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
"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.
A Universal Story
"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."
He's got a schedule of touring plays, films and TV shows worked out through 2009, possibly into 2010. He remains driven even with millions in the bank, and he has just opened a 75,000 square foot studio so he can shoot all his projects in his beloved adopted home, Atlanta.
"Even at this age, I worry about having to go back to my parents house for some reason," Perry told us, "as well as I remember being in school and getting straight A's and not getting attention, and getting straight F's and not getting any attention, and so I think I've learned how to rechannel my own energy to drive myself in the things that I do to make sure that things are successful."
And how successful is he? According to figures his company has compiled, his plays have grossed $100 million since 1998. He structured a deal with TBS for his new sit-com "House of Payne" that will generate $200 million in revenue.
According to independent tallies, Perry's first two movies -- "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion" -- made for about $5 million and $6 million each, and grossed about $110 million at the box office.
Not Seeking Approval
Only once during our interview did he express anger, and that was at the black theater elite, some of who have dismissed his work.
"My work has been frowned upon by a lot of the African-American theater companies. But I think my shows, because they generate so much income, that they could actually finance some of the other shows, some of the August Wilson shows, some of the great playwrights of our time." As well as introduce his audience to a different type of theater experience, he said.
But he's not seeking the validation of anyone except his fans. They know what they're getting when they go see a Tyler Perry production. After all, it's more than just his name -- it's his brand.
"For me the Tyler Perry brand is good family wholesome entertainment. It's things you can take your entire family to," he said. "It's about life lessons, it's faith based, it's about God, it's about love, it's about hope, forgiveness, all of those things encompass and make up a brand."
"Daddy's Little Girls," Tyler Perry's latest, has scored big at the box office since its Valentine's Day release, hauling in $18.6 million last weekend. Distributed by Lionsgate, the film cost less than $10 million to make.