How Kelly McGillis Made Her Own Life
By Melanie McGee Bianchi
Photo by Rimas Zailskas
When Kelly McGillis starred opposite Tom Cruise in the 1986 fighter-pilot thriller Top Gun, she reportedly had to hunch down so she wouldn’t loom over the 5’7” actor. Today, at age 55, she’s standing tall. Her stride is confident, just shy of tough. During a photo session with VERVE on a cold, fiercely windy March afternoon near the French Broad River, she warms up with a cigarette and declares her enjoyment of smoking with no apologies.
“I love the smell,” she says. Where others want smokers to isolate themselves, “I tell them to come closer,” she says, with a wry smile. McGillis moved to a rural area near Hendersonville a year-and-a-half ago with her partner, a woman she declines to identify.
She’s always insisted on privacy, in order to protect her family and to better pursue her passions, which include teaching acting and speaking to women who want to get sober. She still accepts acting roles, but she won’t dye her gray hair to get younger parts.
McGillis’ full grin is spectacular, her eyes deep and blazing blue. She swears often, and finds she can’t stop bringing home stray cats from her local shelter.
Her career touched off when she was nominated for a Golden Globe for playing a conflicted Amish mother in the 1985 murder drama Witness, with Harrison Ford. In 1987, she starred as a lawyer in The Accused after having turned down the lead role of a gang-rape survivor, played by Jodie Foster. Shortly thereafter, McGillis publicly revealed that she had also endured a brutal rape, while studying acting in New York City in the early ’80s.
Entering the ’90s, McGillis dropped out of Hollywood, got married and had two daughters. “Motherhood became my priority,” she says. She lived in Key West, and, with her husband, ran a bar named in her honor. There, she met the woman who would one day be her romantic partner: Melanie Leis. (A year after McGillis announced she was gay, she and Leis were united in a civil ceremony captured in such media outlets as the New York Times; they’ve since split.)
In recent years, McGillis has crept back on the artistic radar. She appeared on Showtime’s The L Word, in indie films (including the forthcoming What Could Have Been and Tio Papi), and on stage, playing Mrs. Robinson in a touring version of The Graduate.
Still, she’s not interested in a real comeback. VERVE sat down with McGillis to discuss the overration of reinvention.
Q. We always ask people who recently moved to Western North Carolina why they came, and they usually say something like: “I was drawn here.” What was your pull?
A. I always said I wanted a log home in North Carolina, and I decided if I didn’t do it now, I never would. Twenty-five years ago, my [then] husband and I bought 36 acres in Weaverville. But I got pregnant and didn’t want the work of keeping up that much land, so we moved back to Key West.
Q. What’s your favorite part about living in the mountains?
A. Living on top of a hill makes me feel closer to God. A rural area feeds my soul more than a city. I love where I live, and I love Hendersonville, with its small-town feel. It’s not trendy yet. If I get in the mood for that [kind of scene], I can always drive over to Asheville.
Q. Is there any dream role that could lure you away from your new home?
A. I don’t actively search out gigs right now because I like my quiet little life the way it is. If the right project came along and I really wanted to do it, I would go, and then come back home. I want to be here. I love gardening and designing, creating spaces that are beautiful. I look for scrap metal to make sculpture for our garden. I paint.
Q. You’ve had jobs counseling women who were trying to overcome substance abuse. Do you do have plans to do that here, too?
A. I don’t know how that got out there. I’m not a counselor; I’ve never worked as one. I once drank a lot and did a lot of drugs ... and then I didn’t. I don’t have training. All I have is my experience, and so I share that. I get a lot of speaking engagements.
Q. Many people move to the Asheville area to reinvent themselves. Does that go for you, too?
A. No. It’s not about reinvention. Right now, for me, it’s about giving back. I’ve entered a period of my life where it’s important for me to be of service, to teach and to help.
Q. Another Asheville-centric question: Are you a “foodie?”
A. There are so many good restaurants around here! I like to have dinner parties once in a while, but the menu is always planned around what I want to make for dessert. I work from the dessert backwards [laughs].
Q. Your career has been marked by many acts of bravery: talking publicly about your rape, intentionally leaving acting after a string of star roles, admitting substance abuse, coming out as gay. Do you see yourself as a survivor, and if so, of what?
A. I’m not a survivor. I’m a messed-up human being bumbling along as best as I can. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’ve done some good things.
Q. When people speak of you, it’s usually in light of some very serious issues. What’s a fun fact we don’t know about you?
A. I create operas that I sing to my animals when I’m cleaning house [laughs]. It’s insane. I don’t know how to sing.
Kelly McGillis will appear at the New York Studio for Stage and Screen in Asheville (2002 Riverside Drive, Studio 42-0, Loft 1) on April 18. 7-9 pm. See ashevilleactingclasses.com for details, and check out the adjoining story for more about NYS3.