Kelly McGillis has eyes that God drew with a technical pen and a jawline that He filled in with a soft charcoal wash, and you can guess that He loved the work. There's a breathtaking perfection to the face that could launch a thousand ships, and a warmth about it that could launch a thousand dinghies, and not make them feel bad about being dinghies.
It's the face that you saw in "Witness," where, in a performance that will probably win the 28-year-old actress an Oscar nomination, she connected to the audience with an intense clarity, as if you were watching her through electric water. It's the face that flashes in your local theaters in a trailer for "Top Gun," due for release next April, about which Paramount is all abuzz. And it's the face that will appear (along with the rest of her) as Nina in Chekhov's "A Seagull," which opens at the Kennedy Center's American National Theater tomorrow.
"I'm not your classic beauty," says McGillis.
On screen, she projects the clean strength of the young Grace Kelly, a tall (5-10) foal with a clear brow and an all-American brand of common-sense elegance. In person, there's some of the sharp confidence of Katharine Hepburn in the timbre of her voice, some of Lauren Bacall's profane recklessness when she giggles velvet, and, as she ducks her head into the corner of a restaurant banquette, retreating from praise, something of the very shy girl who may be the real Kelly McGillis.
And then, again, indelibly, the face.
You'd fall in love with it. Trust me. But it's later, over coffee, when she takes out her journal and opens to a page that bears a list of words -- "puerile," "perspicacity," "assiduity" -- that you really go off your onion. Who wouldn't fall hopelessly for someone who's Building Her Word Power?
"There is a man in my life," she says. "His name is Barry Tubb, that's his name. He's an actor, he's 22 -- a younger man! I met him when I was doing 'Top Gun,' and we live together."
"I suppose I have a fear of not being taken seriously," says Kelly McGillis, bobby-soxed and B-complexed (from a bottle, two teaspoons a day), her flaxen hair pulled back, her eyes hidden by a Village intellectual's rimless glasses. "So many people who I know who are beautiful, gorgeous people are not thought of as serious-minded people. I think maybe that's a deep-seated fear of mine . . . that I will admit to you."
Given the demographics of the movie-going audience, Hollywood has an insatiable appetite for young actors and actresses; the talent pool, though, seems to be filled with kids who call themselves actors and actresses. For casting directors (who endlessly grumble about this), McGillis must appear as a godsend.
"There's a strength about her, a kind of determination, that I find admirable," says one New York casting director. "She's very beautiful in a way that you can imagine actually dating someone like her -- it's an accessible kind of beauty, not a threatening kind of beauty. And as a woman, I respond to her strength of spirit. I respond to that spunk. But again, she's got spunk without being tough."
"She has a quality of crystalline intelligence," says producer Don Simpson who, searching for an " '80s woman" to play the astrophysicist in "Top Gun," reviewed "Witness" and turned to McGillis. "We needed someone who didn't have to walk around with "The Portable Blake" under her arm, who could just hold forth in a convincing manner, who could be professional without being strident and overbearing."
For a serious young actress like McGillis, a movie like "Witness" was a godsend, too, which didn't ask her to fly into outer space or romp in a bikini, but simply, remorselessly, demanded some real acting.
" 'Witness' made me valid, in a way," says McGillis. "People say, 'She really is an actress,' because I did become a person other than who I am."
In preparing for her role in "Witness" as an Amish woman who falls in love with Harrison Ford's tough cop, McGillis put on 20 pounds, a task that, alas, came all too easily.
"Kelly has a weight problem," Kelly McGillis says. "When I have to be thin, I have to work at it. I won't lie to the American public and say I'm this perfect person, because I'm not. I used to be very, very heavy in high school, and nobody'd ever ask me out."
Somewhere in California, presumably, more than one ex-classmate is driving his head into a freezer door with great clangor.
Starring in a serious movie that actually made money, and getting great reviews besides, was a wonderful way to open the door. But what really matters now is not "Witness" or "Top Gun," but the role after that. Which means choosing carefully; which means turning a lot of work down.
"I think a lot of luck is involved," McGillis says. "And it's making intelligent choices, it's taking your time, it's not taking everything that comes along to you. A lot of it is not being overexposed so that the public can see you as different people. And it's hard. It's hard to sit there and turn down work. So many of my friends aren't working, they're waiting tables, and who am I to do this? Besides, they pay you a lot of money to do a movie.
"And you get used to per diem. It's like free money, free cash. You always go through that withdrawal after you do a movie. 'What, no per diem? No free money? You mean I have to go to the bank?' "
But luck isn't everything. Taking yourself seriously helps.
McGillis turned down modeling offers to go study acting at Juilliard for four years, working through a classical repertory, Chekhov and Pirandello and Congreve. Once she hopped a People Express flight to London, at her own expense, because she was unhappy with her solo reading in New York and wanted to audition opposite the other actors. When she unpacked her boxes after a recent move to Hollywood, she discovered four fat notebooks full of "back story" that she had developed for the role of Katherine Mulwray in the aborted "Chinatown" sequel, "The Two Jakes." And now, instead of doing another movie, she's playing Nina, one of the most difficult roles in classical drama.
"As far as the character goes, I find it confusing, I find it inspiring," McGillis said a couple of weeks ago. "But right now it's like, 'Aaaaargh! Why am I an actress? I don't know what I'm doing!' "
Panic, it seems, is the way she knows she's made the right career choice.
"I'm looking for something very special for my next movie," she says. "I don't know what that is, because I haven't seen it. But I think that after doing something like 'Top Gun,' I'd like to do something that's really difficult for me, that probably terrifies me. And then I'll know it's the right thing, when I say, 'I could never do that. I could never ever do that.' That'll be the one I'll take.
"I think I do subconsciously feel the need to produce. You can't be somebody who says, 'Wait a minute, I'm waiting for the feeling to come,' and you're waiting five hours. I mean, you do have to do it. 'I'm waiting to see how the tears are coming, okay?' I think that mostly why people do that, though, is fear, fear of jumping off the high dive.
"And ultimately, you have to jump."
It all started 20 years ago. Sort of.
"I'm the oldest of three sisters, and the tallest," McGillis recalls. "I used to beat them up and make them do plays with me, that I'd star in, direct and produce. I remember one time at my grandparents' house having arranged this elaborate Easter production. I went out and I made bunny costumes. I did everything! I'm sure it was okay as far as 5-year-olds go, but the zeal with which I threw myself into this!
"So I think I was always destined to be an actress. Or I could have been a perpetual Easter bunny."
She grew up in Newport Beach, Calif., daughter of a general practitioner, in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, with the sun and the sand and the surf, none of which prepared her for her audition at Juilliard.
"They asked me to play in the mud," she remembers. "Now, I want to tell you, coming from Newport Beach, we don't play in the mud. I mean, I had never played in the mud in my life. They asked me to do this improv, and I said, 'Sure! I'll do that!' And I thought, 'What the hell am I gonna do? Okay, snow! I'll just pretend like I'm playing in the snow.' In the middle of it, they were talking, and I finally said, 'Excuse me?'
"And they said . . . 'Why'd you stop?'
"And they said, 'Well, something inside of you must have made you stop.' And I sort of bristled and said, 'I guess you're right,' and I thought, 'Well, they'll never accept me, because something inside me made me stop.' "
Ah, the study of acting.
McGillis didn't get her first break in Schwab's drugstore, but close enough. She was waiting on tables in New York -- had been for some time, at Ticker's on Columbus Avenue, Dunleavy's in Chelsea, McFeeley's in Brooklyn, Ceci's -- when an old friend who had once directed her in a play back in California came in with his cousin.
"Well, Philip Epstein, the cousin, kept saying to me all night, 'You are Geneva,' " recalls McGillis. "And I'd say, 'What are you talking about?' And he'd say, 'Well, I can't tell you, but you are Geneva.' And I said, 'Oooooooh -- kay.' "
Epstein's father was the screen writer of a movie in development called "Reuben, Reuben," and when it finally came out, well, McGillis was Geneva, the young girl who falls in love with a dilapidated poet played by Tom Conti.
After it came out, she went back to waiting on tables.
But at least her parents from conservative old Newport Beach "saw that 'Reuben, Reuben' wasn't a porno film" and finally accepted their eldest daughter's chosen career.
Had it been a problem before?
"Was it A Problem. Oh ho ho ho. Yeah, it was A Big Problem," she says. "They told me I would be a failure and I would never succeed at anything in my life, this and that, this and that, and I said, 'Yeah, right, 'bye.' For a long time I'd get letters from my parents saying, 'When are you gonna grow up and decide what you want to be? Enough of this playing around.' "
But then there was "Witness," and then "The Two Jakes," and suddenly McGillis was playing tennis with Jack Nicholson and talking to reporters from Vanity Fair, GQ and Interview and being approached by fans in her aerobics class: "I mean, I love it when people do that, but there are moments when I would rather be able to sweat by myself."
And her father became her biggest fan. "I think he's seen 'Witness' like 10 times," she says. "He's very proud of me. Either that, or he has a very sick thing about watching that bathing scene, so I'm opting to think he's proud."
And then that velvet laugh scrolls out and swaddles you, and you're glad she's a star, and she's glad, too. Maybe just a little star, but not a starlet. No, don't call her a starlet. That's not one of the words she wants to learn.