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“There’s this theme of faith, family and forgiveness in all of them,” Tyler Perry, the actor and director who is the most commercially successful black filmmaker in history, says of his nine Madea films as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. No, the 47-year-old never has been the subject of much awards chatter — and won’t be for his latest installment, Boo! A Madea Halloween, which opened nationwide on Friday — but he has as loyal a following as any filmmaker working today, and that makes him interesting nonetheless. “I don’t want to just do movies to do movies,” he continues. “I’d like to leave people with something that would lift them in some way or another, that makes them laugh and encourages them in some way or another.”
(Click above to listen to this episode now or here to access all of our 90+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet and Michael Moore.)
Perry was born in New Orleans, where he was raised by his mother and a man he believed to be his biological father, but later learned is not. “It wasn’t a happy childhood,” he acknowledges. “There was a lot of turmoil and pain and heartache, a lot of abuse at the hands of my father. It was a difficult time, but every bit of it has informed the person that I am today.” One day Perry stumbled upon an Oprah episode that suggested viewers might find it cathartic to write down their troubles, and he was inspired. “I used different characters’ names because I didn’t want people to know that I was talking about my own life when I was talking about adult survivors of child abuse,” he says. A friend read it and encouraged him to turn it into a script for a play, which he eventually did, calling it I Know I’ve Been Changed.
Meanwhile, at age 21, after returning from a spring break trip to Atlanta, where Perry “saw black people doing well for the first time,” he packed his Hyundai and moved to Georgia’s capital for good. There, he spent his life savings mounting a production of I Know I’ve Been Changed, only to see it fail. “I lost everything,” he says, and before long he was living in motels and occasionally out of his car. “What kept me going was my faith,” he asserts. And his faith was rewarded when one person invested enough for him to mount a revised version of the show the following year, a pattern that continued year after year until 1998, when it broke through as a smashing success, driven largely by people from black churches. “What I think changed was, within those years of trying to get the show up on tour, I had had some major conversations with the man that raised me, and I forgave him,” he said.
In a subsequent show, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Perry introduced the character Mabel “Madea” Simmons, “a loud, obnoxious, tough-talking, gun-toting, weed-smoking grandmother who is unapologetic, who is not politically correct, who was born in the late forties and says what’s on her mind and does not care.” How did he himself wind up dressing in drag and playing this woman, whom he has modeled after his mother and aunt? “I saw Eddie Murphy do the Klumps in The Nutty Professor, I think, and I said, ‘I’m gonna try my hand at a grandmother part,’” he recalls. Initially, the character was only supposed to be onstage for a few minutes, almost as a cameo, but at an early performance a fellow castmember failed to show up, so the character assumed a more prominent part and, at the end of the evening, got a standing ovation.
Perry soon was signed by the William Morris Agency (now WME) and, in 2003, came to Los Angeles to shop around the concept of a Madea-centric film. There was not the clamor for one that he expected: “I’m thinking, ‘I’m famous among black people — I mean, I cannot walk down the street in the South — but I get here to L.A. and these guys are, like, ‘Who the hell are you? What do you want?’” Indeed, no studio expressed much interest until Lionsgate’s Michael Paseornek did. “Mike was smart enough to go talk to somebody black,” Perry says with a laugh, explaining why Lionsgate agreed to give him complete creative control over his first film and split a $5.5 million budget with him. Paseornek’s faith was rewarded when the film version of Diary of a Mad Black Woman opened at No. 1 at the box office in February 2005 and eventually grossed $50.6 million domestically. “I knew that would happen,” notes Perry. “I wasn’t surprised.”
The same audience that showed up for Perry’s first Madea film has returned for each one since, the titles of all of which, of course, are prefaced by “Tyler Perry’s.” (“I was told I was arrogant,” he admits. “But, for me, I was definitely building a brand.”) Who are these people so loyal to Perry? “I’ve watched my audience change,” the filmmaker emphasizes, “but I can definitely tell you who my base is: My base is hardworking people, mostly African-American, largely women, who have all kinds of jobs.” And why do they respond to these films? “I think what makes it work is it waxes nostalgic to times of old, so no matter where you are on the social ladder or on the ladder of class, you still can relate to some of the characters.”
Critics, meanwhile, tend to revile Perry’s films, but that doesn’t bother him. “If you come to a Madea movie looking for Schindler’s List,” he says with a chuckle, “I think you’re gonna be a little disappointed. But if critics would accept it for what it is, and also sit in an audience of who it’s directed to, I think there’d be a different opinion. But, in all fairness, I look back on some of it and I can’t even watch it.” He’s perhaps more defensive, though, when criticism comes from other members of the black community, some of whom argue that Madea films evoke minstrel shows or Mammy characters or Amos ‘n’ Andy or, in Spike Lee’s words, “coonery buffoonery.” Perry’s response? “Here’s why they’re wrong: Because back in the day of Amos ‘n’ Andy and Stepin Fetchit and those characters, they never had any power, they never owned the character, they never had any authority. What I’ve been about on this whole journey of my life has been to take this character, to take these stories that my people love, and grow my business into a force. That’s been my purpose.” He adds, “I think we all have the right to tell our stories, and I speak from my experiences and my journey and all these people are a part of it, and you can say what you want about them, but they’re real human beings.”
None of this is to say Perry only wants to play Madea. Over the past two years, he took a break from directing to raise his son and play a lawyer in David Fincher‘s 2014 film Gone Girl (“I felt like I went to college on his set”), just as he’d previously acted in J.J. Abrams‘ Star Trek (2009) and Rob Cohen‘s Alex Cross (2012). But after Chris Rock‘s 2014 comedy Top Five sent up Perry’s films with a reference to a fake movie called Boo! A Madea Halloween, Lionsgate and Perry decided “to return the favor” by actually making the movie.
Perry says he will pursue a variety of projects going forward — among other things, he runs a 330-acre full-service studio that employs 400 people in Atlanta, and he produces the top-rated content on the OWN television network — but he won’t stop playing Madea anytime soon. It was his mother’s dying wish that he keep the character alive, he says, and he is happy to do so — although, he cracks, “I am determined to not be her age playing her” — because he sees that she is not only entertaining audiences, but also making a difference. “I have been able to use this character to bring messages to people who no one has been able to get a message to,” Perry says proudly. “She can talk about anything. She can make them laugh. And it’s so disarming — it’s like anesthesia.” He continues, “If I could find a way to talk about police brutality, and all of these people being shot by police officers, through this character — and I’ve been thinking about it — I think it would speak volumes to what so many people can’t say.”
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