Wonder girl

Actress Katie Holmes graduates from TV dramas to big-screen thrillers

“I think there are a lot of stories to be told about college students, because the early twenties are such a hard time in your life,” says “Abandon” star Katie Holmes. “You’re on your own for the first time, and there’s such a mix of emotions: You’re happy, you’re sad, you’re excited, you’re getting your heart broken … One day you feel like you’re in control of your life, and the next day it’s like your whole world is ending.

If anybody knows how to balance school and career it’s Holmes. Since her film debut in 1997’s “The Ice Storm,” the 23-year-old actress has comfortably made the transitions from high school student to TV personality to movie star.

“I missed six weeks of school to do a pilot season, then two weeks to shoot ‘The Ice Storm,’ then I did my whole senior year while I shot the pilot for ‘Dawson’s Creek’ on spring break,” laughs Holmes, interviewed during a September press roundtable in New York. “As soon as I graduated high school, that’s when I really started working, so I had pretty lucky timing. I only had to have an on-set tutor for one job.”

Before becoming a household name, the Toledo, Ohio, native actually declined to participate in a callback for “Dawson’s Creek” because it conflicted with her high school production of “Damn Yankees,” in which she had a leading role. The creators of the WB series were so sure of their casting decision that they held off production until her local play had wrapped.

“I couldn’t let them down like that,” Holmes says of her Ohio schoolmates. “It was a hard decision, but it wasn’t like it was guaranteed that I was gonna get the part, be on television for six years and have everyone know who I was. My parents taught my brothers and sisters and I to finish things and be true to our friends.”

Born to play the part

Those who take the ethical high ground are often rewarded down the line for their behavior sometime this even happens in Hollywood.

For “Abandon,” a thriller in which Holmes plays a college go-getter named Katie who becomes plagued by a “missing” boyfriend, the actress didn’t just land the part; it was specifically written for her.

Oscar-winning scribe Stephen Gaghan (“Traffic”) originally began to craft a screenplay intended to be used for his directorial debut. When jotting down ideas, images of the tall, doe-eyed beauty popped into his head.

“Every movie I’ve written I wrote with actors in mind,” explains Gaghan. “I think it’s the power of positive thinking. Like I wrote the policeman role for Benicio Del Toro in ‘Traffic’ … When I first sat down with my powerbook to work on what would become ‘Abandon,’ I thought of (Holmes). I thought the name really fit. ‘It’s just Katie. She’s a golden girl. She’s so popular, so beautiful, so smart she’s Katie.'”

Gaghan had seen the performer’s work in Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” but was particularly impressed by “Wonder Boys,” and how she “holds her own with Michael Douglas and rocks him back on his heels.”

Fate actually played a part in getting his script into the hands of the actress.

“I ran into her at a falafel shop in Malibu,” Gaghan continues. “She was standing there in line with a baseball cap pulled down. ‘Hey, that’s Katie Holmes.’ I was just finishing up the first draft, and I went over to her.

“I’m like, ‘I wrote a movie for you.’

“I was expecting her to go, ‘Don’t hurt me!’ But instead she was really cool about it.”

Although Holmes had handled lead chores in the little-seen “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” “Abandon” provided her first chance to command a major-budget ($25 million) vehicle. Appearing in “85 percent of the scenes,” according to Gaghan, Holmes finally found a way to break from the ensemble pieces she was used to performing in. But it was an endeavor which she approached with caution.

“I learned my lesson during the first season of ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ when I only had three days off during the hiatus because I did three movies back-to-back,” she remembers. “In two of those movies I was the lead girl, but I had no business being there; I didn’t feel like I had earned it. After that, I decided to try to learn more about what I was getting myself into. I thought the best way to do that was to try for parts where you’re surrounded by really good people, because they’re the best teachers.”

Bright future

Next up, Holmes will join Colin Farrell in the sniper-themed thriller “Phone Booth.” In 2003, she’ll play the title role in “Pieces of April.”

“I play a young girl who is kind of a punk-rock chick, who is coming to terms with her relationship with her mother,” she explains.

Of course, Holmes will continue in her sixth year as Josephine “Joey” Potter on “Dawson’s Creek.”

“I think this is probably the last season, unfortunately, but there’s a lot of exciting stuff in store,” she says. “It looks like Dawson and Joey are hooking up. It’s kind of weird doing love scenes with James (Van Der Beek) like kissing your brother but I love it when Dawson and Joey are together because they have this strange, manipulative relationship.

Holmes may return to college at New York’s Columbia University, a commitment which she has deferred on several occasions. Until that time, she is more than pleased to find her niche in the industry.

“I think this business is such a privilege to be in, so to do anything that hits the small screen, big screen or the stage is a huge achievement,” Holmes says. “I don’t think just because you’re on television makes you less of an actor than a huge movie star. Acting is acting, and I think everyone’s pretty lucky to be where they are.”