"We match!" says Katie
Holmes when I first walk into the room, a Central Park-adjacent
Ritz-Carlton suite. Dressed head to toe in a striking black look paired
with height-accentuating black stilettos, her comparison—perhaps a tad
too generous—puts me at ease. She has that effect.
"Step one was learning this character separate from the illness."
I was catching up with Holmes at the tail end of a press day for director Paul Dalio's debut feature, Touched With Fire,
in which Holmes and co-star Luke Kirby play two twentysomething poets
struggling with bipolar disorder. The film follows Carla and her
confidante-turned-boyfriend Marco from manic to depressive episodes, an
emotional rollercoaster of all-consuming highs and suicidal lows.
Throughout our 15-minute conversation, I get whiffs of some of the
iconic women Holmes has brought to life: The actress seems in natural
possession of Joey Potter's curiosity, Jackie Kennedy's natural charm,
and Batman Begins' Rachel Dawes' moral center. While Touched With Fire's
Carla feels like a divergence from these cookie-cutter sweethearts,
Holmes quickly corrects me: Carla is no victim. "Step one was learning
this character separate from the illness," she says. "Now, slowly throw
the illness in, and how is that affecting [her]?"
film—helmed, written, edited, and scored by Dalio—is based on the
director's experience with bipolar disorder. "What a luxury to have your
director have first-hand experience, and also be incredibly talented,"
says Holmes. It's what initially drew her to the film, named after
psychologist Kay Jamison's 1996 book, which
linked bipolar disorder to creative genius. "I was really struck by the
honesty of the dialogue and of these characters. I didn't know that
much about bipolar [disorder], and [Dalio] told me a lot of stories—his
struggle with going on medication, staying on medication, fear of losing
his creativity. I thought it could be such a powerful movie, because
visually you're going to be showing a beautiful frame, but you're going
to be showing such suffering." She pauses, and then adds, "And also such
the film, Carla and Marco—who meet at a treatment facility—enable each
other's manic episodes. Shot with a roaming, off-balance Steadycam,
these scenes deliver an unsettling, cinema verité-esque quality. "I had
to really map it out and practice the mania and build up to it, so that I
felt comfortable and secure in my choices," Holmes says. "Luke was a
great partner in creating this world and these two people. We depended
on each other a lot—to stay measured in these [scenes] and not fall into
each other's performance."
When talking about Touched With Fire,
which she co-produced, Holmes has a quiet seriousness, aware of the
gravity of the illness and her need to portray it accurately. "When I
met with Katie, it was clear there was something in the character that
struck a deep chord with her," Dalio says in the film's press materials.
"She was so intense in her questions. I knew she had a door into
"We wanted to honor everyone who has dealt with this kind of pain in their life."
While the cast (which also features Christine Lahti, Bruce Altman, and Griffin Dunne) joined Touched With Fire
for different reasons—Lahti's sister struggled with bipolar disorder
before taking her own life—they all united in their collective struggle
to humanize the illness: "You started to realize this thread of
real-life experiences and why people were attracted to this [film],"
says Holmes. "It created such drive on set, that it was bigger than just
making a movie. We wanted to honor everyone who has dealt with this
kind of pain in their life, and in an authentic way."
Growing up, the Toledo-born actress and director (her debut film, All We Had, just wrapped production), kept mum on mental health. "I don't feel like they talk about [mental illness] anywhere," she says, shaking her head. "I
hope [the movie is] entertaining enough that understanding or empathy
about the illness washes over you, that's it's not something that you're
she says. "I hope you feel something watching it, I hope you're moved,
and I hope you relate in some way." She leans into the verbs, and then
concludes the thought quietly: "Hopefully it makes this illness human."
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