Interview: Tyler Perry

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[The Kam Williams Interview]

Born on September 13, 1969 in New Orleans, Tyler Perry overcame a challenging early life marked first by child abuse and later by homelessness to become a writer, producer, director, and actor extraordinaire.

He credits Oprah Winfrey for encouraging him to turn his soul-searching diaries into a play, I Know I’ve Been Changed. Although most folks might merely associate him with the sassy, senior citizen character Madea, Tyler has also blossomed into a creative genius who’s the brains behind an enviable entertainment empire disseminating inspirational messages on stage and in film. His impressive screen credits include Woman, Thou Art Loosed, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion and Daddy’s Little Girls.

Here, he reflects on his latest opus, Why Did I Get Married, a thought-provoking meditation on marriage co-starring Jill Scott, Janet Jackson, Tasha Smith and Malik Yoba.

BSN: Hey Tyler, thanks so much for the time.
TP: Oh, absolutely. How are you?

BSN: Great, how are you? You must be exhausted from all the interviews.
TP: We’re holding it together. It’s all good. I’m having a great time.

BSN: What made you pick this play of yours to adapt to the big screen at this
TP: That’s a good question, because I don’t plan to do all of them. I’m always wondering what’s happening in the community now, what’s happening with the people. And with the divorce rate being so high, and with the family needing some sort of uplift or boost, I think that’s where I’m going to be for the next few movies… talking about family, relationships and marriage. And I thought the best way to start is with marriage.

BSN: You have a knack for creating authentic African-American scenarios exploring serious themes with a certain gravitas we just don’t see anywhere else. Where does that unique gift come from?
TP: I just have so many stories to tell and there’s so much that we are as Black people with many different sides to it. I think that a lot of people are focusing on only one side of who we are. But it’s such a rich culture that anyone would be doing a disservice not to look at all sides of it. So, this way of storytelling has come from being on stage and having an immediate connection with the audience, to now having it in film.

BSN: There’s a distinction in the quality of your contributions like Woman, Thou Art Loosed, Madea’s Family Reunion and Daddy’s Little Girls which are very rich films that give people goose bumps and made them cry. So, I see your work as really standing out as a cut above.
TP: Wow, that’s really great to hear.

BSN: Since I don’t see an existing template or formula for what you’re doing,
what do you tap into for as the source of your originality and genius?
TP: First of all, the messages are very important to me. I don’t just want to do film for the sake of doing film. And it’s never been about money for me. It’s always been about “What can I leave to uplift and inspire?” Even when I was doing plays early on. So, that’s where it comes from, first of all. It’s about, “What message can I bury into a great story?” And I think it’s resonating with people because so many folks are looking for answers.
So many people are searching. So many want love and hope and romance. In my own life, finding that forgiveness has been very important. And that’s where it seems to begin with me for a lot of what I do.

BSN: Why didn’t you produce Why Did I Get Married as a musical?
TP: I don’t think I’ll ever do a movie musical. The closest I’ll come is my film A Jazz Man’s Blues which is about a jazz singer in the 1940s. There’s a lot of jazz and big band music in it, but it’s not a musical. I don’t think that’s my forte.

BSN: Will you be appearing in A Jazz Man’s Blues?
TP: I am. I’m playing the singer. And my hope is to have Alan Arkin or Sir Ben Kingsley to play the Jewish Holocaust survivor who befriends him and then turns him into one of the biggest jazz singers of all time.

BSN: And you’ll be reprising Madea in Meet the Browns, right?
TP: Yeah, and then I’m going to follow that up with Madea Goes to Jail, and then we’ll see what happens after that.

BSN: You’re from New Orleans. How do you think things are going down there in
terms of the recovery?
TP: I was speaking with the Mayor [Ray Nagin] when I was there in July and I
think it’s horrible that the money that’s supposed to help the people is wrapped up in so much bureaucracy that it can’t get to those who need it the most. And I think it’s terrible that people are saying the city’s back 100% when, if you venture two blocks off the beaten path away from the area of the Mardi Gras or the Superdome, you’ll find over 70,000 people still in trailers, some of them full of formaldehyde and causing formaldehyde poisoning, and nobody’s talking about it. I think it’s horrific.

BSN: What prompted you to purchase the former slave plantation used as the
setting for the reunion in Madea’s Family Reunion.
TP: No, that’s not so. I don’t own it.

BSN: Why’d you decide to film on that location?
TP: The land was so rich. I had no idea it had been a plantation. We were doing shots one day, and I was walking past that cabin and I noticed some graves. I asked the caretaker about it, and he said, “Oh, all these people were slaves.” I was like, “Are you serious?” And he takes me over to a plaque that said, “There were once 150 slaves on this land.” So, it was profound to sit there in the kitchen of the big house with Cicely Tyson and Dr. Maya Angelou and to have them talk about their struggle to get to where they are. It was so rich and so powerful… It’s something I’ll share with my children.

BSN: Did you have any reservations about casting Jill Scott, a singer, in a lead role in Why Did I Get Married, since it’s her big screen debut?
TP: Once she auditioned for me, I had no doubt. Her audition was great, but the first day she came to work was so incredible it made us all go, “Wow! She carries this with her?” Wait till you see her performance. You’ll be wondering, “Who is this woman and why hasn’t she been doing this much longer?”

BSN: How hard is it for you to act, direct and produce a movie
TP: It’s not that difficult for me, because all sides of my brain need to work. I’ll ask myself, “Was that the best take you could do, Tyler?” I’m always very critical and very honest with myself. And once I get a yes, I’m ready to move on.

BSN: How was it working with such a large ensemble cast containing so many
stars like Jill Scott and Janet Jackson?
TP: They were all very respectful. The thing about it is that sometimes I encounter resistance from people about the same age who feel like they’ve been in the business longer than you and should be further along than you. But I had none of it here. I had so much support from this cast, especially the guys. And their support meant the world to me, because it’s usually the guys that I have the issues with.

BSN: As someone who overcame a very tough childhood, what advice do you have
for anyone trying to make their way out of dire straits?
TP: What worked for me was nothing but my faith and belief in God. Still, to this day, I pray constantly. I think I pray more now than I did then. I tell people to pray and to work as hard as you can.

BSN: Are you happy?
TP: Every day, yeah. I spent the first 28 years of my life being completely miserable. So, I’m grateful every day now, especially being in my late thirties heading into my forties. I’m really happy.

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