An interview with
novelist-screenwriter Peter Hedges
By Gloria Cahill
Reprinted from the Spring 1995 issue of
I had made up my mind that I would wait until it came
out on video. I wasn't going to pay seven bucks to see some sideshow
glimpse of "what-it-really-means-to-be-fat-and-misunderstood."
And I sure as hell wasn't going to be part of the entertainment.
I had heard good things about What's Eating Gilbert
Grape, but I had also received some rather pointed cautionary
instructions from well-meaning friends. "Go on a Wednesday
afternoon in Queens when the theater is empty." "You'll love
the movie, but the audience might drive you a little crazy."
"Sit in the back of the theater." None of it very inviting.
Much of it painfully astute.
Then on a Friday night in February, Alice Ansfield,
editor in chief of Radiance, asked me if I would be interested in
interviewing Peter Hedges, the author of both the novel and screenplay
Gilbert Grape, and Darlene Cates, the actress who portrays Gilbert's
mother in the film. Never one to pass up an opportunity to listen to
artists talk about their work, I forgot all the warnings, checked the
newspaper listings, and jumped into a cab in time for the next showing.
It didn't take me long to become thoroughly immersed
in the film. I found myself laughing at all the right moments and even
forgiving the people around me who laughed at the wrong ones. Size
acceptance is a learning process, I reminded myself, and this is only
one of the textbooks.
When the credits rolled, I made my way to the bathroom
and remembered what Alice had told me a few hours before. "They
start off laughing at Momma," she said. "But by the end, they
understand, and they're not laughing anymore." And then as I moved
past the long line of red-eyed women who were waiting for toilets, I
heard the tall blonde in skin-tight black jeans and high heels whisper
loudly to her friend, "There goes Momma."
Rage and humiliation swept through me like a power
surge. Every hesitation that had kept me from the theater raced through
my mind. Not because I had been compared to the extraordinary woman who
had only recently emerged from five years of self-imposed isolation to
perform an unforgettable role in an important film. Not because I had
been compared to Bonnie Grape, the larger-than-life matriarch who held
her family together despite unspeakable losses and disappointments. I
was enraged because it was obvious that the whole point of the film was
forgotten or disregarded in favor of a cheap laugh.
I stopped walking and stared at her back. She wouldn't
turn to face me. Snipers never do. So I stared into the eyes of her
giggling accomplice and said, in a dignified voice, "You're very
funny." And I walked out. Not the most dazzling comeback, but
inherent in the voice, and the posture, and the steady gaze was a
refusal to participate in my own denigration.
In the months that have passed since that night, I
have revised the script in my mind many times. (I've always excelled at
rewrites.) In the revisions, the would-be assailant turns and faces me
and I say, "What a lovely compliment. Thank you." And I walk
away. Or sometimes I say, "No, dear, you're mistaken, but we do
have the same beautiful blue eyes." Or, my favorite, "If you
think that's an insult, then perhaps you need to see this film
again." And I walk away.
It's the walking away part that never changes. Always
with my back erect and my shoulders straight, I walk. And always, I know
that I have been heard.
As I waited for Peter Hedges to arrive at the SoHo
cafe where we would meet for the first time to discuss the novel and the
film, I still hadn't decided if I would tell him this story. I didn't. I
didn't need to. I knew it was a story he'd heard before. He must have.
Otherwise, Bonnie Grape would never have been born.
Peter Hedges has an extraordinary talent for forcing
an audience to look at characters they would typically define as
grotesque and getting them to recognize their inherent humanity,
dignity, and beauty. In his 1990 play Imagining Brad, a survivor of
childhood sexual abuse is married to Brad, a "freak" who is
legally blind, has no hair "except for a clump on the side of his
head," and is without legs or hands. His wife (we never learn her
name) tells her friend Dana that Brad's "skin is flaky and crusty,
and his ears, while he can hear perfectly, his ears look like
cauliflower." But, says the young wife, "in no time what was
at first ugly became soooo beautiful to me - and he must have felt
this." She goes on to explain, "Nothing is quite as loving . .
. as Brad."
Dana, a victim of escalating domestic violence at the
hands of her husband ("the best-looking man in Tennessee"), is
baffled by her friend's story, until she too falls under the spell of
Brad's love and tenderness. "I thought he'd be grotesque," she
says, when she is allowed a brief glimpse of Brad, "but he's
beautiful. His flaky, crusty skin. It's like Christmas cookies. And the
way he breathes those short little breaths, . . . (silence) Oh, God, I
Imagining Brad received a wide assortment of powerful
responses, ranging from outrage to gratitude. In the author's note that
accompanies the Dramatists Play Service edition of the play, Hedges
recalls, "One young man threw a chair at me after a staged reading.
A certain critic wanted to burn the theater down. Others have been
touched. One middle-aged woman with tears in her eyes said, I was abused
when I was a little girl. I've never been able to laugh about it. Thank
you for letting me.'" The author's note continues with observations
that could apply to Gilbert Grape as well:
This play is delicate. If you perform it with
compassion for these women, with no negative judgment, then you will
have let them live and let the audience care. If these women are
portrayed as different from you or me, if they are commented on or made
into caricatures, then the audience is given permission to dismiss the
play and the questions it asks.
In these few sentences, Hedges sums up what appears to
be the overall philosophy of his writing.
In What's Eating Gilbert Grape, a twenty-four-year-old
man tries to balance his personal identity with the challenges inherent
in being part of a family beset with problems. His mother, Bonnie, is
supersize and housebound, a widow whose husband committed suicide when
she was pregnant with their sixth child. Arnie, the youngest son, is
mentally challenged and approaching his eighteenth birthday, a milestone
that doctors never expected him to reach. Gilbert, who serves as Arnie's
chief caretaker and best friend, is trying to sift through the myriad
obligations, resentments, and frustrations that characterize his family
life. Chief among those frustrations is Gilbert's relationship with his
mother. To complicate matters even further, the whole family lives in a
house that is beginning to collapse under the weight of Bonnie, who
seldom leaves her chair, situated directly above the basement beam from
which her husband hung himself.
A priority for Hedges was his desire to honor Bonnie's
dignity. This is partly accomplished by the lack of dignity Bonnie is
afforded at the beginning of the film. Hedges explains that this works
"because of where we end up. If we didn't end up there, I would
have been troubled."
Where the film ends up is with Gilbert's acceptance
of, and perhaps even reverence for, his mother. "A lot of the
journey in terms of Gilbert's relationship with the mother is about
where he ends up. By the end, he has a full range of feelings about her,
but added to his collection of feelings is some respect - a lot of
respect, and love and appreciation."
When asked what he would most like readers and viewers
to take from What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Hedges answers, "I would
hope that people might view their fellow beings, all beings, with more
empathy, more compassion, with a desire to understand. Even if they
can't know why people are the way they are, to understand that they're
probably that way for a good reason. The second thing would have to do
with the fact that we live in a time when so much is telling us how our
life is supposed to be and who we are supposed to be; how our life
should look, and how we should look. And I suppose that what I am trying
to say is that no life is small and no story without its value."
When Hedges started writing the screenplay of Gilbert
Grape, one of his chief concerns was how to cast the role of Bonnie.
"I was worried that they were going to cast someone who was not
heavy enough to play the mother," says Hedges, who first saw
Darlene Cates when she appeared on a segment of the Sally Jessy Raphael
Show entitled "Too Heavy to Leave Their House." "I took
the tape to Sweden, because I wanted the director to have a sense of
what I had imagined," he says.
The director was Lasse Halstrm, whose other films
include My Life as a Dog and Once Around. "When he saw Cates on the
tape, he started to cry because he said that she was a grown woman, and
yet, there was a quality about her that was almost like a little girl.
That really appealed to him," says Hedges.
What Halstrm saw as Cates's childlike vulnerability
accounts for much of the contrast between the Bonnie of the novel and
the Bonnie of the film, who is far more sympathetic than her literary
counterpart. In the novel, Bonnie, who is seen through the lens of
Gilbert's frustration, is a far more rage-driven character. In writing
the film, says Hedges, "I tried to create a mother who would embody
the mother in the book and also have the humanity that Halstrm wanted
her to have from the beginning. He didn't want the audience to be pushed
away from her."
Casting the role of Bonnie meant launching a national
search for a woman who could fit the physical requirements of the
character. This necessity eliminated the standard pool of Hollywood
leading ladies. It also meant possibly casting someone who was not a
professional actress. Hedges had to keep that in mind while writing the
role. "In some of the early drafts of the movie, she was just a
presence," he recalls. "But when we realized that Darlene
could act so well, I added more material for her."
Cates did not arrive on the set until two weeks into
the filming. "I don't think we really understood what the movie was
about until she got on the set," says Hedges. "I spent a lot
of time with her because I was locked in my room rewriting much of the
time, and she was a few floors up in her hotel room with her son. I'd
often go up and see her or we'd talk on the phone a lot. And it was a
very emotional part of the process."
"Many of my rewrites would have Gilbert saying
very cruel things about the mother. The thing Darlene was most afraid of
was that she was going to be a joke, that they were going to make a joke
out of her. And that's where I think she really kept us honest. There
were many instances when I had to explain to her that Gilbert had to say
these things. He had to hold people up to the window; he had to speak
inappropriately about her. Ultimately, the important thing was where
Gilbert ended up. It is a more powerful movie because he starts out
where he starts out."
Although there are striking differences between
Hedge's two versions of Bonnie, one common denominator is the insight
with which Hedges depicts the rage and isolation that often go hand in
hand with compulsive overeating. Bonnie's eating grows out of her
profound rage at the God whom she blames for her husband's suicide. This
is the same God with whom she negotiates for the chance to see her
mentally challenged son, Arnie, reach the age of eighteen.
Hedges's portrayal of Bonnie is rich in complexity,
never surrendering to the all-too-familiar stereotype of the sideshow
fat lady. Although on one hand Bonnie exerts almost total control over
the lives of her grown children, she is also totally dependent upon
them. She consumes their lives as voraciously as she consumes countless
bags of potato chips and boxes of Cheerios. And yet this same character,
who is at times shown as grotesque, also embodies the divine. This
duality is captured in the novel with a rare moment of tenderness
between mother and son in which she says to Gilbert, "One day you
might understand what it means to create. To know the feeling of looking
in a person's eyes and know that you are the reason for those eyes. . .
. I'm going to say something I know I'm not supposed to say. I see you
and I know that I'm a god. Or a goddess. Godlike!"
Bonnie emerges as truly heroic in the scene that both
Hedges and Cates identify as the film's pivotal moment. When Arnie is
arrested for climbing the town's water tower, Bonnie breaks her
self-imposed exile and goes to the jail to demand his release. In this
moment Bonnie is at her most powerful, but as she walks through the
crowd of gaping onlookers, she is also at her most fragile. "That's
when I think Gilbert really turns," says Hedges. "When she
goes to the jail and says, Give me my son,' Gilbert snaps awake in a
way. There's some pride in the family. We don't expect to be in the
front of the line. We don't expect a tax break. We don't expect to be
the first people saved when the flood comes. But don't desecrate our
home. Don't humiliate our mother. She's not for your amusement. She's
not your freak.' It just seems to me that's what family is about."
"What family is about" is how Hedges defines
the theme of Gilbert Grape. "It is the thing I'm most proud of in
the movie," he says, "particularly as it relates to the
Both Hedges and Cates described the team of people who
worked on the film as being very much like a family. And not just in
metaphorical terms. Hedges's father, an Episcopal priest, has a small
part in the film as the clergyperson at a funeral and Cates's daughter,
son-in-law, and grandson play onlookers during one of the film's most
One of the recurring motifs in What's Eating Gilbert
Grape is its characters' ability to "look on the bright side."
What, then, is Bonnie's bright side? According to Hedges it is this:
"She's kept her home in order. She didn't leave. And Arnie's going
to be eighteen. Damn it, he's going to be eighteen. Her bright side
would be good kids, all in all."
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a work of
imagination," says Hedges. "Probably its impulses, the genesis
of it, comes from very personal places in myself, but it's far from
resembling my personal life. I feel that the writer's imagination is so
Still, Hedges, who was raised by his father, recalls
many details from his childhood that no doubt enhanced his understanding
of the food and weight issues he tackles in Gilbert Grape. "My
dad's weight has fluctuated. He's never been as large as Bonnie is, but
when I was a child he was a giant man, and then he lost a lot of
weight," he recalls.
Hedges, Sr., took mealtime very seriously. He regarded
it as a special time for the family to come together. "My dad did
the cooking. And he did the grocery shopping and he loves food. He loves
talking about food. When her writes us letters, there are lots of
references to food. As a child, I never ate. And I was never forced to
eat. I think it was my own sort of protest. Gilbert doesn't take a bite.
And that, I suppose, was me."
Like Gilbert, Hedges's protest was rooted in his
having to take on the role of caretaker at a very early age. "My
brother is in no way Arnie, but he's two years younger than I am, and I
was responsible for making sure that he got to where he was supposed to
get. Part of the way that the family survived was by people looking
after each other. It was kind of the law that if my brother wasn't where
he was supposed to be, we were all at fault. If I didn't do this and
everyone knew it was up to me to get it done, we were all at fault, so
we had to look out for each other. It was a way to survive. It's an
unfortunate way to be a child, because it's unjust, but it was how we
managed," he recalls.
Unlike Gilbert, who bears some tenuous resemblance to
the author, Bonnie is pure invention. As a matter of fact, in the
earliest versions of the work, she was strictly a theatrical device.
Gilbert Grape's first incarnation was in a dramatic monologue that
Hedges wrote for a faculty recital when he was teaching at Bennington
College in Vermont. "I liked Gilbert," says Hedges, and so he
decided to continue exploring the character. But because he was writing
the play as a vehicle for some of his young actor friends, he knew that
casting the role of the mother would be nearly impossible. "I had
to create a parent who isn't seen, but is talked about, and that's when
AI came up with the idea for the mother. I thought, We'll just have her
inside all the time."
"That was long ago and an entirely different
story. I began to work with it, and then I realized that Gilbert worked
in a grocery store. And I realized that he had a sister who was dealing
with weight issues. And that he was always bringing in food. And that
the father had killed himself. And then these things just started to
multiply. Sometimes the initial impulse for something is really
practical, and it's hard for people to believe that, because they think
that everything is conceived out of some master plan."
Ultimately, Peter Hedges sees What's Eating Gilbert
Grape as an exploration of the balance that must be struck between
individuality and membership in a family. "How do you fulfill your
individual purpose in life and yet be of a family? That's our task - to
say we come from where we come, and we're composed of those who preceded
us, and yet, we have to forge ahead. One of the ways to do that is to
not run away. It's to stay present and to try to separate what's mine
from what's theirs. And in that, there can be much dignity and much can
One writer to whom Peter Hedges has been widely
compared is John Updike. Hedges shies away from the comparison.
"It's a very nice compliment, but I think Updike fans who bought
the book were probably a little disappointed. I'm a guy from Iowa who
likes a good story, and who taught himself to read a novel by writing
one. If I wrote a story that has touched people, I feel blessed."
Hedges's modesty notwithstanding, there is one
striking similarity between the two writers. In a 1993 interview with
Jan Nunley of the journal Episcopal Life, Updike said, "Any act of
description is, to some extent, an act of praise, so that even when the
event is unpleasant or horrifying or spiritually stunning, the very
attempt to describe it is, in some way, part of that Old Testament
injunction to give praise." In What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Peter
Hedges subscribes to that injunction. He describes a family that is no
stranger to the unpleasant or the horrifying. To a less sensitive eye,
the Grape family would be written off as merely
"dysfunctional." And yet, despite their problems, they emerge
as a family that knows the meaning of devotion, tolerance, and love.
Hedges also describes a woman many people would simply
look upon with disgust or condescension, and his description is rich in
praise for her strength, dignity, and inner beauty. Hedges never shies
away from painful truths, but he also never forgets to celebrate the
humanity of his characters. Acts of praise, indeed.©
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.
back to the
Back Issues page...