With a healthy outlook in rural digs, the “Top Gun” star is hitting the
big screen again and starting over on her terms.
By Allan Richter
Kelly McGillis was one of Hollywood’s hottest leading ladies when she starred opposite Tom Cruise in the blockbuster “Top Gun.” Staring out from the movie’s poster, she and Cruise, in leather bomber jackets—hers pushed up at the sleeves and her arms draped around her leading man—stood against the backdrop of an F-14A Tomcat fighter jet in an image that embodied American might and sex appeal.
By then, the classically trained actress had starred opposite Harrison Ford in the Amish-themed drama “Witness” and a few years later would play Jodie Foster’s lawyer in “The Accused.” The “Top Gun” tagline “Up there with the best of the best” seemed as fitting for McGillis’ acting career as it was for the elite Navy fighter pilots portrayed in the film.
McGillis stepped back from acting in the 1990s to raise her children. When her daughters Kelsey and Sonora, now 23 and 20, respectively, moved out of the house in 2010, she resumed her career with fervor, appearing in a wave of back-to-back independent films that showcase her wholesome beauty and acting chops buoyed by the experience of middle age.
“I love her because she’s gone through so much in her life that I think she’s at a point where she’s got no mask on, she’s got no shield. She’s incapable of lying off screen and onscreen, and that’s a rare quality,” says Jim Mickle, who directed McGillis in two independent films, “Stake Land” (2010) and “We Are What We Are” (2013). Bill Sage, star of “We Are What We Are,” agrees. “That’s a sweet spot for an actor, and she’s in that zone,” Sage says. “She doesn’t make a false move.”
Nick Damici, a writer and actor on both films, recalled a “Stake Land” scene with McGillis in a cornfield. With McGillis taking her turn in front of the cameras, Damici and another actor were to prepare for an upcoming scene but wanted to remain on set to give McGillis live actors to play against. “Jim was being very polite about it as a director, and he said, ‘No, no they’re going to stay,’” Damici recounts. “Kelly looked at Jim, and said, ‘Jim, I can act to a postage stamp.’ And she meant it.”
McGillis, 56, sees her newest film work not as a comeback, but as a new beginning. “And I’m starting over as a middle-aged woman,” she says, “so I guess maybe it will take some time for me to start again.” There isn’t a hint of regret in her words, though. McGillis has happily settled into a remote rural spot on a North Carolina hilltop, where she lives far from the film industry’s urban epicenters with her partner, two cats and a dog, and where she teaches scene study.
“People spent their time with me and helped me along,” McGillis says, “and it’s a way to give back, and I really like that—passing on the love, baby! I like my little life the way it is.”
Energy Times: What are some of the ups and downs of starting over in middle age?
Kelly McGillis: There are a few obstacles I’ve created. I’m not willing to live in New York or Los Angeles at this point in my life. I love the quality of the life I have today and I don’t want to give that up for work. It makes it difficult for me because I can’t go on meetings, I can’t go on auditions,
so I’ve really limited myself in that respect. But it’s something I’m willing to do because I really love my quiet life.
I’m also not willing to dye my hair, and I’m not willing to have plastic surgery and Botox. I want to be an older character actress. I just saw “Philomena” this weekend, and I was so struck by how beautiful and full of life Judi Dench is. That is what I aspire to be. I want to be able to be who I am and to be at peace with that. I don’t want to be in a world where I have to feel less than or not good enough because I am not willing to alter my appearance. Quite honestly I’m afraid of it; I’ve seen a lot of plastic surgeries go horribly wrong.
But this is an industry that is really predicated on looks, on being young, and I think it’s
difficult for aging actresses. It’s changing a bit, but it hasn’t changed completely. There are more roles for people with experience; certainly I see it with men in this business, but not so much with women.
The good aspects are the fact that I don’t have to try to be anything other than what I am. I have felt a lot of pressure in this industry to be perpetually young, and I say “young” in quotes, and to always look the way I did in “Top Gun.” The great thing for me is that I don’t feel compelled to have to do that to myself. There’s a certain thing that comes with age when you just don’t [care] anymore. You feel somewhat more secure in yourself and it doesn’t matter what people think about me. What matters to me is what I think about me, if I have self-esteem, if I have a sense of value. I’m not talking about self-importance; I’m talking about recognizing and honoring my values as a human being.
That has been the hardest lesson in my life to learn, to figure out who I am and learning how to be true to myself and figuring out what makes me happy and what doesn’t make me happy. I think it’s equally important to figure out what doesn’t make you happy.
ET: Social trends are with you, in theory at least. Boomers are aging, and you would think filmmakers would cast older women if they want to reflect real life.
KM: I’m convinced they’ll need older actresses in America to play character parts that look older. Jim Mickle said to me he won’t even look at anyone who has had any [plastic surgery] work done. I did all the Botox stuff. I was doing a play and had to have all these Botox injections, and it was so frustrating not to be able to communicate emotion through my face. I realized that all the Botox did for me was to make it impossible for me to act because so much of our emotions are dictated by the looks on our faces.
I’m curious if there’s a whole generation of children who don’t really know quite how to read human emotions because people’s faces don’t move anymore. Maybe there will be a whole new spectrum of psychological help for people who can’t read emotions. It boggles my mind that we would want to freeze our faces in the position of a mask of neutrality.
ET: When you describe your simple rural North Carolina lifestyle, I can’t help but think of your role as an Amish woman in “Witness.”
KM: I took a lot of things away from the experience of making “Witness.” I didn’t do much when I lived with the Amish for about a week and a half other than plant potatoes and milk cows.
Interestingly enough, one of the kids I lived with, as an adult now, died as the result of a car crash about a month ago. He and I were friends. What I took away from making “Witness” and what I love about that lifestyle is that simplicity. It’s so simple, and the people are so kind and loving and generous. That would be the best thing, to have that quality of life 24/7.
When I lived in rural Pennsylvania raising my kids I felt so much more spiritually connected to God and the universe. When I moved closer to Philly I really hated living in an urban environment. So I decided to sell everything and move to North Carolina, and I really feel more spiritually connected in a rural environment. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the Amish, maybe it did. I never really contemplated that very much.
ET: I would imagine you can grow some of your own food where you live.
KM: Yes, I did when I lived in Pennsylvania. Here I live on top of a hill so I’ve been waiting to be able to afford somebody to grade where I want a vegetable garden. It has to be graded out. I think I’ll be doing that in the spring. I live out in the middle of nowhere, so there are not a lot of organic sources out here. I planted strawberries this year, so I did build a raised bed on the side of the house.
ET: That must make for some healthy meals.
KM: In the morning I’ll have yogurt and fruit, sometimes toast with cheese. For lunch, usually I have some kind of a protein and a vegetable. For dinner I try to have protein and a salad. Sometimes I’ll have pasta. And I take a lot of vitamins. I take fish oil, a multivitamin. I take calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C and biotin. But I love dessert. I love making pies. I make a really good key lime pie, a really good pear walnut pie and a pumpkin pie.
ET: What do you do to stay fit? You have plenty of open space for hiking and don’t really need a gym.
KM: I don’t like going to the gym. I’m a germophobe. Going to the gym kind of creeps me out. I do Vinyasa flow yoga, and I have my own mat. I’m getting back into hiking and walking with my dog now. I had skin cancer [in 2012] on the inside of my ankle, and that kind of felled me. For about a year I couldn’t move. I’m pretty sure the skin cancer was from the sun because I grew up all my life at the beach, in Newport Beach, California. My entire life I’ve been at the beach and sailing, so I’m sure it was from the sun. Now I slather on a ton of SPF 70 sunblock all over.
ET: Do you take the vitamin D to get less of it from the sun and more in supplement form?
KM: Yeah, definitely.
ET: Last month, Christine Fox, the inspiration for your “Top Gun” character, was named acting deputy defense secretary, making her the highest-ranking woman ever at the US Defense Department. Do you see any parallels to your life, now that you have reached a place where you can live to your highest ideals atop your hill in North Carolina?
KM: Isn’t that awesome? I couldn’t even begin to create a parallel in my life with Christine, but I think it’s certainly awesome and I think it’s wonderful. She has training, insight, skill, all these things that I don’t have and I could not make that parallel.
The only thing I can say is that I learned in my life from experience and I have a lot of wonderful mentors in my life. And I think that I’m also curious. I think I’m a seeker as a human being. I enjoy the process of finding out about myself in the world, and the history of religions. It comes with age. That’s a level of maturity that one gains and hopefully people are growing, not regressing.
ET: How did the fact that your father Donald was a doctor shape your approach to health?
KM: Oh gosh, well he grew up in an age where he didn’t take very good care of himself. How did it shape my approach to health? When you’re a doctor’s daughter and you’re really sick they just tell you to go to bed. I guess it’s about not going to the doctor for every little thing.
ET: Do you think as a result you don’t worry about every little cough and sneeze as an adult?
KM: It’s very possible. For instance, when I had that skin cancer I thought it was a spider bite. So I didn’t get it looked at for four months after I had it.
ET: You’re very introspective and good at recognizing your strengths and limitations, skills you were unfortunately forced to hone after you were raped in college. You once said you had thought you could deal with your anger and hostility on your own, but later realized you couldn’t. How did you ultimately overcome that calamity?
KM: I went to therapy. I really started working on my spiritual life. Therapy and healing and all of that stuff takes a lot of time. It takes facing those feelings and confronting those feelings and walking through those feelings and experiencing those feelings that you’ve tried to deny forever. It takes going through that in order to come out the other side. And I had a lot of help.
You have to come into absolute acceptance that those feelings are there and they’re not going to go away. A lot of my M.O. was just pretending they weren’t there and that they were going to go away, and the truth is they never did until I dealt with them.
ET: Are they gone, or do you still deal with them? With the death of a loved one, someone told me there is no closure, just coping. Would that be the case with this, or do you find it’s resolved and behind you?
KM: Well, it’s resolved, definitely. But I think I suffer from PTSD because of it, so something can trigger that PTSD.
ET: Was that why you started yoga?
KM: I started yoga actually because I really could identify with the spiritual practice of yoga.
ET: Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?
KM: I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I make resolutions all through the year for things I want to work on. When I find something troubling I write down on a 3 x 5 card what the problem is, and I write below it the solution for it. So I try to work on the solution as opposed to staying focused on the problem.
I’ve never been good at keeping New Year’s resolutions. I think what the problem, for me, was that I say, “Okay, I’m going to do X,” and then when I don’t do X, I feel I’ve lied to myself and I become disappointed in myself. It becomes very self-defeating. When I lie to myself like that, and I don’t do X, Y and Z, I become distrustful of myself. I realized that isn’t a healthy way to live.
Now I focus on things in a much more positive and direct way, and I actually see daily results.
ET: What recent problem made it to one of your 3 x 5 cards?
KM: One of the things I’ve been working on recently is tolerance. I found myself becoming impatient with people, and I realized that was a quality I did not like in myself. So I chose to work on tolerance, which has enabled me to allow people to be who they are and do what they do and not think that my way is better. I let them have their own uniqueness without my butting in and trying to change it.
I was working on this a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve succeeded so far in keeping my mouth shut, which is important for self-discipline. It will probably come up again in my life since everything is kind of cyclical.
My kids are young adults now, and I have no business to butt in except when they ask me. What started this was that I had said something without thinking, and I really regretted that I had no ability at that moment to be a mature adult and to keep my mouth shut. I said something that was not kind, and I try to be kind and loving in all my thoughts and actions.
I’m a human being, and change in my life has always been an act of self-discipline. It hasn’t been something that just happened, and it doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve only become a more mature responsible adult because I worked towards it.