Interview by Lynne Murray

[This interview was originally published in Oooo Baby Baby Magazine.]

Readers who are familiar with Darlene Cates from her amazing performance in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" or her television appearances on "Touched By An Angel" or "Picket Fences" may not be aware of the tremendous personal odyssey this warm and wonderful woman has endured. After years of the loneliness of self-isolation and depression, she began to return to the world with help of an anti-depressant medication. Then her life took a dramatic turn with an appearance on a television talk show.

Darlene Cates lives in a small town outside of Dallas, Texas. I caught up with her for a telephone interview as she was recuperating from a week's visit from all four of her grandchildren—she had her first child at 18, so she's a young grandmother.

She talked about how she took the risk of appearing on a segment of the Sally Jesse Rafael Show entitled, "Too Heavy to Leave Their House." Peter Hedges, author of the book and screenplay of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," saw a tape of the show and offered her the part of Momma. It was a tremendous leap for a woman who, not long before, had been housebound.

Darlene Cates: I had to make a choice, I could stay where I was and be miserable, or I could take a risk and do something exciting. I talked with the author, Peter Hedges. There were some things in the book that I didn't like. We talked about those extensively and I trusted him because the character was based on somebody that meant something to him in his life. So I knew that it wouldn't be anything horrible. As we went along I was so proud of the way that the character was portrayed and so proud of the way that the children came around to see that this woman had these good qualities, and how much she really did care about her family.

[The scene that shows her] taking off, after being isolated at home for years, and going after her mentally challenged son at the jail. It wasn't too far of a stretch. It wasn't too hard for me to play it. I had kind of lived it. Certainly not the same circumstances as far as her life per se went, but I knew what it was like to sit at home and then decide that it was necessary to leave.

Lynne Murray: That takes a tremendous amount of courage.

Darlene Cates: I'm very proud of "Gilbert Grape." Every character that I've ever done, I try and make sure that either she grew in self-esteem or else she affected the way others perceived her. In every role I've done that has happened.

Even in "Picket Fences" [where she played a woman who crushed her husband to death in bed] the thing that I loved about that part was that there was the shame there. She tried to hide it. She tried so hard to hide, she was embarrassed and hurting and even though her husband had loved her dearly, she knew that there was no way these people would understand. And I loved the thing where she told the doctor, "You know nothing." The doctor looked at her because she was overweight, but really knew nothing about her. Her cholesterol was okay. Her blood pressure was okay. So what was the big deal? Then she took that plastic heart that the doctor had been showing her and stepped on it and crushed it.

Lynne Murray: I loved that, that was so cool!

Darlene Cates: It was so cool. Then at the end where they said, "We'll sneak you out the back way." She said, "No, I think I've been going out the back way long enough. I'm going to go out the front." She had evolved as well.

I really have tried so hard to make sure that there are some redeeming qualities. Because I know that the roles that fat people are offered, if they do have any redeeming qualities, are few and far between.

Lynne Murray: You have given hope to a lot of people who have seen your acting.

Darlene Cates: I wish everyone that's kind of hiding away at home still could understand or could have the same experience that I did. Once I did the Sally show, all of a sudden I realized that if I went out and people stared at me, I wouldn't know if they were staring at me because I was fat or because they recognized me from being on TV. That empowered me.

Lynne Murray: When someone stares, you can't really tell, it might be admiration.

Darlene Cates: Absolutely. Once I had the confidence to go out, I don't know if it was just because I wasn't looking for it anymore, or if I just exuded confidence and nobody did it any more.

Once in a great while someone will stare. Every once in a while there's someone that it will get my attention that they're having a moment. But it doesn't happen anymore. I don't know. Those altercations, the smart remarks, the laughter.

Lynne Murray: The things we're most afraid of.

Darlene Cates: They don't happen anymore and I don't know if it's because I'm not looking for it anymore, or because I just don't give a damn.

Lynne Murray: Something in you changed.

Darlene Cates: It's so hard to do, but my life is so much better because I'm not always waiting for the insults.

Lynne Murray: You've come a long way from being isolated.

Darlene Cates: It's wonderful. I did a 5-hour shopping marathon at Wal-Mart and there were a couple of times that I felt a little twinge because somebody maybe looked a little too long. But I have to remember that they may be trying to figure out, "Is that that woman from 'Gilbert Grape'?"—because now they show it on cable practically every other week.

But there's still a little bit of residue there. I'm still uncomfortable when I go somewhere I've never been before. But I'm not going to not go. I don't want to get back to that place where I was before. This is my life. I don't know these people and I am not going to let them dictate to me where I can and can't go. If I want to go somewhere and see something and do something—I'm going. If they don't like the fact that I'm there, or they don't want to look at me or something like that, they can either move their seat or they can leave.

Lynne Murray: That's so great because so often people in the public eye do drastic things to their bodies like weight loss surgery.

Darlene Cates: I've already had that. I had my stomach stapled when I weighed 410 pounds. I lost 100 pounds, [and gained back more] so now I weigh 550 pounds.

Lynne Murray: I've heard that weight regain happens very frequently with those surgeries.

Darlene Cates: I do not know of anybody [who had weight loss surgery] who has not had problems. A friend of mine had some health problems last Christmas. His doctors convinced him that these other health problems weren't going to get any better unless he did something drastic about his weight. So they took him in [for the weight loss surgery]. There was just one little hitch. He got a staph infection. He never came home from the hospital. He died.

No. I'm not going to do that. I love my family. I love my grandkids. I want to stay here. God gave me this life to treasure. I know that now. I almost took it in those dark years. I didn't have the courage to live and I didn't have the courage to take pills and die.

Lynne Murray: You had a mission waiting for you to accomplish.

Darlene Cates: I guess so. I know now that God wants me to cherish this life and enjoy it, and I do. I hate that it inconveniences my family. That hurts terribly. But I'm not going to stop living.

Lynne Murray: I think doctors feel so frustrated when faced with fat patients that it makes them it totally disregard all the bad effects and horrible outcomes of these drastic and brutal treatments.

Darlene Cates: My gynecologist treated me terribly at first, until I finally just asked him, "Are you afraid of me?" He looked at me and stammered and said, "Why would I be afraid of you?" I said, "Because of my size, of my weight. You've never had a patient that looked like me before, have you?" He said, "No." He hadn't. I said, "Are you apprehensive, are you afraid? Would you rather have me find someone else?" He said, "No, no, I'll be fine. I'm just a little uncertain of how to care for you."

Lynne Murray: That's good, you got it out in the open.

Darlene Cates: I always recommend that. Ask them, "Hey, are you afraid of me?" Because that always catches them off guard and they have to stop and think "Am I?"

Lynne Murray: There are a lot of rewards, but it does take a lot of courage.

Darlene Cates: It does, it takes incredible courage. But my God, it's so worth it.

My childhood wasn't the best in the world, but I've talked to people whose childhood was horror. I know that it's difficult to overcome those things and to push on. But at some point I think you really do have to make a decision. Am I going to let this screw up my whole life? Or am I going to push on and try to make my life from here on the best I can?

If you can just do it for one day. Just one day. I mean, there are still days that I don't want to get out of bed. I don't have the magic potion and have my life all worked out to a T. There are times that I just think, "Oh, God, I'm not getting out of bed today," and I don't. I don't beat myself up for it either. But the next day, I feel better. There's something to be said for letting yourself—well, here in Texas we call it "waller," letting yourself wallow for a day or two and not feeling guilty about it. I remember as a young mother I used to feel terribly guilty if I lay down and took a nap in the afternoon when the kids were asleep. Because my mother never lay down and took a nap, so I just thought there was something inherently wrong with it. We get these ideas of what is acceptable. It's okay to let yourself check out for a day or two. But there's this fine line between coddling yourself and taking care of yourself for a day or two, just letting yourself be for a day or two and falling into a bottomless pit of it.

It's hard but I wish everybody could just let loose enough to enjoy life. When I think of all the years that I lost.

Lynne Murray: In a way your journey is more inspiring because of that because you have been down to the pits but also up the heights.

Darlene Cates: There were years that I pined over my childhood and grief for what I wished could have been. But you reach a point where enough is enough. I just couldn't do it anymore. I just couldn't keep rehashing that stuff over and over in my mind any more . I just had to get on with it.

Lynne Murray: The wonderful thing is that it brought you so much passion now to be so active, to save other people.

Darlene Cates: That's true. Adversity. If you can't bring yourself to make a move to get out or anything, at least you can know that adversity is what makes us strong. If someone doesn't have the stamina or the courage to make any drastic move, and they are still really dealing with issues in their lives, they can take heart in the fact that adversity is what makes us strong. It used to be I wish that had never happened, I wish I had never gone through that. But I realize now that every single, stinking thing that happened in my life made me who I am today.

So I have gotten to the point in my life where I have a respect for everything in my life even though it wasn't pleasant at times and it was painful at times. I am pleased for the most part with who I am today. There are still things—I wish I was a little more patient. I wish I didn't always put my foot in my mouth. There are some things that I would still like to work on. But I just know that I'm basically a good person and I'm basically a happy person and I am a blessed person. Everyone, whether they realize it or not is blessed, it's just that sometimes our blessings don't come the way we want them to come. They come the way God sees it. He's got his own little timetable, his own game plan.

Part of it is maturity. You look back and you can realize these things. My kids get aggravated with me because they'll be so upset over something that happened and I'll sit there and say, "Think about this in the overall scheme of things in life, just how important is this really?" They get so angry with me, They'll say, "Oh, mother! It's not important and you know it."

But really sometimes we get so caught up in the little dramas that don't mean a thing. We kind of have to pick our battles.

I've gotten flack, not much, very little. But there have been some people that just thought I did the world of fat people a great disservice by everything that I've done. Everything. And that's okay, if they want to feel that way. I can't please everybody.

But it's my hope that even though we fat people may, it may cause us pain to see some of these things, for me the whole issue is to make other people see the pain, and for it to have an impact on the people that ostracize us. Hopefully, they'll have a moment where they'll say, "Oh, my God."

Lynne Murray: I am a human being too, even though I'm fat.

Darlene Cates: I hope that the things that I do make people stop and think. Sometimes it's hard to see things.

Even to this day, every once in awhile I'll see something in a commercial—commercials are notorious for just being out-and-out... bigoted. There needs to be a lot more done. We can't sit down and be quiet and assume that everything will be peachy keen and hunky dory, because it's not. I can still get angry over things that I hear and see on TV. There's no need for all the jokes that they make on Leno. I swear I probably am the only actress that turned Leno down.

Lynne Murray: Because of his fat jokes?

Darlene Cates: Yeah. My agent asked me if I wanted to do the Leno show, I said, "No. Absolutely not." And Arsenio Hall, I thought I would be chewed up and spit out there. But they kept coming back and begging three times and finally my son-in-law said, "Mom, this keeps coming back at you. Maybe you're supposed to do this."

[With] Leno, I feared being ridiculed after the fact. [On] Arsenio, I knew I would be there for the duration of the show and there was a difference. I just felt like—really a gut feeling, an instinct, because I certainly felt I had plenty to fear there as well. I went on and did it. It was the best interview I have ever done. It was wonderful. We had a rapport. We had fun. He started out by saying, "I have with me the 600 pound actress who played in 'Gilbert Grape.'" And I reached over, it was in camera shot, and I hit him.

Lynne Murray: [Laughing]

Darlene Cates: He said, "What?" And I said, "No way am I almost 600 pounds." I said. "I weigh just a little over 500, thank you." So he was laughing about that. I got a standing ovation from that crowd. His audience was great and they were the ones I was afraid of because they were so vocal. As I was leaving, I looked back over my shoulder and everybody was waving at me as I was leaving the stage. It was just awesome.

Lynne Murray: You're doing an event at Big As Texas on children and self-esteem.

Darlene Cates: I'm really looking forward to it. I want to make a difference. Of course I'm interested in self-esteem and the issues that children face. The workshop at Big As Texas will be mostly to present sources where people can get help and some of the issues.

It's not just a matter of teaching children to appreciate themselves, but teaching them to appreciate others as well. Your child can start school with the greatest confidence in the world, when you walk in the door at school. But if people are constantly putting you down and making fun of you because you don't fit into their perception of what's cool, that's going to wear and tear on a kid. It's not just whether your child h as self-confidence. But we've got to try and see if all of our children, fat, skinny or whatever are tolerant.

I spoke to a group of 6th graders [at a local school]. I started talking to the girls about the models in magazines and how, only 6% of the entire population had the genetics to even possibly look like that. In the real world girls looked just like they did.

Then I addressed the boys and I said, "If you are going to hold out and think that you're going to only date somebody that looks like this girl in the magazine, you're going to be a lonely person."

Lynne Murray: That's great because boys can be worried that the other boys will think there's something wrong with them if they're even talk with a fat girl.

Darlene Cates: Exactly. I addressed that issue too. I told them, "What you see in that magazine is a picture. These girls that you're in school with, these are real people." I really tried to encourage them to just listen to their own common sense. I tried to build them up and say, "You know in your heart, you know in your mind. There's probably somebody that you like right now that you don't speak to because you're afraid of what your friends will say. What are you going to do after you finish school and all your friends have gone off and done their own thing? You'll be still sitting there without a girlfriend because you didn't date anybody that your friends didn't approve of."

I loved doing that. I really am interested in children's issues. I have spoken to schoolchildren twice. I would love to do it on a regular basis.

My seven-year-old grandchild, Daniel, invited me to his soccer game and I said, "Now tell me how are you going to feel if somebody says something mean about me to you?" He just looked at me like I had lost my mind and he said, "I don't think that will happen." I said, "Daniel, it might happen. How are you going to feel? Is it going to make you uncomfortable?"

Because of course I don't want to embarrass him. I want to be included but I want him to want me, I wanted him to be ready. But he said, "No. I want you to come. If anybody says anything I'll just do what they do in the Little Bill Books." I said, "What's that?" And he said, "I'll just say, 'So?'" He said he wanted me to come. So I said, "I'll be there."

Lynne Murray: Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.

Darlene Cates: I hope it will give encouragement—whether it's to get out there and live, or whether it's to take one day at time, but be thinking about getting out there and doing something.


For those who would like to see a lovely picture of Darlene Cates, and read a more recent interview, she speaks out, in her gentle but heartfelt way, about the damage she and others have suffered from weight loss surgery at withoutmeasure.com.


© Lynne Murray