The legendary film Top Gun was the launchpad for Tom Cruise’s rise to stardom. However, Kelly McGillis, who portrayed his love interest in the movie, embarked on a completely distinct journey. Today, it’s challenging to identify the 65-year-old actress due to the unjust age-related criticism she has endured in recent years.
When I went to the cinema to watch Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the 80s classic, I couldn’t help but think of Kelly McGillis. I knew she wouldn’t make an appearance, but I held onto a glimmer of hope. Alas, McGillis never graced the screen, while Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer shared an emotional reunion. According to McGillis, she was not invited to rejoin the cast. In 2019, Entertainment Tonight inquired about her potential involvement in the sequel.
“Oh my god no. They did not, nor do I think they would ever,” McGillis responded. “I mean, I’m old and I’m fat, and I look age-appropriate for what my age is, and that is not what that whole scene is about.”
Nonetheless, the 65-year-old actress appeared unperturbed by her absence from Top Gun: Maverick, the blockbuster hit of 2022. She stated, “I’d much rather feel absolutely secure in my skin and who and what I am at my age, as opposed to placing a value on all that other stuff.”
The Real Story Behind Her Top Gun Character
In the 1980s, McGillis was among the select few women commanding million-dollar fees in Hollywood. In Top Gun, the renowned actress portrayed astrophysicist and training school instructor Charlie Blackwood. Her portrayal left an indelible mark as Maverick’s love interest – a brainy yet captivating character that became iconic.
“It was really intimidating to me. I don’t aspire to be famous. I just aspire to be an actress, and that movie kind of startled my reality in a big way. I got very insecure. I didn’t know who I could trust to be my friend anymore.”
Interestingly, Charlie’s character was inspired by another iconic figure, Christine Fox, a prominent civilian flight instructor and mathematician the producers encountered during their research for the film. Fox later had a distinguished career at the Pentagon, eventually becoming Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense, the highest-ranking woman ever in the Department of Defense.
McGillis’s path to securing the role of Charlie was somewhat serendipitous. She had been set to work on another film that fell through, prompting Paramount to reach out and offer her the role in Top Gun. McGillis liked the script and subsequently traveled to San Diego for the production.
“I felt it was a Western in the sky. I had no clue how visually impeccable it would be. I think Tony Scott brought so much to that movie visually,” she recalled.
While her role in Top Gun propelled her to sex symbol status, she also garnered acclaim for her on-screen performance. Her chemistry with Cruise was palpable, and she genuinely admired her co-star off-screen.
“I think Tom is terrific. He’s the sweetest guy. He is very genuine and sincere and respectful. And I just loved working with Tom. I think he is wonderful,” she gushed.
Despite comparisons to legendary screen beauties like Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, and Lauren Bacall, McGillis could never take those comparisons seriously.
“I have never thought of myself as a great beauty. In my teenage and prepubescent years when one forms one’s ideas of oneself, I think primarily I was very overweight and had very low self-esteem,” she revealed in a 1986 interview.
Turning Her Back on Hollywood
Though many remember McGillis for her role as Charlie in Top Gun, her career and life have encompassed much more. In 1985, she burst onto the Hollywood scene with her breakthrough performance as an Amish widow in Witness. Following her success with Top Gun, she starred in the controversial film The Accused, portraying a resilient lawyer. McGillis then appeared in various television and film roles throughout the 1990s, although none propelled her career.
Afterward, the outspoken actress defied conventions and turned her back on Hollywood. She rejected the scripts she was offered, changed her appearance by cutting her blonde hair, departed from Hollywood, became a mother, and experienced weight gain.
“I think just my priorities in life changed. It wasn’t like a major decision that I made to leave; it was just that other things became more important,” she explained to Entertainment Tonight.
Kelly McGillis’s Personal Life
After leaving Hollywood, she shifted her focus to her family and devoted time to raising her now-adult daughters, Kelsey and Sonora. Shortly after The Accused’s premiere, McGillis fell in love with Fred Tillman, a man unrelated to show business. However, Fred and Kelly shared common interests, such as a love for sailing and beaches.
Kelly, born in 1957 and raised with sandy shores in Newport Beach, California, felt like she had found her ideal match. McGillis and Tillman tied the knot, purchased a yacht, and embarked on European adventures. The family eventually settled in Key West, Florida, where they jointly opened a restaurant called Kelly’s Caribbean Bar & Grill.
Nonetheless, McGillis’s past continually caught up with her. According to the Top Gun star, she didn’t move to Florida to escape her past, but she had personal issues to contend with. She grappled with excessive drinking and uncertainty about her sexuality, enduring a turbulent period of her life.
“I was never really unhappy. It’s just that I wanted to reclaim my anonymity, to live my own life. I think that if you have children, it is you who should look after them. I didn’t want my kids to think of me as a movie star; I wanted them to know me as Mommy,” she reflected in a 1999 interview with The Daily Telegraph.
In 2002, McGillis divorced Tillman. Seven years later, she publicly came out as a lesbian during an interview with SheWired. According to the actress, her journey of self-discovery had been ongoing since she was 12.
“Life is a freaking journey, and it’s about growing and changing, and coming to terms with who and what you are, and loving who and what you are,” she asserted.
While managing her restaurant in Key West, McGillis crossed paths with bartender Melanie Leis. Regrettably, their relationship proved tumultuous and self-destructive, marked by substance abuse issues and stints in rehab, particularly for McGillis’s excessive drinking.
Nevertheless, the two joined in a civil union in New Jersey in 2010, with McGillis’s ex-husband, Fred Tillman, in attendance.
“He was my greatest, bestest friend, and he still is,” McGillis noted in an interview with the Daily News. She added, “I was gay before I had kids. I had a really tough time coming to accept myself.”
Kelly McGillis and Melanie Leis ultimately parted ways in 2011.
Kelly McGillis Today
As of the present day, Kelly is said to reside in a log cabin nestled in the hills of Hendersonville, North Carolina. She sports short gray hair and prefers comfortable attire, enjoying a tranquil, content life far removed from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood.
“I am concentrating on teaching acting privately in a small studio associated with a school in Asheville, North Carolina.