By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008
At the beginning, it was all about what this could do for him.
Tyler Perry was broke and broken, and occasionally homeless in Atlanta after escaping a childhood of abuse and depression, when he heard Oprah Winfrey say it could be cathartic to put feelings down on paper.
Now -- five movies, three lavish homes and half a billion dollars in revenue later -- it's about the effect his words might have on others.
"When I realized other people connected with [my work], it was 'What else can I talk about for people who've been widely ignored and forgotten?' " he says on the phone from Hollywood, a place he claims not to understand or much enjoy, despite his wildly lucrative success as a filmmaker.
Perry, who writes, directs and acts in most of his productions, clearly relishes his status as an industry outsider. His heartwarming dramedies about middle-class black families -- "Daddy's Little Girls" and "Madea's Family Reunion" among them -- have won him millions of fans and astonishing box-office numbers, though he's quick to recall even recent encounters with studio heads who had no idea who he was.
But you can bet they know his numbers. "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," his first big-screen release, was famously made for $5.5 million and grossed $50.6 million at the box office in 2005. Perry's latest, "Meet the Browns," starring Angela Bassett, is widely expected to have similar returns.
What the Atlanta resident talks about through this film are the travails of single mothers. Bassett plays a down-on-her-luck urban mom who retreats to the small-town family she has never known to prevent her teenage son from getting involved with neighborhood drug dealers.
After last year's release of "Daddy's Little Girls," which tackles similar issues from a male perspective, Perry's online message board was populated with hundreds of thousands of notes from women "who are struggling, trying to raise man-children."
"So I wanted to do a film that spoke to the hope of that -- to the possibility of it," he says. "It's just a film about inspiration . . . and 'just keep doing the right thing; it'll pay off.' "
All of Perry's productions are imbued with that same sense of hope, an outlook he first developed at church every week growing up in New Orleans. Perry recounts abuse by his father and depression to the point of attempting suicide as a kid. But on Sunday mornings, "amid the shouting and yelling and singing," there was a sense of empowerment. "So what I wanted to do with my work . . . was make sure I leave them with some sort of feeling of hope and being empowered."
In a twisted way, Perry also credits those bleak early years for his now-booming career. As a boy he escaped into an imagined world that "was bigger and more vivid" than it might have otherwise been.
Perry, who began as a playwright, is an immensely prolific and unrepentant workaholic. Without dropping the pace of his film production, he has delivered 100 episodes of "Tyler Perry's House of Payne" to TBS in a $200 million deal with the network. At times, Perry's cast and crew were cranking out three sitcom episodes a week.
Under the TBS deal, as with the one with Lionsgate, which distributes his movies, Perry retains creative control. He has twice walked away from projects in the works when studio executives asked him to make changes. If he'd conceded, the 38-year-old Perry says, he would have lost his audience: "I have to be able to speak the way I know they want to hear it. I can't have a guy who has never known these people, who is 19 years old and right out of college saying, 'That's not what this character would say.' "
Perry has been a people-watcher for as long as he can remember, and often his stories come in those moments: "I'll look over at the car next to me and see somebody having a conversation, and I can almost imagine that being part of the movie."
And the movies live in his head -- obsessively, he says -- for months, but when he sits down to write, it often takes only two or three weeks to churn out a script. "It's almost like flashes of lightning coming to me, and I have to get them out."
So by the end of 2008, the man who sought catharsis and found a calling will have produced six movies (his next, "The Family That Preys," is set for release in the fall), one book and 100 TV episodes in four years.
"I wish I could turn it off for a few hours every now and then," he says. "But I would never complain about it, because it's a great gift and a great blessing, and if I didn't have it, I don't know where I'd be."