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What Katie Holmes did next

In her acclaimed new film, Katie Holmes plays a bipolar poet who falls in love with a fellow psychiatric patient. The story really resonated with her, she reveals to Tom Teodorczuk

The solution to Katie Holmes's present predicament would appear straightforward. Can she deliver a performance that will re-ignite her career and go some way to offsetting the dominant perception of her in the public eye as the former wife of Tom Cruise?

We are sitting in the plush surroundings of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in midtown Manhattan to discuss her new film, Touched with Fire, in which she plays a bipolar poet who falls in love with a fellow manic-depressive patient (played by Canadian actor Luke Kirby) in a psychiatric hospital.

Since her high-profile split from Cruise in 2012 and move to New York with their daughter Suri, now nine, Holmes has alternated between little-seen indie films such as Miss Meadows, where she played a vigilante school teacher, and modern-day Chekhov adaptation Days and Nights, and supporting roles in movies backed by mogul Harvey Weinstein such as The Giver and Woman in Gold. She also appeared on Broadway in Theresa Rebeck's play Dead Accounts, which closed early, four years after she made her New York theatre debut in Simon McBurney's production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons.

Holmes (37) has subsequently moved back to California from New York and critics argue that her career might have benefited from more direction. Touched with Fire is written and directed by first-time film-maker Paul Dalio, son of American hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio. It's an autobiographical study depicting the consequences of love for bipolar sufferers that also stars Christine Lahti and Griffin Dunne and is co-produced by Spike Lee. Paul Dalio suffers from the manic-depressive disorder himself.

The film's subject-matter spoke to Holmes. "I approached this project not really knowing much about this disease so this was a wonderfully creative experience," she says. "When I met with Paul, I was so inspired by his passion and willingness to bring such a personal story to the screen. The opportunity to take on a role of such challenge was something that seemed right."

The gamble has paid off, at least critically, with Holmes receiving the best reviews for more than a decade. Though the film is dark, she speaks of "filming being just so much fun. I wanted to keep doing more and more takes just because it was like playing a game [where] we got to be free." But while the film is raw and provocative, the same cannot be said for Holmes in person.

Given her new film is about personal growth, I ask about how she has developed in that respect. She replies, "that's a really interesting question," before choosing to answer it in professional, not personal, terms: "I think this movie is more of an exploration of people at a certain time in their lives and trying to figure out the right way to deal with an illness. As an actor I think this was an incredible experience to grow creatively ... we all had different stories that we shared. I realised through this process how many people have been affected personally [by bipolar disorder] so it made the work really rewarding."

Holmes has never fully opened up on what prompted her to leave Cruise, whom she married in 2006 (there were reports of her wanting to escape both his devotion to the Church of Scientology and allegedly controlling ways, the latter denied by his people). It's clear she is not about to start doing so on the day we meet. She is now reported to be dating Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx, and said of Suri in a recent interview on NBC's Today show: "My little one is very, very generous and very sensitive. So she's always [saying]: 'Mom, let's give my old toys to people who need it.'"

Hearing stories from the set of Touched with Fire, Holmes's reticence becomes more understandable. Much of it was filmed in outdoor settings in New York and such was the media frenzy surrounding the shoot that, according to a production source, at one time Holmes resorted to using a producer's apartment as her trailer. The paparazzi were unscrupulous even by their standards with the source adding that photographers told crew members that, unless they were given clear sight of Holmes on the set, they would shout "cut" in the middle of a take during filming.

Contrasting with some of the lighter fare Holmes has appeared in, her new film deals with issues such as medication, madness and pregnancy. Abortion also features in the movie and Holmes, a practising Catholic, says she wasn't seeking to offend anti-abortionists. "It was part of the narrative," she says. "I think it was put there to put some realistic stakes in these people's lives. The character's choice is the character's choice. It's not a statement.

"I'm proud of the whole piece and you take away from it what your own experience is," Holmes adds. "Somebody starts the movie thinking one thing and hopefully they learn something by the end of this movie. With this you really do and I'm really proud of that. Or maybe you don't but you recognise an experience that you've had."

Holmes is reluctant to draw on her specific experiences but comparisons have been made between her choosing to be in a film that spells out in graphic detail the consequences of going off your medication and Tom Cruise's zealous warnings against the overuse of psychiatric medicine, which Scientology is opposed to, and which coincided with the early stage of his relationship with Holmes. Today show host Matt Lauer, who was notoriously dubbed "glib" by Cruise when the pair clashed over the issue in 2005, raised this suspected connection with Holmes during promotion of the new film last month, only for her to reply that director Dalio had "done a wonderful job".

Dalio himself hints that Holmes's history made her even more suitable for Touched with Fire: "The casting director on this film [Avy Kaufman] actually discovered Katie Holmes in her first film, The Ice Storm, and they had a very strong relationship," he said. "She called me and said, 'I have a really strong feeling that Katie is going to resonate with the character'. Katie did strongly resonate with the role and had an intense draw to the character. I definitely knew that she would have a way into the character."

Following The Ice Storm, Holmes quickly progressed as a Hollywood starlet with acclaimed roles in films such as Go, Pieces of April and Wonder Boys and, most successfully of all, TV teen drama series Dawson's Creek. One story I heard testifying to her youthful ambition recounts how, at the age of 20, she flew to London of her own volition to audition for the role of Pelagia in the film version of Louis de Bernieres's bestselling novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin (she may have dodged a bullet though, in losing out for the role to Penelope Cruz, given the tepid reception for the film).

Holmes also starred in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins prior to her union with Cruise. Does she look at the forthcoming Batman v Superman and wish she was in more blockbusters? I've absolutely no idea - I ask her what her attitude to big studio films is, given she appears in so few of them, but she answers by saying how gratifying it was to be on the set of Touched with Fire and "be allowed to have the freedom to try different things ... we really had the space and the time to do that".

Recently Holmes has migrated to TV, starring as Jackie Kennedy Onassis in 2011 mini-series The Kennedys, which received decidedly mixed reviews. She'll reprise the role in The Kennedys: After Camelot with the unlikelier casting of Matthew Perry as Ted Kennedy. She will executive-produce and direct one of the episodes.

Shortly after we meet, it was announced that Holmes's directorial debut, All We Had, will receive its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival next month. It's a low-budget independent movie, in which she stars as a poverty-stricken mother living in New York.

Katie Holmes might have reclaimed her independence but you get the sense she won't be giving up her adventures in independent film.

Touched with Fire is out later this year

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