Whenever Tyler Perry is in front of the camera, he's usually behind it as well. A screenwriter, director, producer and star, Perry grew up poor in New Orleans, but he has become a movie phenomenon — he was described in the New Yorker as the most financially successful black man the American film industry has ever known.
Perry first developed his following on the African-American theater circuit. By the time he released his first movie in 2005, The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, his following was so large the film premiered nationally at No 1. Part drama, part comedy, the film introduced his most popular character, Madea, to movie audiences. Madea — Mabel Simmons — is the matriarch of a family, and Perry completely transforms himself to play the role. And as Madea's brother and nephew, Perry frequently co-stars in scenes with himself.
Several of Perry's films are told from female perspectives, which he says was a result of his childhood experience. "My father who was there in the house, he wasn't at all a role model," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And my mother who was trying to protect me from him as best she could, she took me everywhere with her, which gave me a tremendous amount of sensitivity to the things women go through. ... I would spend more time at the laundromat and Lane Bryant than any young boy should. [In my writing] I'm speaking from the little boy who's at her apron, looking up at the world and seeing all that I'm seeing these women go through."
Perry was 18 or 19 when he was first inspired to write and act. He was watching The Oprah Winfrey Show, he explains, and "[Oprah] said it was cathartic to write things down and I, at the time, didn't know what 'cathartic' meant, I had to find a dictionary to look it up. And once I did, I started writing a lot of my own experiences down." He didn't have much privacy at home, so he used different character names to disguise himself in case anyone found his writing.
Perry is currently starring in the new action thriller Alex Cross; he says it was the arc of the story that attracted him to the role. "I loved that he's a family man," Perry says. "And then he goes to work as this officer, a psychologist and he is someone else and then by the end of the film, he's this lion that has been unleashed that he has to tame within himself."
Perry's other films include Madea's Family Reunion, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, The Family That Preys and Why Did I Get Married. He created and produced the TBS TV series House of Payne and its follow-up show, Meet the Browns. In 2011, he was named the highest-paid man in entertainment by Forbes, earning $130 million. Alex Cross opens in theaters on Friday.
On creating the character of Madea
"Madea is a cross between my mother and my aunt and watching Eddie Murphy, the brilliant Eddie Murphy, do The Klumps. I thought — maybe I should try my hand at a female character. And that's what came up. I thought I'd imitate the funniest person that I know, and she is the exactly the PG version of my mother and my aunt, and I loved having an opportunity to pay homage to them. She's a strong, witty, loving, I mean really, just like my mother used to be before she died. She would beat the hell out of you but make sure the ambulance got there in time to make sure they could set your arm back, you know what I mean? Because the love was there inside all of it. I know it sounds really strange, but that's the old-school mentality. That's why I think the character is so popular, because a lot of people miss that type of grandmother, everybody is so worried about being politically correct that she's no longer around."
On forgiving his abusive father
"The thing that helped me the most was understanding who he was as a child. The man was found — he and my aunt, and my uncle ... they were all in this drainage canal and they were found by a white man who saw the kids and brought them to a woman named May to raise, who lived on some of the property that the white man owned. ... He left the children there with her and she was 14 years old. And her father was a former slave and a very old man who was bedridden at the time, very old and dying, and everything that she knew to do was to beat the children — so everything my father did, whatever he did wrong ... she would put him in a potato sack, tie him in a tree and she would beat him for everything he did wrong, so that is what he came out of. And understanding who he was helped me to be able to forgive a lot of his behavior and what he tried to pass on to me. It doesn't excuse it, but it gave me an opportunity to understand who he was."
On performing his first plays
"It was in Atlanta, Ga., at the 14th Street playhouse. ... It's a very small community playhouse. ... I was in the 200-seat theater and I thought 1,200 people would show up and only 30 showed up and I knew all of them so [I] lost everything, rent payment, car payment, all that money I had saved was tied up in the show. I lost everything, but I kept going. ... I was doing one performance a year ... out of every show I'd do, somebody would come along and invest in two or three shows and nothing would ever get off the ground. But what changed in 1998 was the show was about adult survivors of child abuse who had forgiven their abusers — and I hadn't forgiven my father. And somewhere in that time I forgave him so that was the thing that changed within me, and outwardly everything changed. I recast the show, put it up, same city six years later and sold out nine shows."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, screenwriter, director, producer and actor Tyler Perry grew up poor, but he's become a movie phenomenon, the most financially successful back man the American film industry has ever known, according to the New Yorker. He first developed his following on the African-American theater circuit. By the time he released his first movie in 2005, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," his following was so large the film premiered, nationally, at number one.
Part drama, part comedy, it introduced his most popular character, Madea, to movie audiences. Madea, Mabel Simmons, is the matriarch of a family, and playing her requires Tyler Perry to completely transform himself. He's often shared his scenes with himself, since he's also played Madea's brother and her nephew.
Perry's other films include "Madea's Family Reunion," "The Family That Prays" and "Why Did I Get Married?" He's also had two very popular cable TV series, "House of Payne" and "Meet the Browns." Tyler Perry fans who are used to seeing him in a floral housecoat as Madea are in for a surprise. He's starring in the new thriller "Alex Cross" as a homicide detective tracking down a sociopathic serial killer.
Let's start with a clip from "Alex Cross." The killer, played by Matthew Fox, is calling Perry's character Alex Cross on the phone to taunt him after having killed Cross' wife.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALEX CROSS")
TYLER PERRY: (As Alex Cross) Cross.
MATTHEW FOX: (As Picasso) Good afternoon, detective. Am I calling at a bad time?
PERRY: (As Cross) That depends. Are you calling to tell me where you are so I can hunt you down like a rabid dog?
FOX: (As Picasso) Ho, ho, that's good. I can feel that. I mean, you looked so numb at the funeral today, but now the pain's really starting to flow, isn't it?
PERRY: (As Cross) Here's another emotion for you: It's pleasure, the pleasure I'm going to get when I watch your soul come oozing out of your body, you maggot.
FOX: (As Picasso) Well, Confucius said when setting off on the path of revenge, dig two graves.
PERRY: (As Cross) That's fine with me, as long as you're in one of them.
GROSS: Tyler Perry, welcome to FRESH AIR. So did you ever expect to get a role as an action hero?
PERRY: I never thought about action, actually. I don't - I didn't even, when I said yes to the script, I didn't even think of it as action, for some reason. I don't - and as I'm hearing that now, or in these last few interviews in the junket, I'm going, action hero, huh, that's pretty interesting.
What attracted me to the role was simply that I love the arc of the character. I love that he's a family man who loves his family and his wife and his kids and his mother, and he's trying to be a great dad, and then he goes to work as this officer, a psychologist, and he's someone else.
And then by the end of the film, he is this lion that has been unleashed that he has to tame within himself. And all of that intrigued me. I never thought action. I just thought this is a great arc and a lot of different nuances and levels that could be played in this character. That is the thing that made me say yes to it.
GROSS: Of course there is action. There's fighting, and jumping and hanging by your fingers from a building.
PERRY: Yeah, fingernails, yeah, sure.
GROSS: Yeah, fingernails, yeah. So you have your share of action in it. Did you have to get real buff in order to do this?
PERRY: Yeah, I work out pretty regularly, but for this film, the director, Rob Cohen, asked that I take Krav Maga, which is Israeli fighting technique - an Israeli fighting technique - and as I started it, I loved it so much. It changed my body completely, because I could work out, I could run three miles, I could do all of that stuff and have a great workout in the morning, and I thought I was in pretty good shape.
When I started the Krav Maga training, I couldn't get through one hour of it. I was on my knees after 10 minutes. So it was really intense, but what I loved about that is the way it made me feel, how it changed, you know, me physically. And I kept that going even after the film wrapped, because I really enjoy it.
GROSS: So this is the first time that I know of that you're in a movie that you didn't make yourself. So it must have been odd for you to be in a movie where you didn't write it, you're not, you know, you're not directing it. I know you've been in movie that you haven't directed, but you've written them. So what was it like to not be in total control?
PERRY: Oh, I rather enjoyed it, actually. This was a release for me. The first film that I did that I - was "Star Trek." I did a very small role in that because I hadn't been on anyone else's set, and I wanted to see how it went. So I spent time with J.J. Abrams on that, which I thought was great. So that let me know that I could do it. That was my little test for that.
And for "Alex Cross," this was a welcome vacation because it was great to just focus on the performance, to take every bit of energy that usually has to be divided into a million different areas, into just acting. That was really wonderful and profound for me.
GROSS: So is this your ability to say, you know, like judge me as an actor? You know, like, you know I direct and write and produce and all that, and I play, you know, lots of roles in the films that I make, but here I'm just acting, you know, just take me as an actor.
PERRY: I love the thought of that. I have been a person that has - I've done a lot of different things, and I never really think about anything other than how the audience will react and respond to it. So it's about what they think and how they're the only ones that I will take in judgment of, you know what I mean, because there's nothing there other than wanting me to succeed and celebrate what I'm doing.
GROSS: So let me ask you about your own movies, the ones that you make, yourself. You often play three parts: Madea, who is an aunt to many of the characters in the movie; her brother Joe; and Joe's son, who you also play, who is a lawyer. So let's talk a little bit about these parts. Let's start with Madea, who's your most famous character, again she's not in all your movies, but she's your most famous character.
Why don't you describe her and how you created her.
PERRY: You know, Madea is a cross between my mother and my aunt, and watching Eddie Murphy - the brilliant Eddie Murphy - do the Klumps, I thought, well, maybe I should try my hand as a female character. And that's what came up. I thought I'd imitate the funniest people that I know. And she is exactly the PG version of my mother and my aunt.
I loved having an opportunity to pay homage to them. She's strong, witty, loving, I mean really just like my mother used to be before she died. She would beat the hell out of you but make sure the ambulance got there in time to make sure they could set your arm back, you know what I mean, because the love was there inside of all of it.
I know it sounds really strange, but that's that old-school mentality that - that's why I think the character's so popular, because a lot of people miss that type of grandmother. Everybody's so worried about being politically correct that she's no longer around.
GROSS: Not Madea in your movies wears these, like, loose-fitting housecoats, these, like, big '80s-style glasses. Can you talk about how you dress her? Do you pick the clothes yourself?
No, it's all my wardrobe department, but I just - as long they know I don't want her to be sexy, I'm fine with it.
GROSS: I'm sure she's not going to be.
PERRY: No, no, I just can't imagine being - her trying to be sexy. That's just a little bit too much for my senses to take on.
GROSS: So were you uncomfortable about being in women's clothes and the assumptions people might make about you?
PERRY: No, I was never uncomfortable about that. What I was more uncomfortable about is just sitting there, and because I'm not really - the clothes aren't really on me. The fat suit is what's on me, and having those huge, let's see...
PERRY: Gallon-sized breasts, yeah, yeah, that are just - that are under my armpits at times. All of that was pretty strange and pretty weird. But again, being a character actor, just like with Alex Cross, I just let go and submit and let the character be the character.
GROSS: OK, so let's talk about Madea's brother Joe, who lives with her. He's kind of the opposite of her in a lot of ways. Describe him.
PERRY: He's a cantankerous old fart who's always thinking about sex. And he's not politically correct, either. He's just from the old school. He just - he's always looking for drugs. He always wants to smoke pot and has nothing wise to say. He is strictly there for the comic relief.
GROSS: And explain - describe the character of Brian, the lawyer who is the nephew of Madea.
PERRY: Yeah, Brian would be the nephew of Madea, who has shown up in a couple of my movies, and his purpose for me was just to be - to see if I could just do a straight role because it's so easy for me to have a costume and hide behind that costume. You want me to play a tree? You know, give me the costume, and I can pull it off.
It's just - so for him, he was the most challenging and the most uncomfortable for me because I had nothing to hide behind. So as I've - he was my beginning, the beginnings of understanding or knowing could I - or trying to see if I could do something outside of having a costume.
GROSS: So now we're going to bring all three of those characters in a scene, and this is from "Madea's Family Reunion." Madea is always having to go to court for some reason or another, usually something, like, horrible she's done to defend someone in her family. But her offense this time around is that she took off her house arrest bracelet, so - and representing her is Brian, one of your other characters. So you're both before - you've just been before the judge.
And the judge has sentenced Madea to be a foster parent for this kid who's really troubled, who needs a home. And the judge figures the one thing Madea's really good is, you know, protecting kids and protecting her family, so I'm going to give her this kid.
So you and Madea have just driven back to Madea's house. Joe is waiting there on the steps. Joe sees Madea and this new kid, and he's like, what, you can't bring this kid to our home. So Joe speaks first, and so to sum up, here's my guest Tyler Perry in three roles from his movie "Madea's Family Reunion."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION")
PERRY: (As Joe) I was so hoping they would lock you the hell up.
(As Madea) The only locked up around here is your bowels. Now shut the hell up.
(As Brian) How you doin', daddy?
(As Joe) Hey Brian, hey Tiffany, how you doin'?
(As Brian) Daddy, this is not my daughter.
(As Joe) Oh well hell, they all look alike to me. Who is (unintelligible)?
(As Brian) Madea is a new foster mother. You're going to have a houseguest.
(As Joe) That child ain't stayin' here. You can't stay here. Go on back to where the hell you came from. You can't stay up in this house. It's bad enough you let that gal move up in here with them two babies makin' all that racket all day long. Now you done brought her. Every time I send you somewhere, you come back with something. Take it back. We don't want it. Return to sender.
(As Madea) I remember I sent you somewhere, too, and you came back with something. You still itchin'?
(As Joe) Your mama. Oh hell, that's my mama, too, ain't it?
(As Madea) Don't say nothing like that in front of this child. Come on in the house. I'll show you where you're sleeping.
GROSS: (As Brian) Daddy, you gotta stop being so mean.
PERRY: (As Joe) I wish I had been mean to your mama. Then I wouldn't be sattin' here looking at your right now. I tell you, that's crazy as hell, all these people up in this house. I'm gonna call the fire marshal. That is against the law. Oh, I'm gonna need some weed to be dealin' with all these people. I'm hearing babies cryin' every five minutes.
GROSS: So that was Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry and Tyler Perry in a scene from his movie "Madea's Family Reunion." What's it like to play a scene where you're three of the characters?
PERRY: It can be a little - you have to have all sides of your brain working to make that happen, because I'm usually standing there either talking to a tennis ball when the other person is not in the scene or a stand-in, and they're giving me readings of the lines, and I'm trying to think of how I would say it or what ad libs I'm going to do and try and remember them.
So by the time it takes the hours for the setups to get around to all three characters, it's pretty interesting. So you need a lot of editing magic once that's all done.
GROSS: So the father in this movie, Joe, is based in part on your father, right?
PERRY: More on my grandfather. My grandfather was a man, my mother's father, who - his name was Willy(ph) and he owned a juke joint in rural Louisiana. And we spent times there, the summers, at his house, and this house was 10 feet from a train track. So the train would come through all the time. And he was just a great, great character who kept a straight razor in his back pocket and always had an apple and a cigar, (unintelligible) hat. He's just a great guy.
GROSS: Yeah, I'm thinking because, like, your father was not a comic character by any means, and I thought it would be hard to transform him into one because it sounds like he spent a lot of his time beating you when you were growing up.
PERRY: He was - what I know about my father is this, and what I've tried to learn over the years, is this, that his story, it's very interesting, too. And what I tell lots of people who are angry with their parents or children who've become, you know, older men or women, and they're trying to understand or get to a place of forgiveness, as I had to get to my father - the thing that helped me the most was understanding who he was as a child.
The man was found. He and my aunt and my uncle, I think my aunt was six, my uncle was four, and he was two, and they were all in this drainage canal. And they were found by a white man who saw the kids and brought them to a woman named May(ph) to raise, who lived on some of the property that the white man owned.
I don't know the man's name, but - it's possibly Perry because we don't know where Perry came from. But anyway, he left the children there with her, and she was 14 years old. And her father was a former slave and a very old man who was bedridden at the time, very old and dying. And everything that she knew to do was to beat the children.
So everything my father did, whatever he did wrong, she would beat him. She was 14 years old. She would put him in a potato sack, tie him in a tree, and she would beat him for everything that he did wrong. So, that what he came out of. And understanding who he was helped me to be able to forgive a lot of his behavior and what he tried to pass on to me.
It doesn't excuse it, but it gave me an opportunity to understand who he was. So in all fairness to him, now I have a clearer picture of who he was.
GROSS: How old were you when you reached that point of feeling like you could at least understand, if not forgive, his behavior?
PERRY: I think at 28. I didn't find out a lot of this stuff until I was in my 30s, but when I was 28, I started on the path of letting go, because what I realized is what I'd like for a lot of people to realize: If you're holding on to the anger and the pain of what someone has done to you, you are not hurting them at all, you are hurting yourself.
GROSS: But anger, it seems like anger was a very powerful fuel for you, because you probably worked off the fumes of anger for a long time in pushing yourself as hard as you did to get to where you got to.
PERRY: Absolutely, as do a lot of people who were abused. So the anger was the fuel, but what happens - and this is why a lot of people don't want to let go of the anger. This is why I didn't want to let go of the anger. I wasn't aware of it then, but I know now, looking back on it, because the anger was the fuel.
And once I forgave him, I was no longer angry. So I lost the motivation, and I lost the fuel. Because the fuel was I'll prove you wrong, I am worth something, I am better than what you're saying I am. I am - you know, and once all of that was gone, and none of that mattered anymore, I had to find another source of fuel.
GROSS: And that is where I came up with all of these characters and the movies and the place that I'm in in my life now with everything that I write and produce and direct. I want it rooted in positivity.
My guest is Tyler Perry. He's starring as a homicide detective in the new film "Alex Cross." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer, director, producer and actor Tyler Perry, and he's actually starring in an action movie now called "Alex Cross." Did you get to see many movies when you were growing up?
PERRY: No, I didn't, actually. The first movie I ever saw was, I think I was four or five years old, was "The Wiz," and I danced all the way home seeing Michael Jackson and Diana Ross in the, you know, Motown version of "The Wizard of Oz."
And I didn't see a whole lot of film. That was the only time I ever remember going to a movie theater.
GROSS: Was that because you didn't care or didn't have the money?
PERRY: Didn't have the money, weren't really allowed to and just - my family, we weren't - we never went to dinner. We never sat at the dinner table together. We never - none of those things ever happened. We were all, you know, you'd eat when you could or when it was there, and you'd get what you could, and you'd go to your room or go somewhere else.
So a lot of that wasn't - the things that I look at now that so many people take for granted, wasn't a part of my life growing up.
GROSS: Did you have a television?
PERRY: Yes, we did.
GROSS: What did you watch that made an impression on you?
PERRY: I loved - as a kid, I loved "Gilligan's Island," and I thought for sure that all of these people were little people living inside of the television, and they would come onstage when their show would come on.
PERRY: And I was so intrigued because it was a really big box floor model, and I knew they were in there. And all the time I would look behind, and I wanted to unscrew it to see if could - but I knew my father would kill me if I would do it.
GROSS: What other TV shows besides "Gilligan's Island"?
PERRY: I loved "Gilligan's Island," and I love "Laverne and Shirley." I loved Norman Lear, who is a man that I just - I have to meet. All of his shows, from "Good Times" to "All in the Family," I mean he was just a brilliant, brilliant - is just a brilliant man. I just want to spend some time with him.
GROSS: When did you think that you wanted to act or to write plays? Like at what point did that become a real idea for you?
PERRY: I was about 18 or 19 years old, and I was watching the Oprah show, and she said it was cathartic to write things down. And I, at that time, didn't know what cathartic meant. I had to find a dictionary to look it up. And once I did, I started writing a lot of my own experiences down.
And there wasn't a whole lot of privacy in my house, so what I did was I used different characters' names in these experiences because I didn't want people to know that I had gone through them. A friend of mine found them and said man, this is a really good play. And then I thought, well, maybe it is a play.
And I didn't have any money to see live shows. So when they could come through New Orleans at the Sanger Theater, I would sneak in at intermission. When everybody would come out to take their smoke, and they'd go back in, I'd go back in and find a seat. So a lot of times I only saw the second act of a lot of plays, but it was - that's where it all started for me.
GROSS: So when you were writing in dialogue so people wouldn't think it was your own story, can I ask you to tell the kind of thing that you were trying to hide by making it into a play?
PERRY: Well, everything I've talked about recently in the past years. I've talked about the abused adults, living with an adult survivor of child abuse. That's what the show was about. I was talking about all of that in the play.
GROSS: So how did you get to actually stage it the first time?
PERRY: I went to work, I saved $12,000.
GROSS: Went to work doing what?
PERRY: I was a used car - I moved to Atlanta in 1992, and I was a used car salesman. I was a bill collector. I worked at a hotel, and I saved all of my H&R Block tax returns, and I put the show up, called in a lot of favors.
GROSS: Being a bill collector, that must be a really hard job.
PERRY: You know what was so great about it, I realize now, is that everything that I did, used car salesman, bill collector, all of those jobs prepared me for what I do today; because in negotiating contracts or - if you can get the guy from Kentucky who is behind on his four-wheeler payment and the mortgage and everything else to send you a payment, you can negotiate a pretty good deal in Hollywood.
GROSS: Tyler Perry will be back in the second half of the show. He stars in the new thriller "Alex Cross." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with screenwriter, director, producer and actor Tyler Perry. He's starring as a homicide detective in the new thriller "Alex Cross." He's best known for his films "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," "Madea's Family Reunion" and "Why Did I Get Married," and for his TV series "House of Payne" and "Meet the Browns."
(technical difficulties) director, he's famous for his comic character Madea, a family matriarch. (technical difficulties) Perry got his start on the African-American theater circuit in the early '90s with a play called "I Know I've Been Changed," which was inspired by his own story about growing up poor and being abused by his father.
We've talked a little bit about your mother and your father and how your father used to beat to you and how he was beaten when he was a child. Did your mother try to protect you from his beatings or was she as much a victim as you were?
PERRY: As best she could. I think here you have to again, that goes back to the story and you have to understand who she was. You know, her mother died when she was 13 years old. She had five brothers and sisters and she was the middle child. And my father came along and married her when she was 17, brought her down to New Orleans and they had nowhere to live and nowhere to stay so she had never known how to support or take care of herself. And every time she would go to one of her aunts or people in her family, they would tell - and she would say what was going on, they would tell you that he's a good man, he has a job, you stay with him. And that was her experience in life and that is what she was taught and that is what she knew. So she did the absolute best that she could with the situation that she was given.
GROSS: Your mother stayed with your father in spite of, you know, how he could be brutal. Did you want them to - were you hoping that she would leave him and take him with her?
PERRY: Many times. Many times. And she did once or twice. But what was clear about it, is that she had no way to support four children, and as bad as things were, as bad of a person as he could be, the man with the provider. He provided. There was - the lights were never off. You know, we did have everything we wanted, but everything we needed was definitely met.
GROSS: What did he do for a living?
PERRY: He was a carpenter - subcontractor. He built houses for a living.
GROSS: Several of the movies that you've made are very much from a woman's point of view, about women's relationships with friends, family, boyfriends, husbands, children. And I'm interested in why some of your films are largely from a woman's perspective.
PERRY: As a child, my father, who was there in the house, he wasn't at all a role model. And my mother, who was trying to protect me from him as best she could, she took me everywhere with her, which gave me a tremendous amount of sensitivity to the things that women go through. I would spend time, more time at the laundry mat and Lane Bryant than any young boy should of.
PERRY: But. But...
GROSS: Lane Bryant his like for large women.
PERRY: Yeah. Yeah. Lane Bryant for large women. But it taught me a lot about women and their issues and being there in the house with her and my sisters. So a lot of times I'm speaking from a little boy who's at her apron, looking up at the world and seeing all that I'm seeing these women go through, seeing how they huddled together, how they lean on each other, how they went to each other for strength. You know, it was fascinating, intriguing, powerful, hurtful, dark at times, but there was always hope. And my mother would always take me to church. She would always - that's where the, you know, I say this a lot, I said she didn't have much to give but she gave me Jesus. She took me to church every Sunday no matter what hell was going on in the house.
So I owe a tremendous amount of debt to them, and to her and to all the women that were in my life. And I'm hoping that - in a lot of my work I was hoping that I was speaking to my own mother and helping her find her own strength to stand on her own. And I'm hoping that somebody who sees the movie - and this is what motivates me and moves me - as people see my films, to get the thousands of letters that I get, of people were moved and inspired and left abusive relationships because of something they saw. These are people who can't afford therapy, for the most part, who've never had it, who don't understand why they're in the situation. And here I am with this very simple but complex mirror in front of them and going - and they're able to stay wow, that's me but what if I did that? You know, that's what makes it worthwhile for me.
GROSS: So you staged your first play, and where was it?
PERRY: It was in Atlanta, Georgia, the 14th Street Playhouse.
GROSS: And what kind of playhouse was that? What kind of - is it downtown or...
PERRY: It's just a very small - yeah - community playhouse that has a 400 seat theater and a 200 seat theater and a 90 seat theater. And I was in the 200 seat theater and I thought 1,200 people would show up and only 30 showed up and I knew all of them. So lost everything, rent payment, car payment. All that money that I had saved was tied up in the show and I lost everything, but I kept going.
GROSS: So how did you get your second crack and what changed? Because people showed up the second time around so what was different?
PERRY: Well, that happened between from 1992 up until 1998. I did - I was doing one performance a year, because what happened is I was out of money but there was always somebody in the crowd - out of that 30 there was a person who said I'd like to invest. So out of every show I'd do somebody would come along and try to invest in two or three shows and nothing would ever get off the ground. But what changed in 1998 was the show was about adult survivors of child abuse who had forgiven their abusers and I hadn't forgiven my father. And somewhere in that time I forgave him, so that was the thing that changed within me. And outwardly, everything changed. I recast the show, put it up in same city, six years later, and sold out nine shows.
GROSS: Did your father see your early plays?
PERRY: He did. He didn't see the very early ones that did not do well, but he definitely saw the - "I Know I've Been Changed" was the first show. He didn't see it in its early stages when he saw it in '99, 2000 when it was really successful and selling out theaters across the country.
GROSS: And did he kind of put together that there were - there were characters who'd been abused and that this connected to his abuse of you?
PERRY: No. You're assuming that he is a person that is connected in that way, and he's not at all. He's not at all. He's very, is a very disconnected human being emotionally, and I don't know if it's even possible for him to put those kinds of things together or think that I was - if I don't flat out say I'm talking about you, I don't think that he would get it.
GROSS: Hmm. Did he get that you were successful?
PERRY: Oh, yeah, he gets that. He gets that very well.
GROSS: Is he still alive?
PERRY: Still alive and I am taking very good care of him.
GROSS: Wow. So, what's it like for you to take care of him after he was so cruel to you?
PERRY: I - first of all, I believe you honor your father and your mother, period, no matter what, no matter who they were, no matter what they did; again, and understanding where he came from helped me to be able to do that. But what the man did do for me was, there was always - the lights are always on and the mortgage was always paid so we weren't out on the streets. So what kind of person would I be if I allowed him, in his older years, and now that he can't work, to be out on the streets, especially when I'm doing so successful? The money is an easy part. That's the easy part. What he doesn't have with me, which I think is worth way more than money, is a relationship - a father-son relationship. So what it is right now is I am doing for him, just what he did for me.
GROSS: In your first movie "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," there's a scene where, you know, the husband who had abused his wife ends up being shot and he's paralyzed. And so she takes care of him and while she's taking care of him she's a little abusive toward him for a while, and she kind of forces him to apologize to her. And then, eventually, things mellow out and he apologizes for real, which isn't to say she's going to stay with him. But I'm wondering if you had one of those moments with your father, where through helping him, like he finally said something like, I was so wrong to have been so hurtful to you. I see it now...
PERRY: No. Again, he's...
PERRY: No, he's not that person. But that portion of the story came from my mother. My father, when she was - she had diabetes and was going blind and he would drop her off on the corner to find her way into the doctor. He wouldn't take her in and she was really bothered and hurt by it. And about two months after he did that, he was in the backyard building a fire and there were batteries in the fire and he didn't know it and the batteries exploded in his face and he was blinded. By this time her sight had gotten better and she was his caregiver. And I looked at her and I said OK, now what are you going to do? And she said I'm going to take care of him. And she told me then, she said you never let anybody make you somebody that you're not. So I watched her nurse him, take care of him and show him kindness and love. So that's where that moment came from. It was born out of a real moment between them.
GROSS: Was he permanently blinded?
PERRY: No. No, no, no. It was temporary. It was just some sort of acid or something from the batteries that made him go blind, but his eyes have never been the same.
GROSS: My guest is Tyler Perry. He's starring as a homicide detective in the new film "Alex Cross."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tyler Perry and he's most famous for his movies in which he plays the character Madea, who is based on his aunt and his mother. He's now starring in an action film which is called "Alex Cross."
How did you learn to direct? Did you just learn by doing?
PERRY: Yeah. I did not direct my first film because I knew I didn't know what to do. So I brought in a director and I had him do the directing and I watched the film and a lot of those performances I was involved in getting the performance. And I'm thinking wait a minute, what you don't know is about cameras and lighting and cinematography. But when it comes to directing and getting performances, I think you've got that covered, so for the next film I decided to direct it myself.
GROSS: So I wanted to play one more scene from one of your films. And this is from your first film "Diary of a Mad Black Woman." In this scene Helen, the main character played by Kimberly Elise, she's been thrown out of the mansion that she's lived in with her husband because he has a mistress who has just moved in. So she is meeting with - she's talking with Madea. They're at Madea's house, and I'll just say that a little deeper into the scene, Madea is taking out an adding machine.
PERRY: OK. OK.
GROSS: ...and then when you hear her kind of pounding away, she is adding things up on her adding machine. So here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN")
PERRY: (As Madea) I called Charles this morning, and he told me before he hung up that you and him is getting a divorce. But what I can't seem to figure out is why you here.
KIMBERLY ELISE: (As Helen) He put me out of the house.
PERRY: (As Madea) Who house?
ELISE: (As Helen) Our house.
PERRY: (As Madea) Exactly. How the hell a man gonna put a women out her own house? He might put me out but he gonna put me out of half. I'm gonna go in the other half of the house. He wasn't put me out of all of it.
ELISE: (As Helen) The house is in his name, Madea.
PERRY: (As Madea) Lord, have mercy. That's how women get messed up, too busy out shopping when you need to be checking the deed.
(As Madea) Woo, that make me mad, girl.
ELISE: (As Helen) I don't have any rights to the money.
PERRY: (As Madea) No right...
ELISE: (As Helen) I signed a pre-nup.
PERRY: (As Madea) What the hell you sign a pre-nup? I ought to punch you in the face. Who the hell told you to sign a pre-nup? Didn't have none when you married him.
ELISE: (As Helen) Charles always knew he'd be successful and he said to me I want to know that you're here for love. And I didn't have a job so it's his money.
PERRY: (As Madea) It's - what was you doing while he was working, honey?
ELISE: (As Helen) Taking care of the house, cooking and cleaning.
PERRY: (As Madea) Exactly. That sound like a job to me - cooking and cleaning. How long you do that?
ELISE: (As Helen) Eighteen years.
PERRY: (As Madea) All right. OK.
(As Madea) Eighteen years, let's see how much he owes you.
(As Madea) Eighteen, you've been cooking, cleanting(sp)...
(As Madea) ...having sex with him when he wanted. Was it good?
ELISE: (As Helen) No.
PERRY: (As Madea) Major deduction.
ELISE: (As Helen) And I didn't tell you that he hit me.
PERRY: (As Madea) Ooh, hoo, hoo, ho, hoo.
(As Madea) Girl, that man only you $64 billion $283 million, $974 trillion, $5,020.82.
GROSS: That's, that's...
PERRY: That's pretty crazy. Pretty crazy.
GROSS: Yes. That's Tyler Perry as Madea with the person playing her granddaughter, Kimberly Elise.
So you want to talk a little bit about writing that scene?
PERRY: There is a lot of ad lib in that scene because what happens is when I put that costume on, whatever comes up comes out, so I just, usually when I'm writing I just pretty much write the guideline and the pattern and then let the characters rip and Madea just went in a few directions.
GROSS: I want to ask you a question. You know, some people have criticized your movies for having, like, stereotyped characters and I'm wondering, like, in your mind if - and I know a lot of this is intuitive and you're not, like, overly, you know, intellectualizing why you're doing what you're doing because you're letting it come intuitively. Which is, I think, a great place to work as an artist. But is there a line for you between archetype and stereotype?
PERRY: For me, what I've learned early on in watching this and watching the criticism - and I'm always open to it. I can take constructive criticism all day long but vitriolic, you know, things that are of that nature, I don't let them in. What I know for sure is this: The audience loves it. They get it. They know. They understand. They know me. I know them. And it works. And that's where I'm leaving it.
GROSS: Outside of, like, Oprah, whose shows suggest, like, she suggested on her show once that people keep a journal and that could have a cathartic effect. Outside of that, did you ever see anything in the movies or on television when you were young that had the kind of inspirational effect that you've given so many of your viewers? And that you hope to give more?
PERRY: No. I tell you, that's what was so amazing about seeing her and having her come along in my life when she did.
PERRY: This woman on - Oprah, yeah. This woman on television who looks like she could be a relative of mine and she speaks well and she's respected and people really love her. And that gave me a lot of hope in watching her. But, no, there weren't very many people that I can say.
GROSS: Can I just ask you about money? When you started making money, which is something you never had and it was something that you lost - you lost everything you had on your first production - what were your dreams of what to do with your money? Was it to, you know, just, like, reinvest it into more of your work? Or were there, like, material possessions that you really wanted?
PERRY: I had one dream and it was to - and when I was a kid I told my mother I would take care of her so she wouldn't have to deal with my father. And I didn't know how much of a driving force that was until she died. That had been the burning fire in the pit of my soul for many, many years. And I never thought any amount was enough.
I know it sounds really crazy but I was working so hard and didn't realize it until the day she died when I had no motivation, no - nothing. Didn't want to do anything. Didn't want to get out of the bed. Nothing mattered, as far as work and success. So that was my motivational factor, just to be able to support and take care of her and give her the life that I felt that she deserved and should have always had.
GROSS: When did she die?
PERRY: 2009. December 8, 2009.
GROSS: So you were already very successful then.
PERRY: Yeah. Yeah. She had had an opportunity to see me do a lot of great things.
GROSS: And with all the money that you probably gave her, she didn't use it to leave your father, which had been, you said, one of your goals.
PERRY: Yeah. No and she never would. And here's the thing. She never asked me for money. It was just so bizarre. Everything I did for her, you know, was a gift because she never - she wanted me to have and just be happy. But, yeah, no. She never left him. And couldn't imagine - and what I realized about her is my mother's heart only beat in one direction, and that's love.
Which is very rare for a person. I mean, she only knew how to love. And as I think back on my childhood and my life, I look back at how - I remember sitting in the car barely able to see over the dashboard and her out in the streets trying to get a bird that had broken its wing. You know, or moments like that.
Or waking up and there was always a stranger in the house. And I'm going who is this person? She was always letting people come and stay and have shelter and food.
GROSS: So one more question. I grew up in Brooklyn and people are always saying to me, oh, how come you don't have a really strong Brooklyn accent? To which I always say, really, no one in my family did. And, you know, we were watching TV and it wasn't just like Brooklyn on television. You know, you just grew up surrounded by a lot of different voices. But do people often ask you how come you don't sound like Madea or like Joe?
PERRY: Yeah. Or like I'm from New Orleans.
PERRY: Yeah. And, you know, a lot of people have asked but for me they always ask where are you from and are surprised that I don't have the accent. Again, I think that is a part of always knowing that even though I was born there, there was something else outside of the city waiting for me. And I don't know how I escaped it.
I don't know how I'm not talking like everybody down there, talking like when everybody be talking 'bout they mama and them and every day. But, you know, I can. But -and when I'm at home with everybody, it seems to slip by a little bit. But for the most part, I've never had it.
GROSS: OK. Well, Tyler Perry, thank you so much for talking with us.
PERRY: This has been my pleasure.
GROSS: Tyler Perry stars in the new thriller "Alex Cross." It's a change of pace for him, not only because he plays a homicide detective but because he didn't write, direct or produce the film. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.