'Gilbert Grape' at 20: When Johnny met Leo...

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But Depp’s demons didn’t seem to inflict any collateral damage. In fact, his co-stars marveled at his professionalism, his sweet and gentle demeanor, and his random acts of kindness. He never left the Grape house set without making sure Cates had everything she needed and sending her home with a kiss on the cheek. After scenes in which Gilbert was cruel to his mother, he would call Cates at her hotel at night to apologize for having to say the words. “I thought it was so funny,” says Cates. “Here he is the professional; he’s done all this stuff before. But I thought, ‘What a tribute to his kindness that he would take the time to consider that I might be hurt by what he said.'”

“I wasn’t aware of whatever personal struggles he was going through, I honestly wasn’t,” says Lewis. “All I thought was that he was pensive or thoughtful, or working something out in his head. I always thought it related to his acting style. Whatever he was going through in his personal life and as Gilbert, it worked beautifully for the role.”

But Depp wasn’t a complete downer to be around. On the contrary, he was the ringleader, popping up at group gatherings and organizing other, more exclusive outings. “I remember one night this friend of his who may or may not have had vaguely criminal connections teaching us both how to pick locks,” says Steenburgen. “I’ve used [the skill] many times since then, getting trapped children out of bathrooms and things like that.”

“I think we had a night of bar-hopping to bond, you know as actors do,” says Lewis, before catching herself. “I mean — Oh, maybe we didn’t bar-hop! Me and Leo were underage. You know what I’m saying.”

As for the tabloid rumor that the on-screen couple hooked-up romantically on the set, Lewis, who was then dating Brad Pitt, says it ain’t so. “I guess we were both part of the ’90s zeitgeist at that time, so going into that film, I knew there would be a rumor from day one that we were involved,” she says. “So I will answer the urban legend: we never were involved with each other. Just FYI. Would be fine if we were, but we weren’t.”

DiCaprio turned 18 on the set of the movie, and his relationship with Depp, who is 12 years older, was predictably little brother/big brother. “Johnny was very amused by trying to make Leo gag from sniffing awful smelling things — it was a running gag of gagging!” says Hallström. “And Leo volunteered to smell the most awful things, because I think he was amused by being able to crack Johnny up. I remember strange old pieces of food.”

“There was this big jar of pickled eggs, sitting up on the window sill — God only knows how long they’d been there,” says Cates. “They were not to be eaten, and Johnny dared Leo to eat one [for money]. I was sitting there, of course, the mother, telling him, ‘Don’t do it, Leo. Don’t do it. That’s your dignity you’re selling.’ And of course he just disobeyed and went ahead did it anyway. Leo took a bite — and almost died. Not literally, but oh my gosh, he gagged.”

DiCaprio was, in every way except talent, just a kid — a fun, enthusiastic teen with no filter who loved Howard Stern and playing video games. When he turned 18, legally becoming an adult, he asserted his independence and sent his mother home, but that didn’t change much. “He clearly loved his mother so if he had any kind of rebellion, it wasn’t dark,” says Harrington. “He wanted her to leave just because he wanted the experience I think of being 18. But since I was playing his older sister, I started getting calls like, ‘Hey, come watch me play a video game.’ ‘Want to watch a movie?’ I just immediately took over that part.”

No one needed to hold his hand, though. “You could tell that this guy had a future,” says Hallström. “In anything he undertook, he was good at. He was better than me at billiards. He was better than me at finding his way back when we got lost in cars. He had this instinct for finding the right way back home. He was just smart. Already as a 17-year-old, he was smarter than most of us.”

After DiCaprio had landed the role of Arnie but before filming began, he spent some time with a group of mentally-challenged boys near Austin. Just as he had done with the pre-audition tape, he proved to be a brilliant mimic, incorporating some of their tics and mannerisms — the glazed eyes, the finger flicking, the nose wipe — into a completely unique creation. “It was really Lasse believing in me and allowing me to run amok in all these scenes,” DiCaprio told Esquire in 2010. “It was incredibly fulfilling because there were no rules. Zero. There was nothing I wasn’t able to do, no circumstance that I couldn’t create, even if it was in defiance of the narrative.”

During filming, DiCaprio would occasionally stay in-character in between shots, sometimes jumping on the trampoline with Lutz’s 7-year-old son. “People in the area would come and watch us shoot and they were astounded that a developmentally disabled kid could remember all those lines,” says Steenburgen.

“One time I went to his trailer and we were playing video games, and they came to get him for a scene, and I didn’t look at him but I felt him change,” says Schellhardt. “So he kind of walked out of the trailer as his character. It was so amazing to me. I felt in awe of that, of watching that, because I’d never seen anyone do that. Then I realized, looking around on set, that everyone was sort of in that same place of wonder at his ability.”

The scene that everyone remembers is when Arnie discovers his mother’s dead body, as the mentally-challenged boy goes through a complicated cycle of emotions, from amusement to anger to fear. He did it three times, and each time, he mesmerized the crew. “I remember watching the dailies on that and it was a three- or four-minute take,” says Hedges. “It was a pity we couldn’t just use the whole take, just let it run, because it was perfect.”

If DiCaprio was the shooting star, Cates was the film’s nurturing celestial center. “All I can say is she is almost addictive,” says Harrington. “She is so funny and you really fall in love with her, really quickly. It was just kind of a magic spell she could cast. And she got what being an actor was about right away, though I think for Darlene the film was completely different than for the rest of us, because it was the story of her life.”

Cates knew and understood Momma’s story inside and out, and her own emotions were never far from the surface. “That conversation where Momma is sitting there talking to Gilbert at the foot of the bed and she says, ‘You know I never wanted to be a burden,’ says Cates. “Well, guess what? I’d had that same conversation with my own son at the foot of my bed.”

Cates may have been initially discovered because of her size, but she turned out to be a natural actress. Even as she struggled with the role’s physical demands — like climbing stairs — she delivered one powerful, touching, and truthful moment after another. When Arnie is jailed for climbing the watertower, Momma herself gets up and leaves the house to fetch him from the courthouse. The scene had to evoke intense feelings and memories for Cates, as Momma pushed her shame aside to protect her family. Brady Coleman played the sheriff who had the misfortune of putting Arnie behind bars, and his character’s startled reaction to Momma’s presence didn’t take much digging. “She was just powerful as hell,” he says. “I mean, we were all sitting in there, the deputy and me and when she came in and started screaming, ‘I want my boy!’ I mean, it was more than film.”

The film’s ending still remained uncertain. In the novel, after Momma dies in her bed, the Grapes burn down their house with her in it rather than endure the circus that would erupt when a crane would be summoned to remove her body. “There were certainly executives and heads of studios that said, ‘You can’t burn down the house. The audience is going to throw rocks at the screen,'” says Hedges. “But all that meant was we had to work harder in the setting it up and earning it so that when it did happen, you went, ‘Well of course, that’s what they’d do. They have no choice.'”

Not far from the Lutz house was a similar-looking house that had been blown off its foundation by a twister and abandoned in an open field. It would serve as Momma’s funeral pyre. “It was a very nervous day, the burning of the house,” says Harrington. “We were standing a long distance from the house and the heat coming off it was scorching. It was really dramatic, just physically to get through. It was a really powerful day. Really emotional. But it was so beautiful to look at.”

The film wrapped and everyone went their separate ways. DiCaprio went off to make the Sam Raimi western The Quick and the Dead. Depp reunited with Tim Burton for Ed Wood. Lewis signed on for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Hallström teamed up with Julia Roberts for Something to Talk About. Hedges went back to writing novels and screenplays; his world-class film apprenticeship on Gilbert Grape would ultimately point him towards directing his own films, including Pieces of April and Dan in Real Life.

Paramount set What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? to open on Dec. 17, 1993 in six theaters, with plans to expand. It was prime Oscar-hopeful real estate, and the movie opened well enough, averaging more than $12,400 per screen. But it had the misfortune of opening the same week as Schindler’s List and a week ahead of Philadelphia. Two months later, Gilbert Grape was playing in only seven theaters and on the verge of disappearing altogether. But on Feb. 9, Leonardo DiCaprio awoke to learn that he had been nominated by the Academy for Best Supporting Actor. “For those who’d seen the film, I don’t think [the nomination] was much of a surprise, though there was no campaign whatsoever as I recall for it,” says Hallström. “I remember hearing the applause [during the announcement] from those who had seen it; it was so much stronger than for any other nominee.”

Two weeks before the Oscars, Paramount finally expanded Gilbert Grape to 611 theaters, where it placed 13th for the weekend. “The movie had been out for four months at that point,” says Hedges. “That movie was really close to disappearing completely from the consciousness of anybody. So we were all very frustrated because we thought like there was an audience for the movie and that maybe they were missing it.”

DiCaprio lost the Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones, who won for his role in The Fugitive. You can debate the merits of all five nominees two decades later, but at 19 years old, it simply wasn’t DiCaprio’s time. (Though apparently it was 11-year-old Anna Paquin’s.) Even then, DiCaprio seemed to have a firm grasp of the business, telling the Miami Herald before the ceremony, “As far as winning is concerned, I’ve heard you shouldn’t win now anyways, because if you win now, your career will be over. You’ll never work again because the heat will be so big, you’ll crash and burn. But if you just get the nomination, it’ll stay. People will want more.”

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? was DiCaprio’s coming-out party, and just as his performance has taken on historical significance because of everything that came later for him, Depp’s Gilbert also has special meaning. Depp has made a career of hiding behind his eccentric characters, from Jack Sparrow to Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd, but Gilbert Grape was Depp without a net. “Leonardo’s performance is obviously such an astonishing performance for any actor, but especially for a 17-, 18-year-old kid, but I think Johnny’s performance is in many respects the harder performance and not the one that you’re going to necessarily immediately recognize as being so exquisite,” says Hedges. “But it is. And it’s how those two are when they’re together to me which is the heart of the film.”

Darlene Cates returned to Forney, Texas, after Gilbert Grape, did a few TV episodes, and recently starred in a short film that’s awaiting release titled Mother. She had several health scares in recent years related to her weight, but she’s feeling better since returning home from a series of lengthy hospital stays in 2011-2012 and is hoping to voice a character in an animated film this year. She is extremely proud of her family, as well as her “boys,” Johnny and Leo, and she’s happy to share her motherly thoughts on the actresses they’re dating (or engaged to). Her own two grandsons, 21 and 15, in turn, are especially proud of her work in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? — in part because that’s not the worst calling-card for a teen trying to impress a girl. “I’ve noticed on [the youngest’s] Facebook that a time or two, he’s said, ‘You know, my grandmother was in a movie with Johnny Depp,'” she says. “You’d be amazed at how many times I’ve talked to girls on the telephone, making brownie points for my grandson! All these girls say, ‘Oh, you had Leo hanging on you!’ For me, he was just this dirty little boy that kept hanging on me, trying to stay in character. I mean, they had that kid dirtied up good. I could just hardly stand it. Trust me girls, it was no big deal.”

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