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He survived abuse as a child and lived in his car at one point. Then Tyler Perry channeled his emotions into a series of popular stage plays and movies featuring his mad, black alter-ego Madea. Now Perry, 39, helps finance and maintains total creative control of his films, his two TV shows and, as of October, his very own studio just outside Atlanta, where he is based. With Oprah Winfrey as a role model, he’s looking to grow his empire, recently launching 34th Street Prods. to help bring films he loves to his loyal audience — including the Sundance hit “Push: Based on the Novel By Sapphire.” In advance of the Friday release of his latest film, “Madea Goes to Jail,” Perry sat down in the spacious, minimalist living room of his Hollywood Hills home to chat with THR’s Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway.
The Hollywood Reporter: How do you describe your filmmaking style?
Tyler Perry: My stories are usually pretty predictable. The dialogue is always very simple because I am very aware of who I am speaking to. My audience is from 2- and 3-year-olds all the way up to 90, so I’m not trying to tell any extremely stylistic, artistic stories.
THR: Why has your audience been ignored by Hollywood?
Perry: For the most part people speak from their own experiences, and in Hollywood, there have not been a lot of African-Americans who have been able to tell their stories unfiltered, unedited, with no notes, and bring (them) directly to the people. That’s why I love my relationship with Lionsgate: It’s a no-note, we-don’t-show-up-to-the-set relationship. I bring them a finished film and we test it and it usually does extremely well.
THR: The studios do so much research about who audiences are and what they want, and this is an audience that for many years was just missed. How is that?
Perry: Even from my first movie (“Diary of a Mad Black Woman”), the tracking was way off. They have gotten better with tracking and understanding my films, but if you’re not a part of (the community), you can’t really get the information. I don’t know what it’s like to be Japanese. But if I was there in the culture I could get some sort of understanding. I think you need to be in the culture to understand it. I’m really only beginning to wrap my brain around how Hollywood can be so insulated from the rest of the world. There is Hollywood and then there is New York – and then America is in the middle. I’ve been to every major city in this country, with the exception of the Dakotas, I think, and we would sell shows out – 30,000-40,000 people a week coming in the doors. People find this hard to believe, and most of it was sold by e-mail before we even got to the city. I have the boxoffice record at the Kodak (Theatre, in Hollywood). I had 18 or 19 shows there that have all sold out.
THR: What is your exact demographic? We know it is largely black women, but is there anything more specific?
Perry: It’s about 50% Christian churchgoing. It depends on what part of the country I’m in. If I’m in the Bible Belt it’s 90% churchgoing. If I’m up north in Newark it may be 30%, so it depends on where you are. I used to adjust the shows to where I am. If I was in the Bible Belt I made it more Christian, God-themed. If I was up north I could get away with saying “ass” a little more. I would say 75%-80% women, 10%-20% men and about 5% children. What I’ve learned is you treat the women right and they bring everybody else.
THR: Has the audience changed at all since you started making films?
Perry: My last tour was in 2004-05, and it started to change. It was the first time I was onstage and I could look out in the audience and there would be maybe five white people or Hispanic. Then there were 600-700 or 1,000 in the audience. The videos (of the plays) had gotten out there.
THR: In Hollywood, the conventional wisdom is, “Don’t fund your own projects.” You defied that. Why?
Perry: When I came into Hollywood, I was doing extremely well. Before I even had a film, my shows were approaching $100 million on tour. I didn’t come in saying, “Give me this money so that I can do a film,” because when that happens you lose all creative control. The money is not as important to me as the creative control. So I have to fund it for that to happen, just as I’ve done it in television.
THR: You just announced 80 episodes of “Meet the Browns” on TBS, on top of the 100 episodes of “House of Payne.” You’re paying for the production?
Perry: It’s all Tyler Perry Studios, which has allowed me complete creative control. I was willing to take the risk because I know this audience. I know that if I send an e-mail, if I ask them to watch, they do.
THR: What is your long-term plan?
Perry: I’d love to do a deal with Sony to do a two-hander (acting in a movie with a co-star) with someone who has international appeal. Not a “Madea” movie, not a Tyler Perry movie, but just a movie. That’s why I took the role in (May’s) “Star Trek,” just to see how that goes. Can I do this? Can I be on somebody else’s set? (Once) I yelled “Cut!” on the set, and the whole room turned and looked at (director J.J. Abrams). It was my fault. I was screwing up the line and I yelled “Cut!” Everybody in the room was like, “Who does this kid think he is?” They all look at J.J. and J.J. had this big smile on his face. (I saw) what it’s like to work with other people and how it would work for me, and it was fantastic.
THR: Could you see yourself collaborating more in the future?
Perry: I don’t consider myself as a director. I’m always going to write in my brand and direct for my brand. But I could see myself as an actor for hire. Please, it’d be a vacation, are you kidding me?
THR: Why did you say Sony?
Perry: Will Smith invited me to Europe and took me to three different countries. He said, “This is so possible.” He has had success with (Sony). And looking at their operation and what’s happening with them–it could be Fox too–but we need somebody with huge international arm, and Lionsgate doesn’t have that.
THR: Are you making a deal with one of those studios?
Perry: We’re in the beginning stages of figuring out what’s the project, what to do and where to go.
THR: But with Will Smith as the major exception, African-American-themed films tend not to do well overseas.
Perry: Why do people say that? Will Smith showed me the data. The dubbers are important, the way it’s marketed is important. Each country is a whole other world, so I think (my) films could do well there. But there are so many variables. The Wayans brothers have done well — “White Chicks” and “Scary Movie.” If you find someone who is willing to invest in all areas — marketing, dubbing, everything — so that it’s familiar to the actual country — it can work.
THR: Why did you and Oprah Winfrey decide to put your names behind “Push”?
Perry: (Lionsgate execs) called me from Sundance. They brought it to me and I watched it and I called Oprah and said, “You’ve got to watch this film,” and she said, “I’ve got it, I’ve had it for a month.” So she watched it and then we were like, “What can we do to make this film get to an audience?” Mo’Nique should win the Academy Award. Mariah Carey is so freakin’ great in this movie and she is unrecognizable.
THR: Is it Lionsgate’s film or could it possibly go to the Weinstein Co.?
Perry: It’s Lionsgate’s film. 34th Street has a first-look deal with them. There are two brains at work here. There is 34th Street that is going to do more of these “Push” kind of movies, more artistic kinds of things that people don’t expect me to do. Then there is the Tyler Perry-branded movie that is specifically branded as simple stories, funny, family, faith-based, no incredible plot twists. It is very important to me to show children what a whole family unit looks like. If you see the worst of what a man can be, as I did growing up, you can also see the best a man can be.
THR: Where do you get your ability to create stories that resonate with women?
Perry: My mother and father. I would wake up and there were always strangers in the house. If somebody needed to be taken in she would take them in and feed them. And watching the stuff that my father did and the kind of man he was, I think it would turn a child into one of two things. It would either make him a womanizer or it would make him very sympathetic, and I went the sympathetic route. (My mother) took me everywhere with her to protect me from him. Everywhere. I went to the hair salon, I went into the women’s restroom. I went to the Lane Bryant stores. When you’re sitting around on the floor, there is no better viewpoint; children can see everything. That’s why I like to drop the camera low in a lot of angles to see what kids see. When you’re in that situation and you’re watching that, it has a profound effect on you.
THR: What was the thinking behind creating your own studio, how has it impacted Atlanta, and can you make a go of it in the long term?
Perry: Oh yes, certainly. The financial impact is tremendous in the town. So much so that they passed this 30% tax break. There is a positive and a negative about working there. The negative is the talent — not just actors but everybody. If they’re not there, they have to be brought in. But the positive is the sense of community and family and the tremendous amount of respect and pride there. So much so that all of the unions — except the WGA — were so on my side when I started. They helped me build it — SAG, Teamsters, all of them — because of the pride in it.
THR: Why was there that conflict with the WGA last year?
Perry: You know what, it was resolved in the end, and I was very happy with the way it was resolved, and (thanks to) the NAACP for stepping in. I had been trying to negotiate with the WGA for five months. Five months trying to get them to do a deal because I wanted to have better writers on (“House of Payne”). But I couldn’t — being an independent, a person who is not Sony and not Disney — I could not agree to what they were asking me to pay. And because I wouldn’t agree to it, all hell broke loose. All I was trying to do was get a fair deal and in the end I got a fantastic deal that I’m very happy with.
THR: Walk us through your creative process.
Perry: Months before I ever sit down to write, the story will be there in my mind. And I rarely ever write two drafts. It’s a three-week process when I actually sit down to write. I see the scenes, I dream the scenes. I went out to a restaurant the other day and I talked to the maitre d’ for 45 minutes because he completely intrigued me. He was from Detroit and he talked with this accent and he was Middle Eastern. All of the richness. I just listened to him and I came back and I had a whole 20 pages just from the thought of who he was.
THR: Your next film is shooting in March. What can you tell us about it?
Perry: I don’t know the title, but it’s got a little bit of Madea in it. It’s about a woman who is living her complete life and she is just happy. She works in a club, she’s in her 20s, she isn’t thinking about anything. Her sister was strung out on drugs and died, so her mother is raising the children. And they haven’t found the mother for four days. Then the kids find out that their grandmother was on the way to work and died on the bus and nobody knew it. And this girl, who’s 25-26 and singing at this club, doing ladies night, open mike, is shocked to realize that she has to raise these children. It changes her life and the children’s lives.
THR: Who do you see as the girl?
Perry: Even if she doesn’t do it, I see Jennifer Hudson as this girl.
THR: Do you read the feedback your fans give you on your message board?
Perry: I do, I have to. I had a character say “biatch” in “Meet the Browns” and the board went crazy. “My children are watching, how dare you?!” Instant. That was me testing to see how much I could get away with, how far I could go. They are my lifeline.
THR: What are they going to think of “Star Trek”?
Perry: I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to think of “Star Trek”? (Laughs)
THR: What’s an average day like for you?
Perry: I’m usually up at about 6 or 7 working out. And then I get to the studio. We will do a table read in the morning and block the show, and then I’ll leave and let them rehearse it. I’ll go up to the office, I’ll do some writing, some working, take meetings and then come back at 2:30 to shoot the show. The show is done by 5. If I’m shooting a movie at the same time, I’ll leave the show at 5 and go to the set, or go next door to whatever stage the movie is on and work until like midnight. I can do that for about 90 days and then I need a long break.
THR: You seem pretty relaxed for a guy with so much going on.
Perry: I’m not that stressing guy. But this year we are going to do three films and the 80 episodes of “Meet the Browns.” I’ll tell you what stresses me, though, is finding the people. I need people who don’t have the Hollywood mentality, because you tell people who have worked on sitcoms that we are doing three or four shows a week, and they go, “Are you crazy?” But you tell a person who has never done it and they think, “Wow, cool, this is the way it’s done.”
THR: How do you juggle the artistic and the business sides of what you do? Is there a danger that, the more you focus on marketing to your audience, you will pull away from purely doing what you want to artistically?
Perry: No, my brain has that side. Like an architect. I have to force myself when I’m doing one to not think about the others. When I’m writing, I don’t want to think, “Oh, let’s see what’s going to work to make this more appealing or more commercial.”
THR: The e-mails you send to your fans are very candid. How much does your relationship with them translate into the kind of work you create?
Perry: I’m very aware of it because I know what I represent to them. I am them. I am what they went through. And I was where a lot of them are. I’ve been through things that a lot of the people who support me have been through or are going through, and I represent hope to them. That is a tremendous burden because you’re living this very high-profile life but you are also very human.
THR: Ten or 12 years ago you were living in your Geo Metro. How did you project your life would turn out at that point?
Perry: I was so angry. I’m still angry at my father and I still have so much to work through. I think I was more concerned about working through things for myself than what my life would be. And that’s where my first play came from. It came out of me trying to find a catharsis. In this movie “Push,” Paula Patton’s character says to the lead character, “Write.” This girl is going through all kinds of stuff and she says, “Write, just write,” which was really touching because it was the writing that made me say, “I can be OK.”
THR: Looking ahead, where do you want to be in five or 10 years?
Perry: You know, I got really depressed after my studio opened because I realized it was a major goal that I had obtained. I said, “OK, now what?” I’d like to own a network. Every time you turn it on, whether you’re watching for five minutes or an hour, you’re inspired. Even if it’s just children laughing in a commercial. I’d like to continue to grow this brand while at the same time have an actual acting career outside of Madea.
THR: Oprah is starting her own network. Is she still a major role model?
Perry: Oh sure. Bill Cosby, Oprah. Definitely Oprah. I just looked at the model, looked at the things that she did and how she did it.
THR: What’s the most memorable advice she’s given you?
Perry: I’d only met her once and I’m in Las Vegas walking down the street, and the phone rings, and she says, “Just saw ‘Diary.’ Hold on to yourself.” And that has come back to me, because learning how to fly in thin air can be tough. So it’s always, “Hold on to yourself, remember who you are, no matter what anybody says. No matter what attacks come, hold on to yourself.”
THR: Are you waiting to see how Oprah does with her OWN network?
Perry: I was on to it before she ever announced it. (Laughs) She announced it the day we were talking to somebody about it and I was like, “Aw, man.”
THR: So you’re already planning that?
Perry: Yeah, we’ve been talking for a while about it.
THR: You have some charitable interests too, don’t you?
Perry: Quite a bit. This year we are launching the Tyler Perry Foundation, which will fund a lot of charities that involve children and the elderly. My goal is to match whatever donations come in to it. We built 20 houses for victims of (Hurricane) Katrina, homeless shelters for thousands of people in Atlanta. We’ve done some things with children’s shelters. I want it to be self-sufficient and fund a lot of charities because these times are very difficult for charities.
THR: There are a couple film projects that you’ve been connected with, “Jazz Man’s Blues” and “Georgia Sky.” What are they?
Perry: “Georgia Sky” is going to be a direct-to-DVD series that is for teenage girls mostly. I didn’t write it, somebody named Stephanie Perry wrote it. She sold 200,000-300,000 books in the South and I was like, I want to be involved in that. “Jazz Man Blues” is a movie that I wrote in 1995 about a Holocaust survivor and a jazz singer. I’ve wanted to do it for a long-long time and I finally realized this year it’s been fear that has kept me from doing it.
THR: Fear of what?
Perry: Not being able to direct it. I look at real directors-you know, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, those people-they can do epic war stories. It takes place in World War II. I (need to) learn more about cameras, lighting and things like that. I called (director) John Sayles about doing it. He only does his own projects but he gave me fantastic advice.
THR: Black audiences spend $8 billion a year on entertainment. Are they well served?
Perry: No, absolutely not. I’m not an expert on this — and the black dollar is spread over so much, there is so much entertainment — but when it’s focused it’s very powerful.
THR: What do you think of the term “urban entertainment”?
Perry: When I started doing plays it was called the Chitlin Circuit, and I was very offended by that. Then I studied it and I realized what it was. The Chitlin circuit was where Ray Charles and Della Reese and all of these people went because they couldn’t stay in the white hotels. And it was black people who supported them and made them famous. So I began to have a great affection for the term. I don’t use it, but I have a great affection for it. And then somewhere I read that my shows were called “Urban Theater.” I don’t know where that came from. I guess somebody was trying to elevate the term.
THR: Is having Barack Obama in the White House going to change things for African-Americans?
Perry: All I can tell you is what it’s done for me. I was beginning to see things in black and white and it was really awful. When my name is mentioned it’s “Tyler Perry the African-American filmmaker,” you know? When Steven Spielberg is mentioned it’s not “Steven Spielberg, Jewish filmmaker.” Everything started to really affect me. I opened Tyler Perry Studios on October 3. The first Affrican American individual to own a major film/television studio, and the press was difficult to get. And I just thought, why is there no interest? Then (on Election Night) I sat on the bed with tears falling out of my eyes because I realized that this man was judged on the content of his character, period. There are millions of people out there who don’t see black and white, and I’ve got to stop seeing it.
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