Katie Holmes admits that she was surprised to learn her next stage venture, The Wanderers, is Off-Broadway. But when asked about the differences she anticipates between a smaller venue and the Great White Way, where she has performed twice, her voice brightens.
“It’ll be a new experience. The play is a very intimate play,” she says, sounding exactly as you imagine Holmes might sound: youthful, wistful, with a smile on her face that, even in a dark theatre, feels like it was meant just for you. “It makes a lot of sense. I’m really excited about it.”
In the 10 years since Holmes last graced the stage, she has appeared in 14 films and three television series. She also directed two films. For Holmes, whose lockdown love story Alone Together centered on two strangers sharing the same Airbnb in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a return to the stage is a return to community.
“I love performing in front of people every single night and sharing that experience,” she says. “You know, it's different every night, and you kind of live this story within a community. Even though you’re performing, you're sharing that with the audience, so it feels very communal. I'm really excited for that.”
Holmes portrays movie star Julia Cheever in The Wanderers, running Off Broadway at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre until March 26. The play, from Anna Ziegler, follows the parallel marriages of Orthodox Jews Esther and Schmuli, and Secular Jews Abe and Sophie. Abe, a successful novelist, believes he possesses the power to write his own future. That power becomes more palpable when an unexpected email from a famous actress arrives in his inbox, threatening to undo all he holds true about his marriage and himself.
As Abe and Julia’s relationship unfolds via email, Julia reveals herself to be much more than the glamorous, Old Hollywood-style star Abe has long-admired on screen. She’s a woman with complex emotions and responsibilities, trying to discover the truth of her own happiness amidst the expectations and projections placed on her. Though eyes, like Abe’s, are always on her, the desires and fears that drive Julia are without a sympathizer until the pair begin their correspondence. For Holmes, the opportunity to play Julia comes in forming and uncovering the inner life of a public figure’s persona on stage.
“The joy of playing her is all her emotions are sort of unexpected,” explains Holmes. “She's very vulnerable, and I think it's an interesting relationship between two seemingly disparate people. There’s a level of emotional intimacy that occurs between them and allows both of them to reveal more than they do to other people, to their spouses.”
The fun for Holmes also comes in portraying a more mature role than she has played before. She is most known for portraying the headstrong, yet deeply loving, Joey Potter on the '90s television drama Dawson’s Creek. Holmes’ Broadway debut came as the beautiful truth-bearer Ann Deever in the 2008 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. She appeared on Broadway again in 2012 as Lorna, the sympathetic caregiver and heart of Theresa Rebeck’s Dead Accounts. These were characters whose yearning came from a place of angst and fear for the future laid out before them, characters who reacted strongly to those who threatened their autonomy and agency. They actively shaped their future. And they were hopeful and protective of that hope.
“This will be fun to play someone that has a bit more experience and wisdom than the sort of yearning of a younger person,” Holmes says. The actor describes Julia as having “a lot of yearning, but it's different. I think she sees herself as a poet. She's attracted to speaking with a writer and communicating with him. She's a dissatisfied artist who is constantly looking to find truth and then balancing that out with her everyday life. So, I think she's yearning for a lot.”
In The Wanderers, Holmes is breaking out of the ingénue space, embodying a character wrestling with the uncertainties, doubts, and what-ifs of someone who has arrived at middle age, having experiencing marriage and motherhood alongside a seemingly fulfilling career. In reflecting on how motherhood, something else she and Julia have in common, might shape her performance, Holmes is thoughtful.
“All of your life experiences, they stay with you, whether it's conscious or unconscious, and they inform all of your creative impulses,” she explains, speaking slowly, almost reverently. “We know what goes into being a mother, physically, emotionally, mentally. You're kind of starting from the same base.”
Holmes hopes the play presents an opportunity for audience members to reflect in examination of their own lives. What does it mean to be happy and to find contentment? How do we know if we’ve arrived there? Are there new opportunities for thrill, risk, and romance to disrupt the rhythm of life? What if what we thought we wanted stifles, instead of enhances, our inner selves? It’s these impossible questions the characters pose for themselves that drew Holmes to The Wanderers and why she is making her stage return in this play.
“I like that these characters are exploring happiness, and they're exploring being dissatisfied,” says Holmes. “I hope that it causes audience members to explore certain parts of themselves that maybe they weren't anticipating exploring when they sit down.”
Another element that Holmes and her character Julia have in common: fandom. Though Holmes has grown and left Joey behind, her fans from Dawson’s Creek and The Dark Knight are still a large part of her life. When Holmes speaks about the people who flock to her films and stage performances, she is deeply humble, saying with utter sincerity, “I'm really amazed when people see something that I've done or are a fan. I just really appreciate it, and I can't believe it. I really can't.”
The community she feels with those who watch and support her work comes not from direct correspondence, as in The Wanderers, but in their mere presence as audience members. For Holmes, sharing her art with another is one of the most satisfying parts of acting on stage.
“On this side of things, you're trying to find meaning in the stories that you're telling, so when it actually does have an impact on one person, it's like, ‘Oh, wow, really?’” she remarks. “Just having a fan is amazing. It's such a huge gift. It really is.”