Katie Holmes’s phone won’t stop buzzing. As the sun sinks behind the Hudson River and the clock ticks toward the moment she’ll dash off to a premiere at the Museum of Modern Art, the iPhone sitting between us blinks almost constantly to alert her to the arrival of new text messages. And while anyone who has been paying attention to Hollywood’s hierarchy for the past few decades might imagine her private number being deluged with notes from famous friends, a bit of upside-down reading reveals the frantic party to be someone even more important: her mom.
The rapid-fire texts turn out to be nothing pressing—gossip from back in Toledo that Holmes makes me swear not to repeat—but the moment encapsulates the dichotomy that renders the 38-year-old Holmes so compelling. Sure, she’s a movie star who seems to have the world on a string, but in a split second she can turn right back into a hometown girl from Ohio without losing even an ounce of charisma.
It’s a cocktail of glamour and relatability that has served Holmes throughout her career, and it’s undoubtedly what led her to her latest role as one of history’s most watched and beloved women.
“Jackie Kennedy had these values that we as Americans believe in, but she also had this sense of adventure that made you pay attention,” Holmes says of the late first lady, whom she’ll portray in the limited television series The Kennedys: After Camelot , which premieres April 2 on the Reelz network. “She was so graceful, even when she was scared or sad. I really admire her protection of the Kennedy name, her husband, and how much she wanted her children to be as grounded and normal and successful on their own as possible. Those are the things I love about her—and why I wanted to play her again.”
Again being the key word. In 2011, Holmes portrayed Jackie in The Kennedys , a series that followed the fabled clan from 1938 to 1969 and won four Emmy Awards and, amid mixed reviews, praise for Holmes. The new series takes a close look at life for the political dynasty after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, focusing on Jackie during the years when she married Aristotle Onassis, took a job editing books at Doubleday, and made herself at home in New York City.
It’s an entirely new set of circumstances that made playing the character at once more challenging and more appealing. On the heels of Natalie Portman’s Oscar-nominated performance in Jackie —which Holmes notes she has seen—The Kennedys: After Camelot takes a wider view of the character. Portman is Jackie for only a few days, but Holmes has her for almost a lifetime, and the two offerings dovetail nicely in the zeitgeist.
“My approach was different this time,” Holmes says. “Her journey in this series has more twists and turns and is more emotional than what I portrayed in the last one.” It’s an attentive, warm portrait of a world-famous woman coming into her own. No wonder Holmes can relate.
The actress made her mark early, starring in the 1990s teen drama Dawson’s Creekbefore moving on to more adult fare, including action films such as Batman Begins, a Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons , and, more recently, a delightfully villainous role on the Showtime series Ray Donovan. Her professional life hasn’t been the only thing that has kept her in the headlines, though.
In 2006, after a whirlwind courtship, Holmes married Tom Cruise, and she spent the subsequent years firmly in the spotlight, because of, first, the marriage, then the birth of the couple’s daughter Suri (now 10), and finally their bombshell 2012 divorce. Holmes emerged from the split with her America’s Sweetheart vibe intact, though in the past few years any residual ingenue-style innocence has been replaced with grown-up confidence and moxie. And these days, it’s her career—not her personal life—that seems to be most noteworthy.
Holmes has an enviable slate of movies in the works, including a role as a paramedic in the dark high school comedy A Happening of Monumental Proportions and a part in director Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming Logan Lucky, and she has earned a place for herself in Hollywood as a leading lady with experience beyond her years.
“There’s a weight to her, and it’s not forced. There’s just something going on behind her eyes that makes her compelling,” Soderbergh says. “She’s always looking for a way to evolve and be better than she was yesterday.”
But despite her success in front of the camera, it may not be long before she gives up acting for good. “For now I like acting and directing,” she says, flashing a smile. “Eventually I’ll just direct.” It’s something toward which she has been steadily, almost stealthily, moving. In addition to her work onscreen, in 2015 Holmes directed Eternal Princess, a short film for ESPN about the gymnast Nadia Comaneci, and the following year she released her feature debut, All We Had, which the Guardian called “a welcome revelation.” She also directed one of After Camelot ‘s four episodes, and she’s in the process of adapting the Kathleen Tessaro novel Rare Objects for the big screen.
“It’s been something that has come to me over time,” Holmes says of her move behind the camera. “I’ve been acting for about 20 years now, and in the last few years I’ve become more confident and gotten more interested in storytelling as a whole. Also, I’ve been feeling inspired to put my point of view out there. It’s scary, but the process of it is something I really love.”
Holmes credits her friend, the movie producer Jane Rosenthal, with pushing her to give directing a shot. “When Katie first moved to New York and we discussed what types of things she wanted to do, we started talking about the stories she wanted to tell,” Rosenthal says. “Katie thinks visually. You can see it in how she dresses, how she draws, and how she paints, so I told her to think about directing. She’s been observing filmmaking her whole life, and she knows how it works. The question was, did she know how to tell a story?”
The answer, Rosenthal says, is a resounding yes. Holmes’s short on Comaneci debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival (which Rosenthal co-founded) in 2015, and All We Had premiered there the following year. “I like that Katie is fearless as a director, which is something I also like about her as a friend,” she says. “Directing is about creating your own universe and seeing that universe from a certain point of view. She’s a wonderful director because she’s someone with real vision.”
She’s also someone with a schedule, something Holmes says is easier to manage when you’re the person on set calling the shots. “This business is so unstable, and you never really know where you’re going to be,” she says. “The thing about directing is I can say I have this window and that’s when we’re getting it done. My child is the most important person to me, and her upbringing is paramount to my work right now. It’s very important that I’m present and she has a stable, innocent childhood. I feel so blessed to do what I do, but there’s nothing in the world better than watching your child succeed.”
Holmes is trying to enjoy Suri’s childhood herself, while it lasts. “Every day, kids get a little further away from you,” she says. “That’s a positive thing. They should be becoming more independent, but it’s heartbreaking. You want them to stay with you forever, but they’re these amazing beings, and you have to do everything you can to give them what they need—and then they’re going to go. And that’s going to be very, very sad for me.”
Motherhood is, in fact, one of the things that drew Holmes back to Jackie Kennedy. After Camelot follows the widowed first lady through her children’s difficult teenage years and early adulthood, and it doesn’t shy away from the struggles she faced as a single mother raising kids in the public eye.
Asking Holmes if she could appreciate the situation is kind of a no-brainer. “To experience something publicly and privately is a lot for a person to go through,” she says. “In today’s world a lot of celebrities probably shield their children from the tabloids; in my household we know what they print isn’t true, so we don’t pay attention. There are more important things. But it’s very relatable to me; if people know who you are, they might write about you, and you can’t control that.”
Anyway, Holmes says, the truth is less exciting. Tonight’s soiree notwithstanding, she claims to be more of a homebody than a party animal. She bemoans not having the pull to snag Hamilton tickets, and when asked about her most recent vacation she lights up to talk about a holiday trip to Ohio. “I take time off, and I like to spend it with my family,” she says. “I have a lot of nieces and nephews, and they grow up so fast. I really miss them, so it’s nice to have those moments with board games and normal stuff.”
Still, no matter how good at Pictionary she may be (“only average,” she says with the grimace of someone who’s clearly better than that), Holmes doesn’t seem the type to give up the limelight completely for nights around the kitchen table. She’d like to star in a musical (Pippin, ideally), produce film projects for friends, and work on movies that evoke the French New Wave, her favorite era.
Designer Zac Posen, a close friend who has dressed Holmes many times over the years, notes that whatever she sets her mind to, she’s likely to achieve. “She’s a risk taker and she’s ambitious, and I really admire that,” he says. “Something we both understand is that creativity is a lifelong pursuit. It’s something you perfect over time.”
Indeed, after 20 years in the public eye, Holmes says she’s ready to take on the challenges creative and otherwise—that come with stepping offscreen and assuming greater creative control. “This is a whole new chapter in my life,” she says. “I really have to give in to that and not rush it. I have to be okay with the fact that this is going to be intense—because it is.”
Photographed by Cedric Buchet and Styled by Nicoletta Santoro. Shot at the Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown. Hair by DJ Quintero at Jed Root Inc. Makeup by Genevieve at Sally Harlor. Nails by Bethany Newell for Bethany Newell Le Vernis. Set design by Philipp Haemmerle. Tailoring by Lucy Payne. Produced by County Fair Productions.
This story originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Town & Country.