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Film and stage roles mount up for Kelley McGillis

THE dressing room is jammed with flowers: red roses, orchids, carnations, chrysanthemums -- some wilting under the hot theatrical lights around her makeup table. Kelly McGillis turns her back to the dressing-room mirror and confides a few of her offstage secrets as an actress. She is the long-stemmed, blond beauty nominated for the Golden Globe awards as the Amish widow in ``Witness.''

But that film is behind her now, and her new film, ``Top Gun,'' is just being released around the country. She took time out recently to chat about acting backstage at Kennedy Center, where she was starring as Nina in a production of Chekhov's ``The Sea Gull.''

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Kelly McGillis confesses that she usually arrives at the theater two hours before each performance rather than the standard half hour required by Equity. In those two hours she gathers her talents for the performance to follow:

``I start off the process by just washing my face, and in that process I feel I wash away everything of that day.'' The voice is honeyed, husky: ``And I start to think about being vulnerable, letting those walls drop, and slowly I start becoming that person for that night.'' Without that two hours to sink into the character, she feels, ``I would be carrying around too much baggage from that day.''

There are other secrets. She carries some of them around with her.

``Here,'' she says, reaching into a huge black, leather duffel bag of a pocketbook and pawing out a handful of rock-music tapes. ``Before the first three acts, when I'm getting ready, I listen to rock-and-roll music to get me hyped up. I listen to any sort of music that gets me revved up, because Nina does run in like a live wire in the first three acts. I never stop. I never take a breath. And that music allows me not to breathe, in the sense of relaxing.''

Among the breathless tapes: rock music by DePeche Mode, UB 40, and Big Audio Dynamite. But before the tragic fourth act, when Nina returns with her life ruined, Kelly wants the poignancy of Chopin. She hauls out a tape of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 like an eager fourth grader during show-and-tell.

Kelly McGillis, live, off-camera and offstage, does have a giggly, girlish quality different from the womanly serenity of her role in ``Witness.'' There she looked like an early Ingrid Bergman painted by Rembrandt.

In ``The Sea Gull,'' standing wreathed in clouds of smoke in a long off-white gown, she looks like the goddess of the Columbia Pictures logo.

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In real life the day of this interview, she had the guileless smile of an ing'enue. But she was dressed like the astrophysicist heroine of her next film, ``Top Gun,'' in which she sports a white shirt, jeans, black bulky snakeskin cowboy boots, and the black leather aviator's jacket with gold wings she shrugs on at the end of the interview. ``Top Gun'' opens this spring.

Kelly McGillis has been compared to some of the great screen beauties like Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, and Lauren Bacall. That makes her wriggle, blush, and blurt out: ``I have never thought of myself as a great beauty. In my teen-age and prepubescent years when one forms one's ideas of oneself, I think primarily I was very overweight and had a very low self-esteem. I've never been able to say to myself, `Kelly, you are beautiful.' No. It's easier obviously when you're acting, because you're not yourself.''

She grew up like one of the Beach Boys' ``California Girls,'' raised on sand and surf in an oceanfront home at Newport Beach, Calif., where her father is a doctor. But the oldest of three sisters skipped surfing and cheerleading to stage her own family plays, producing, directing, and starring in them.

Kelly ruefully admits to being a high school dropout who, instead of graduating, piled her stuff into a station wagon and showed up at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts to study drama. ``And they said, `You have to audition,' and I said, `I have to what?' I had no concept of the real world.'' They took her anyway.

She laughs again, a deep, rowdy laugh somewhere between Tallulah Bankhead and Kathleen Turner. Unconventional, yes, but serious about her acting, as she proved when she turned to waitressing to support herself through four years of studying drama at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. There she cut her teeth on the classics, appearing in Chekhov's ``The Three Sisters,'' Shakespeare's ``The Winter's Tale,'' and Pirandello's ``Six Characters in Search of an Author.''

She even insisted on commuting from Juilliard to the North Carolina location of her first feature film role, starring opposite Tom Conti in ``Reuben, Reuben.'' Australian director Peter Weir (``The Year of Living Dangerously'') saw her in that film and asked her to test for the role of the gravely beautiful Amish widow in his thriller ``Witness'' opposite Harrison Ford. When she got the part, she went to Pennsylvania's Amish country and lived briefly with a young widow's family there, doing farm chores and studying the simple 19th-century way of life, as though cramming for a final exam at Juilliard.

Although she's big at the box office after ``Witness,'' Kelly McGillis has turned down several film offers to get back to her ``roots'' in theater with Peter Sellars's production of ``The Sea Gull'' for the American National Theater. She says Peter Weir taught her a lot about acting technique for film, and Peter Sellars ``taught me a lot about not compromising,'' not settling for capturing the moment once but every time, not doing it by rote and ``not faking it.''

What's next for this statuesque (5-foot, 10-inch) beauty with the tangled butterscotch hair and gray-blue eyes? After the release of ``Top Gun,'' there are a few roles she'd like to do: Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (``I really think I understand that passion'') and what she refers to in a whisper as ``The M play.'' How about a hint? ``Shakespeare's M play,'' she whispers again. While laughing at superstition, she still refuses to break the theatrical taboo of saying ``Macbeth'' in a dressing room. But, yes, she'd like to be Lady Macbeth.

Whatever role she tackles next, Kelly McGillis will be looking for ``the truth within yourself, not of the role, but making that role true to yourself. And that's not having any barriers between you and the role. And I think that's when the most magic moments happen. That's when it's your soul and the character's soul at the same time.''

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