Love, Poetry, Bipolar Disorder and Katie Holmes in Touched with Fire

By Dorri Olds 02/26/16

The Fix talks to Katie Homes, Luke Kirby, Christine Lahti, and Paul Dalio about their new film, Touched with Fire.

Katie Holmes in Touched with Fire
Katie Holmes in "Touched with Fire" Roadside Attractions

When I finally got off drugs and alcohol, I went to see a number of psychiatrists to find out if I was bipolar. I’d had such high highs and low lows all of my life, and was afraid I’d turned to substances to self-medicate. The consensus was no, I’m not bipolar. My problem seemed to be a mood disorder with a tendency toward depression—hence my love for drug-induced elation. So, I identified with the characters in the film Touched with Fire, especially their unwillingness to give up mania.

In the film, we meet Carla during a manic episode. She feels confused and so out of control that she checks herself into a psychiatric hospital. Once there, she meets Marco, another patient who refers to himself as Luna, who believes he is not from this planet. They bond because Carla is convinced that she, too, is from another place. Their attraction to each other develops quickly, and soon their passion is sending them to new heights. Not wanting to lose this feeling, they refuse to take their meds and things careen out of control.

This project was like emerging into the world reborn, to be seen for all the beauty that exists within this [illness]. It feels spiritually liberating.”

The authenticity of the film and its characters springs from writer-director Paul Dalio’s firsthand experience—Dalio is bipolar. The book that inspired his screenplay was Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. The author, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, is also bipolar.

Christine Lahti does a phenomenal job of playing Carla’s mother. Her anguish and anger at parenting a bipolar child seemed to radiate from her effortlessly. She barely moved. It was all in her eyes, which triggered a memory in me. I had been in her New York City home in 1979. She had just costarred with Al Pacino in ...And Justice for All but wasn’t famous yet. She threw a small holiday gathering and I was there with my roommate who knew her. I was drunk out of my mind, wasted on cocaine, and made a fool of myself. I’d always wanted to apologize. And now I had a chance when I spoke with the Touched with Fire cast members.

Luke Kirby and Katie Holmes; photo courtesy Roadside Attractions

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” I asked Lahti.

“Sure,” she said. We were in a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton with other cast members. I pulled her aside for a private huddle.

“I have to apologize for something you may not remember,” I said. “It was 1979 and I was in your apartment.”

“You were in my home?” she said, taken aback.

“A friend of yours was my roommate at the time. I was young, under 20.” I could see Lahti searching her brain for the memory.

“I plopped down next to you while you were playing piano,” I said. “Then I loudly, drunkenly burst into song.”

She looked amused, then leaned in to whisper, “What did I do?” Her expression had changed to concern—like how she looked at Katie Holmes in the movie. “Was I nice about it?” Lahti asked.

“You had no reason to be,” I said. “I was ruining your party. You looked mortified. I woke up the next morning filled with shame and embarrassment and have always wanted to say I was sorry for my behavior. But yes, you were polite.”

“Thanks for telling me,” she said. “I’d hate to think I wasn’t kind about it.”

“You were,” I reassured her, and got a big, warm smile.

Luke Kirby and Christine Lahti; Photo by Dorri Olds

Still thinking about drugs, alcohol, and the movie, I asked director Dalio to discuss Carla and Marco’s refusal to take their meds and why they turned to alcohol and pot instead.

“I was hoping to show what things were like through their eyes and skin,” said Dalio, “and the seduction of mania because of how beautiful it is, how ecstatic. These are people who need to feel life at the deepest extremes of emotion. When they’re on meds and told to feel nothing, [imagine] how restraining that could be. I think a lot of people don’t understand, so it was important to me to show it.”

When he said that, it put me in mind of how black and white my life had felt, how dreary and sad. But not when I filled it with the technicolors of acid, crystal meth and cocaine.

When I spoke privately to actor Luke Kirby and asked about his character’s pot smoking, he said, “We had a long conversation with [author] Kay Jamison. She is bipolar and has thoroughly studied the illness. We talked a lot about her pot usage. She said it fires up the brain and increases mania.”

I asked Kirby if he had been familiar with how common it is for bipolar sufferers to turn to alcohol and drugs. "I’m very aware how common it is for people of all stripes to self-medicate," he said, "but I first familiarized myself with bipolar and its relationship to drug use twelve years ago when I did a play called Jump Cut here in New York City at the Women’s Project. The character I played was bipolar and abused drugs a lot."

It’s been several small films since TomKat’s split in 2012 and I felt like giving Holmes a high-five for making this serious movie that’s keyed into mental illness and in favor of psychiatry. Ol’ anti-meds Cruise and his Scientology crew must’ve been fuming. I bet none of them did any couch jumping about it.

Paul Dalio; courtesy Roadside Attractions

This is a powerful performance by a woman who was brave enough to take back her life by breaking out of the controlling church and her oppressive marriage. She dug deep to portray a complex character and the result was a powerful performance loaded with sensitivity.

It is heartening to know that the whole world can see the independent woman Holmes has become. With nothing holding her back, she has entered a new stratosphere of acting. It was great fun watching her as badass Paige on Ray Donovan, and now this emotional masterpiece.

Holmes said, “I approached this [movie] project not really knowing much about the disease. When I met with Paul [Dalio], I was so inspired by his passion and willingness to bring such a personal story to the screen. Everybody on the crew and in the cast all had different stories that we shared. I realized through this process how many people have been affected personally. It made the work really rewarding.”

She said, “I’m so proud of this movie and proud of what everybody has done, especially Paul...Working with Christine was incredible, too. She taught me so much about acting [and] inspired me by sharing her personal experience. Doing our scenes together was incredible.”

Lahti spoke candidly, “My sister struggled with bipolar disease for over twenty-five years and then she took her life. When she was depressed, like when Katie’s character was depressed, she would call it ‘brain dead.’ When she was manic, she was like Katie’s and Luke’s characters. I didn’t have to do any homework for playing Carla’s mom.”

Bruce Altman, who played Carla’s father, said, “Katie is such a delightful person and a wonderful actress. Even though this was a work of fiction, it’s based on [Paul’s] experiences. I know people who have bipolar disease and [to think of Paul] suffering yet being able to get through college and go to NYU and make a movie, was extraordinary and inspiring. It allowed me to be in the moment and added to the verisimilitude of the experience.”

Dalio said, “Making this film was a healing experience. When you become bipolar, you know that you’re not going to be the person you used to be. You don’t feel seen by society for who you are, this new you. I felt stuck in a birth canal halfway in-between my previous self and who I wanted to be. This project was like emerging into the world reborn, to be seen for all the beauty that exists within this [illness]. It feels spiritually liberating.”

Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby; photo courtesy Roadside Attractions

Spike Lee, the movie’s executive producer, was Dalio’s professor at NYU.

“He’s one of the few people who saw anything in me,” said Dalio. “I was over-medicated for NYU so I didn’t feel anything. I brought him a script because he’d become a good mentor. I said, ‘I want to do this script.’ It was probably the most commercial script you could ever think of. I was trying to get the biggest audience possible. It was like a Russian Mafia script—Godfather, The Lion King, and Hamlet. Spike looked at it and he was like, ‘Dude, I’ve seen this way too many times.’”

But Dalio had also written a rap musical. “When I was going through the swings from mania into depression. It was about a boy’s descent into hell. Spike said, ‘If you do the rap musical, I’ll executive-produce it.’ But it was my wife who pushed me to make Touched with Fire. She said, ‘You were going through hell when you wrote that rap musical but you hadn’t come out of it enough to tell a story that would help other people come out of it.’ She kept pushing me to write the script and show it to Spike, so I did.”

Lucky for us. 

Touched with Fire is now playing in theaters across the United States.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.