Tyler Perry's inspirational journey from the hard streets of New Orleans to the heights of Hollywood's A-list is the stuff of American legend. Born into poverty and raised in a household scarred by abuse, Tyler fought from a young age to find the strength, faith and perseverance that would later form the foundations of his much-acclaimed plays, films, books and TV shows.
It was a simple piece of advice from Oprah Winfrey that set Tyler's career in motion. Encouraged to keep a diary of his daily thoughts and experiences, he began writing a series of soul-searching letters to himself. The letters, full of pain and, in time, forgiveness, became a healing catharsis.
His writing inspired a musical, "I Know I've Been Changed," and in 1992 Tyler gathered his life's savings and set off for Atlanta in hopes of staging it for sold out crowds. He spent all the money but the people never came, and Tyler once again came face to face with the poverty that had plagued his youth.
He spent months sleeping in seedy motels and his car but his faith - in God and, in turn, himself - only got stronger. He forged a powerful relationship with the church, and kept writing. In 1998, his perseverance paid off and a promoter booked "I Know I've Been Changed" for a limited run at a local church-turned-theatre. This time, the community came out in droves, and soon the musical moved to Atlanta's prestigious Fox Theatre. And Tyler Perry never looked back.
Brenda (Beverly Johnson, left), Wilimena (Phylicia Rashad, center) and
Natalie (Gabrielle Union, right) in Tyler Perry's "Good Deeds."
Photo credit: Quantrell Colbert
Thus began an incredible run of 13 plays in as many years, including "Woman Thou Art Loosed!," a celebrated collaboration with the prominent Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes. In the year 2000, "I Can Do Bad All by Myself" marked the first appearance of the now-legendary Madea, a God-fearing, gun-toting, pot-smoking, loud-mouthed grandmother played by Perry himself.
Madea was such a resounding success, she soon spawned a series of plays – "Madea's Family Reunion" (2002), "Madea's Class Reunion" (2003), "Madea Goes To Jail" (2005) - and set the stage for Tyler's jump to the big screen. In early 2005, Tyler's first feature film, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," debuted at #1 nationwide.
His ensuing films, "Madea's Family Reunion," "Daddy's Little Girls," "Why Did I Get Married," "Meet The Browns," "The Family That Preys," "I Can Do Bad All by Myself," and "Why Did I Get Married, Too?" have all met with both critical acclaim and commercial success, delighting audiences across America and around the world. 2006 saw the publication of Tyler's first book, "Don't Make A Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries On Life And Love," which shot to the top of the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list and remained there for 8 weeks.
The following year, Tyler expanded his reach to television with the TBS series "House of Payne," the highest-rated first-run syndicated cable show of all time. His next TV sitcom, "Meet the Browns," was the second highest debut ever on cable - after "House of Payne."
Not one to rest on his laurels, in the fall of 2008, Perry opened his 200,000 square-foot Studio in Atlanta, situated on more than 30 acres of real estate. The Studio consists of 5 sound stages, a post production facility, a pond, a back lot, a 400-seat theater, a private screening room, and designated areas for entertaining and hosting events.
But listen to Tyler and you'll hear a man who hasn't forgotten where he came from or the folks who helped him reach the showbiz mountaintop. He has donated generously to charities that focus on helping the homeless, such as Feeding America, Covenant House, Hosea Feed the Hungry, Project Adventure, and Perry Place - a 20-home community that he built for survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
In July 2009, Tyler sponsored a trip to Walt Disney World for 65 children after learning that a suburban swim club had turned them away because of the color of their skin. Tyler Perry has also built 2 churches and has donated generously to the NAACP. In January 2010, he pledged $1,000,000 via The Tyler Perry Foundation to help rebuild the lives of those affected by the recent earthquakes in Haiti.
Obviously, Tyler practices what he preaches, and what he preaches has endeared him to millions of fans drawn by that unique blend of spiritual hope and down-home humor that continues to shape his inspiring life story and extraordinary body of work. Here, he talks about his new film, Good Deeds, a relationship drama which he wrote, directed and stars in opposite an A-list cast which includes Thandie Newton, Gabrielle Union, Phylicia Rashad, Rebecca Romijn, Jamie Kennedy, Beverly Johnson and Brian White.
Kam Williams: Hi Tyler, thanks for the interview.
Tyler Perry: No worries.
KW: Do you care to comment about the passing of Whitney Houston?
TP: [Pauses to collect himself] Kam, I can't… I'm actually just trying to find a way to get through the day today… [Hesitates] Nobody knows this, but I was very close to…[Chokes up] Sorry… I can't… No offense to you, Kam.
KW: I understand completely. I have a lot of other questions for you from fans. Harriet Pakula Teweles says: Good Deeds is a unique film for you in that the story revolves around an issue in your character's life. She was wondering how you came up with the idea for the story? She points out that this is a film about a "defining moment," so she's wondering whether it was inspired by such a moment in your life or career that you'd like to share?
TP: Yeah, for me, it was a question of just reflecting at 40 that I was very grateful that I had followed my own voice. So, that led me to my own path and I listened to outside influences. Good Deeds is a story about a guy who had always done what he was told to do but never what he wanted to do until his defining moment arrives when someone comes along who helps open his eyes. I've had a few of those moments in my own life like when during a job interview I was told, "You don't complete anything. Your application isn't even complete." And right at that moment, I realized I had to become a finisher, and see every task through to completion.
KW: Harriet observed that there are a number of actors and actresses you've collaborated with several times in film and/or TV. Is there a Tyler Perry acting ensemble?
TP: I'd say I'm open to anybody. I'm very open to fresh talent, and I love the underdog, people who have been counted out, because they come in with a different type of hunger. For instance, nobody would give the members of the cast of House of Payne a shot on TV, period. Yet, here they are with already more episodes than any other sitcom in history except Leave It to Beaver. I'm all for the underdog, so I'd like to talk to anybody who shows up with that sort of thirst.
KW: Harriet also asks: How do you use music to advance the message, mood and momentum of the movie?
TP: Just as we do in life. There's always a soundtrack playing in the background somewhere. Growing up, there was always music around, whether across the street, or on the next-door neighbor's stereo. So, as in life, music is always around, and it helps to heighten any emotion. Music is amazing.
KW: Editor/legist Patricia Turnier asks: What message do you want people to take away from the film?
TP: Just that life is but a moment. Life is so precious, such a gift, and that you have to live for you. Live your own truth, live the life that God has put you and nobody else on this Earth to live and not what somebody might be telling you to live.
KW: Film student Jamaal Green says: There are so many of us who admire what you have created and achieved and would like to follow in your footsteps. In the spirit of helping the next generation of successful African-American artists do you have a mentoring program for aspiring young black filmmakers?
TP: Jamal, right now, we're in the process of expanding the studio from 5 soundstages to 15. Once they're done, there will be a 1200-seat theater where I intend to open up classes and courses, and even host an annual festival in Atlanta where folks can come and be inspired and encouraged and get some information about how to be in the business.
KW: Professor/director/author Hisani Dubose says: Since there are so few
African-Americans of your stature in entertainment, I know you must be inundated with requests from people wanting to get their projects off the ground. I know because at least 100 people have asked me if I've sent my scripts to you. How do you handle this pressure?
TP: Respectfully, because I know I can only do as much as I can do. I started a company called 34th Street Films just to filter and to look for fresh talent with new ideas. Although I have so many ideas of my own, I'm still very interested in helping to cultivate and encourage some promising new artists. But there are a lot of people and, unfortunately, a very small window.
KW: Kate Newell says: I'd love to know if you have been cloned! It's the only explanation I can come up with on how you've accomplished everything. And I really admire your ability to do it all on your own terms.
TP: [Chuckles] Kate, I haven't been cloned, but I work very, very hard. I never stop, I'm always doing 3 or 4 things at once, and I have a great team of people who help me execute everything.
KW: Filmmaker Kevin Williams says: I consider you to be the best example of complete persistence and belief in one's self. I always try to remind myself of what you, J.K. Rowling, Sylvester Stallone and others went through when almost no one believed in them. Many of us struggle in the start of our career with self-doubt. How did you motivate yourself in your early days before others recognized your talent and saw your potential?
TP: I would always feed myself positivity, from the Church to prayer to Gospel music to the Bible. Even to this day, I turn to anything that teaches good, that teaches strength, and that you can make it. I swear to you that those kinds of thoughts come alive in your body and in anything you touch because your energy goes into everything you touch, everything you share and everything you speak. So, it's most important that you surround yourself with positivity always, and have it in your mind at all times.
KW: Larry Greenberg says: Now that you have truly mastered the realms of theater, film and television, do you have any interest in getting into video games?
TP: Video games? That's a pretty interesting question. If you're just getting into video games at 42, that might be a little late. Maybe some of the young rappers will try that.
KW: Rene Harris says: I don't have a question but I just want to thank you for avoiding the use of the N-word in your productions.
TP: Yeah, I think the only one that might have it was For Colored Girls. I avoid it because, again, it's important to remain in the flow of positivity.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
TP: No, people can be pretty thorough. [Chuckles]
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
TP: Listen, I'm in desperate need of one right now [because of Whitney Houston's passing]. I try to have a good one at least every other day.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
TP: Flying radio-controlled airplanes. Only God would give me a hobby where I'm looking up to the sky. It's the only time where I am able to focus and concentrate on nothing but looking up. It's a fascinating hobby.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
TP: Gosh, I just started a novel called "Standing in the Scratch Line."
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
TP: I don't cook, so my favorite dish to prepare is something on the takeout menu.
KW: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
TP: What excites me? Had you asked me that question a few years ago, the answer would've rolled right off my tongue. Today, I think it's moving and uplifting my audience. Having them get it and go with it. That excites me.
KW: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
TP: I don't think I have one in particular. As far as suits go, Tom Ford's fit me very nicely.
KW: Dante Lee, author of "Black Business Secrets," asks: What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?
TP: I was supposed to do a television show with Chuck Lorre, the producer of Two and a half Men. I felt extremely uncomfortable and walked away from the deal. That was the best decision I could have made. I haven't had a worst business decision, because I believe all things work together for good.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
TP: I see a guy who's really content and happy about where he is.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
TP: Wow! One wish, would be for many more years with my mother.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
TP: Hugging my mother, and smelling her. I loved hugging her, She had the best smell.
KW: The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
TP: If you're black, you can't just be ordinary. All successful black people are extraordinary. If you are tremendously successful, and you're black, you are extraordinary, or you wouldn't stand out in this world. So, I'd say all successful black people are extraordinary.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: What is your favorite charity?
TP: It varies. Right now I'm working with Charity Water. I've dug a lot of wells with them in Cambodia and Africa. Water is something we take for granted.
KW: The Flex Alexander question: How do you get through the tough times?
TP: Prayer. Lots of prayer.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
TP: Just as a guy who inspired, encouraged and made people laugh.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Tyler, and best of luck with Good Deeds. I loved the film.
TP: Thanks Kam, I appreciate it.
See a trailer for 'Good Deeds'
On the home page: Wesley Deeds (Tyler Perry) and Natalie (Gabrielle Union) in TYLER PERRY'S GOOD DEEDS. Photo credit: Quantrell Colbert