Katie Holmes: A Girl On the Verge

How Katie Holmes jumped from high school into 'Dawson's Creek'

Katie Holmes Stars In 'Dawson's Creek., 1998. Credit: Getty

The worst part of watching the Discovery Channel is that moment before the Swoop. An innocent antelope munches peacefully while a voice intones, "This little fellow is enjoying a midmorning snack on the African plains." You know the end is near. I am reminded of this when I sit down with Katie Holmes. Mercifully, it happens early.

Holmes is happily chatting about, you know, guys and stuff. "I'm more apt to go for a dark-haired man," the nineteen-year-old star of the WB Network's Dawson’s Creek is saying. "I don't know, it's my thing. Someone who's intelligent but not showy. Especially in this business. You get around so many people who always need to be on, and it's nauseating. It's like, 'Would you just be normal?' " She is lounging at a restaurant in Wilmington, North Carolina, which happens to be a hangout for the Dawson's cast.

Holmes rolls her eyes. "My friend and I go on and on about our horrible guy stories." She hesitates for a nanosecond. "Actually, I had really good luck this past year and I had a really wonderful, amazing experience."

It is then that I feel the adrenaline pumping, for it is time for the Swoop. Which can be fun if one is armed with rumors of onset tantrums or some such ridiculous behavior. It is not as amusing to swoop down on a nice girl from Toledo, Ohio, about her "wonderful, amazing experience." But swoop I must.

"Ahem. I have it on good authority that your experience was with Joshua Jackson, a.k.a. Pacey Witter," I say as Holmes stares bleakly and then buries her face in her hands. She raises her head and takes a trembling breath.

"I'm just going to say that I met somebody last year," she begins. "I fell in love, I had my first love, and it was something so incredible and indescribable that I will treasure it always." She pauses. "And that I feel so fortunate because he's now one of my best friends. It's weird, it's almost like a Dawson-and-Joey type thing now." And that is all she will say. No, wait, there is one more thing. "He's been in the business so long, and he's really helped me. I respect him as a friend and as a professional."

And with that, calm returns to the Serengeti.

***

Certainly, this past year has been action packed for Katie Holmes, one of the four young stars of Dawson’s Creek. Created by Kevin Williamson (who wrote Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer), the teen drama was an immediate hit for the WB. It features frank sexual patter (the pilot included a conversation about the correlation between finger length and the size of one's cob), myriad pop-culture references and hey-now plot lines — Pacey, for instance, boinks his English teacher. The show, also starring James Van Der Beek (Dawson), Michelle Williams (Jennifer) and Jackson, swiftly became Number One among girls twelve through seventeen — and helped the WB's ratings jump nineteen percent last season.

Holmes, who plays Joey Potter, the girl next door who joneses for Dawson, is the breakout star. On a show not too removed from a Knots Landing for teens, Holmes brings an unexpected nuance to her role — her character is gangly, only faintly aware of her beauty's power, sometimes nasty and a little melancholy. Amazingly, Dawson’s Creek is only her second professional acting job, after her big-screen debut in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm. Nowadays, Holmes is a regular screen veteran. During her recent offseason, she did not one but three films: Disturbing Behavior, this fall's Killing Mrs. Tingle (Williamson's directorial debut) and the indie film Go. To give you a better idea of what this year has been like for Holmes, consider that if we had consulted her calendar just one summer ago, we would have found her at the graduation ceremony at Notre Dame, an all-girls Catholic high school in Toledo. Nowadays, Holmes is so busy that she recently bought a condo in Wilmington sight unseen.

"I know it sounds really irrational," she says, "but I talked to James, and he was like, 'I found a great place, but I decided to get an apartment.' So I called the Realtor. I was basically basing it on James' opinion."

Part of Holmes' appeal is that she is a classic beauty, much lovelier in person than in photographs. Here she sits in front of her Wilmington hotel, awaiting her visitor for a shopping trip in town. She is cross-legged on the grass, wearing jeans, a man's white V-neck T-shirt and light blue Chuck Taylor low tops that expose a stretch of tanned ankle. With her hair up and wearing no makeup, she's a downright oddity among the parade of lacquered young actresses on the circuit these days, so fresh faced and healthy, the embodiment of American girlhood. "Hi," she says, smiling wide and standing up to her full five-foot-seven-inch height. "I just spilled something on my T-shirt. God, I'm such a nerd."

Which brings us to the other secret of her charm. Holmes has the kind of qualities that seem almost old-fashioned in this look-at-me age: modesty, empathy, honesty. There is not a jaded bone in her body. She is so sweetly wholesome and genuine that she seems to be a throwback to another era, one in which Mom stayed at home and Dad gently taught you right from wrong, families helped each other out and people went to church on Sundays.

***

"Famous Toledoans?" says Mark Tooman of Toledo's chamber of commerce. "Well, of course, you have Jamie Farr. Danny Thomas was a Toledoan and pretty famous, you know, in his time. There's a park named after him, as there is a park named after Jamie Farr. Gloria Steinem. Those are usually the names that come up when you talk about people from Toledo who have made some impact in movies or in entertainment."

Kate Noelle Holmes was the baby in a boisterous, close-knit family with parents who were strict but loving. "I was grounded a couple of times," says Holmes, "but if they even yelled at me, it would tear me apart." Her mom, Kathy, is a homemaker, and her dad, Martin, is a well-respected lawyer in Toledo. "I was the little tag-along," she says of her three sisters and one brother. She is taking a break on a Dawson’s Creek set that is basically a marshy field outside of Wilmington. Surreally, we are sitting inside "Joey's house," which has actual childhood photos of Holmes all over. "I loved being the baby," she says. "I used to go to all of my brother's and sisters' games."

"We are all big people," says her brother, Martin Holmes Jr., a lawyer and a Harvard man. "I'm about six-foot-seven myself, my mother is about six feet tall, and we were all just bread-and-butter, Midwestern, generic athletes. Katie was dragged to more sporting events than anyone I know. She was very content; she'd just bring her coloring books and do her thing. So it's really ironic that she's had this kind of success, because no one in our family ever had theatrical interest." He laughs. "Or talent, for that matter."

Holmes was the quintessential kid sister, according to Martin. "She was wonderful, because she would do whatever we asked her to do, and as the younger sister, you're always asked to do all the intrahouse-type errands. She was always very family oriented. She always says that one of the hardest days of her life was when one of the older kids would be going off to college. The fall was always a real sad time for her, after the energy and excitement in the house in the summer."

Holmes had a "very happy" girlhood. It was so carefree that she was, unlike many of her contemporaries, in no hurry to grow up.

"We used to sleep over at each other's houses," says her best friend, Meghann Birie. "Barbies were the thing the two of us did all the time. Fifth, sixth grade, I stopped playing with Barbies, but Katie had an entire roomful. One time she was having a boy-girl party and I said, 'You know, maybe you want to put them away.' I have never seen such a sad look in my life."

"I know I grew up very naive and sheltered, but I like that," says Holmes, who just two years ago papered her bedroom wall with posters of Leo DiCaprio and Dean Cain. "I feel sad when I see kids who have experienced too much too young. I'm just learning myself what the real world is like. I'm glad I could wait this long before I had to deal with reality."

Holmes attended the aforementioned Notre Dame, an all-girls parochial school. In health-education class, nuns would tell the girls that sex means love to girls and love means sex to boys. "We did have the talk about sex and the ways to prevent pregnancy," says Holmes, "but it was one day, and they had it on a transparency and you had to take notes. And they kept saying abstinence was the best way. All of us were so clueless. I remember my friend Mary said, 'What's the point? I don't get "pulling out."' And everybody was making fun of her, and I was, too, but I was like, 'Mary, I don't get it either.'"

Holmes thrived in school, but "there was a lot of pressure about grades," she says. "Everyday you'd walk down the hall and see girls crying about getting a ninety-two instead of a ninety-three." Holmes, unsurprisingly, was an A student.

"I had Katie in my freshman religion class," says Sister Sally Marie Bohnett. "And I remember a bright-eyed, eager, happy student. Oh, I enjoyed Katie."

"She was an honor student, and she was very focused," says Sister Carol Gregory, the principal of the school. "It's interesting to hear the freshmen coming in. They say, 'This is the school Katie Holmes went to.'" Sister Gregory says she did not follow the whole season of Dawson’s Creek. "I didn't see the last episode," she says, "but one of the sisters did, and she felt that it had some good lessons to it. I really am not too much of a television person. I enjoy Nova and things of that nature."

In junior high, Holmes developed an interest in dancing lessons, school plays and boys. "I had crushes on all of my brother's friends," she says. "There was one in particular — I still had a crush on him when I was seventeen. He just got married. I danced with him at my sister's wedding."

"It's kind of a cute thing," says Martin Jr. When it is suggested that her crush object be contacted, Martin morphs into the universal older brother. "You know what?" he says gleefully. "That would be great. In fact, I've got a number for you. His name is Sean Koscho." "Sure, I knew," laughs Koscho about the crush. "I've known Katie since she was around ten. She was very mature for her age, very outgoing. The strangest thing was when I realized that Marty's little sister wasn't a little girl anymore. It was at this wedding, when we danced together."

"You talked to Sean?" asks Holmes' father, Martin Sr. He laughs uproariously. "Oh, she will die when she sees his name! Honest to God, she will die!"

This is what happens when you encounter the Holmes family. You get giddily caught up in wholesome family pranks. It's hard to explain.

***

You want wholesome? You want green? Katie has seen one concert, ever. "It was Whitney Houston," she says. "It was with my mom and my sister. And I don't think I've been to any — oh, wait, I went to Natalie Merchant. That's it." When she talks about the wrap party for Killing Mrs. Tingle, she says that she stayed out until 3 A.M., "but maybe you'd better say one o'clock." (Her parents, you know.) Bless her heart, the girl is as edgy as a bowling ball. Her most-used expression? "I'm such a nerd." Offbeat hobbies? She has none: "I'm kind of boring." How about irrational fears? "Um. No." Idiosyncrasies? "Not really." An imaginary friend as a child? "No. But I did have a lot of teddy bears."

***

During Holmes' early teens, her mom enrolled her in Margaret O'Brien's Modeling School in Toledo. "You learn proper manners and stuff, and she thought it would be nice," explains Holmes as a makeup artist spackles her imaginary undereye bags. Outside "Joey's house," the crew is setting up a shot. It is extremely hot and humid. Periodically someone slaps at a mosquito. Cicadas whiz and burr in the trees.

Students from O'Brien's school attend the annual International Modeling and Talent Association convention in New York, where scores of agents show up along with all the young hopefuls. Holmes first attended when she was fourteen, as a model. A few years and many acting lessons later, she came back to compete as an actress. "She did a monologue [from To Kill a Mockingbird] and she had thirty call-backs from agents," recalls Margaret O'Brien, "which is very overwhelming." Showbiz was beckoning, "but her father was against it, because she was going to be a doctor," says O'Brien. In fact, Holmes had recently been accepted to Columbia University.

"We had everybody in Toledo trying to convince him to let me go," says Holmes. "My mom said, 'If we don't let her do this, she'll always wonder.'"

"This was a significant issue, because education was always important to us," says her father (whom you'd feel compelled to call Mr. Holmes even if he asked you to call him Martin. Which he doesn't). "Both my wife and I come from blue-collar families. I was fortunate enough to go to college, and all of our children, with the exception of Katie, are college graduates." He relented, and Holmes and her mom (who brought along her knitting) winged it to Los Angeles to meet potential agents. Holmes' very first film audition was for The Ice Storm.

"We were doing auditions, and we just needed somebody to read lines against an actor," recalls James Schamus, the film's co-producer and screenwriter. "Someone just went out into the hallway and got her. She read for a few minutes, and after she left, I turned to the director and said, 'This is it; this is a movie star.'"

Shortly afterward, she auditioned for Dawson’s Creek via a home video that she filmed in her mom's sewing room. "I had the camera, and my mom would read Dawson's lines," says Holmes. The Dawson's folks promptly asked her to fly out and test. What follows sounds like a plot out of some Mickey Rooney movie.

"I told them I couldn't," she says. Why? Because it coincided with opening night of Damn Yankees, her high school play.

"Well. We were all shocked," says her manager, David Guillod. "The studio was like, 'How dare she? Who does she think she is?' But she says, 'I refuse to let any of my friends down.'"

"My dad said, 'Katie, these are your friends, and no matter what happens, you grew up here and your name means a lot here,'" says Holmes with a shrug. The studio eventually rescheduled the audition. She got the part. It was her third audition — if, you know, you count Damn Yankees.

As for college, says her father, "Katie promises that she will get her degree at some point. We always emphasize that they should go for the gold, if you want to use that term, or the brass ring — try to be your best. And, by gosh, she hit it. And at this point, it has not affected her." His voice gets a little emotional. "She is the same neat kid," he says, "and we miss her."

***

"Hey, I want you to come to a party tonight," says the girl who is making Holmes' latte at a Wilmington coffee joint. "OK? It's tonight."

"Um, hi, my name is Katie," says Holmes, bewilderingly.

"Yeah," says the girl loudly, "I know. So it's my brother's party. It would mean a lot to him. Here's my number. Call me and I'll give you directions. All right? I'm off at seven. OK?"

Attention, kids who want to be famous! This little scenario is what fame is. It is not glamorous premieres. It is not hobnobbing with other stars. Most often, it is some annoying girl inviting you to a party.

Holmes politely takes the number, extricates herself and heads out onto the street, which smells delightfully of fried chicken from the Taste of Country down the block. (Not much of an eater, Holmes says her favorite food is pretzels with salsa.) Holmes has been back in town for only a few days, working on the new season of Dawson’s Creek. "It was so weird to think back to a year ago," she says. "We had a week to search for our apartments. I lived two blocks away from the video store that they shoot at." She points out an apartment above a restaurant. "James and Josh lived there; Michelle lived a couple of blocks that way. It was so much fun — we hung out all the time, and we just had a blast. We were new to television and had no idea what we were in for."

The four cast mates, thrown into a new situation, forged a deep bond. "We'd all go out to dinner just about every night," recalls Jackson, "and then whenever a new kid would come in town, we'd feast on the new blood, take them out to dinner." (Oh, and by the way: Of their recent relationship, he will say only, "Katie will always remain one of my most cherished friends, but any of my personal relations are none of the public's business.")

Holmes points out Michelle's apartment. "The boys were so protective," she says. "They would walk you home, which was nice." She stops walking and looks down the street, which is lined with magnolia trees. "And now it's such a new ballgame this year. We've all had these different experiences, and we've all grown up a little, I think."

There was a lot of love in that room when the foursome recently reunited. "I got here a week early to get prepped, and all week long I kind of felt out of my skin," says Jackson. "Then Katie showed up, and as soon as she walked in the door, my energy went through the roof. We met the other two kids for dinner, and as soon as the quartet was complete, it was the damnedest thing: The dynamic reverted exactly back to what it was last year." He pauses. "It's odd. When the four of us get together, an instinctive dynamic develops. And even though I'd like to think that as humans we're a little broader than our characters, it's pretty close to what our characters would be doing. James becomes the quiet, respectful guy; I become the loud, obnoxious guy; Michelle becomes Lolita; and Katie becomes the cute girl next door."

"In the first episode, Dawson and I finally decide to go ahead and take the next step, instead of just being friends," Holmes says. "There's a sweet scene where we're on the swings and we decide to kiss, and Kevin wrote in, 'All of a sudden, Dawson leans in and he sees Jen.' Just to give it that extra zing. And there may be a new man in my life," she continues, raising an eyebrow. "He's actually coming to Wilmington today."

After Holmes' triple-movie schedule, Dawson's probably seems like a vacation. She is, after all, part of the new crop of crossover TV actresses — the Neves, the Jennifer Loves, the Sarah Michelles — who seemingly work nonstop before their Q ratings fall. In this booming era of low-budget, high-yield teen movies (with a $10 million budget and a $25 million gross, even the Jennifer Love Hewitt bomb Can't Hardly Wait made some Benjamins), it would be tempting to exploit Holmes' current appeal.

Certainly, Disturbing Behavior is not a good sign. "That was ass," a teenage boy was overheard to scoff at a New York screening, and it is, indeed, ass. (Holmes manages to give her character depth, however, even with lines like, "Bite me.") Holmes' role as the pierced hot girl was a little tough on Dad. "Oh, my God, it was terrible," he says. "All I was thinking about is, 'If the nuns see her now, oh, my gosh. What am I gonna say when I see them?'" As it turns out, Disturbing Behavior is part of a well-thought-out scheme. Her manager, Guillod, explains his plan.

"With Disturbing Behavior, we wanted to give Katie a [part] that wouldn't require her to carry a movie. We wanted her to get a feel of what making a feature film is like. Then we tried to get her feet wet in another area, so she did Go, this little independent film that was directed by Doug Liman, who did Swingers. By that time she was ready to carry a film, and we put her with a director, Kevin Williamson, whom she was familiar with. Now, next year? Believe me, she will be doing only one movie."

Holmes is a solid, talented actor who is leagues above her contemporaries. "Katie has more latent ability than anybody I've ever worked with," says Jackson. "The onus is on her now to turn into a Meryl Streep and not rest on her laurels."

"This whole year has been so unexpected," says Holmes, walking past a big old antebellum home shaded by live oaks. "It's been overwhelming, but it's been so fun. With each project, I've learned so many new things. I don't know — this is what I want to be doing."

It is undoubtedly a good thing that Dawson’s Creek is shot in a secluded North Carolina town rather than at some sound stage in L.A., although the only cynicism Holmes seems to have developed is directed toward La-la land. "You know what's trendy there that I can't stand? Everybody in L.A. never wants to get married. I mean, I don't want to get married now. But I want to grow old with somebody!" she cries. "And I've met a couple of people who are younger than myself who are atheists and adamant about that. To be so young and to not have been given a chance to be a certain religion is ... I don't know if I agree with that." It would seem that there is little danger of Holmes getting sucked into the Hollywood machine.

"She would never succumb to it," says her best friend, Birie, firmly. "Not with her upbringing." And, certainly, it is impossible that she would disappoint the good citizens of Toledo. "Katie is a source of pride for people in the community," says the chamber of commerce's Tooman. "She is, I think, the all-American young lady. Somebody that you can be proud to say is from your hometown." Really, could Katie Holmes disappoint this man?