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Tyler Perry: Meet the Hollywood outsider

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Tyler Perry
PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIN PATRICE O'BRIEN

Atlanta’s Buford Highway is littered with Laundromats, greasy fast-food joints, and the occasional strip club. It’s along this stretch of road that a homeless Tyler Perry slept in his Geo Metro for three months. Fifteen years later, and just 10 miles away, the 38-year-old multimillionaire is now lounging comfortably in his plush 70,000-square-foot production facility, built on the success of films he’s written, directed, and/or starred in, such as Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea’s Family Reunion. Clad in a pink button-down with gold cuff links, Perry looks perfectly attired for the junket interviews he’s been handling today — until he kicks his feet up on the desk, revealing track pants and mandals. It’s simply further proof that Perry hasn’t let his enviable success go to his head. ”For my birthday, I went back to all those places [on Buford] and just drove by,” Perry says. ”The neighborhood is pretty rough. It just reminded me of how grateful I am.”

Perry has much to be grateful for, too. After surviving an abusive childhood and years of struggling as a traveling playwright, the New Orleans native has become an icon to his devoted niche audience. It’s these fans, mostly African-American women, who religiously show up for Perry’s unique mix of broad comedy, social commentary, and Christian values. ”I don’t want to just do entertainment to do entertainment,” he says. ”I’ve never chased money. It’s always been about what I can do to motivate and inspire people.” As with his idol and friend, Oprah Winfrey, simply attaching Perry’s name to a project equals blockbuster success. His first film, Diary, made back its budget almost 10 times over. His book, Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings (written in the voice of his most famous character, the sass-talkin’, gun-totin’ Madea), was an instant best-seller. His TBS comedy series, House of Payne, debuted to record numbers. And the workaholic Perry is only warming up: ”I want to own a network,” he says of his five-year plan. ”I want to own a network where you can turn it on with your family all day long and get positive reinforcement.” (As a first step, he’ll be launching a talk show on his website this fall.)

For now, Perry is busy promoting his latest opus, the romantic dramedy out next week, Why Did I Get Married?, about college friends reuniting for a getaway week in the woods. ”I wrote this movie after a really bad relationship,” Perry explains. ”I thought I wanted to get married, but that relationship changed my idea. But who knows? The right situation, absolutely.” Like much of Perry’s work, Married begins as a riotous comedy, but midway through reveals an intensely serious side, which Perry says is anchored in reality. ”That’s life,” he says. ”I don’t write in a formula.” He also doesn’t usually deal with big stars, either, preferring to cast himself and under-the-radar African-American actors — and then Janet Jackson signed on for Married. ”I did not want to work with Janet,” Perry now admits. ”I don’t do divas. I don’t do entourages. I don’t do the Hollywood crap.” But when Jackson showed up on set sans handlers, Perry was won over. ”She dispelled every myth I had about megasuperstars. It was a lovefest.” Jackson, who hadn’t acted on screen in seven years, agrees. ”Of all the films I’ve done, this was the best time I’ve ever had,” she says.

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So with all this success, Hollywood must be nipping at Perry’s mandal-clad heels, right? Wrong. He says he has yet to be offered anything substantial. ”Nobody is offering me The Departed, which I absolutely feel like I could do. I look at Anthony Anderson in the movie — I could have done that. I look at Ving Rhames in Mission: Impossible. I could do that,” Perry pauses, ”if they offered it!” The fact is that Perry is ignored and underestimated by Hollywood, a town historically run by white men — not exactly his core audience. Perry recalls a recent visit to L.A. in which his agent pleaded with him to take meetings: ”The guy who runs the studio goes, ‘So who are you now and what do you do?’ I just looked at my agent.”

All the more discouraging is that Perry has a clear vision for mainstream box office success. ”I have this enormous following of African-American people, and you put me with an Adam Sandler in something hilarious…I’ve thought about it.” While Sandler’s camp had no comment, Jackson feels that a pairing of this kind is all but imminent. ”I think this movie is going to change a lot of minds for those who have an eyebrow raised,” says Jackson. ”It’s just a matter of [Hollywood] coming around. He’s already there.”

But even if Married doesn’t get Hollywood’s attention, Perry will have another chance with the comedy Meet the Browns (starring Angela Bassett), due in February. And if that doesn’t work, there’s the dream project waiting in the wings or, more specifically, on his wall. Perry points to a framed script hanging in the corner of his office. ”This movie is called Bethesda House, and at the bottom it says ‘The Oprah Project.’ I wrote it six years ago. It’s about a woman who turns her home into a place for women in trouble. That’s the only movie I refuse to do until we do it together. She knows it’s there. One day she’s going to come and I’m going to break that glass.”


Perry by the Numbers
$145 MIL Combined box office take for his three theatrical releases
15 MIL DVDs sold, including movies and filmed plays
400K Copies sold of his novel Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings within its first year of being released
100 Episodes ordered by TBS of House of Payne after an original test run of 10 (financed by Perry)
$200 MIL Perry’s Payne payday
6’5” The actor’s height
30K Size in square feet of his Atlanta mansion under construction
150K+ Size in square feet of Perry’s planned studio — double his current facility

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