“This is going to make us cry, isn’t it?” Katie Holmes asks me.
We are sitting in a screening room on the Sony lot, waiting for the movie “Foxcatcher” to start. She has rushed into the nearly empty theater a few minutes late, an overstuffed purse slung over her shoulder. After sinking into her seat, she slips off her ballet flats and puts her feet up on the seat in front of her. She is wearing no makeup and has taken no pains to cover up her few gray hairs.
She has been looking forward to seeing the wrestling drama (in which she does not appear), because it was directed by Bennett Miller, with whom she has just worked on a series of Olay advertisements.
As the film begins, she starts whispering about how understated she thinks its tone is and how a scene in which Channing Tatum runs in the woods reminds her of growing up in Ohio.
Just a good Catholic girl from the Midwest — that’s who Holmes was when she launched her Hollywood career at age 18, playing earnest high schooler Joey Potter on “Dawson’s Creek.” She was still making the transition from teen icon to grown-up actress when she started dating Tom Cruise in 2005. And the world knows how that went: She gave birth to their really cute baby girl, Suri, and the couple got married in an Italian castle.
Meanwhile, her once-hot acting career began to suffer. No longer did the indie films she appeared in gain much traction, unlike the critically acclaimed “Wonder Boys” and “Pieces of April.” After starring in “Batman Begins” (2005), she did not reprise her role in “The Dark Knight,” which went on to become a massive hit. She did appear in two plays on Broadway, trying to forge a stage career, but both were poorly received by critics. For the most part, she became one of those actresses you see at fashion shows, instead of the multiplex.
Then in 2012, she filed for divorce from Cruise. Tabloids reported that the split was largely due to his ardent belief in Scientology. But she has never talked about her reasons for leaving him, the terms of the settlement or the religion.
What’s clear is that, at 35, Holmes is hoping to be taken seriously in Hollywood again. She stars in “Miss Meadows,” a low-budget indie film about a prim schoolteacher who seems all rainbows and cotton candy but secretly fancies herself a gun-toting vigilante. It opened last month. And she has just signed on to direct her first movie, an adaptation of Annie Weatherwax’s mother-daughter tale “All We Had,” with a screenplay being written by Josh Boone, director of “The Fault in Our Stars.”
“I’m feeling very inspired,” she says during another meeting, by the beach in Santa Monica. In that conversation she says, “I’ve always loved acting, and I feel really good about it right now. It’s an interesting job to have, because, when you start at 18, you don’t have that much life experience. You might think you’re ready for something, but you’re actually not. You’re dealing with 40-year-olds and being in an adult world when you’ve come straight out of dealing with prom issues.”
So the question that’s intrigued observers for years — who is Katie Holmes, really? — seems to be one she’s finally digging into herself. She recently bought a home in Calabasas, and she and Suri, now 8, divide time between the West Coast and New York.
At 18, she was accepted at Columbia University but deferred because of her “Dawson’s Creek” commitment. So she’s playing catch-up now. Nearly all of her emails to me since the screening of “Foxcatcher” — which she called an “important yet disturbing film” — are about books. She just started Alice Munro’s latest short story collection (“She is brilliant, and short stories are so hard a medium.”) and asked if I’d read singer Patti Smith’s autobiography, “Amazing.”
She watched the “Olive Kitteridge” miniseries on HBO and says she’d be interested in going back to television herself. She admires actresses such as Jodie Foster, Cate Blanchett and Cameron Diaz (“their versatility, their intelligence — they work a lot, and work hard”). She’d love to do a Marvel movie and dreams of working with big directors such as Miller, Alexander Payne and Steven Spielberg. Oh, and Christopher Nolan again, the filmmaker behind “Batman Begins.”
Holmes seems to have a bit of Nolan in her, I tell the actress — mysterious, secretive, a tough egg to crack. “I think you’re giving me way too much credit,” she replies, laughing. “I’m from a very reserved family. You kind of grow up just doing what you do, and not talking about it and moving on.”
She quickly changes the subject to a movie she did with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, called “Woman in Gold,” set for release next year.
One of those Holmes considers closest to her, TriBeCa Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal, says by phone, “We don’t really talk about her personal life unless we talk about being a mom. I think she’s out there doing some terrific work, and that’s ultimately what she should be known for, her work, and not anything else.”
Karen Leigh Hopkins, the director of “Miss Meadows,” predicts those who watch that film will “see a whole cacophony of colors” from Holmes. The protagonist is doe-eyed but odd — an elementary-school teacher who wears white gloves and demure floral dresses and literally tap dances down the street. She looks delicate, but beneath the bubbly exterior lies a woman who will shoot you in cold blood if you mess with her.
Hopkins adds, “I feel like Katie has proved to be courageous…. I think her choices are strong. She’s both a mother, an actor and — this sounds weird — but a real human.”