NEW YORK — If you want to get a good idea of Katie Holmes, actress — as opposed to tabloid star — you can't do any better than "Pieces of April," a gem from 2003 in which she plays a ponytailed and tattooed New Yorker desperately trying to prove herself to her visiting suburban family with an improvised, downtown Thanksgiving dinner.
This was back when Holmes was transitioning out of "Dawson's Creek," that teenage soap of a fictional New England coastal town childhood. But Holmes had already amassed an early filmography that any young actress would envy, including "The Ice Storm," ''Go" and "Wonder Boys."
The budget for "Pieces of April" started at $6 million, but dwindled to $300,000 and was shot over just 16 days. Writer-director Peter Hedges recalls shooting in "condemnable" buildings with paint dropping off the walls of Holmes' makeshift dressing room.
"You learn a lot about a person's character when you work in those conditions," says Hedges. "What I always say about Katie is she's a good girl, she was raised right and she knows what it's like to have flown coach."
But for whatever reason, Holmes' promising start was detoured. She met Tom Cruise, gave birth to a daughter, married and, at one time, spent three years off-screen. After starring in "Batman Begins" in 2005, she pulled out of "The Dark Knight," leaving Maggie Gyllenhaal to take her place in what became one of the biggest movies of the decade. Her work since has been sporadic and not always substantial.
Now that she's divorcing Cruise, and their 6-year-old daughter, Suri, is school age, there are mounting expectations that Holmes could again be the actress some thought she could become. At just 33, she's emerging from the public hysteria of her relationship with Cruise with open roads ahead and, possibly, renewed ambition.
"I'm excited to see what she does now," says Hedges. "She'll surprise a lot of people, because she's really very gifted. ... What I'd love to see is people really be open to giving her the chance to surprise us."
After Holmes began dating Cruise, she took a three-year break from acting that concluded with the poorly received heist film, "Mad Money." She followed that up with the wedding drama "The Romantics" and small roles in the comedies "The Extra Man" and Adam Sandler's "Jack and Jill," and the thrillers "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" and "The Son of No One."
Instead, she's tested herself more on the stage.
Holmes co-starred in a 2008 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," earning mainly good reviews for a straightforward part that nevertheless utilized her Toledo, Ohio, folksiness. Though that brought its own sideshow — there were Scientology protests outside the theater — it was precisely the kind of classy production that earns actors respect. And onstage, Holmes' 5-foot-9 height only furthers her presence.
"You can see for yourself that she more than holds her own," ''All My Sons" director Simon McBurney said at the time. "She is fantastic. Ann is her role. It combines this extraordinary fresh beauty with another, much darker quality that I always felt was there, and which comes out by the end of the play, where she looks like a kind of avenging angel."
Holmes has also increasingly turned back to the medium that brought her fame: television. Along with guest appearances on the sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" and the legal drama "Eli Stone," she played Jackie Kennedy in "The Kennedys," the controversial miniseries that ended up at ReelzChannel after the History Channel opted not to broadcast it.
The actress also recently taped a guest appearance as a judge on "Project Runaway," presumably with an aim toward promoting her developing fashion line, Holmes & Yang (with stylist Jeanne Yang).
What Holmes has on the horizon, though, appears more promising. She recently shot a modern adaptation of Chekhov's "The Seagull," and will soon begin shooting "Molly," which she co-wrote and produces.
The film is about a single mother and daughter, so it will surely be picked apart for signs of her personal life. But her larger involvement in the project suggests she's taking more creative control. Holmes is also attached to later make a romantic comedy "Responsible Adults."
"It could be a brand-new beginning for Katie Holmes," says Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "Holmes was definitely on the rise and obviously took a left turn and got into a relationship with Tom Cruise, which kind of overshadowed her career and slowed her momentum."
But, added Dergarabedian, "Actors often make a choice to pursue family rather than career. All she needs to do is put herself in the right projects. Whatever her next project is, there will obviously be a curiosity factor. But at the end of the day, she's got to do good work."
Much of Holmes' appeal has always been her naturalism. Since her "Dawson's Creek" days, she's been most successful as a plucky, intelligent girl-next-door. Though she's struggled to transition to more adult roles, it's also clear that, at the same time, her life became quite tumultuous.
"For actresses, this can be a really great period of time, where more life has happened and they've got more to draw from," says Hedges. "I love her performance in 'Pieces of April' and as great as that performance is — and I think it's a great performance, nuanced with a lot of substance and surprise and humor and heartbreak — I felt when that was happening: 'This is just the tip of the iceberg.'"