If Katie Holmes were a (very slinky) cat, she'd be on her fourth or fifth life by now. The youngest of five children, she was raised in Toledo, Ohio, before heading to Hollywood with her mother, Kathleen, in 1996. At 19, in 1998, she landed the role of Joey Potter on Dawson's Creek and became both hugely famous and a universal symbol of wholesome girlhood. (At New York Fashion Week in February, she was still asked whether she was Team Dawson or Team Pacey.) Holmes ascended to movie roles soon after, starring in Batman Begins and Thank You for Smoking. Then, of course, following an intense courtship, she married Tom Cruise in 2006, seven months after giving birth to their daughter, Suri. She had "ascended" to a whole new level of celebrity, most of it beyond her control. In fact, fame had descended on her.
VIDEO: Let's Unpack That featuring Katie Holmes
Cut to 2012. In a breathtaking move of independence, Holmes divorced Cruise and moved to New York City. Starting a new life after the end of a marriage is a gauntlet for anyone, but Holmes was raising a 6-year-old daughter under the relentless pursuit of the paparazzi on top of all that. "We'd go to the park at 6 a.m. just to get outside," she remembers. With a stubborn and precise determination, she set about carving out a new life.
And that she has done. Holmes is like a Time Out guide to New York, immersing herself in the personal and creative freedom that a big city offers. It's not uncommon for friends to receive a text from her saying, "You want to go to this boxing class/Alvin Ailey performance/club in Williamsburg?" And professionally, she is well into her next act: At 41, she is starring in the drama The Secret: Dare to Dream, in theaters in April, and is about to direct her second film, Rare Objects, having hustled for months to get financing. Suri, or "my child," as Holmes calls her, is now 14, tall, strong-willed, and curious.
As for her mother, she can set the Internet alight wearing a cashmere bra to hail a cab (Holmes confesses the tech of the Uber app eludes her). She'll wear sheer black hose, heels, and a pastel Mayle minidress (with Suri's purple scrunchie in her topknot) to lunch because she's "trying them out." She has a loud, cackling laugh and a wry sense of humor, and she will pull out a dance move in the middle of a restaurant. In public appearances Holmes is more cautious, but like a game of hide-and-seek, she's "getting warmer." While there are things she won't talk about publicly, she is a sponge for living.
LAURA BROWN: You texted me that you were sliding into this interview like J.Lo at the Super Bowl. When was the last time you entered a room like J.Lo?
KATIE HOLMES: Well, I love a dance party. I try to do one every morning to wake up my child, but she has rejected that. I just need some knee pads and a little Versace number. [laughs]
LB: Instead you just cashmere-bra it! Anyway, you are having rather a fashion moment. A life moment too. Tell me, how are you doing?
KH: I have been in this business for quite some time. We both know you have ups and downs. It's been a really exciting time because of the cashmere bra. [laughs] No, it's really because my movie [Rare Objects, a story of female friendship] is coming together. Suri is 14, so we've gotten through the sort of girlie stage. I feel like I can be more creative and have more time, have my voice. It's sort of, like, just put your stuff out there and be yourself. It takes a while to be comfortable, though.
LB: How long did it take you to feel that way?
KH: Obviously, as a public person, I've gotten a lot of attention at different periods in my life. And when you have a lot of attention, sometimes you don't want to leave the house because it's just too much. You can get consumed by what people think, but suddenly you just decide to do things on your own terms. I feel like I'm finally figuring that out. I'm getting the projects I want made and just relaxing a little. I've been around for a long time, and I'm still here! I can't believe it. [laughs]
LB: Still here! For an actress, attention is a currency. When you started working at 17, what was it like?
KH: I thought things were going to be really fun. My first day in L.A. was January 21, 1996. My mom and I were driving on Santa Monica Boulevard and saw a big sign that said "Golden Globes." So we went and sat on the bleachers in the rain to watch movie stars arrive. We couldn't believe what we had stumbled upon.
LB: Were there stars in your eyes?
KH: Of course! We didn't get in — we were just outside. [laughs]
LB: How did you first metabolize getting attention as an actress and then, later, getting attention not as an actress?
KH: When I started, it was about being very mysterious. You were known through your work. There was much less attention in the '90s than there is now, and as a young actress, you just want to get the job. You want to be liked. You want a good take and think, "Was I good enough?" Over time there's a transition. I have my own confidence now. I'm not looking for somebody else to say, "Good job." It's more, "What are we going for?" It's more collaborative.
KH: People say you don't really know yourself until you're 40. I'm 41. I have seen things. I have experienced things. I know what I'm talking about, and I know that my feelings and my insights are worthy. I'm going to listen to myself instead of deferring to someone else. That's a big step as a human. It takes time.
LB: What was one moment when you made a decision and felt powerful like, "I really own my shit now"?
KH: Oh god. [laughs]
LB: You're giving me a sideways glance. There's the one we all know about. [gives slow clap]
KH: Oh, that one. Well, that's interesting. I didn't have that moment at the time. Here's an example, though. Rare Objects has been in the making for four or five years. It hurts when you ask the opinions of people you respect and they say it's not good. It's like, "Can you be a little more specific? I'm not an idiot. Give me a helpful note instead of dissing me." But whenever someone tells me no, I keep going. I'm not going to not do it. I called my dad to tell him the news when it was green-lit, and he said, "That's wonderful. Life is a real journey, and sometimes when things take a long time and you have to keep working hard, it just makes it that much sweeter. I'm really proud of you." That's all I needed to hear.
LB: How does it feel to have ownership of your life and your choices?
KH: I feel like that comes in waves. From 10 to 11 a.m. you're like, "Oh, yeah, I'm doing it!" Then at noon you're like, "I'm never gonna work again." But at 1 you're like, "Nope, I'm good."
LB: But you're more in the world now.
KH: Yeah, and I have more fun. I'll take a class at Broadway Dance Center. I'll go to the Joyce Theater. I do hot yoga and boxing classes. I have a book club. The city has a lot to offer, and I use it. Yes, it's a little too exposed at times, and we work hard to maneuver and navigate. But what I love about New York is that for me and my child, this is our vibe. When there are 25 things to do every night, it takes you out of your own thing. And you know what else I discovered? There's a place not far from my house that does foot massages until midnight. That's what New York offers!
LB: Did you always want to live here?
KH: Yes. We shot here for my first job, The Ice Storm, when I was a junior in high school, and they put my mom and me up at a hotel. I remember walking the city with my parents after dinner one night and thinking, "I need an apartment here. I need to be here."
LB: When you finally moved here in 2012 [after divorcing Cruise], there was, of course, a huge amount of attention on you.
KH: That time was intense. It was a lot of attention, and I had a little child on top of it. We had some funny moments out and about in public. So many people I didn't know became my friends and helped us out, and that's what I love about the city. There was one incredible moment when I think I actually cried. Suri was 6 or 7, and she was spending the night at a friend's house while I was seeing the ballet at Lincoln Center. At 10 o'clock I got a call: "Mommy, can you come get me?" I got a cab and went down to Battery Park to pick her up. She was exhausted. She fell asleep on the way home, and when we pulled up to our building, the cab driver opened the door and helped me not wake her. He helped carry her to the building. He was so kind.
LB: I love that you're very in the world — especially because there were years when you couldn't be. How great does it feel to be able to take cabs and not have to retreat at all?
KH: Well, part of that is my lack of ability with technology. The Uber app and I just don't work out. But when I was young, Dawson's Creek was such a huge leap. Within a year of graduating from high school, we were known everywhere. It was quite a lot. Obviously, the world was not what it is today — there weren't as many paparazzi or people with phones. But it was still weird that I was treated differently. It felt unnatural, and I didn't understand it. Now I don't lead with being a public person; I lead with being a person. You should be kind because that's what people do, not because you want people to think you are kind.
LB: So how was turning 40? Or now 41. Are we going to be naughty 40?
KH: As I told a friend of mine, "You know what's so upsetting about the 40s? My old tricks don't work." [laughs] I have older siblings; I'm the baby of five. So I was always the cute one, and you get used to being the little cute one. Then you wake up one day —
LB: — and you're applying five serums.
KH: I'm basically always putting lotion on. I do all that Barbara Sturm stuff: hyaluronic, face brightening, face cream, skin cream. It's so vain. But that happens. It kind of hits you.
LB: It's a very odd feeling when you're practically a child in your head and then your face and body go... down. [laughs]
KH: It's very odd. I used to get away with no makeup. When I was a teenager and a young actress, it was about being sort of grungy. Now I'm like, "Oh god, I have to do stuff!" It sounds so superficial.
LB: But it's not. You're a visible human being. I've met Suri only once so far, but I was struck by how open she was.
KH: I love her so much. My biggest goal has always been to nurture her into her individuality. To make sure she is 100 percent herself and strong, confident, and able. And to know it. She came out very strong — she's always been a strong personality. She'll pick an activity and work her butt off until she's really good at it. Then she's like, "OK, I'm going to try the next thing." She's very focused and a hard worker. I have to say, I did recently see some fan site [about her] posted when she was a baby, and it was very intense. We were followed a lot when she was little. I just wanted her outside, so I would walk her around to find parks at, like, 6 in the morning when nobody would see us. But there's one video where I'm holding her — she was 2 at the time — and she starts waving at the cameras. She's pretty special.
LB: So let's talk about fashion. When did you —
KH: — look at the Khaite website and see the cashmere bra? [laughs]
LB: Exactly. Why does a cashmere bra seem like a practical and fundamental item in your closet?
KH: Honestly, I wasn't feeling so sexy. And I saw that and was like, "Sexy. I can do that!" I thought it would be good if I was in a cabin sitting by the fire and wore the [matching] sweater over it. That's how my brain works. But then I was like, "Oh, wait, I'm not in a cabin, and I'm not going to a cabin." I still thought I could pull it off, though. I had noticed other people wearing bras with blazers.
LB: Yes. But your sweater was perfectly positioned. It was a little off the shoulder but not totally off the shoulder.
KH: I didn't want to get into trouble with my teenager! We were school shopping, and I was just trying to hail a cab on Sixth Avenue. It looked way more glamorous than it was. [laughs]
LB: What designers float your boat right now?
KH: I'd like to wear more Valentino. And then, I'm not going to lie, I thought J.Lo's costumes during the [Super Bowl] halftime show were absolutely incredible. I watched her [Instagram] story where they were putting on all the Swarovski crystals.
LB: Do you remember the first look you felt really great wearing?
KH: I went through this phase as a kid where I changed my clothes 10 times a day. I think I drove my mother crazy. But I loved my prom dress senior year. It was a long gold lace dress from Caché, that store in the mall. This was 1997, so it was grunge time. Was I cool enough to wear my dress with Doc Martens? No, I wasn't. Did I want to? Yes, I did. I still have it in a storage unit.
LB: What was a more recent look that you loved?
KH: I felt really good in the white Khaite dress that I wore [to the American Australian Association Arts Awards]. And I liked the pantyhose I wore with it. Testing out the black hose with open-toed shoes and a summer dress.
LB: And today, a topknot with a purple velvet scrunchie!
KH: Scrunchies are back, you know. [points to her head] We used to make them when I was growing up.
LB: You make lots of things. And you paint too.
KH: I was a bit of an only child since my siblings are older, so I got very used to entertaining myself. I still do; I like to stay busy. My mother had a very successful drapery business, but then when I was born — I was a lot of work. [laughs] So she gave it up. But my mom is an incredible quilter, and one of my sisters is an art teacher, so I grew up with that. I've always wanted Suri to feel empowered [in that way] too. I remember asking her what kind of party she wanted for her fourth or fifth birthday, and she said a fairy party. So we went to the fabric store and picked out everything we needed for fairies. I wanted her to create things instead of having stuff done for her. That way she was always in charge.
LB: I say this to people all the time: Make a thing. Because having ownership of that thing and pride in what you've made is the best. What are you ambitious for now?
KH: My projects. Finding good material and putting out stories that are authentic to the female experience. Rare Objects is about the journey of this girl who has had quite a bit of hardship and tragedy. It hits on things that are very relevant — immigration, female issues. And then there are different directors I've always wanted to work with, so I'm doing that.
LB: What are you ambitious for as a mother?
KH: [To be] a well-balanced, independent person with a great skill set for handling the world. I hope our world comes back into a sense of fairness and decency and empathy.
LB: Little Katie Holmes didn't know she was in for quite a ride, eh?
KH: I always wanted adventure, and I got it. And I'm still on one. In life you're supposed to have joy, pain, loss, calm. We're not supposed to say, "If I could go back, I would want everything joyful," because it's not going to happen. That's life. Nobody gets off free, and you're not supposed to. Because then you're going to miss things.
LB: So tell me, what is Katie Holmes thirsty for?
KH: Well, now that I know what the term "thirsty" means... [laughs] I am very thirsty for artful experiences that keep me uplifted and inspired. It resets me.
LB: Otherwise your brain over-revs. But when yours does, you probably just go see a show or get on your Peloton.
KH: It's so true. But now I have to really stretch after the Peloton. Otherwise my back hurts, and it defeats the purpose. [laughs] When you're 40-plus, you've really gotta take your vitamins.
Photographed by Sebastian Faena. Styled by Julia von Boehm. Hair: DJ Quintero for The Wall Group. Makeup: Genevieve Herr for Sally Harlor. Manicure: Elle for Tracey Mattingly. Production: Faktory.NYC.
For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download March 20.