Kelly McGillis' Second Act
The star of such ’80s films as “Witness” and “Top Gun” returns to her first love — the stage — as a scheming Southern aristocrat in the Pasadena Playhouse production of “The Little Foxes.”
By John Seeley 06/01/2009
Actress Kelly McGillis, who shot to fame in such iconic ’80s films as “Witness” and “Top Gun,” returns to center stage — literally — in the Pasadena Playhouse production of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” which runs through June 28. In the classic 1939 drama, McGillis plays the steely and ruthless Southerner Regina Giddens, who struggles with her family over wealth and freedom.
In April, McGillis again made headlines after keeping a low profile in recent years, softpedaling her career to tend to her family. This time, it was for a reason other than her acting — her personal life. At 51, McGillis came out on the lesbian Web site shewired.com — declaring, “I’m done with the man thing … I need to move on in life. That’s another part of being true to yourself that’s been a challenge for me.”
McGillis’ current path brings her to Pasadena for the challenging stage role tackled by such leading ladies as Bette Davis on film and Tallulah Bankhead and Stockard Channing onstage. Why is this saga of money-hungry, Machiavellian manipulation, set in antebellum Alabama more than a century ago, being revived now? And why would McGillis fit into that milieu?
“How far one would go for money and power is a timeless question,” said Dámaso Rodriguez, who’s directing the Pasadena production. “The acquisition of generational wealth may be connected to some instinct to preserve one’s own children.” Corporate abuses making news, from the treachery of Bernie Madoff on down, make it even more timely, Rodriguez continued. As for casting McGillis, he said, “I never saw her as an ingenue; she’s got physical power and firepower … and she can play Regina, who is really, really smart.” Adds Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, McGillis has “stage muscle, the kind you only develop from solid experience.”
Arroyo Monthly recently caught up with McGillis for a liquid experience over herbal tea at a Playhouse District coffee bar.
Why this play now? The action in “The Little Foxes” is set more than 100 years ago — is there any resonance or relevance to relationships today?
The play as a whole and the topic of greed and doing whatever it takes to make money is a very timely issue in light of what’s going on with our economy. Also, on a personal level, the character of Regina, for her it’s about survival; that money represents validity and autonomy in a very patriarchal culture, and I think that continues, even though things are a lot better than 100 years ago.
She is a much darker role than people are used to seeing you play — this cold, manipulative, rather sinister woman. What in your professional work prepared you for this role?
I don’t think that she’s dark and sinister; I think she’s a survivor. And I think that when people are in survival mode, they will do whatever they need to do. I don’t think that there are these “evil” people in the world; I think people do things out of desperation.
You’ve been doing a lot of Shakespeare lately.
I have been working with the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C. I’ve done Lady MacBeth — and she’s not so nice [she laughs]. Also, Lavinia in “Mourning Becomes Electra” — not so nice, so I don’t know where you got the impression …
Are you happier doing stage work in front of live audiences?
That’s the greatest thing in the world. Growing up, I wanted to be a theater actor, so it was kind of a shock to me that I ever made a movie. What I love is you get to be in control of your own performance. Say I do a movie, and I do my tapes and whatever I do the best I can, and they take it away and the director and the editor sit in a room and put it together — they’re in control of my timing as an actor (when they cut away, for example), so my performance is under the control of somebody else. In the theater, I get to work with my timing (with the director and the other actors) and I get to play with that night after night with a new character — which is the audience. That group brings a different energy, different feel, and then you get to play with the nuances, the subtleties of your performance. That’s what I love.
What dramatic work are you most happy with or proud of?
“Mourning Becomes Electra” was the hardest, most challenging work, the scariest. I was very intimidated by the whole idea of Electra and by O'Neill and the vastness of his concept — it’s a cycle, everything goes in circles.
On to films: You passed on the role that Jodie Foster got an Oscar for in “The Accused,” because the rape victim role hit too close to home. [McGillis was brutally raped in New York in 1982 by two young men, one of whom went on to become a serial offender.] Have you spent any time kicking yourself for missing that opportunity?
Oh, God, no, everything in my life has gone exactly the way it was supposed to happen. Jodie was brilliant in that role and nobody could have done it the way she did.
How was working with Harrison Ford [in the 1985 film “Witness”], different from working with Tom Cruise [as the romantic interest of Cruise’s pilot character in 1986’s “Top Gun”]?
Harrison Ford, for me, was working with a huge icon and — this was my first job, out of school — incredibly intimidating. He was larger than life and I was this little kid from Juilliard who knew nothing about anything, but he was very nice. Working with Tom was a little different because we were all around the same age. He was very supportive, very kind. It was really fun.
You just came out publicly, saying you’re “done with the man thing.”
What happened was I was asked [by “Girl Rock” video logger Jennifer Corday] and I had to choose ... so I just decided on a truth moment. Earlier, part of [staying in the closet] is youth — we’re always trying to decide who we are, and we let other people define it.
Do you risk losing roles by coming out now? Or has Hollywood really changed on that score?
I would hope people have a much easier time of it today.
You’ve been living in a small town in Pennsylvania recently. Why is that?
I just moved to New Jersey, the Philadelphia suburbs. But yeah, we moved there in 2001, a small town near Amish country. After the divorce, I wanted to raise my kids in a different sort of environment; they were 8 and 12. I wanted to be a more full-time mother and that would have been hard close to New York or L.A., with the pull of acting jobs.
I read that, aside from work, you’ve been involved with “addiction studies.”
I’ve been studying at a seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I go to prisons and talk to young women about addiction and recovery. Most of them are there because of addiction — their own or their husbands’ or boyfriends’. If you can bring them some kind of spiritual help, or hope …
Sort of a prison ministry. Is there something that gives you some special insight into these problems?
I’ve had issues. That’s in the past, but ... the issues are there all your life.
So what are you looking forward to after “The Little Foxes?” Are there film or TV projects?
I just hope I can go back to work — it’s what makes me joyous. I might also pursue some work at a seminary in the fall. It all depends; I don’t know what God’s plan is.