Kelly McGillis prepares for 'The Little Foxes' at Pasadena Playhouse
By By Irene Lacher
May 17, 2009 | 12:00 AM
In a spare rehearsal room across the street from the Pasadena Playhouse, Kelly McGillis is preparing a role she may have been born to play. It's one of the great women characters of the American theater, the acerbic Southerner Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's classic 1939 drama "The Little Foxes."
As a Southern woman in 1900, Regina struggles against her lack of autonomy and control over her wealth to tragic end. McGillis, too, has felt suffocated by society's dictates, but unlike Regina, she is finally finding inner peace.
After largely vanishing from public view following her star turns in the popular '80s films "Witness," "Top Gun" and "The Accused," the twice-divorced actress sprang back onto the public's radar in April with news that she had come out on "Girl Rock," a video blog on the lesbian website SheWired.com. Her revelation that she was "done with the man thing" ricocheted across the Internet, appearing on an array of websites, including Huffington Post and People.com.
The disclosure put an end to rumors that had followed McGillis for years, fanned by her appearances as a closeted Army colonel in Showtime's "The L Word" last year and as a lesbian poetry professor in the 2001 film "The Monkey's Mask."
But McGillis, 51, says her disclosure was unplanned. "That woman asked me a question and I was at one of those moments in your life when you say, 'Am I going to speak my truth or continue the façade?' And I chose the truth."
The actress also told vlogger Jennifer Corday that she had long believed that God was punishing her for being gay.
Not long ago, as she savored coffee and a cigarette on a bench in the Pasadena Playhouse courtyard, McGillis elaborated. She was casually dressed in embroidered black pants and a cardigan, with no makeup masking her expressive face or piercing blue eyes. She said she used to believe that God's retribution was behind her 1982 sexual assault. The experience led her to play an attorney in the 1988 film "The Accused" after first turning down the role of the rape victim because the memory of her own ordeal was still too raw (the part later went to Jodie Foster, who won an Oscar for her performance).
"Because I had been sexually assaulted, and I was at the time with a woman, I thought I was being punished," McGillis said. "And for a long, long time, I really tried to be something I'm not, somebody who's not gay. And I have to say it ruined my life in a lot of ways. Denial of self was incredibly self-destructive, incredibly destructive. And I'm not willing, once again, to go back. I'm only willing today to move forward."
McGillis' ability to embrace complexity prompted "Foxes" director Dámaso Rodriguez and playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps to pursue McGillis for the role of the ruthless Regina -- even though she hadn't been seen on stagein Los Angeles since her appearance in Sir Peter Hall's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Ahmanson Theatre a decade ago.
"She knows how to play layers," Epps said. "It's easy with Regina to say that she's just greedy or evil. But what are the things that are suggested in the play, or even in the bio for the character that you create, that make her who she is? All of our realities are the result of our collective experience, and the best actors know how to bring their collective experience to the play. And she knows how to do that."
Hellman's icy villainess has enticed leading ladies such as Tallulah Bankhead and Stockard Channing on the stage, as well as Bette Davis, who starred in the 1941 film directed by William Wyler. Now it's McGillis, in the Pasadena rehearsal room, who is wearing Regina's constraints on her sleeve -- or rather, her middle. Cinching her waist, above a floor-length skirt and over a black tank top, is a tightly laced white corset, a tangible symbol of the character's struggles and times. Yearning to live a cultured life in Chicago but totally bereft of any control over her own finances, Regina schemes with -- and ultimately without -- her brothers to secure financial freedom by taking over a cotton mill, only to lose the one person she loves, her daughter.
Epps and Rodriguez regarded the tale of feral greed and moral bankruptcy in business, which also stars "Newhart's" Julia Duffy, to be a particularly timely addition to the current season. "Little Foxes" opens May 29 and runs through June 28.
Standing beside a tufted white couch, McGillis/Regina tells her sickly husband, Horace (played by Geoff Pierson, seated in a vintage wood-and-cane wheelchair), that she never wanted to be married to a small-town clerk. In a voice dripping with molasses and ennui, she says, "It took me a while to find out that I had made a mistake . . . Everybody in this house was so busy, and there was so little place for what I wanted, and I wanted the world."
Suddenly McGillis looks up and energetically addresses Rodriguez. "I feel like I'm just standing here doing a soliloquy," she says and laughs. "You can tell me, 'That's your job, Kelly, and shut up.' "
The plainspoken actress doesn't just talk the authenticity talk. The tumble of blond curls that spilled above Tom Cruise's shoulder in the poster for 1986's "Top Gun" has turned gray, and McGillis is insistent about not dyeing her hair for roles. "I don't color my hair," she says with a laugh. "I haven't had a face-lift. I had a boob job. I had it taken out. This has been an ongoing process for me about self-acceptance and self-love and celebrating who I am, what I am and where I am and what I've been, with wholeness and love and generosity of spirit. Because I have spent a great deal of my life not celebrating who I am."
The Newport Beach native and Juilliard graduate largely retreated from the public eye with her second marriage, in 1989 to Fred Tillman, and her new role as mother to now-19-year-old Kelsey and Sonora, 16. They moved to Key West, Fla., in 1990, where the couple ran a Caribbean restaurant called Kelly's. Tillman bought her out when they parted in 2001, and McGillis moved with her daughters to southeastern Pennsylvania, which she found more family-friendly.
Throughout those years, McGillis continued to take occasional parts in TV, film and theater. Her best roles were on stage, particularly the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., where she reigned as Lady Macbeth and Lavinia in Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra." McGillis had a brief run on Broadway as Hedda Gabler in 1994 and played Mrs. Robinson in the national tour of "The Graduate" in 2004. But family responsibilities kept her largely tethered to Mohnton, Pa., until last November, when she sold her home and moved to southern New Jersey.
Her younger daughter has moved back to Florida to live with her dad and, with her older daughter out of the house, McGillis suddenly finds herself on the precipice of a new life, free to pursue her muse -- whatever that may be. "I think it's about having the courage of being," she says. "I've spent a lot of my life trying to be what I think other people wanted me to be. And I think one of the great gifts of being older and being single is the fact that I get to really explore who I am and what it is that I want to do -- not what I'm doing for others."
She's hoping for a long career as a character actress, like Jessica Tandy. But McGillis is also deeply interested in her spiritual life -- she has begun studying theology and has counseled substance abusers in a women's prison in Pennsylvania; she plans to continue both from her new base in New Jersey.
"I don't know in this part of my life if it's going to be acting that I'm going to be able to do," she says. "That's not up to me. What is up to me is that I show up for my life with an open heart and an open mind and be ready to accept what comes my way with love."