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 The Hollywood Reporter.
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 box-office record at the Kodak (Theater, 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 percent Christian churchgoing. It depends on what part of the country I’m in. If I’m in the Bible Belt it’s 90 percent churchgoing. If I’m up north in Newark it may be 30 percent, 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 to 80 percent women, 10 to 20 percent men and about 5 percent 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 to 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: 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 percent 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 (Writers Guild of America) — were so on my side when I started. They helped me build it — SAG (Screen Actors Guild), Teamsters, all of them — because of the pride in it.
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: 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’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: 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.”