Tyler Perry is standing in the middle of what was once a life on the brink.
It's a postage stamp of a room. A 200-square-foot studio apartment that's more heap than home: a broken television set; a stained mattress piled with broken end tables and torn couch cushions; an overflowing toilet caked with waste.
Others stayed here after Perry moved out years ago. "But this is pretty much how I was living," the director says, stepping over newspapers and a roach trap. "This was my place, and I was glad to have it."
The apartment building, which sits near downtown Atlanta off historic Peachtree Street, is to be torn down this month. But Perry, 38, wants a final look at the place he called home before he became the most influential black filmmaker in the business today.
Letting go, Perry is the first to concede, is not his strong suit.
"I never want to forget how close I came to losing everything," he says. "My bed was there. My stove was there — mainly Ramen noodles. That little corner there, that's where my computer sat. That's where I ran from my fears."
Those fears materialized in the form of journals and short plays, which Perry, on the advice of an episode of Oprah Winfrey, wrote to come to terms with a childhood of abuse and poverty in New Orleans.
Perry is still running, still remembering, still tapping out dread on a computer screen.
Now, though, he makes millions doing it. Even among Hollywood's elite, Perry has a track record worth envying. He has had four No. 1 films. He has sold more than 11 million DVDs of his films and videotaped stage plays. TBS airs his half-hour show "House of Payne" and has ordered up a new one, "Meet the Browns," based on his film characters. His movies cost about $10 million; they take in, on average, $47 million.
Audiences trust him
He has found success by catering to audiences Hollywood either doesn't get or doesn't care about: moviegoers of faith and color. Long before Mel Gibson introduced the mainstream to the clout of the devout with "Passion of the Christ," Perry was commuting church to church in a Geo Metro that briefly doubled as his home, hawking his one-man plays about faith and family.
"We trust him," says Tenisha Hart, 45, an Atlanta mother of two who has never missed a Perry film or play. "It's not about being black — though it's nice to see yourself in a Hollywood movie once in a while. I know I can take my kids. I know there will be a good message. Critics can say whatever they want; he's the only one making movies about people trying to live right."
But for all the success, some doubt remains in the back of Perry's mind. "I guess I'm still running," he says. "Maybe not as fast as I used to. But I still worry I won't be able to say all I have to say."
His latest movie comes to screens Friday saying something new for Perry. "The Family That Preys" examines the corrosive effects of wealth on friends and family — something Perry has learned as he has become a Hollywood force.
"Ever since I've been blessed with success, I've struggled a little with anonymity and even family," he says. "I've had people calling asking for money, and I have to ask them first, 'Are you working? Have you been trying to help yourself?' Then I feel like I can help. I don't want to be any different than I was when I first moved here."
He could only imagine his life now when he drove to Atlanta in 1992 in a Hyundai Excel that leaked so much transmission fluid into the passenger floorboard that he had to stop every two hours to siphon the fluid back into the engine.
He was fleeing New Orleans to escape a father he says routinely came home drunk and violent. The father, with whom Perry says he has reconciled, could not be reached for comment.
"You just never knew what hell you were going to get Friday or Saturday night," Perry says. "But no matter what, my mother got me up early Sunday morning. Nothing was going to stop us from going to church. That faith is was what kept us grounded."
But it didn't do much for Perry's early career. In 1998, he scraped together $12,000 to put on his first play, I Know I've Been Changed, about adults forgiving their abusers. He rented a 1,200-seat theater in downtown Atlanta, certain he'd end the night with $20,000 in his pocket.
Instead, 30 people showed up. Fewer the next night. Within the week, Perry was broke and living on the street.
He kept peddling the play through church appearances. He saved more money as a construction worker and a used-car salesman. He got what he considered the play's final shot at Atlanta's House of Blues.
What he hadn't done in all this, though, was practiced what his play preached. Before the House of Blues show, he called his father. They had the first of what became regular conversations. More important, Perry says, "I forgave him."
The House of Blues show sold out. "Maybe I visited the right churches," he says. "Maybe I finally got the word out. But until I die, I'll believe that when I finally forgave my father, the Lord blessed the play."
The show became a hit. Soon it was playing in Houston, Birmingham, Ala., even New York.
Now Perry had a name. Now he had some money. Now he could make a movie.
The first film he wrote, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," brought a few things to Perry's life. About $56 million in ticket sales. A green light for another movie. A condo in Los Angeles. He rarely visits the condo, though.
He can't make a studio pitch, he says, without some studio executive asking if he can drop at least some references to Jesus.
"These stars can make all the references in the world to Kabbalah or Scientology, and that's just fine," he says. "But mention Jesus Christ, and they don't want to deal with you."
He has stopped reading the entertainment sections of newspapers (and the largely critical reviews of his movies). He doesn't want daily updates on ticket sales. He gets riled when analysts and studio executives wonder how a movie geared toward churchgoers or minorities could make money.
"I'm not sure why no one wants to admit there's a viable audience out there that believes in God and wants to see a movie with their family. The demand is there. The supply is not."
So Perry does his part on the supply side. Most directors take two to three years on a film. Perry takes about eight months. "I'm not an artist," he says. "I set the camera up and tell my story."
And the first people who get to see those stories are his faithful.
No ordinary screening
An Atlanta screening of a Tyler Perry movie is a lot like a Hollywood premiere. Except people prefer seeing the movie to preening and can give the film the air of a church revival.
"I hope you like a movie that isn't about violence or sex," he said to a chorus of hoots and "amens" at a showing of Family last week. "I hope you like a movie that you can bring your kids to."
One mother already had, a toddler standing in his chair, hollering about his lack of candy.
"Sit your behind down!" Perry wisecracked in the voice of his most famous character, the beloved grandmother Madea, a character he has played in drag in several of his movies and plays. "Listen to your mama!"
The crowd roared.
"He gets how important grandmothers are, particularly in this community," says Carla Bowman, 51. "He gets how important church is, whatever you follow. He gets us."
And they him. At one point, Perry asked the audience, "And when is my movie coming out?"
"The 12th!" they screamed in unison.
"That," Perry says later from the apartment, "is why I live here."
And he has no intention of leaving. Despite offers of tax breaks from other cities desperate to lure Tyler Perry Studios, he kept his 300 employees put, building a 28-acre production complex on the city's outskirts.
Last week, Perry recalls, he was overseeing construction of a studio office when he spotted a woman carrying a garbage bag in front of the gated entrance.
"Can I help you?" Perry asked.
"No, I'm fine," she replied.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Just picking up trash."
"Do you need help?" he said. "Do you need a job?"
"Heavens no," she said. "I got a job. I live right down the street. I just don't want a new neighbor moving in with all this garbage."
Perry asked for the woman's address, went back to his office and ordered her a year's worth of lawn service.
"I'm no different from any of these other directors," he says, wedging his 6-foot-6 frame out of the apartment door.
"I want success," he says. "I want a lot of people to see my movies. More black people. More white people. I want to make that connection. I just don't want to lose my own connection with home doing it."