On Her Own

How Can Katie Holmes Escape Tom Cruise—and ‘Dawson’s Creek’?

The actress doesn’t want to be remembered for her split with Tom Cruise. Or her role as a lovesick teen on Dawson’s Creek. Now comes the hard part: casting off both ghostly burdens.

When Katie Holmes lived near me, she would—grimly, behind sunglasses—walk the few steps from her apartment to the Wholefoods next door, holding her daughter Suri, running the clicking gauntlet of paparazzi photographers. One time, while I was standing against a wall to avoid the circus, the very New York lady next to me, said (reasonably), “Why doesn’t she get home delivery?”

Holmes presumably wanted the images to do the talking. Besides her roles on stage and screen, the actress is usually photographed smiling inscrutably on red carpets and at fashion shows, or on days out with her eight-year-old daughter and sundry bags.

But now she speaks! Two years after she and Tom Cruise divorced, Holmes, 35, has opened up to People magazine. “I don’t want that moment in my life to define me, to be who I am,” she said of her post-split persona, as People put it. “I don’t want that to be what I’m known as. I was an actor before, an actor during and an actor now.”

Holmes’s problem, however, is not just escaping the shadow of her ex-husband, it is that, professionally, the part she is best known for is a love-weary teenager in Dawson’s Creek, which ended eleven long years ago. Even after her six-year marriage to Cruise, Holmes has not jettisoned the doe-eyed, defiant imprint of Dawson Creek’s Joey Potter.

“I don’t have any fear now, I don’t have a lot of rules for myself, and I don’t take myself that seriously,” Holmes told People. Suri “means everything,” she said. “I’m learning every day, and I have been since the minute I became a mom.”

Still awake? As this interview shows, the public Holmes still has the quality of her most memorable role to date of not saying anything that interesting.

Joey was strong, resourceful, plucky, goofy, and vulnerable—and, of course, you hoped she would pick Pacey over Dawson. And she did. But Joey Potter chiefly did a lot of looking, a lot of soulful looking with her eyes and demurely defiant lips, and a lot of plaintive frowning. Joey was meant to have a totally spiritual, written-in-the-stars connection with Dawson, and, hey kids—once you have a magical connection, all you have to do is look. Speaking is null and void.

Holmes played a similar mute role in her marriage to Cruise. She appeared at his side, impish smile in place, dutiful, fragrantly rather than ferociously sexy, and—frustratingly—an adjunct. Or so it seemed.

You may remember Cruise jumping up and down on a sofa, overcome with emotion at the idea of being in love with her on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005. But the strangest moment in the show was when Cruise dragged Holmes out to the cheering crowd. Holmes looked genuinely mortified and embarrassed, as well she should: she was being exhibited as a wealthy landowner might parade a prize piece of livestock.

Perhaps it was love, perhaps Holmes hoped that whatever else came out of the relationship she would forge, as Nicole Kidman, another Cruise ex, did, a successful Hollywood career of her own right.

The couple married in 2006, and when they separated and divorced in 2012 there was much “go Katie” excitement: the young princess had escaped the confinement of the dark Scientology-believing prince’s castle. Holmes seemed to expedite matters promptly, amid rumors that she was frightened of the Church of Scientology.

She appeared to be leading an independent New York life with Suri, her much-photographed daughter—there were nights out on the town, and she launched a fashion line. Nothing volcanic, but if they cared, people cheered Holmes’s attempts to forge a new life for herself.

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Holmes may indeed desire not to be defined by her marriage to Cruise, and their very public subsequent break-up. But only she can provide the meaningful interruption into the frowsy narrative that has built around her. Only she can take on roles—on stage, screen, or in public life—that will encourage people to see her differently.

People notes that Holmes hopes that public perception will receive a nudge in the right direction with the release of the forthcoming Miss Meadows, in which she plays a gun-toting schoolteacher, whose violent alter ego is masked behind a sweet, Joey Potter-ish visage.

The Hollywood Reporter said the film was a dud, but Holmes plays neatly against type. But the fact she still has to eleven years later, lays out succinctly how unable Holmes has been to shake off the ghost of Joey Potter.

Holmes has tried to cast off Potter’s smalltown plucky heroine mien before. One of the first projects she did after Dawson’s Creek was one of her best roles on screen to date in Pieces of April (2003), where she played a druggy daughter estranged from her family. Such standout performances have been rare: her big-screen blockbuster salvo, Batman Begins (2005), fizzled to nothing.

She has signed on to reprise her role as Jackie Kennedy in the Reelz drama, The Kennedys: After Camelot. The first time round, in 2011, the critics, while not unkind, were not laudatory.

She tried Broadway, but her performance wasn’t standout. Her position is unenviable: she is saddled with a memorable debut TV role and then a memorable, failed marriage.

What should Holmes do? Well, first take on a variety of roles—not always in contrary spirit to Joey Potter. Playing the foul-mouthed bad character will become as predictable and counter-intuitive as a playing a thousand Joeys. As her split with Cruise—allegedly powered by Holmes herself—showed, the actress has a steeliness and determination, which are the best, career-maximizing weapons in her armory.

Other Dawson’s Creek stars have made the break: their characters remain cherished, but they have not remained trapped in the aspic that Holmes is kept in. Joshua Jackson is currently starring as a cuckolded partner in Showtime’s arresting drama The Affair.

Michelle Williams has taken on an array of roles, most memorably in Brokeback Mountain (2005); the death of Heath Ledger in 2008, her former partner and the father of her daughter, brought her as harshly into the public eye as Holmes was after the breakdown of her marriage. More awards and award nominations followed Williams’ roles in Blue Valentine (2010) and My Week With Marilyn (2011).

Holmes’ problem—rightly, wrongly, fairly, or unfairly—is that she’s seen as nice, inoffensive, and not much else, and the People interview only serves to underscore that. It’s been two years since she and Cruise divorced, two years in which—if she really cared what the public thought—she could have done any number of things to define herself as distinct from him and their break-up.

The public cheered Holmes when she broke away from Cruise with a similar element of challenge and ingenuity. “I don’t have any fear now, I don’t have a lot of rules for myself, and I don’t take myself that seriously,” is a fine mantra for living—Holmes should live its essence to the letter.