What Katie Holmes wanted to do was direct. But she didn’t want to quit acting. The actress is both in front of the camera and behind it in “All We Had,” an indie drama (with a subtle comedic streak) about a mother (Holmes) and daughter (Stefania LaVie Owen) struggling to get by on very little money. Holmes’ Rita has endured a lifetime of bad choices and bad boyfriends; her latest failure sends her and Owen’s Ruthie on the road, where they break down in a small East Coast town and try to start anew. It’s not Holmes’ first directing job, nor her last: She previously directed the short documentary, “Eternal Princess” — about teen gymnast Nadia Comaneci — and has since helmed an episode of the miniseries “The Kennedys After Camelot,” in which she plays Jackie O.
Holmes, 37, talks to us about why she turned to directing, working with fellow actors and taking a new direction in her career.
What made you first want to direct?
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I love stories, I love storytelling. With “Eternal Princess,” it was about getting my feet wet. Then I got confident. I went to my agency’s book department and sought material to do a narrative.
What was it about Annie Weatherwax’s novel “All We Had” that made you think it’d make a strong film?
I loved all the characters. I love the humanity of each character, and the healing that took place with each of them. I also felt like Rita and Ruthie had such a unique mother-daughter relationship. They were always on the road, always moving. There are some unconventional qualities to their relationship. Sometimes Rita’s the daughter and Ruthie’s the mom, and vice versa.
Was it always the idea to both act in and direct this, or was there one you wanted to do more than the other?
It was always the idea to do both, because I really liked the role. Also, I wanted to be in the scenes with my actors. I wanted to kind of direct from within.
That’s an unusual way of working with actors. I think sometimes directors aren’t always sure how to direct performers.
I’ve had wonderful experiences with different directors. I know what I like when I’m being directed; I know the environment I like to have on set. I tried to create that for the actors. When you’re a director inside a scene with an actor, you can sort of lead the scene. I found that to be really fun. I was really lucky, because Stefania LaVie was really open and free. We improv’d a lot. Everyone was willing to try different things. That’s rare, and that’s very special.
What do you think are the biggest challenges of directing actors?
One of the biggest is time. Feeling rushed never helps a performance. You really don’t get what you need. We were able to have some rehearsal time; I always want more rehearsal time whenever I’m working as an actor. I wish we could rehearse for a month. But that feeling of being rushed can happen, because you have to get a lot done in a short period of time. I tried to avoid that by working with them at lunch. We all became this moving team. We were always talking about it. Even when we were under the gun to finish in a certain amount of time, we were already sort of prepared for that. I hope it worked! [Laughs] I hope it doesn’t look rushed or not lived-in.
That’s one perk of doing an independent film: It feels intimate, and that family unit you create can feel real onscreen.
And that’s the essence of the story: I wanted it to feel like a window into this particular little world that is affected by a large thing that happened, which is the housing crisis. It was one of the reasons I was drawn to this story, because it could be done on a small budget, because it’s little. It doesn’t require a lot of money. That felt right for my first directing job.
Still, was it difficult to finance?
We were very fortunate: We had one financier. We didn’t have the pitfalls that can happen, which is, “We have the money and the cast and, oh, the money just fell through. We have to start over again.” I’ve seen that happen so many times. It’s so awful, because you’re almost ready to go. We were fortunate that [her producers] worried about all of that, so I could direct and act.
Was making this in part motivated by this idea of taking control of your career — not waiting around for someone else to give you this role and this project?
It’s partly that, and partly something I always wanted to do, a new direction I wanted to go in my career. I’ve been acting for about 20 years now, and this is another creative aspect of our business. It’s hard work and it’s intense, but it’s very rewarding. I directed an episode of “Kennedys After Camelot,” on which I play Jackie Kennedy. I want to keep doing that. It’s really empowering and inspiring, and I like to have my take on it.
What was it like directing a television episode? With TV directing, you have to stick close to a house style and there are certain parameters you have to stay within.
It was different than doing an independent film. But I also felt so supported. Jon Cassar — who directed all the episodes of the other [“Kennedys” series, from 2011], and directed the other three episodes [of “Kennedys After Camelot”] — we worked together a lot in prep. We were really inspired by each other. So I didn’t feel that I was closed in creatively or that there were all these parameters. I felt very empowered. And I had such resources: I had a great [cinematographer] and a wonderful crew. I really got to do everything I wanted to do.