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Erik Swann

‘She Looks Like His Mother!’ Top Gun Exec Reveals Multiple Complaints The Studio Initially Had About Kelly McGillis And What Happened With The Sequel

Kelly McGillis in Top Gun.

When most people think of Top Gun, the first person that likely comes to mind is Tom Cruise, who played lead character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. You can’t forget he was surrounded by some talented actors, though, including Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt, Meg Ryan and of course, Val Kilmer. And playing Cruise’s love interest, Charlie Blackwood was Kelly McGillis, who was more than able to stand toe to toe with the leading man. The two had great chemistry, so it might be hard to believe she nearly missed out on the role. According to one of the execs behind the 1986 movie, there were specific studio complaints about McGillis, who ultimately didn’t appear in the 2022 sequel.

Why Was Paramount Hesitant To Cast Kelly McGillis In Top Gun?

By the time Tony Scott’s aviation epic went into pre-production in 1985, Kelly McGillis had a few major acting credits under her belt, with her co-lead status in Harrison Ford’s Witness being the biggest. With that gig alone in mind, one would think the producers would see the promise there. Yet there was one detail keeping the actress from receiving serious consideration – her height. Former Paramount Film Group executive David Paul Kirkpatrick confirmed it was an issue and recalled that after a chemistry reading, he claimed McGillis looked like she could be her co-star’s mom:

Kelly McGillis was much too tall for Tom Cruise. She was 5'11". He was 5'7". Besides, she was 27 and he was 24 and the difference was palpable. After I saw them together for a ‘chemistry meeting’ on the Paramount lot, I walked away conclusively uttering, ‘She looks like his mother.’ … I was the executive on Top Gun but the producers, Tom Cruise, the director Tony Scott and the head of the studio, Ned Tanen would not consider screen testing Kelly and Tom to see how they ‘played’ on screen. The screen carried its own mysteries. If the fiction of them as a couple worked on screen, that was the ’truth’. Nothing else mattered.

Some may forget that the Risky Business actor is indeed one of the shorter actors in Hollywood. Though his height is probably the furthest detail from one’s mind when you’re watching him fly fighter jets on the big screen. Personally, I don’t see any issue with there being such a stark difference between the primary romantic leads. All of it does, after all, come down to the chemistry between the actors, and that’s exactly what David Paul Kirkpatrick asserted above. It’s for that reason that she’d eventually land the role of Charlie, but her first day on set was still a bit hectic, as Kirkpatrick also wrote for Medium

We had been shooting Top Gun for two weeks, when Kelly McGillis appeared on the screen. Top Gun was a troubled production, so the head of the studio wanted to see Kelly’s first day of work. Ned Tanen grabbed his head and shouted, ‘She looks like his mother!’ What could I do? We rewrote the first flirt scene to accommodate the awareness of the older woman-young man situation between the two leads. Maverick walks into the ladies room at a bar-restaurant and finds Charlie (Kelly). … We used apple boxes and shoe lifts for Tom. In the movie, Charlie always found a way to ‘slouch’ when in the same frame as Maverick. We did our best to make it work.

In the end, everything seemed to work out, as the two actors were dynamite in front of the camera, and the movie went on to be a box office hit. The on-screen camaraderie between the two was palpable, so why wasn’t the House on Carroll Street star in the eventual follow-up?

Why Wasn’t Kelly McGillis Asked To Return For Top Gun: Maverick?

By the events of the second movie, the titular character and Charlie are no longer together, and the latter is not mentioned in the film. Director Joseph Kosinski and co. opted to cast Jennifer Connelly was cast in Maverick as the new love interest – the previously unseen Penny Benjamin. In 2019, Kelly McGill herself confirmed she hadn’t been asked to reprise her role. While defending McGillis against “age and fat shaming,” David Paul Kirkpatrick discussed the actress’ reaction to Connelly’s casting: 

When she heard Jennifer Connelly was playing the new romance in Top Gun Maverick, she responded, ‘I am happy she got the opportunity. She’s a wonderful actress.’

Joseph Kosinski addressed the omissions of Charlie, Meg Ryan’s Carole Bradshaw and other OG characters. The filmmaker revealed on our own ReelBlend podcast that he didn’t want to hit home the fact that the movie focuses on a new chapter in Maverick’s life. It’s a fair argument, though some probably missed seeing Kelly McGillis. At the very least, as Kosinski mentioned, her shadow loomed over the sequel and, as a fan, I remain glad she scored the part in the first place, despite her height.

Both of the Top Gun movies are available to stream with a Paramount+ subscription and, for info on more recent cinematic fare, read the schedule of 2023 movie releases.

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