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."