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Darlene Cates Knows a Weighty Role When It’s Offered

It hits you like a slap in the face: Momma is fat. Momma is so fat that she rarely leaves the couch in her living room, so fat that her son and his friend secretly shore up the floorboards in the living room, so fat that people stare at her on the street when she finally decides to leave her Iowa farmhouse to do some police business in town.

When Iowa-born Peter Hedges sold the screenplay of his book “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” to Paramount Pictures, he brought a videotape of a January, 1992, “Sally Jessy Raphael” show with him when he met with director Lasse Hallstrom. Darlene Cates, a 500-pound woman from Texas who had not left her house for five years, was a guest, and Hedges wanted to make sure Hallstrom understood exactly how big the character of Momma needed to be.

Cates plays the horrifically overweight matriarch of the family in “Grape,” which opens Friday. She presides over a brood that includes Johnny Depp as the title character, Leonardo DiCaprio as his retarded younger brother, and two sisters. But it’s Cates, in all her undeniable bulk, that the audience cannot take its eyes off.

“There was this immediate draw to her,” said Hallstrom, who previously directed “My Life as a Dog” and “Once Around.” “There was nothing stereotyped in the real Darlene, because she was so sweet, she had such a wonderful self-irony and such a wonderful sense of humor--and you could tell from that brief interview on ‘Sally Jessy Raphael.’ She was this wonderful personality in this disguise of her own body.”

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“It was in June (1992),” Cates says, talking from her home in Forney, Tex., remembering when Hollywood came calling. “I couldn’t believe it when the phone rang and it was Gail Levin and she said, ‘I’m a casting director and would you like to do a movie?’

“I didn’t say anything for a long time--so long, as a matter of fact, that she began to think I wasn’t interested at all, which I set her straight real quick,” she said in her light Texas drawl.

For Cates, 45, the answer to the question for the ages--"Do you want to be in pictures?"--was only another step on the road back from severe depression. Just three years before, her weight problems (she currently weighs about 500 pounds, she says) had her on the verge of suicide.

“I mean, obviously I never intended--just like I said in the movie--I never intended to be this size,” Cates said, an edge of sadness in her voice.

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Cates married her husband, Bob, a career Marine, at 15 and had her first child, daughter Shari, at 18. Between her three children and her husband’s frequent absences overseas, Cates continued to gain weight. “It can sneak up on you so stealthily.”

But it was an infection related to a Dalkon shield, and subsequent mandatory bed rest for two years, that led to her true weight crisis. When she finally recovered in 1985, she found that she could no longer stand under her own weight.

“I became very depressed,” she said. “I wouldn’t leave the house except to go to the doctor. I would sit there with a handful of pills and not have the courage to take them and not have the courage to live either.”

Cates did not leave her house for five years. Finally, her doctor prescribed Prozac, she earned her high school diploma and joined TOPS (Take Pounds Off Sensibly).

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The television show found Cates through the national office of TOPS only a few days before they needed her on the show. “Every fiber of my being was saying ‘no,’ ” Cates said about being asked to go on the show. “But something a little bit deeper said, ‘OK, you’ve asked for help, maybe this is it.’ ”

Cates ultimately went on the show twice, and Hedges was given a tape by an acquaintance.

Hallstrom fell in love with Cates immediately and though several other people were auditioned, he said, “Darlene really had no competition there.”

“The way I knew I got the part,” Cates said, “was that (Hallstrom) called me and said, ‘Hi, Darlene, this is your director, Lasse.’ ”

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DiCaprio, 19, who plays her younger son, said, “To come in there and give such a fabulous performance and to hit the character head on--without any doubt, she was the character--it was just amazing to me.”

DiCaprio says he and Cates had a very close “mother-son relationship” on the set of the movie, which was filmed in the small Texas towns of Manor, Pflugerville and Lockhart, and Cates agrees.

“All of his successes just pop my buttons--I feel so proud of him just like he was my own son,” she said.

In fact, Cates says, she had no conflicts with anyone. “Johnny (Depp) was the sweetest soul . . . if we were working on the set together, he would not leave until I was back in my (wheelchair) and situated, even though my son Mark was there with me.” The highlight was meeting co-star Mary Steenburgen: “She’s such a class act.”

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Cates says the most satisfying part of her life has been being a mother--and now a grandmother of one--but that it took her a while to come down from her star turn once she was back in Forney with her husband and sons Mark and Chris, who still live at home.

“I came home very spoiled (by the film crew) . . . but my feet have gotten back down to the ground now and as a matter of fact, when you called, I was making out (our weekly) menu.”

Director Hallstrom and co-star DiCaprio both say Cates is a naturally gifted actress, but Cates herself is not quite so sure. “I have asked myself, if I had the opportunity to do another role sometime that was a completely different character, would I? Or was it just because I had this affinity for Momma that I could do it this time?” she says.

One thing hasn’t gotten easier: her weight and people’s reaction to it. “It’s hell. It’s really hard to go out knowing that you are going to be the center of attention just about anywhere you go and that it’s not going to be in a positive way.”

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Still, Cates says she has mostly come to terms with it, though she is still trying to lose weight with the support of TOPS. “What you weigh may affect your life, it may affect your ability to get a job, your ability to attract a mate, but it doesn’t have anything to do with your value as a person. . . . (Now) I really feel like there’s not anything I couldn’t try. Boy, talk about being let out of a prison.”


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