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


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!