At 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighing well over 200 pounds, Tyler Perry is an imposing bear of a man. But when we first met him in Atlanta last week, he was speaking in a woman's voice. Disconcerting? A little. Funny? Absolutely.
It was Tyler Perry channeling Madea, the tough-love, no-nonsense, gun-toting grandmother character that's made him famous. The cast and crew at the newly opened Tyler Perry Studios were on set, blocking out scenes from his latest venture -- a sitcom called "House of Payne," which was scheduled to start shooting the following day.
During a break in the rehearsal, Perry sat on the sitcom's living room sofa and told us Madea is just dropping by to help get the sitcom off the ground.
"She's only going to be in three or four episodes," he said. "Unless it's not going well, in which case she may be showing up a lot more," he laughed.
Behind the cordiality and humor, there's a mind constantly at work. Perry is a triple, quadruple, quintuple threat: an actor/director/playwright/producer/author. He is always busy, constantly on the move, notices everything, even down to the smallest detail.
He has to -- he's responsible for hundreds of employees and a multimillion dollar empire. And it's all riding on him.
"Being Tyler Perry means a lot of things," he told us. Everything from janitor to boss.
"Sometimes it gets overwhelming," he admits, … "because I realize that there are so many people depending on me from day to day, so I'm up at 5:30, working out every morning, making sure my health is right, making sure I can manage and making sure that the 200 or so people that are working for me can feed their families."
Quite a difference for a guy who 15 years ago was working at a variety of uninspiring jobs, trying to figure out what to do with his life. When a friend read some things he'd written to get over feelings of anger toward a father that Perry had described as abusive, he suggested that Perry had actually written a play. Thus, the playwright was born.
Perry used his life savings to staging his plays in empty theaters, only to find himself broke, living in a pay-by-the-week motel and even his car for a short time, until he discovered his core audience: black church women. Once he ignited that previously untapped theater audience, his career soared.
He recently opened his third film, "Daddy's Little Girls," about a father who fights for custody of his three daughters.
"I had a friend who's a great father. He has three girls he loves to death and he was always on the phone. And I thought he was talking to some woman and he was talking to his kids. And I thought, man, the world needs to see this. We're talked about, as African-American men, as being deadbeats and not great fathers and terrible husbands. I wanted to show that you can … really be a good father."
Lately, his audiences have begun to change. It's no longer just women. There are more men in the seats. And more white faces among the black faces.
"I'm not surprised," Perry said, "because I've always thought I was just telling a universal story. For years we as African-American people have had to go to the movies and never see our faces, so I just thought what does this mean: cross over? If you can cross over one way can't you cross over the other way too? So I just thought if I stayed true to what I was doing, audiences -- no matter what race -- would find it and appreciate it."