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Kelly McGillis has a great laugh. It rolls out like a welcome mat when she talks about her reaction to the news that the Human Rights Campaign was honoring her with the Visibility Award at their upcoming Garden Party in Palm Springs on November 7.
“I don’t know,” she responds after her rich laughter ebbs. “I don’t feel like I did anything to get an award. I’m sure there are far many more people in the world who have devoted themselves to really wonderful things and gay rights, and I am not one of them.”
It’s the kind of laugh you get from someone refreshingly unassuming who perhaps doesn’t quite know what to say—a largely uncommon utterance in Hollywood. But Kelly McGillis is not a common movie star. First off, she believes that celebrities are just regular folk who are fallible, goofy and messed up doing the best they can, and secondly, she’s a lesbian.
The actress, who tantalized both men and women as Tom Cruise’s strong, sexy instructor in Top Gun and tugged at frayed emotional nerves in her turn as an attorney fighting for justice in a gang-rape case in The Accused, came out earlier this year.
At 52, having traded in her curly golden locks for a striking head of closely cropped salt and pepper hair, McGillis is still as vibrant as ever. As she entertains the onset of middle age she has, seemingly overnight, become an accidental activist for gay rights. The rumors about whether she is or whether she isn’t were indelibly answered when she copped to her lesbian leanings during an interview with the internet show Girl Rock!
Queers with Kelly crushes the world over raised collective fists in celebration and exclaimed, “Yessss! I knew it!”
But from Kelly’s perspective the news wasn’t necessarily Perez Hilton worthy, and as for seeing herself as a lesbian role model, “I don’t. I don’t, I don’t,” she emphatically asserts. “Because it took me so long and it was such a complicated process for me, first off, to come to terms with who and what I am.”
She credits timing as being the primary factor in her decision to go public, citing a reduction in ‘collateral damage’ as a major component. “Prior to that I had children in school and I lived in a very conservative area [in Pennsylvania],” she explains. “Part of it was for their sake. I think a lot of people knew but it wasn’t what I publicly talked about.”
Kelly has two daughters, Kelsey and Sonora, with her ex-husband Fred Tillman. “They were little kids when they came to live with me after my divorce,” she reveals. And even though she acknowledges that the girls grew up with Mel around, Kelly’s girlfriend for the past nine years, it still wasn’t easy to be publicly forthcoming about their relationship.
“It was kind of like, oh that’s my mom and that’s Mel,” Kelly remembers. “But I think it’s the kids outside that used to make fun of them. It was really something that they had to deal with. My kids are out of the house now, they no longer live with me. I don’t think they’re affected by what people think or do as much. So the timing was just right in my life to really speak my truth…. I just don’t see it as being any big deal.”
Trevor R. Thomas, Deputy Communications Director at HRC, views things a little differently. “We are proud to recognize Kelly McGillis with the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award,” he told The BottomLine. “In coming out earlier this year, Kelly set an example on the importance of living an open and honest life.”
Living honestly in her private life was never much of an issue for Kelly, who says that both of her husbands, Fred and previously Boyd Black, knew she questioned her sexuality. “I’ve never been dishonest about that,” she recalls.
Kelly had been with a woman prior to getting married. During the course of that relationship they were sexually assaulted.
“I thought that I was sexually assaulted because of being with her,” she reflects. “It was a very confusing, dark period in my life where, I don’t know, I got this kind of message that I was being punished. And it’s not that my family said that or anything. I don’t know where I got that message, but I got that message and I ran with it. So in my little thinking, I thought, I’m never going to have anything like that happen to me again.”
Kelly admits that she felt very protected by Fred and that she loved him. “I spent 12 years with him and I have two beautiful children with him. But I wasn’t really being true to who I am. I tried everything I could to not be who I am. And it wasn’t working.”
Since coming out to the media, Kelly says her private life hasn’t changed much, but on the outside things still feel a little sketchy.
“My day-to-day life hasn’t changed one whit,” she says. “But I do think that professionally it’s kind of scary, but also really a huge relief. Prior to my saying publicly that I was gay, every time my relationship stuff came up I always skirted the issue. I felt like it was this huge secret that I carried around with me. And I think professionally now I don’t have any secrets and that’s really incredibly freeing. I don’t think privately I’ve had any secrets for a long, long time, but that line between public and private life was getting really hard to maintain. Especially now, I don’t know what it is—it’s kind of freakish—but people demand so much, to know so much, about people who act. And that was just getting kind of exhausting for me.”
The god-like status of celebrities in this country, says Kelly, is at times daunting, as is the sense of entitlement others sometimes have to know everything about their lives. “I just think there’s this huge danger when people look at ‘celebrities’ as these larger-than-life people, because at the end of the day, they’re just people.”
But she wouldn’t change her chosen career path for anything, she says. She loves what she does—and she’s darn good at it too. In addition to Top Gun and The Accused, Kelly’s major screen credits include Made in Heaven and, of course, her big break starring opposite Harrison Ford in Witness, in which she played the unforgettable role of the Amish widow, “Rachel Lapp.” Not restricting herself to the big screen, Kelly has starred in several television mini-series and movies of the week. Ironically she also had a guest star ‘arc’ on the Showtime series, The L Word, while still closeted.
The California native also has a profound love of the stage, which was nurtured by her years at the Juilliard School in New York. She has regularly appeared in starring roles with the prestigious Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, DC and also performed in a national tour of the stage play, The Graduate, as “Mrs. Robinson.” Most recently, Kelly received critical acclaim for her starring performance as “Regina” in the California revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.
When it comes to acting, Kelly says she feels blessed to be able to do it and doesn’t really care if it’s on the big screen, little screen or on a stage.
“To me it doesn’t matter where I do it, but that I do it with people and for people,” she says. “It does me no good to do it by myself in my living room, but I think that whatever the medium is, they each present interesting challenges and I really like all of them, quite honestly.”
Right now, she’s in the middle of filming a horror flick called Stake Land, directed by Jim Mickle. “I call it a vampire movie with a message,” she says with a laugh. Then it’s off to England in January to do a tour of Frankie and Johnny In The Clair De Lune. “And that’s as far in advance as I plan my life,” says Kelly.
McGillis is something of an optimistic fatalist. She believes that things happen for a reason and has immense trust in the universe. This includes the people who come in and out of her life, so much so that she is loathe to list peers she admires. “Oh god, I have so many of them!” she says. “There are so many really brilliant, talented people out there, that I would hate to name a few and exclude many.”
And when it comes to female co-star crushes, her lips are tightly zipped. “I’m not going to tell you,” she says, laughing. “But they know who they are.” As for the rumor-turned-urban-legend that Kelly was involved in a three-way lovers’ spat with Jodie Foster and Whitney Houston during the filming of The Accused, Kelly laughs and crushes that with a single blow: “I’ve never met Whitney Houston. I think she’s vastly talented, but I have never met the woman.
“You know, I’m always surprised by what comes up in my life and no matter what, I really trust that I am being well taken care of,” she says. “I don’t know what the future holds for me, and it’s really a fantastic thing that I have absolute faith that it’s all good.”
This enviable ability to see and rely on the big picture has allowed Kelly to live a courageous life without regret. “I live my truth. I live my truth before God and everybody else, with the exception of People Magazine,” she quips.
“The best thing that I can do is wake up on a given day, be who I am, be loving, kind and of service to other human beings, do the best job that I can do, maintain my integrity and keep my word in all things,” she says simply. “And beyond that, you know, there’s not much else I can do….
“We’re all just doing the best we can do, and I do believe that with all my heart and soul. Could we do better? Yes. But I think we’re all doing the best we can. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the public eye or not, I think that the hardest journey that we have in life is coming to know who we are and being okay with that.”
If You Go: 2009 Human Rights Campaign Palm Springs Garden Party Presented by Integrated Wealth Management, Saturday, November 7th, 2-5 P.M. on the Great Lawn of Casa Encanto. 200 Camino Encanto, Palm Springs. Honoring Judy Shepard, Ally for Equality Kelly McGillis, Visibility Honoree and featuring Concord Recording Artist Spencer Day with Scott Nevins, Award -Winning Host. Tickets are $50 - $250 and can be reserved online.
The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBT citizens and realize a nation that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all. For more information visit hrc.org.