“Have You Seen Arnie?” Facts About What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Released in 1993, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a drama starring Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, and Darlene Cates. Based on the novel of the same name, it follows Gilbert Grape, a grocery store clerk living in a small town, who cares for his obese mother and mentally disabled younger brother. See how such a simple concept for a movie was a major success and learn behind-the-scenes secrets that few people know!

The Actress That Played Mama Was Discovered On A Talk Show

Mama was played by Darlene Cates, a woman who had spent the last five years inside her house because she was ashamed of her weight. However, she managed to make an appearance on the Sally Jessy Raphael Show in 1992.

Picture of Cates
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Upon seeing Cates’ appearance on the show, screenwriter Peter Hedges sent a copy of the tape to director Lasse Hallström, knowing she needed to be in the movie. Cates had no acting experience, but she sure fooled audiences!

Mama Never Climbed The Stairs

Toward the end of the film, there is a scene in which Mama finally gets up off of the couch and makes her way upstairs, something she hadn’t done in years. Yet, actress Darlene Cates never made the climb herself.

Picture of Cates
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

While she did climb the first few steps, the same footage was re-used to make it look like she climbed the entire staircase. Furthermore, the bedroom that appears to be upstairs is actually on the bottom floor.

Darlene Cates Is DiCaprio’s Favorite Movie Mom

Leonardo DiCaprio was just 19 years old at the time that What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was made, and sincerely enjoyed his time on set with Darlene Cates. Upon Cates’ passing in 2017, DiCaprio posted on Facebook to share his thoughts.

Picture of Cates and DiCaprio
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

He wrote that she was “the best acting mom I ever had the privilege of working alongside. endearing personality and incredible talent will live on in the memories of those who knew her, and those who loved her work.”

The Film Never Specifies Gilbert’s Age

In the novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which the movie is based on, it’s clarified that Gilbert is 24 during the events of the story. However, in the film, it is never stated how old Gilbert is.

Picture of Depp
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

We know that Arnie is about to turn 18 and that his sister Ellen is 15, and considering that Gilbert is having an affair with a married woman, audiences can only guess how old Gilbert is actually supposed to be.

Johnny Depp Wasn’t All That Kind To Leonardo DiCaprio

Although in the movie Gilbert watches over Arnie to make sure that he’s safe and nobody hurts him, that wasn’t the case when taping was over. On numerous occasions, Depp has admitted that he wasn’t very kind to DiCaprio on set, blaming it on difficulties he was experiencing in his personal life.

Picture of Depp and Dicaprio
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

In an interview with EW, Depp commented, “I tortured him. I really did. He was always talking about these video games, you know? I told you it was kind of a dark period…”

A Mix-Up In Ages

In the film’s opening, Gilbert explains that his younger sister Ellen had just turned 15 and that their father had died 17 years ago, which would make it impossible for the two to have the same father.

Picture of Ellen
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Yet, in the book, Ellen had just turned sixteen, and their mother was pregnant with her when their father died. Author Peter Hedges, who also wrote the screenplay, says the line was changed without their knowledge to be more fitting for the actress playing Ellen.

Leonardo DiCaprio Was Too Convincing

Although Leonardo DiCaprio may be one of the biggest names in Hollywood today, there was a time that few people had any idea who he was, such as before What’s Eating Gilbert Grape came out.

Picture of DiCaprio
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

The film was DiCaprio’s first major role, and he played the part of Arnie so well that he stole the show in many people’s opinion. In fact, he was so convincing in the part that people were shocked at the premiere to learn he wasn’t actually mentally disabled.

Depp Threw Some Money At DiCaprio

Because the two actors were so young during filming, with Leonardo DiCaprio being 19 and Johnny Depp 29, there was bound to be some fooling around on set. Supposedly, at one point, Depp was feeling bored and bet DiCaprio $500 to smell a rancid pickled egg.

Picture of Depp and DiCaprio
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Being the goofy teenager he was, DiCaprio took Depp up on the bet and made the easiest $500 of his life. Clearly, Depp was already doing alright for himself since $500 was a decent amount of money back in 1993!

DiCaprio Did His Research

Playing Arnie, a character who is mentally disabled, Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to make sure that he was respectful and portrayed the character correctly. So, he did his own research.

Picture of actors
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

DiCaprio commented, “I had to really research to get into the mind of somebody like that. I spent a few days at a home for mentally unstable teens. We just talked, and I watched their mannerisms.” He also noted how refreshing it was to see how they interpreted the world.

The Film Brought DiCaprio To The Attention Of Martin Scorsese

Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese first noticed the young Leonardo DiCaprio while watching What’s Eating Gilbert Grape on TV. However, he had heard about him prior from his good friend and close collaborator Robert de Niro, who had worked with DiCaprio in the 1993 film This Boy’s Life.

Picture of DiCaprio
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Clearly, Scorsese liked what he saw in DiCaprio. The two would go on to make five films together, beginning with Gangs of New York in 2002, which was nominated for Best Picture.

DiCaprio Came Up With His Own Hand Gesture

If you pay attention to Arnie throughout the film, you may notice that he frequently pushes his forefinger against his eyes and then his nose. This wasn’t in the script but was an action created by DiCaprio, who thought it was fitting for the character.

Picture of DiCaprio
Paramount Picture
Paramount Picture

Regarding the gesture, DiCaprio said, “It’s like a brain wipe… like Arnie is massaging the inside of his brain. I would stare at something and drift off into another dimension, and then I could do anything spontaneously in any scene because Arnie was completely unpredictable.”

The Grapes’ House Is In Another Film

Although the Grapes’ home might seem unique to the movie, it’s not. This exact same farmhouse, along with the interior, was also used in the 1980 film Roadie, starring Meat Loaf.

Picture of house
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

In addition, although the film is said to take place in Endra, Iowa, it was actually shot in different locations around Texas. There are some giveaways in the film if you look closely, such as a Texas police car that snuck into a shot.

Johnny Depp Felt Bad About Some Of The Things He Had To Say

In the film, Gilbert is ashamed of his mother’s weight and the fact that she hadn’t left the house in seven years. He also openly makes fun of her behind her back, even letting the neighborhood kids take a look at her through the window.

Picture of Depp and Cates
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Unsurprisingly, this made Depp uncomfortable, and he felt bad saying those things to actress Darlene Cates. He once told her, “Man, I want you to know how much I hated having to say those things about you, or about your character.”

DiCaprio Passed Up On Big Money To Play A More Serious Role

Before signing on to work on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the young Leonardo DiCaprio was offered “more money than [he’d] ever dreamed of” to play the lead role in the Disney film Hocus Pocus.

Picture of DiCaprio
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

However, he passed up on the offer in favor of playing a more challenging and serious role. Years later, in an interview with Variety, DiCaprio said he was surprised at himself for making such a decision at that age but was glad that he did.

Arnie Was Different In The Books

Although it’s hard not to be charmed by Leonardo DiCaprio’s depiction of Arnie in the film, the character is much different in the book. In the original novel by Peter Hedges, Arnie isn’t only mentally disabled but is also missing an eye from an injury.

Picture of DiCaprio
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

In the book, Hedges describes the boy as “having teeth that looked confused” and that there was “no hiding” that he’s mentally impaired. Surely, audiences were thankful the character was slightly altered.

Cates Wasnt The Best At Playing Dead

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was Darlene Cates’ first and only major film, although she has been hailed for her performance. While she may have been perfected for the role of “Mama,” one thing she didn’t do so well was playing dead.

Picture of Cates and DiCaprio
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

When Arnie first discovers her on the bed, he shakes her, and you can see Cates’ eyes almost jerk open. Furthermore, when the children are sitting around her, you can see Cates is breathing. Of course, we can’t blame her.

Depp’s Hair Color Changes Throughout The Movie

It’s no secret that Johnny Depp was considered quite the looker around the time the film was made, and his flowing hair and deep stare helped add to his image.

Picture of Johnny Depp
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

If you’re paying attention, you may have noticed that his hair changes color throughout the movie, ranging from dark brown to light brown to even red at times. Maybe it was the lighting or the makeup team could never get the same color just right.

The Photo Of Mama Is Actually Darlene Cates

In the opening monologue of the movie, Gilbert describes his mother, explaining that she had once been the prettiest girl in town but now hasn’t left the house in years and is morbidly obese.

Picture of Darlene Cates
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

We then see a picture of her on the refrigerator in her youth, looking perfectly healthy. Incredibly, this is actually a picture of actress Darlene Cates, who plays Mama. In real life, Cates had more in common with her character than most people know, as she also didn’t leave the house for years.

Lukas Haas Almost Played Arnie

Before Leonardo DiCaprio auditioned for the role of Arnie, Lukas Haas was already being considered after wowing the casting directors. Sadly, DiCaprio had already taken the role of Toby from Haas in This Boy’s Life and did it again after auditioning for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

Picture of DiCaprio and Haas
Evan Agostini/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Evan Agostini/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

It seems that Haas would remain in DiCaprio’s shadow, having secondary roles in other films DiCaprio starred in, such as The Revenant and Inception. Luckily, there are no hard feelings.

DiCaprio Refrained From Taking Showers

Aside from visiting children with mental disabilities, another thing that Leonardo DiCaprio did to get into character was not bathe. After Gilbert accidentally leaves Arnie in the bath all night, Arnie has a fear of water and won’t get near it.

Picture of DiCaprio
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

To make it convincing that Arnie was no longer bathing, DiCaprio skipped out on it himself, which is why Arnie looks truly dirty in several scenes in the movie. That must not have been very fun for the rest of the cast.

Lasse Hallström Felt A Connection To Gilbert

Director Lasse Hallström has admitted that he sees a lot of himself in Gilbert Grape’s character, specifically choosing Johnny Depp for his ability to show so much emotion with just his eyes.

Picture of Depp
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Depp also suggested that he play Gilbert as someone who is almost half asleep or half awake. He feared that it would make the character too boring but was encouraged by Hallström to do it anyway. The final product was the Gilbert Grape we know today.

DiCaprio Was Thrilled To Work With Depp

By the time What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was released, Johnny Depp was a household name and had been in films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Platoon, Cry-Baby, Edward Scissorhands, and more.

Picture of DiCaprio and Depp
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

DiCaprio, who was fairly unknown, considered working with Depp to be like “winning the lottery,” even though Depp wasn’t the nicest to him on set. Apparently, DiCaprio was just happy to be there and didn’t take Depp’s attitude toward him to heart.

DiCaprio Stole The Film

Initially, DiCaprio’s character Arnie wasn’t supposed to have as big of a role as he did, but DiCaprio was so good they added more scenes. Although the film, in general, received positive reviews, DiCaprio was hailed for his performance. Many critics even claimed that he stole the film from Johnny Depp.

Picture of DiCaprio
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Roger Ebert said that DiCaprio deserved to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, which he was nominated for. This made him the seventh youngest in history.

Gilbert Is Crueler In The Book

Gilbert may have his questionable moments in the film, such as how he talks about his mother, is involved in an affair with a married woman, and when he hits Arnie. For the most part, though, Gilbert is a level-headed and caring character, especially when it comes to his younger brother.

Picture of Depp and DiCaprio
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Yet, in the novel, Gilbert doesn’t have as many redeeming qualities. For example, he has far less patience for Arnie, and his relationship with Becky is based more on physical attraction than romance.

Leonardo DiCaprio Wasn’t Actually Supposed To Hurt The Grasshopper

Toward the beginning of the film, there’s a scene when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Arnie, is playing with a grasshopper on the mailbox. He suddenly slams the mailbox door, fatally injuring the insect.

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Paramount Pictures/MovieStillsDB/@Zayne
Paramount Pictures/MovieStillsDB/@Zayne

Apparently, DiCaprio didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to do this and later commented, “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to kill him. They said put the head in and slam it. So I killed one, and that is the take they used.” The animal rights people on the set weren’t happy, but there wasn’t much they could do about it after the fact.