Turns Shining Star
Cates talks about her new life in TV and film
By Gloria Cahill
Reprinted from the Spring 1995 issue of
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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
Cahill: It seems
that throughout this process, a very special bond was forged between you
and Peter Hedges. How did that bond come about?
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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