"This is going to make us cry, isn't it?" Katie Holmes asked me.
We were sitting in a screening room on the Sony lot, waiting for the movie "Foxcatcher" to start. She'd rushed into the near-empty theater a few minutes late, an overstuffed purse slung over her shoulder. After sinking into her seat, she slipped her ballet flats off and put her feet up on the seat in front of her. She had no makeup on and hadn't gone to any pains to cover up her few gray hairs.
She was looking forward to seeing the wrestling drama — which she is not in — because it was directed by Bennett Miller, who she'd just worked with on a series of Olay advertisements. She asked me whether I knew of any upcoming screenings of "Foxcatcher" following an interview earlier that week.
"I was wondering if there was, like, one tonight and I was gonna piggyback off you," she'd said.
She came alone. Almost immediately after the film began playing, she started whispering comments about how understated she thought the tone was and how a scene in which Channing Tatum runs in the woods reminded her of growing up in Ohio.
Just a good Catholic girl from the Midwest, that's who Holmes was when she started out in Hollywood at age 18, playing earnest high-schooler Joey Potter on "Dawson's Creek." She was still transitioning from teen icon to grown-up actress when she started dating Tom Cruise in 2005. And the world knows how that went: He jumped on a couch, 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" or "Pieces of April." After starring in 2005's "Batman Begins," for reasons unclear 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 at the multiplex.
And then suddenly in 2012, she filed for divorce from Cruise. Tabloids reported that the split was largely due to his ardent belief in Scientology, but she's never talked about her reasons for leaving him, the religion or the terms of the settlement.
What is clear is that at 35, Holmes is hoping to be taken seriously in Hollywood again. This month, she stars in "Miss Meadows," a low-budget indie about a prim schoolteacher who seems all rainbows and cotton candy but secretly fancies herself a gun-toting vigilante. And she's just signed on to direct her first movie, an adaptation of Annie Weatherwax's mother-daughter tale "All We Had," which is being written for the big-screen by "The Fault in Our Stars" director Josh Boone.
"I'm feeling very inspired," she said when we first met for our interview by the beach in Santa Monica. "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 really digging into herself. She recently bought a home in Calabasas, and she and Suri split time between the West Coast and New York.
At 18, she was accepted to Columbia University but deferred due to "Dawson's Creek," so she's playing a bit of catch-up now. Almost all of her emails to me following "Foxcatcher" — which she called an "important yet disturbing film" — were 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 just saw 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 like 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 herself, I tell the actress: mysterious, secretive, a tough egg to crack.
"I think you're giving me way too much credit," she replied, 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 and starts tallking about a movie she did with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds called "Woman in Gold" that will be out next year.
Even those Holmes considers closest to her, like Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal, said there were limits to her conversations with the actress.
"We don't really talk about her personal life unless we talk about being a mom," Rosenthal said. "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," thinks those who see their new film will "see a whole cacophony of colors" from Holmes. This film is Hopkins' baby: She's been trying to get it made for 14 years, but it's a hard sell. Her 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.
"I have always felt that Katie could embody this character because she has a strong complexity within her — a vulnerability and a fierceness," said Hopkins. "I feel like Katie has proved to be a courageous being. I think her choices are strong. She's both a mother, an actor and — this sounds weird — but a real human."
On the Ohio set of "Miss Meadows" last year, Hopkins said, she got word that one of the three young women who had been found after a decade of captivity in kidnapper Ariel Castro's Cleveland home wanted to visit the production. Though shooting was tight — just 17 days in all — Holmes insisted that the victim visit.
"And it was Katie who fearlessly welcomed her on set," the filmmaker recalled. "She got her chocolate and was protective and respected her privacy. She was her guardian angel, and it was a remarkable thing to watch."
Holmes has always been especially protective of her daughter, now 8, whom she never refers to by name, only as "my child." Suri has essentially been a paparazzi target since she exited the womb, but Holmes said the shutterbugs slowly appear to be losing interest in them.
"It's lessened a tremendous amount," she explained. "I also know it's not gonna be like this forever. There's gonna be a day when it's not there, and that will be its own adjustment."
Still, she must be frustrated by it. By the magazine covers that mention her only in relation to custody battles and divorce settlements instead of her career.
"No, I'm really not. I'm really not at all," she said, smiling. "It's up to you to move forward and keep looking forward. I've always kind of been like that. That was the way I was raised. You just keep working."