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The Girl Next Door

Katie Holmes says so much about Scientology without saying anything at all in ‘The Giver’

The Washington Post
By Emily Yahr

It’s not too difficult to find the parallels between Katie Holmes’s role as a wife and mother in “The Giver” and her role as a wife and mother in the Church of Scientology.

One world is a fictional film based on Lois Lowry’s best-selling dystopian young adult novel; the other is the real-life controversial religious group founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. And yet, the concept of both societies is similar. They have rigid rules that dictate a certain way of life. Freedom and choice are limited. Members have to dedicate their lives to the communities and it is very, very difficult to leave.

Holmes, 35, was once best known for starring on the WB’s “Dawson’s Creek” in the late ’90s — but her fame skyrocketed after she married fiercely loyal Scientology member Tom Cruise in 2006. If there were all sorts of whispers and rumors about their life when they were married, it was nothing compared to the tidal wave of headlines when Holmes filed for divorce in 2012. In a deposition, it was revealed that one reason Holmes left Cruise was to protect their young daughter, Suri, from the famously private church.

The last two years have been fascinating for Holmes, as she deftly stays in the spotlight while rarely commenting on her personal life. Even using the word “Scientology” around her is taboo. (Just watch this recent “Today” show interview while she and Matt Lauer awkwardly dance around the topic.) That’s why her turn in “The Giver” is a brilliant move: Holmes gets to play a part of living in a strict, suffocating society, which the movie harshly condemns — without uttering a word about her real-life ties to a similar situation.

Holmes, for what it’s worth, absolutely knocks it out of the park in the film, even if she’ll never confirm how or if she connected personally to the material. She stars as the mother of the main character, Jonah, with steely, focused gusto in a community that provides its citizens injections so they won’t have feelings. Holmes’s character, who is a judge, corrects her kids by saying “precision of language,” when they try to express complicated emotions like “love” and “anxiety.”

When Jonah starts to think outside of the society’s limited scope, she tries to reel him back in. It’s the kind of place where the committee of elders that rules the community says things like, “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.”

While Holmes’s character doesn’t say a word against the society — she doesn’t even rebel — what the audience knows about her personal experiences bolster her on-screen presence, as the parallels can’t be ignored. Ultimately, it only makes her performance stronger. Especially as it comes clear toward the end of the film (spoiler alert) that the trapped citizens — who don’t even know they’re captive in anything — will have a chance to escape and experience freedom.

Sure enough, the similarities between the real-life experiences didn’t go unnoticed by bloggers when the casting was announced: “That’ll make for a fun exercise, watching the movie while scanning Holmes for signs of Scientology memories,” Grantland snarked. “Just one year after fleeing the evil clutches of Scientology, Katie Holmes seems ready to dive back into her role as a brainwashed wife who’s unaware of what’s going on in her own home,” Crushable added.

Critics took note after the movie came out, too. The Post’s Ann Hornaday writes that Holmes gives “a suitably chilly performance as a rule-obsessed judge, intimations of the actress’s own recent brush with Scientology hovering over her scenes like a teasing, troubling mist.” Another weighed in: “The casting of Scientology escapee Katie Holmes as one of the happily brainwashed is, momentarily, almost enough to convince us that ‘The Giver’ has a sense of humor.”

Either way, she accomplished a tough role. The people behind the movie are thrilled with how Holmes captured the challenging part. “She is so good in this,” said author Lois Lowry, who was part of the 20-year journey to make the film. “I can’t imagine how they thought of her in casting it because it’s completely alien to her normal image. But that’s the brilliance of the casting: It’s beautiful, warm, loving Katie Holmes, and she’s chilling.”

So how did she get the part? Executive producer Nikki Silver — who called Holmes “the most wonderful human being” — said the actress was on the shortlist for the role, which was a very difficult casting decision. Silver said the main thing was that whoever played the part of Jonah’s mother “really had to be able to show emotion without showing emotion. And that’s an incredibly difficult thing to do.”

Holmes delivered; as Silver said, “It instantaneously became clear that she had all the skill sets to play this role.” And she was able to do so by adding the underlying emotion to the very mechanical character.

“That was so important to us,” Silver said. “Not to just make her robotic.”