Kelly Ann McGillis was born in Newport Beach, California, to Virginia Joan (Snell), a homemaker, and Donald Manson McGillis, a general practitioner of medicine. She has English, Welsh, Scots-Irish, and German ancestry. McGillis dropped out of high school to pursue a career as an actress, and attended Juilliard in Manhattan and Pacific Conservatory of Performing Art in Santa Monica, CA.
She held a variety of jobs while pursuing her career, such as waitressing, and snagged a few stage roles before landing a supporting part in the Academy Award-nominated Reuben, Reuben (1983). This led to a lot of TV work and a lead role opposite Harrison Ford in the highly acclaimed thriller Witness (1985). This box office hit, directed by Peter Weir, got her noticed around Hollywood and producers took note of her. One of them was Jerry Bruckheimer, who cast her as Charlie Blackwood in the mega-hit Top Gun (1986) which became the highest-grossing film of the year and gave her some major name recognition.
Ironically, that breakthrough role didn't help her career in terms of high-profile work. She played prosecutor Kathryn Murphy in The Accused (1988) with Jodie Foster who won an Academy Award for her role, but unfortunately for McGillis she was overlooked for any major nomination. Never interested in being box-office gold, she remained loyal to the theater, even after being established as a major star during the mid to late 1980s, taking such various stage roles in such William Shakespeare plays as "The Merchant of Venice", "Don Juan", "Twelfth Night", "The Merry Wives of Windsor", "Mourning Becomes Electra" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream". In 1994 she scored the title role in the Broadway production of "Hedda Gabler" but unfortunately it only played for 33 performances before closing.
She had two daughters in the early 1990s, and worked more sporadically on TV and film so she could spend time with her family and owned her business, a restaurant in Florida. She worked on Winter People (1989), Cat Chaser (1989), The Babe (1992), North (1994), At First Sight (1999) and The Monkey's Mask (2000) as well as a string of made-for-TV films.
She has completed a national stage tour of "The Graduate", playing the infamous Mrs. Robinson, and continues to act as she begins study on Addiction Studies and raising her children in Pennsylvania.