By Kate Coyne
November 10, 2014 12:00 PM

EXCLUSIVE People EXCLUSIVE

Katie Holmes grins, reaches down and begins pulling off one polka-dotted sock. “Want to feel my heels?” she asks sheepishly. She’s been raving about a new foot-exfoliation gadget for the past five minutes—and as she flings one surprisingly silky foot in the air, it’s clear that it works. It’s also clear that this is not the Katie Holmes most people are used to seeing.

These days she’s often thought of as elusive and enigmatic, the cipher at the center of perhaps the most documented breakup in Hollywood history. In countless articles and entertainment news shows, the narrative has generally gone something like this: Eight years ago she was the princess in a fairy tale, the beautiful starlet marrying the megastar Tom Cruise in an Italian castle, their adorable baby daughter Suri by their side. Five years later she was the prisoner escaping that very marriage, fleeing Los Angeles and Scientology. Most recently she’s been the always gracious but somewhat aloof actress who steadfastly refuses to discuss anything personal.

Today, however, Holmes, 35, is none of those versions that have been projected onto her and instead is playful, girlish and surprisingly funny. She laughs freely and often. Dressed in jeans and a gray cashmere sweater in a sunny, light-filled loft in Manhattan, she has her hair loose and her makeup minimal. “I’m channeling Mallory Keaton today,” she says. She is not, as it has sometimes seemed in previous interviews, a woman who feels little and reacts even less. “I’m much more shy and also much more sensitive than people realize,” she says. “I cry all the time. I do!” She cocks one eyebrow and delivers her famous half-smile. “I also go to the bathroom. I also breathe. Just not in the bathroom. I don’t breathe then,” she deadpans before adding, “Actually, in public bathrooms, I try not to breathe.”

Raised as the youngest of five from Toledo, Ohio, Holmes was a Catholic schoolgirl who became instantly famous in 1998 as Joey Potter, the heroine of the melodramatic teen series Dawson’s Creek. Now, decades later, she is vastly changed from that small-town girl. “Growing up in Ohio, I thought being an actor was something that could just never, ever happen,” she recalls. “If I could go back, I’d tell that girl to just relax! It’s only a plane ride away!” But not every concern has been so easy to conquer. The details of her split with Cruise remain a confidential (and legally sealed-off) matter. Yet the impact is something Holmes is still trying to navigate. “I don’t want that moment in my life to define me, to be who I am,” she says of her post-split persona. “I don’t want that to be what I’m known as. I was an actor before, an actor during and an actor now.” As she talks about starting over in New York City, the kind of mother she hopes to be and the possibility of falling in love once again, she makes it clear that after weathering an intense second act, she’s poised for yet another new chapter.

That includes taking on a wave of new projects: from her upcoming pitch-black comedy Miss Meadows (out Nov. 14), in which she plays an elementary school teacher with a seriously murderous vigilante streak, to her role as the first Global Brand Ambassador for the Olay skin care line. Next year she’ll reprise her portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in The Kennedy’s: After Camelot, a role she first played in the miniseries The Kennedy’s in 2011. She’s also tackling directing, stepping behind the camera as well as starring in an adaptation of the novel All We Had, about a mother-daughter road trip. Those eclectic choices reflect Holmes’s personal philosophy. “I don’t have any fear now, I don’t have a lot of rules for myself, and I don’t take myself that seriously,” she says. “I’m not afraid to try new things.” And if people continue to misunderstand her? “I really just don’t care,” she says emphatically. “A lot of good things have happened to me, so I focus on that, and the other things that get focused on by the press or whoever— I’m just not interested.”

Other than the occasional Instagram shot of her on the subway, New Yorkers have given Holmes a fairly wide berth— just one reason why she loves her adopted hometown. “When I got to New York City, the amount of support I got from strangers … It makes me cry,” Holmes says of her early days after the split. “So many people just opened their apartments to us and helped us in so many ways. In New York it’s like … what’s it called where everybody just locks hands and joins up and won’t let anyone fall through?” She searches for the term; the playground game Red Rover is suggested. Holmes tosses back her head and howls with laughter. “No, I don’t think that’s what I mean. Or is it?” she asks. “Let’s go with it: It’s like a big game of Red Rover where people come together and won’t break that bond. They have your back and you hold on.”

Having held on through paparazzi and tabloid headlines covering her every move, Holmes has also ventured back to Los Angeles and recently purchased a home there. “I love California too, because you have space and sunshine and a yard,” she acknowledges. Letting Suri, 8, have room to roam has been important, as is the bond Holmes continues to nurture with her daughter. “Motherhood means everything to me,” she says, her eyes lighting up at the mention of her daughter. “I’m learning every day, and I have been since the minute I became a mom.” But there are certain realities she doesn’t sugarcoat. “My patience has grown, but between 4 and 6 p.m…. I mean, wow,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Between tickle fights and glitter art, I try to throw in some manners along the way. I try to have good manners too, so that’s what she sees. I also try to be very creative with her, because I know she’s an artist, and that speaks to the girl in me. To be honest? I’m not going to play tag, probably. That’s not top of my list. But I’ll paint all day, I’ll do the creative stuff.”

But given what her daughter has also endured (the paparazzi images of Suri clinging to her mother amid a scrum of cameras won’t soon be forgotten), it’s not surprising that Holmes has but one priority for her “little one.” “My main goal is to just let her know how much I love her,” she says. “Just to let her know that she is so loved. When that’s the through line, who cares that my first two pancakes are always burned?” Slight correction. “Sometimes it’s not just the first two pancakes,” she confesses. “And I’m seriously under pressure because it’s the last bit of the batter and I’m flipping it, and it’s about to break apart, and I’m thinking, ‘No, please don’t break … this is going to set the tone for the whole day!’ ” She is, she swears, just like most exhausted mothers. “In the mornings, I’m sprawled out on my bed.” She stops and throws herself across the couch and begins slapping at imaginary alarm clocks. “I’m just going ‘Snooze, snooze, snooze’ at the three alarms I have set, and I’m thinking, ‘It can’t be. It can’t be time to get up now.’ If nobody needed me, I could sleep for a week. I would be totally fine with that. I’m an Olympic sleeper. If it were an event, I would get the gold.” She dissolves into giggles.

Sleeping in seems unlikely for the single mom, who does not employ an entire brigade of assistants but admits she often needs help from others. In addition to a full-time babysitter and mom Kathleen, “who is always willing to fly to me if I need her, and even when I don’t,” Holmes also has “girlfriends of all ages, who have children of all ages. I lean on them. For advice, for recipes, for all of that stuff: ‘What am I supposed to do? Can you come over and watch? Can you be a helping hand?’ And I do have help, yes, but … it’s your baby, you know? You want to be the one who is there,” Holmes says. The same questions plague her that plague most working parents: “Am I enough? Am I doing enough? Have I seen her enough?” But Holmes is sanguine about the answers. “Guess what? You’re not enough, she hasn’t seen you enough, you’re horrible: That’s how it can feel sometimes. You do the best you can. Some days you feel really good about yourself and some days you don’t.” She shrugs; it’s far from the hardest lesson she’s had to learn. “Motherhood has taught me to just let go of some things, to relinquish control. There’s a playdate you weren’t expecting— I’ve had to learn to ask myself, ‘Is this worth it? Is it going to make her smile?’ And if it is, then yeah, we’re probably gonna do it. Maybe that means dinner at 8 instead of 6, and a snack in between. Fine. Things don’t have to happen a certain way. I think we all need to ease up on the expectations. We’re all trying to do the best we can. Motherhood taught me that.” She suddenly breaks into an excited grin. “That and the power of gift cards! Oh God, just get a drawer of them. Get a drawer of gift cards that you always have ready, and things seem a lot easier.”

It has been over two years since the split, and Holmes has not publicly dated anyone (reports of a romance with Jamie Foxx were false). In fact, the still-single star has studiously avoided any discussion of her love life—until now. “Let me take a deep breath,” she says with a nervous smile. Though cautious, she does want to dispel the notion that she has closed herself off to the prospect of finding true romance. Does she still believe in love? “Yes,” she says brightly. “Absolutely.” As for falling in love again someday, she is similarly hopeful. “Yes. Someday,” she repeats the word carefully. “I’m a very loving person. Of course I’m open to finding love again.” Yet she’s not in any rush. Earlier this year she directed a series of documentaries for AOL and profiled women including former New York Times editor Jill Abramson and film producer Jane Rosenthal. The experience provided a powerful life lesson. “What I’ve come to understand is that your dreams will happen, but they might not happen when you want them to,” Holmes says. “There are some things you just have to wait for.”

Until then she isn’t likely to stand idly by. “I go a little crazy if I’m not busy,” she says. No wonder, then, that she’s still trying to find a balance between the chaos and the calm. Swiping open a screen on her phone, she reveals a Zen proverb that a friend has sent to her, one that could well become her new motto: Let Go or Be Dragged. “Isn’t that great?” Holmes says, smiling eagerly. ” ‘Let go or be dragged.’ Those are words to live by.”