Cover Story - Tyler Perry doesn't need you
Because God has his back
Three monitor screens face Tyler Perry as he sits at his desk underneath a blown-up photo of the Little Rascals with Buckwheat at its center. Dressed in a black warm-up suit, the media mogul indicates the flat HDTV screen on the wall near his desk, which shows a live feed from the set of his sitcom "House of Payne," filming at a soundstage a few buildings away.
"They're rehearsing the show now," he explains. Nodding at the large computer monitor on his desk, he says, "Here, I've got a new screenplay that I'm working on, and here" — he points to an open Mac laptop — "I've got a play that I'm working on. It looks chaotic, but it's very controlled."
Actually, it doesn't look that chaotic. Perry creates such a powerful impression of self-mastery that it's easy to imagine him with a hand on each keyboard, typing both scripts at once while keeping an eye on the TV. From his second-floor office at his eponymous studio complex, Atlanta's most successful entertainer never stops expanding the media empire he's created in his image. Perry writes, directs and produces all of his plays and movies, including Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family, opening April 22, and many of his TV episodes. He even pens songs released through My TY PE Music Publishing.
It's an approach that, to put it mildly, has worked well for Perry. His films have earned nearly half a billion dollars worldwide. Forbes estimates Perry took in $125 million last year, making him the third highest-paid entertainment figure, after Oprah Winfrey and James Cameron. When fully staffed, his 200,000-square-foot Tyler Perry Studios near Greenbriar Mall employs about 400 people on a campus that boasts five soundstages, a gym and even a chapel. His realm thrives as a virtually self-contained, self-sustaining entity afloat in American culture.
Perry doesn't exactly repel outsiders, but he doesn't readily invite them in, either. His is a kingdom passionately supported by its subjects — preeminently church-going African-American women — who'll snap up anything bearing the Tyler Perry brand. He has stronger ties to contemporary black Christian ministry than to any African-American pop trends, and projects a wholesome image closer to the messianic uplift of his pal Oprah than to hip-hop moguls like Sean Combs.
Perry both embodies the growing success of Black Hollywood and stands apart from it. The black intelligentsia has shown ambivalence to his work, with Spike Lee having described the raucous comedy in Perry's spiritual-themed stories as "coonery and buffoonery." Audiences in between the extremes of fandom and detractors often puzzle over his mix of broad comedy and heavy-handed moralizing.
At 6 foot 5 inches, the dapper, 41-year-old Perry looks like the most eligible bachelor at a church single's night, and is prone to wear a half-smile that's equal parts sphinx and Mona Lisa. Perry puts a face on both Atlanta's upwardly mobile African-American community and the city's booming film industry, but for such a major media figure, he's surprisingly enigmatic.
His name and face are omnipresent on billboards, but compared to other entertainers of his stature he shuns the public eye and avoids the familiar stops on the promotional circuit. And for a performer best known for playing the pistol-packing matriarch Madea, his spiritual-minded persona proves nearly free of irony. He's a riddle wrapped in a mystery — wearing a housedress and granny glasses.
Perry's unconventional celebrity echoes his singular path to success, and the factors that won him such ardent followers keep him at the margins of the mainstream. Perry's empire is not just the product of his can-do attitude, but of a hustle born of poverty, neglect and abuse — the kind of determination that either lands you in jail or inside a 30,000-square-foot mansion.
We wouldn't know the Tyler Perry name if he didn't have that tireless drive, but some of his major turning points have come when he's ceded control. The filmmaker explains that in his life, a higher power calls the shots. "That voice that I believe God to be is very clear for me. Every time I surrender to it, I end up doing pretty well. Every time I went against it, I ended up in some mess."
For nearly two decades, Perry has created plays, films and television series at the pace of an artist with hellhounds on his trail, until he seems at once a king of African-American media and a prisoner of his own fame. His drive to succeed on his own terms derived largely from the desire to live up to the expectations of his mother and God. Compared to them, meeting the expectations of mainstream America isn't much of a priority.
The key to the Tyler Perry mythos isn't that he talks to God, but that God answers back.
Before he ever really got started, Perry was ready to quit. Back in 1998, he faced evictions and joblessness while struggling to succeed in urban theater — what used to be known as the "chitlin circuit" of African-American plays that would tour in nontraditional venues like music clubs and civic centers. From the beginning, he focused on writing and performing his own work to an underserved niche, rather than following the more conventional path of writing or acting for other people.
He penned his first play, I Know I Been Changed, at 19 after watching an "Oprah" episode about the therapeutic qualities of writing. Not long after he prayed for guidance in his writing, he drove his Hyundai with a leaky radiator from his native New Orleans to Atlanta for Freaknik in 1991 and was dumbstruck by the contrast between the two cities. "I saw black people doing well, which was something I'd never seen before," he recalls. "I'd never seen black families in a car, going to dinner or movies. Atlanta was the Promised Land. It was like 'You mean, I can do well there?'"
"Doing well" turned out to be no sure thing. Perry first presented I Know I Been Changed to near-empty houses at the 14th Street Playhouse in 1992. After six years of underwhelming runs, Perry was making a final attempt to stage it at the Tabernacle in Atlanta. Friend and actress Chandra Currelly recalls that before the curtain went up in the chilly theater, Perry told the cast, "This is the last one. It's not working out."
At that moment, Perry silently prayed, angrily vowing to quit theater. As he later recalled in one of the online letters he regularly writes to his fans: "In the middle of my rant I heard Him. IIIII HHEEAARRD HIIIMMM!!!!! He said to me, 'I AM GOD. YOU DON'T TELL ME WHEN IT'S OVER. I TELL YOU WHEN IT'S OVER, AND THIS IS THE BEGINNING.'"
Perry heard the voice say, "Get up and look out of the window."
And then, Currelly says, "That's when we all went to the window, and people were lined up around the corner."
For such an intensely private man, some of Perry's rare television interviews have illustrated the darkest, most personal episodes of his childhood. "When you're a public person you have a responsibility," he says. "If you have information that may help others, you have a responsibility to do that."
Perry grew up in New Orleans, but had an experience sharply different from the Crescent City's reputation as a Creole-flavored melting pot of diversity. "Do not go over there," he remembers his mother, Willie Maxine Perry, telling him as a child. "We did not cross certain streets, like St. Charles Avenue, where the white people were. Growing up, I didn't know any white people. In the whole six-block radius, it was all black people."
Perry admits that his largely segregated upbringing is reflected in his work, especially the plays and early films, which seem aimed at a specific African-American audience. "When I say I'm speaking to the culture, I'm speaking to my own experiences," he says. "It's fascinating to me that Oprah, who went to an integrated school, and Will Smith, who went to a mixed school, how their thinking is so open — that everybody is everybody. But for me, I had to open my mind to see it, because I was always taught, 'You are different, because you're black.'"
Growing up with no money or promise of escape, he faced a harrowing home life. According to Perry, his father, carpenter Emmitt Perry, physically abused him and his three siblings. The filmmaker even changed his name from Emmitt Perry Jr. to distance himself from his dad.
On "Oprah" and through postings on his message board at TylerPerry.com, he's shared tales of being beaten with a vacuum cleaner hose and other brutal episodes. And following the 2009 release of the film Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, which he co-produced, he revealed that, as a child, he suffered sexual abuse from adults in his community, including a man he knew from church.
On "Oprah" in 2010, he explained that during his father's most abusive moments in his childhood, he would mentally escape to a local park he'd visited with his mother and aunt Jerry, whom he's cited as his inspiration for Madea. "It was such a good day," Perry explained, "that every time somebody was doing something to me that was horrible, that was awful, I could go to this park in my mind until it was over."
Perry's films often feature ugly episodes of child and spousal abuse, but he also mines them for humor, as when Madea threatens to beat unruly kids with belts. Perry doesn't see a contradiction. "I come from the school where, you did something wrong, you get your ass whupped," he says. "My father would beat me, but my mother would whup my ass. For somebody like her, it was about correction and love. It wasn't about abuse. In this society today, where everything's politically correct, it's very difficult to make jokes about these things, but I think the culture understands."
Perry's father also beat his mother and, having been unable to protect her when he was a child, Perry devoted his money and labor to his mother as an adult. "A lot of the fever, the crazy pace from when I was working, was about her having everything she ever wanted," he explains. "Which was so absurd, because it got to the point where during the holidays and Christmas there was nothing I could give her, because I had given her everything."
Perry's films, in which downtrodden women often escape abusive brutes to find happiness, could be seen as an effort to restage the conflicts of his own childhood. Today, Perry says he's forgiven his father, even though he remains unrepentant. Through the star's brother, the elder Perry sent him the message: "If I had beat your ass one more time, you probably would have been Barack Obama."
Unlike the president, Tyler Perry owns the building he works in. From the curb of Continental Colony Parkway just inside the western edge of I-285, Tyler Perry Studios looks surprisingly modest. Through the security gate, you can see little more than a featureless, cube-shaped 1960s-style building.
Only inside the campus do you notice the picturesque pond or the lobby's perpetual waterfall alongside the motto "A Place Where Even Dreams Believe." The backlot encloses a replica of a downtown Atlanta street, including the "House of Payne" fire department, the Zion Liberty Baptist Church, Momma's Soul Food — even a Creative Loafing bin. Perry has named his soundstages after icons of African-American entertainment like Quincy Jones and Ruby Dee, while blown-up portraits of such pioneering black artists as Sidney Poitier line the walls of the administrative offices.
While the buildings pay homage to his African-American predecessors, they also demonstrate that Perry has achieved more independence than most of them could have hoped for. He insists not just on artistic control of his work, but also financial control. In 2009 he told "60 Minutes," "He who has the gold makes the rules. If somebody else is gonna give you the money, then they're gonna be in control. They're gonna own it, they're gonna tell you how it goes. I wasn't willing to do that."
As his company's owner, Perry enjoys creative freedoms and lavish compensation, even by Hollywood standards. Despite his riches, he finds his fortune to be abstract, as if all the zeroes on his bank statements blur together. "Here's the thing about money," he confides: "You don't really know it's there. The bank tells you it's there. You see numbers, but you can't really touch it like I can touch this chair, or this rug, or drive a car. The money can buy those things, but you don't know that it's really there."
He takes more satisfaction in tangible belongings like his real estate holdings, which serve as visible proof of his accomplishments. In 2004, before he even started making movies, he'd amassed a fortune large enough to build a $5 million, 17,000-square-foot mansion in Fairburn he called the "Avec Chateau." The estate featured two prayer gardens, a man-made waterfall, tennis court, swimming pool and foyer with a life-sized knight in armor and an armored warhorse. At the time, he told Ebony, "I wanted to make a statement, not in any grand or boastful way, but to let people know what God can do when you believe. I don't care how low you go, there's an opposite of low, and as low as I went, I wanted to go that much higher. And if there was an opposite of homelessness, I wanted to find it."
Perry sees his homes as places of refuge. In 2009, for his 40th birthday, he gave himself an island in the Bahamas. Last year, Perry finished construction on his 36,000-square-foot French provincial mansion on the Chattahoochee River off Paces Ferry Road in Atlanta, and he also bought the 58-acre Dean Gardens estate — listed at $14 million — in Johns Creek last summer. But, for all his extravagance, he spends his off-hours quietly at home. "I don't necessarily like to be in the mix," he says. "I'm just as happy at home under the oaks with the dogs, walkin' and watching the fireflies, or down by the river walkin' around."
Perry isn't exactly a recluse, but when he's not working, he prefers calm, controlled environments to the crush of people that accompanies celebrity. Ironically, the success he credits to God hinders Perry's own ability to worship in the community. To get in and out of church, he has to arrive late and leave early. "People will stick notes in my hand as I'm praying," he says. "Résumé, head shot, phone numbers, that kind of stuff. And those kind of interruptions can get quite annoying when you just want to be in church and have a good time."
Instead, he often finds his strongest connection to his audience through the Internet, which makes relating to fans more manageable. "My message board is my lifeline," Perry explains. "There's four-and-a-half million people there leaving messages on Facebook, and they are not filtered — they are positive, 99.9 percent of them — of people saying how their lives have been touched and changed. So that's how I know I'm on the right track. That's how I know what matters."
On the Internet, in his periodic messages to fans, he adopts a more conversational tone, describing the hassles of touring or recounting his mother's gratitude at the new house he gave her: "She said she always wanted to know what it was like to live like the town matriarch Mrs. Chancellor from 'The Young and the Restless.' 'Now, I know,' she said."
Last year, Perry not only released Why Did I Get Married, Too? and For Colored Girls, he also starred in the touring production of Madea's Big Happy Family, at one point appearing in 125 performances in 126 days. And this was Perry working at half-speed.
When his mother died on Dec. 8, 2009, at the age of 64, Perry was devastated. "That was a large part of my drive, and when she died, I lost it," he recalls. "I was just done, with everything, all of it. The sky wasn't blue anymore."
He says the memory of his mother helped him rediscover his path. "This life is but a moment. And I started to think about the joy of who she was, and what she gave me. I dream about her and in dreams I see her at peace, so those are the things that help me get back up." He now says his interviews on "Oprah" detailing his abuse also exorcized some of his childhood demons. "I talked about all that stuff and freed myself. It's like, when my mother took her last breath, I was able to take my first."
Perry says he only now feels like he's getting back up to speed after his mother's death and that he intends to explore new areas without slowing down. He recently signed on to play James Patterson's psychologist/investigator Alex Cross (a role played by Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider) for director Rob Cohen, marking only the second time, following his Star Trek cameo, that Perry has taken a role he didn't write himself.
He's close to starting his own TV network, and intends to expand his already-sizeable production lot. "I just bought the other 30 acres on the other side of this lawn to expand the studio," he says. "When I got here I was thinking it was too big, but then I realized that when we're really in full production, we don't have a corner to hide in."
But is he ready to make the compromises in his personal life that come with having a family, something his films frequently advocate? In 2010, he told the New York Post: "In all my adult life I've had five serious relationships with women. And I'm not sure monogamy is for me." In person, he corrects the record. "What I said was, monogamy wasn't for me at that time," he clarifies. "At that moment. No, I'd just come out of a relationship; I wasn't interested in being in another. Here's where I am with that now. This isn't a reason to get married, but it would be a shame for me to have built all of this up, and not have a legacy to pass it on to.
"As a matter of fact, we thought we were pregnant back in December, but it was a false alarm," he says. "If it happens, it happens. But, marriage? I don't know."
So, who's the lucky lady?
"I'll let you in on a little secret," he says, mock-conspiratorially. "It's Oprah. I'm kidding, I'm kidding!"
If you're neither an ardent fan nor a knee-jerk Perry-hater, it's hard to know how to feel about the entertainer as a titan of African-American pop culture. Of course, it's a quirk of 21st century media saturation that anyone should be expected to have definitive, up-or-down feelings about a celebrity, no matter how famous he is. While Perry clearly intends to expand his reach as a mass entertainer, having already built one of America's biggest media empires, he's unlikely to meet you halfway.
Don't take it personally, but Tyler Perry doesn't need you.
You probably won't bump into him at Whole Foods or Lenox Square mall, like you might with other Atlanta celebrities (although you'll have better luck at Houston's Restaurant or the Apache Café, two of his favorite spots). For such an apparently private person, however, he can come across as surprisingly unguarded.
Interviews clearly aren't his favorite thing, but having granted one, he makes every effort to be cool about it. In the sanctum of his office, Perry's demeanor can alternate between a serious, even stern, manner and a casual joshing around. He likes to be called "Mr. Perry" on the movie set, but call him that in person and he says, "Come on, man," as if it's an unnecessary formality.
But don't expect him to sit around and chat forever. From over at his desk, the monitors are still on. His work is waiting.