Bars

Kelly McGillis on Coming Out, Shame, Religion, and Vampires

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Kelly McGillis shot to fame in 1980s blockbusters like Witness, Top Gun, and The Accused, serving fierce hair and the requisite attitude.

After a 10-year hiatus, she’s back in Stake Land, a spare and arty horror flick with minimal dialogue (“Stake the bitch!”) and Kelly cutting an imposing figure as a nun running from both vampires and a Bible-thumper out to jumpstart a gang-rape.

Meanwhile, her off-screen life has been anything but spare and minimal. Twice married to men, Kelly came out as a lesbian in ’09, and last year she had a civil union ceremony in New Jersey with girlfriend Melanie Leis. Intrigued, I rang Kelly to talk sexuality, religion, and, of course, vampires.

Me: Hi, Kelly. Why did you want to do Stake Land?

McGillis: What attracted me was the apocalyptic theme to it. I liked that.

Me: It’s very bleak stuff. But did you have fun on the set?

McGillis: Yes, oddly enough. It is acting, after all. I don’t have to be methody about it. If I’m playing a serial killer, do I want to bring that home with me? No!

Me: You play a nun in a religious crisis. In real life, you supposedly rejected religion because it made you feel guilty about your sexuality. True?

McGillis: I don’t know if I’m religious. I’m a very spiritual person. There’s a big difference. I don’t know if I ever took it on to reject it. It was a story I created in my mind about my sexuality—that it was wrong—but it was not necessarily a religious thing. I think that’s far more cultural than anything else.

Me: How have you dealt with that story?

McGillis: That’s been a slow, arduous process—coming to terms with who I am. I had a lot of shame attached to my sexual self, and I don’t think necessarily that was anyone’s doing. Things happen in life.

Me: Did people tell you not to come out for your career’s sake?

McGillis: Yes.

Me: Do you regret not doing so anyway?

McGillis: No, because that would indicate regret. Things happen for a reason.

Me: You have no regrets? That’s wonderful.

McGillis: I don’t have any right now. Three hours from now, I might change my mind.

Me: In the ’80s, when you were a big Hollywood star and rumors started surfacing, did you duck for cover?

McGillis: What did I do? [Pause.] I think I was very afraid. It’s sad to be afraid to be who you are.

Me: You have a helluva narrative, as Ashley Judd would say. Along with the great achievements, there was a horrible sexual attack on you, years of struggling with abuse.

McGillis: If people only knew. One of these days, I’m gonna be honest about my life, but until a lot of people are dead, I can’t. It’s bad karma. I can laugh at myself, but it’s not fair for me to laugh at other people.

Me: Are you afraid people might wrongly make a connection between your having been sexually attacked and your lesbianism?

McGillis: No, it never occurred to me, because that’s not why I have the sexual preference that I do.

Me: Did your life change when you came out?

McGillis: Not one bit. It wasn’t any big secret in my life. It’s not like people went, “Oh, my gosh, you’re gay?” I’ve been what I’ve been. I just never talked about it publicly. It’s really nobody’s business, truthfully.

Me: Have you ever taken another look at The Accused?

McGillis: I have recently, only because I did a fundraiser for Berks Women in Crisis. And I was struck by how young I was and how crazy I was to think I was fat and ugly. That’s how I perceived myself for so long. That was my negative chatter in my head.

Me: How did you get the chatter out of there (along with “the story”)?

McGillis: Years of therapy. It helps to work on yourself.

Me: Does your wife, Melanie, help you with self-esteem issues?

McGillis: No. I feel better regardless of what anybody does. That’s my job. Self-worth and self-esteem are an inside job, baby.

Me: From what I’ve heard, true love can only be achieved after sharing dark spells. You and Melanie have certainly gone through those.

McGillis: Can we not talk about that? I’m here to talk about the movie.

Me: Sure, OK. What are your feelings about Hollywood films versus independent films?

McGillis: I don’t have any experience of Hollywood movies right now, so I can’t answer that.

Me: Did Hollywood squeeze you out or did you walk away?

McGillis: That’s a weird thing to say because it’s a little combative. But I got married [to second husband Fred Tillman], had kids, and the focus of my life changed. The be-all-and-end-all of my life was not my job.

Me: I wouldn’t know. I have no kids. I’m a sad, lonely person.

McGillis: That’s pathetic! [Pause.] My focus changed. It’s a maturing process. Isn’t that part of what getting older is about? Not being self-involved.

Me: I don’t even have a pet.

McGillis: Now I feel really sad for you.

Me: I do have a potted plant.

McGillis: That’s something! [Laughs.]

Me: Why do you think vampires are so hot and sexy right now?

McGillis: I have no idea. I’ve never seen a vampire movie. No, wait, I have seen the Twilight movies, but those are sexy because the people in them are sexy. I don’t think it’s about being a vampire.

Me: Maybe it’s the eternal-life thing.

McGillis: That would be exceedingly exhausting. I wouldn’t have the fashion accessories for it!

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