Darlene Cates in 1993 (left) and 2012
08/09/2012 AT 08:55 AM EDT
Darlene Cates was unforgettable in What's Eating Gilbert Grape
, playing Johnny Depp
and Leonardo DiCaprio
's morbidly obese mother Bonnie, who hasn't left the house in years while in the grips of depression following her husband's suicide.
Now, almost 20 years and a number of health problems later, Cates, 64, has lost nearly 250 lbs. – and is feeling optimistic that she might act again.
"I can do moms real well. I don't have to delve very deep to find Mom in there," the Forney, Texas, resident tells the Dallas Morning News
in a new interview.
DiCaprio would agree. Gilbert Grape
earned him his first Oscar nomination when he was just 19, and he later wrote Cates a note praising her acting – it's one of her most cherished possessions.
"I'm not really the best in expressing my words in writing but you are the
most special person I have ever [met]," he wrote. "I'll always remember you as the best acting mamma I ever had. You triumphed in your role."
Cates would like more roles – one or two projects a year, she says. But first, she'll have to complete her recovery from a series of health scares and four surgeries that kept her in hospital for almost 11 months, until last November.
For now, she remains housebound. On one rare trip outside, on Father's Day back in June, Cates and her grandson were suddenly swarmed by butterflies. She saw it as a sign. "It was just like God was saying, 'I know you don't get out much, so here, this is a gift,' " she says.
Cates is down from 575 to 331 lbs., and hopes to lose 100 more. With luck, she'll be back outside before long, and will hopefully act again – following her acclaimed work two decades ago.
"I can always tell when [Gilbert Grape
has] been on TV," she says. "There'll be a rush of [Facebook] 'friend' requests."