When she was younger, Katie Holmes offset the fame she achieved from the 1998 TV series “Dawson’s Creek” by appearing in smaller films like 2000’s “Wonder Boys” and 2003’s “Pieces of April.” On Sunday night at the SXSW Film Festival, Holmes returns to those indie roots with the premiere of “Mania Days,” in which she plays a bipolar poet who falls in love with a man that shares her disorder.
The drama, which is set in and out of a psychiatric hospital, was made for less than $1 million, and Holmes worked for SAG-AFTRA’s low-budget minimum pay. The film’s writer-director Paul Dalio based the movie on his own experiences, after he was diagnosed with manic depression as a teenager.
“I always thought it was going to be a hard project to pull off, because it was a character that was very different than anyone I played before,” Holmes said in a telephone interview with Variety. “I was very nervous to take on this project. I wanted to honor the disease and also find the humanity.”
Holmes researched her character by consulting with a doctor and talking to Dalio about his own struggles as a bipolar man (he once contemplated suicide with an electric saw while he cut a piece of wood). She pored over books written by those who had lived with the disorder, including Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Mood and Madness.”
“I just kind of gave into the role,” Holmes said. “Whatever came out, came out. I didn’t plan on a different posture or way of walking. I didn’t practice in front of a mirror. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. I get too self conscious.”
Holmes, who endured the spotlight of a public marriage with Tom Cruise from 2006 to 2012, could be ready to make a career U-turn. (Her latest film roles include the Adam Sandler comedy “Jack and Jill” and “The Giver.”) Dalio believes that “Mania Days,” her most vulnerable turn in years, could be the first step in reminding Hollywood of her depths as an actress.
“I do think people will take her very seriously when they see this performance,” Dalio said. “I genuinely think it’s going to open a lot of possibilities for her.”
Holmes, who is 36, is vague about the kind of career arc she envisions for herself, but she’d like to crisscross between studio and indie films. “I just get excited by great characters, great stories,” Holmes explained. She says she admires Julianne Moore, who won the Oscar for “Still Alice,” for finding power in playing a character struggling with pain, but she likes big-budget action adventures too. “I’m really happy with the success of ‘Lucy’ and what Scarlett Johansson did with that,” Holmes said. “I think that’s huge for her and actresses. You have to work every day to create your own opportunities.”
Holmes connected to “Mania Days” through casting director Avy Kaufman, who discovered the then-unknown actress for Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” in 1997. The latest drama had been in the works for several years, after Dalio started writing the script as a film student at NYU, where Spike Lee was his professor. “Sometimes, he takes students under his wing,” Dalio says. “He believed in the script.” Lee — who serves as the film’s executive producer — kept pushing the drafts to go deeper into the breakdown of the characters. The premiere of Sunday’s screening will include a Q&A with Dalio and Lee.
Holmes isn’t at SXSW because she’s in Los Angeles filming a recurring role on the Showtime series “Ray Donovan,” where she plays the daughter of a wealthy businessman. “She’s a little bit of a femme fatale, which is exciting for me,” Holmes said. She notes that television has changed drastically since she first pined after Dawson on the WB soap opera. “There’s more shows on air, and a lot of people are choosing to do television,” Holmes said. “It’s really rewarding.”
Even though “Mania Days” might be her darkest role yet, Holmes says it didn’t affect her on a personal level. “When I put my own clothes on at the end of the day and drive home,” she said, “I leave it all at the set.”