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Ex-Recluse Turns Shining Star
Actress Darlene Cates talks about her new life in TV and film
By Gloria Cahill

Reprinted from the Spring 1995 issue of Radiance

Darlene Cates is a star. Since playing the role of Momma in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, she has guest starred on CBS-TV's Emmy-winning series Picket Fences, and is currently fielding offers for upcoming film and television projects, including a possible return appearance on Picket Fences. She will also be guest starring on Fox Television's upcoming series Medicine Ball later this year.

This turn of events represents a rather astounding change for the 500-plus-pound grandmother who, prior to launching into her new career, had seldom left her house in Forney, Texas, for five years. Fearing the judgments, insults, and degradation that awaited her on the other side of her door, Cates had isolated herself in her home, where she was secure in the love and acceptance of her family.

In 1992, Cates appeared on the Sally Jessy Raphael Show to talk about her self-imposed imprisonment. That appearance brought her to the attention of Peter Hedges, author of the 1991 novel and the more recent film script of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and marked the beginning of her acting career. Now in addition to her acting career, Cates is planning to write a motivational book about her experiences to help others overcome the pain and isolation that she has successfully battled.

In this interview, Cates talks about her life, the making of Gilbert Grape, her reasons for making the film, and how the experience has changed her life.

Cahill: You have said that when you were first approached about appearing on the Sally Jessy Raphael Show, you didn't want to do it. What was your life like before the show, and what made you change your mind about telling your story on television?

Cates: I had reached a crisis point in July of 1991, and I had called the doctor and requested that he either do something to help me or come shoot me like they do horses. I couldn't live like this anymore. He suggested I go on Prozac. I did and I began to feel better and more hopeful. I decided to take a high school course so that I could get my high school diploma. I didn't want the GED; I wanted the actual knowledge. I had begun to feel better about myself and was beginning to feel more hopeful.

I was a member of a support group called TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly). They met at my home on Saturdays, because I wouldn't go out. The producers of the Sally Show called the TOPS national headquarters and said they were doing a show about fat women who didn't want to leave their home, and they'd like somebody who was still trying to deal with their weight. TOPS called the regional directors and our regional director called me and said, "Darlene, do you want to go to New York?" And I said absolutely not. In the first place, I couldn't see how I could. They assured me that they would take care of everything. They would rent a wheelchair, provide all the transportation, even make me a dress to wear. Their actual words were: Don't worry, it won't be a problem. I couldn't see how it wouldn't be, but in a very big act of faith, I took the step. I had some misgivings, but I also knew that I had been asking God for help for a long, long time. And I thought this might be where it was coming from.

It was a great experience for me. The audience was very open to us and very supportive. It was a very positive experience. And I loved being out of the house. None of the bad things that I had imagined would happen, happened. And everybody we met in New York was great. So I came back from the show, really revitalized and eager to get out of the house.

Cahill: And then your next step was a major motion picture! Were you pleased with the outcome of What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

Cates: Yes, I was. I really felt that it gave an accurate picture of what so many people have to endure being fat, and I also felt it showed that fat people can have a strong character and the admiration and respect of their family as well as others.

Cahill: I understand that you read the book before you began working on the film. Were there moments in the book that you'd like to have seen in the movie?

Cates: There were moments in the book I felt were stereotypical, and I obviously didn't want them to be in the movie. The things about how people drove by and threw trash on the porch. But later I looked at that again and I almost wished they had put it in the movie because people do things like that. Of course, I didn't commit to making the movie until I read the screenplay, and even then I waited until I talked to Peter to tell him what I hoped to accomplish and what I didn't like about what I had read.

Cahill: Your performance in Gilbert Grape was followed up with a guest spot on Picket Fences in which you portrayed a woman who accidentally murdered her husband by rolling over on him in her sleep. I understand that you have been criticized by some members of the size acceptance movement for taking these roles. How do you feel about this criticism, and what would you like to say in response?

Cates: Anyone views subject matter that pertains to them in a way that reflects their own attitudes and emotions, and so there are going to be people who see it as negative and won't be happy with it. But to these people I would say that I always strive to do roles that portray strong, dignified, real human beings. And how can I play those roles without also portraying the things that make that character strong and dignified, namely, adversity? That's what makes us all strong. That's how we all gain dignity, by rising above the adverse things that life hands out to us.

I always strive to make people think about the kind of garbage we, as fat people, put up with. I refused Picket Fences the first time, because it was just terrible. There were some lines that I just couldn't say, for example, I wouldn't say "rifled through the refrigerator like a fat hog." Originally, the character was supposed to have killed her husband by sitting on his head without knowing it. I just felt that was ludicrous, even given Picket Fences's reputation for approaching difficult subject matter with humor and with thought. They had no problem changing it. They were very eager to do the right thing, make it an honorable script. They wanted to show some of the things that we have to deal with and to give the character an air of dignity. It was strictly a matter of their not knowing: they'd never been fat, nobody in their family had been fat, they didn't know. And they were great, they made every change.

Cahill: What were some of your concerns about the movie?

Cates: I felt that some of the sound effects when Momma was coming out of the bathroom were overdone. But I also felt that, given the overall view of the movie, such things were necessary to set up what took place later. And it bothered me that Momma didn't wash her hair. I went nuts. "What do you mean, she doesn't bathe? What do you mean she doesn't wash her hair?" I never leave the house without makeup and my hair done. So you can imagine the trauma of going up on the screen not only knowing that I weighed 500 pounds but with my hair looking like crap, no makeup.

Cahill: How did you get past those concerns?

Cates: They said, "If you're going to be an actress, you have to act this role. It's not a story about Darlene, it's a story about the Grape family."

And Peter took everything that I had to say under consideration. I'm not going to say that he made every change, because he didn't. But he was very understanding, and he made me see the integrity of some of the things I was concerned about. I think he did a wonderful job in writing the screenplay. He struggled so hard to get the depth of feeling, to get the story across. His concept wasn't always the director's concept, and he struggled with it, but it was a labor of love for him. He really wanted to do the very best that he could, and he really wanted Momma's character to show a certain amount of grace under pressure. He wanted to show that when it got right down to it, this woman had guts. And such a great love for her child that she was willing to brave it all for him. Cahill: Was that the hardest part of the movie for you?

Cates: The hardest thing was the courthouse scene (when Momma goes to get her child), because it was just so emotional. I mean, it was my own worst nightmare. After the first take I had to sit down and cry awhile, and then I decided it was time to buck up and get on with it, and we got it done, but it was very hard.

Cahill: Actors study for years to achieve such an unforgettable moment. You had never studied acting nor acted professionally before this film. How did you make those moments so real?

Cates: When you've spent five years of your life hidden away at home out of fear of what other people are going to think about you, or say about you, it's not too hard to walk out of that courthouse and see all of those people staring and feel that fear come rushing back. For me, it was a very real moment. I don't feel like I had to act. All I had to do was know how I would've felt in that situation, and that came to the surface very quickly.

My own kids - my son, and my daughter and son-in-law and my grandson, who was just a few months old at the time - were extras in the courthouse scene.

Cahill: Did that make it easier?

Cates: Yes. It gave me a feeling of security.

Cahill: What were the greatest rewards of doing the film?

Cates: I grew so much in my understanding that externals don't really have much value. You cannot judge yourself by what the scale says or by whether your hair is done or any of that stuff. And that brings me to a point that I would like to talk about. I sort of came under fire in a magazine because I let it be known that although I had said many times that a person's value doesn't have anything to do with what the scales say, I want to lose weight. What people don't realize is that I'm almost totally dependent on my family. I'm in a wheelchair. So it's this grandchild of mine that I want to play catch with, walk around the zoo with. You know, there are just things that I want to do. I'm in pain a lot. I don't care if I'm ever skinny again: I just want to be able to function. I just want to be able to walk and to wake up occasionally without being in pain in my legs and my arms and all that. And it had dawned on me that in other interviews I had never stipulated that these are the reasons I want to lose weight.

Cahill: Peter said that your presence on the set kept the company honest. What do you think he meant by that? How did you keep them honest?

Cates: I never hesitated to question anything about my character or her relationship with her children. It never occurred to me not to voice concern over a scene or something that was being said. I was concerned that if we were going to leave these things in, Gilbert saying all of these terrible things about his mother, and the townspeople making fun of her, it was all going to turn out all right. Is she still going to have dignity at the end? Is she going to be a positive character by the end of the movie? That worried me. Peter and I would spend long hours talking about how I felt, and that's the only thing I know of that I did. I was just keeping him apprised of how I was feeling, and hoping that he would take all of that into consideration. And I felt like he did. Peter told me that the movie started out being about Gilbert and Becky, but that he felt that it ended up being more about the family. I agree. I think it's a wonderful movie.

Cahill: What was it like to work with the cast and crew of Gilbert Grape?

Cates: I can't begin to tell you how nice these people were. It made all the difference in the world to me, because it had been less than a year since I struck out and did the Sally Show and I was apprehensive. I would cry, and after the rehearsals were over, I'd cry all the way to my room, and I'd ask my son, "What the hell am I doing here with these people who can act? What was I thinking? Why am I here? I want to go home!" But I felt safe and loved. It was such a positive experience for me. I can't tell you what it did for my self-esteem. It was so empowering to have the love and respect of all these people.

I'm still friends with some of the crew. I still talk to Mary Steenburgen and I talk to Leo (Leonardo DeCapria, who portrayed Arnie in the film). And Johnny (Johnny Depp, who played Gilbert in the film) pops up when I least expect it: I usually get messages via other people, and that's how I stay in touch with Johnny.

Cahill: You and Johnny had such an intense mother-and-son relationship on screen. What was it like to work with him?

Cates: Johnny is a very gentle person, and very quiet, and very respectful, and he was always apologizing to me. I mean, I wouldn't even be working on some days, and he would come and say to me, "Man, I want you to know how much I hated having to say those things about you, or about your character." And at first, I said, "Well, what did you say about me?" And he said, "Well, what I had to say about Momma." And I felt kind of silly because he was the actor. I said, "It's only a movie! Of course you weren't saying those things about me. You were saying them about Momma!" "Well, I hated it," he'd say. "I just hated it, especially since I know you." And, I'd always say that I appreciated it that he was telling me, but that it was okay. I understood.

And my daughter hated it. And I had to say to her, "Honey, it's just a movie role." Momma's reconciliation with Gilbert would have meant nothing if we hadn't known that he had all of this hostility and judgment against her in the beginning. I mean, it was all necessary in order to show that he had a change of heart.

Cahill: What did you find most interesting about the filmmaking process?

Cates: It just amazes me how a writer and director can manipulate an audience's feelings, their emotions. Everyone I've talked to, friends from different places who saw it, described the same progression of emotion. You know, everybody would be laughing along until we got to the courthouse. And then it would get kind of quiet, and when the guy jumped out with the camera and took the picture, there was an intake of breath and then, "Oh, God, that's the last straw." From then on, everybody's on Momma's side. Nobody is laughing anymore. And to be able to do that just fascinates me. It's an incredible gift. To know that that's what they had to do. To have that foresight, to be able to place it. I'd see Lasse sitting there, and I'd wonder, My God, this is a great director? He'd just be sitting there and he looked like he didn't know what the hell he was doing. And then the more we got into the movie, I realized that he was playing everything over in his mind. He could actually see what we were doing, just as if it were on film, and he'd be sitting there running it through his mind. He's amazing, absolutely amazing.

Cahill: It seems that throughout this process, a very special bond was forged between you and Peter Hedges. How did that bond come about?

Cates: Peter's ability to plug in emotionally and listen to what was in my heart. Peter is a very easy person to confide in. We had a lot of long heart-to-hearts over the phone. I absolutely cherish my friendship with these people, and especially with Peter. Peter's a dear, dear man. He's the most nonjudgmental person I've ever met.

Gloria Cahill is Education Director of Young Playwrights Inc. (a national playwright development organization for writers eighteen and younger) and a doctoral candidate in American Literature at the University of Arizona.


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