. You can’t beat that with a stick. I love to see a woman with all her wrinkles. It’s a life that has been lived.” Constantly reminded of her Top Gun fame thanks to oldies like “Danger Zone” and “Take My Breath Away” often played in department stores and elevators around the country, Kelly McGillis doesn’t shy away from the memories or her iconic performance as the gorgeous Charlie Blackwood in the 1986 classic. Instead, the now 60-year-old actress, teacher, film producer and former restauranteur smiles at the reminder of the film that made her a star as Top Gun continues to find new generations of fans even after 30 years!
Decades before she donned her flight suit and cozied up to Tom Cruise, Kelly Ann McGillis was born on July 9, 1957 in Newport Beach, California to a homemaker and a doctor. From an early age, McGillis knew she wanted to act and, after graduating from the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, she moved to New York where she studied at the Julliard School. Honing her talents as an actress at Julliard and later graduating in 1983, McGillis didn’t have to wait long to catch her big break with an appearance in the daytime soap opera One Life to Live followed by a string of made-for-television films like Sweet Revenge and Private Sessions.
Having made her film debut as Geneva Spofford in the 1983 film Reuben, Reuben, McGillis snagged a bigger role opposite Harrison Ford in the 1985 flick Witness where her performance as an Amish woman turned heads and earned her a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award nomination. The following year, her luck improved when she was cast as the sexy and savvy flight instructor, Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood, in Top Gun starring Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards. With the film earning over $356 million at the box office and becoming a commercial success, McGillis reached a new level of stardom and earned her place as a Hollywood sex symbol. “I look back at all the old movies [like Top Gun] and think, ‘Gosh, I was so young,’” she said during a recent interview. “You know, back then I used to think I was fat. Now, I look back and say, ‘What was I thinking! I wasn’t fat!’”
After Top Gun, the young sex symbol joined Timothy Hutton in Made in Heaven, Jessica Tandy and Jeff Daniels in The House on Carroll Street, and Jodie Foster in The Accused before a terrible experience on the set of Cat Chaser in 1989 forever soured her taste for film. No longer auditioning for leading roles, McGillis spent more time away from the camera and pursued her interests in theater after first taking the stage at Julliard. Spending much of the decade in productions both on and Off-Broadway as well as with Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, McGillis realized she didn’t miss film as much as she anticipated and accepted only bit parts in flicks like Winter People, The Babe, and North throughout the 1990s.
Eventually stepping away from television and film to focus more on theater and her life at home with her second husband, Fred Tillman, and their two daughters, McGillis became a restauranteur when she and Tillman opened Kelly’s Caribbean Bar Grill & Brewery in Key West, Florida. Ironically, it was at Kelly’s that McGillis met Melanie Leis, a Philadelphia sales executive turned bartender who gave McGillis the courage to explore a longtime truth that she was a lesbian. Secretly entering into a relationship with Leis after years of living what McGillis called “a double life,” McGillis filed for divorce from Tillman in 2002. However, she wasn’t quite yet ready to come out to the public and spent the next seven years hiding her sexual preference before publicly coming out as a lesbian in an interview with SheWire in 2009.
Moving north to Collingswood, New Jersey to start a new life with Leis, McGillis started working with drug addicts and alcoholics at the Seabrook House Drug Alcohol Rehab Center after battling her own addictions throughout the 1980s when she used alcohol to hide the pain of living a double life and feeling like she was being punished for being a lesbian. “I drank a lot,” McGillis later admitted. “I couldn’t eat. I twitched incessantly and I had nightmares. Because I was so afraid to go to sleep at night, I would drink.”
McGillis broke things off with Leis in 2011 and relocated to Hendersonville, North Carolina where she started sharing her talents with aspiring actors at The New York Studio for Stage and Screen. Her experience teaching is exactly what led her back to acting with credits in Blue, Z Nation and Love Finds You in Sugarcreek, Ohio, the latter of which had her playing an Amish woman much like her character in Witness. Most recently, she appeared in the Hallmark Channel film, An Uncommon Grace, and is set to star in Mother of All Secrets, Julie Loves to Gamble and Annie Cook, which will certainly keep the 60-year-old busy over the next year.
Apart from her recent projects, McGillis admits that Top Gun continues to follow her especially since she’s now a former sex symbol turned aging actress. Regardless, she promises to never turn to plastic surgery to hide her well-earned wrinkles and, instead, stands as tall and confident today as she did in that flight suit over three decades ago. “It’s very difficult in our culture to age as a woman,” McGillis admits. “Our culture is geared to celebrate being young and beautiful with long, flowing hair and perfectly thin bodies that are often unattainable. Youth is also an unattainable goal as you age unless I spend a lot of money on plastic surgery. That’s just not a realistic way to live…”
Looking back on Top Gun and laughing at herself because she thought she was fat back then, McGillis still hasn’t lost her edge after all these years and, at 60 years old, has grown wiser especially since she hasn’t stuck around Hollywood. “I don’t want to spend all my free time at the gym and working out,” she says. “I want to enjoy my life and not spend all my time getting Botox.” And for that, we can’t blame her!