“I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
Tyler Perry steps into a nondescript hotel suite near New York’s Columbus Circle, trailed by a septet of aides, assistants, and all the other support staff that comes along with being a studio mogul. Something weird is going on, and it’s not the unseasonably warm January afternoon outside.
Interviews like this tend to be a seminar in Advanced Waiting, long periods of looking over your questions punctuated by periodic text updates from some unseen wrangler as to why the person you’re there to talk to is nowhere to be found. But Perry, who has nearly as many hyphens in his job description as he does candles on his birthday cake — the writer-director-producer recently turned 50 — is a full 30 minutes early. So early, in fact, that no one’s briefed him on why he’s there.
His management runs down the list: First, a photographer from LEVEL will shoot some pictures, then he’ll sit down with a journalist. He’s clearly had a long day, but he sizes both of us up cooly: “Well, what do y’all want me to do?”
The young photographer springs into action and directs the director. As Perry moves through the requested angles and poses, the multitasker comes out, and he begins to dictate instructions to his team for the evening’s meetings.
That attention to detail continues. Six days before the release of A Fall From Grace, his 23rd film in 15 years, Tyler Perry is cool, even, and thoughtful. He lifts a reporter’s recorder and repositions it so it will pick up his voice, a swift motion from a director who knows about doing every single part of a production — from writing and directing to handling concessions.
With a staff of hundreds and a massive new Atlanta-area studio compound, Tyler Perry no longer has to handle everything. And yet, he still does. Over a conversation in a sparse room, one lone staffer scrolling on a phone nearby, Tyler Perry sits back in his chair, makes direct eye contact, and shies away from nothing. Not criticisms of his work, not his lack of a writers room, not Black Twitter’s million-dollar Tyler Perry question.
The director will see you now.
LEVEL: You’ve been doing this for decades. And I’ve been interviewing celebrities for decades. It’s so hard to ask questions that someone has never been asked. What are you never asked?
Tyler Perry: Remember when Meghan Markle did that interview?
From the documentary [“Harry & Meghan: An African Journey”]?
Yeah. She said, Thanks for asking if I’m okay. Because no one ever asks me that. I felt her when she said that.
Do you mean the media never asks? Or no one ever asks?
People toss it out. How are you doing? But not many people really mean it. Or pay attention to the answer.
Why is that?
People assume because you are who you are. Or, because you’re in the position you’re in, things are great and wonderful and fine. How could they not be?
Okay, so I’m asking you. How are you? Really.
I actually am okay. [Laughs] But if you want to know what no one ever asks — that’s the question I never get. Even though I have issues like everyone else.
I’m going to jump right in. I want to talk about your critics.
One of the major criticisms of your work is that you create to a specific audience and you rarely deviate. In your defense, many directors — Woody Allen, for example — have a specific audience for their entire careers.
So why is it that you get criticism for creating art about a certain group of people when —
— when White people can do it all the time?
Well, no. Spike Lee makes love letters to Brooklyn all the time and has signature shots he uses.
So, it’s not just White people. But you can’t have a lane. Why do you get the criticism?
Because people hit the deer they can see. I’m pretty high profile in this industry.
That’s an understatement.
And there was a 10-year period where Black people could not get a show on television. And I was thriving during that time. So I became the lightning rod for a lot of complaints. People were coming to me and not seeing their representation. So they would look at my work and say, this is horrible! This is stereotypical! This is awful!
Is any of it fair?
Only if you don’t understand my work. I am very clear on where I’m going and the stories I’m telling. If I want to tell certain other stories, I can.
People forget that I ushered Precious all the way to the Oscars.
“How would I look disassembling my machine because someone doesn’t like the stories I tell and how I tell them — when millions of people do?”
People don’t forget. They just don’t know.
Had I not gotten behind that movie and come on as producer, it would not have seen the light of day. That is clear. So I know how to do that. I’m not interested in doing that. I speak to my folks. And I speak my language. And how would I look, disassembling my machine because someone doesn’t like the stories I tell and how I tell them — when millions of people do. Black people sometimes don’t want certain colors of Black people represented. I come from those colors and I’m never ashamed of my stories. I do not now — nor have I ever — cared if people get it or not.
You’re reminding me of Zora Neale Hurston. She wrote a lot about the criticism she got for writing about and for those kinds of Black people. Langston Hughes was very critical.
He said she acted like “the perfect darkie.”
He did. He told her not to write in the vernacular.
And she said — like I say — that is how we talk!
“I’ve been equipped to deal with critics since birth. And in the process, I’ve built one of the most respected entertainment enterprises in the world — Black or White.”
Like Zora, you’ve always clapped back at your detractors. But did it hurt privately?
My mother taught me about the value of my Blackness. I don’t have to follow anyone or appease anyone. And also? I’ve always been an individual. I was always the tallest in my class — but I couldn’t play basketball. So I was ostracized for that. It was always something. So, I’ve been equipped to deal with critics since birth. I was built for this. And in the process, I’ve built — and continue to build — one of the most respected entertainment enterprises in the world, Black or White.
Let’s talk about your legacy. When I think about what people will say about your legacy, I think about this one episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” where people came on to talk about how she influenced them. And this woman talked about —
You’re talking about the shoe story.
You know the shoe story?
I can’t tell it without crying.
I know that story well.
So, there’s a sentence in your Wikipedia entry that has that same effect on me as that shoe story: “Perry persisted, and over the next six years he rewrote the musical repeatedly, though lackluster reviews continued.”
As writers, it is so hard to persist. My last novel came out in 2012. I’ve been rewriting the new one since 2015. I have to go back and reread that line over and over and over.
But isn’t that a lot for you? To know that someone is looking at your story and rereading it to get to another day?
Not at all. I love it. Because Oprah was that person for me. She invited me to the Legends Ball and I saw a Black woman living in that house and what she was doing for Black people. I saw it firsthand. And I was like, what am I doing here?
You actually felt like you didn’t belong there?
This is 2005. My first movie had just come out. I’m 34 years old. Barack Obama wasn’t even president. He was there and he was just walking out to the basketball court by himself with a ball.
Pre-Black president. What a time to be alive. We didn’t even know what was coming.
Seeing that made me see how possible everything is. I want to be that for other people. That’s why the studio was so important to me. I wanted it to be a spectacle. I want y’all to see a boy from N’awlins, who had nothing, who everyone said would be nothing, who has lots of detractors and people trying to tear him down — I still rise when I focus on the people I’m speaking to.
LEVEL is a publication for men of color, aged 30 and up.
Now that audience hasn’t been served.
At all. But I thought it would make sense to ask my people, the LEVEL audience, what they want to know.
Let’s do it.
First question. Do you miss Madea?
Nope. I don’t.
Not even a little.
No. We have a few more weeks of the Farewell Tour and then I’m done.
You seemed to love it.
It was never something I enjoyed doing.
I don’t believe you.
My hand to God. I hated the costume, the wig, all of it.
What about in the beginning when you first created her?
I was scared to death! I watched Eddie Murphy and how he did his female characters. I said I’ll try it once and that’s it.
And it ended up being a $2 billion franchise.
If this was video, this would be the part where the audience starts cheering.
In 2009, I went to see Madea Goes To Jail.
The play or the movie?
The movie. And I will tell you, I was someone who had actively avoided your work. Based on previews alone, I felt like it wasn’t for me. So I go to the movie — and it’s like a family reunion with people I didn’t actually know.
I get that.
I was in that theater with my people. It was communal and familial in way that the movie-going theater experience usually isn’t for me. The people Zora wrote for and about — they were in that theater.
In my day-to-day life, I am not around my people. So, I’ll go see your movies — not for the content but for the experience. Things happen there that won’t happen at a Star Wars film.
I was taking a selfie at a huge cardboard cutout of Madea at the theater and these two women walked up to me and said, “Baby, what are you doing? Your hair is a mess. Come here.”
When did you know your work was bigger than the script?
In every play I’ve ever done, the last 30 minutes is where I get to preach the message. And that’s the most important part for me.
I have to ask about your recent tweets. You shared a picture of a table piled high with scripts for eight different shows. All of them had your name on them as the writer. You’ve also bragged about not having a writers room. I was stunned — and frankly, as a writer, I was offended. I need backstory. I mean, I know about your work ethic. But to feel good about not having writers felt off.
So, when I first started my career, I got a deal with TBS. When it was time to staff, I went to DGA, SAG, and IATSE [unions representing directors, actors, and stagehands] and I told them, “TBS isn’t paying me the money upfront — I’m financing these shows myself. I’m not Sony, I’m not Disney; I need to work out a deal for pay rates.” They worked out great deals for me. At the time, I had a bunch of writers who were nonunion, and I was unhappy with every single script they wrote. They were not speaking to the voice. They just didn’t get it.
I thought all shows had to have unionized writers.
No. So I came to them. There was a Black woman lawyer I was negotiating with to get WGA [Writers Guild of America] writers on my show. I told her, “I can’t afford to pay those rates that every other studio pays. I need to structure differently.” It looked like the deal was going to go through so I fired the four writers and prepared to hire new writers through the WGA.
And all hell broke loose.
I’m getting calls that I fired writers for trying to unionize. What? I came to the WGA on my own to try to work with them! I fired the writers because they weren’t giving me what I wanted. Period. It was a mess. The press says I fired writers who were trying to unionize. Not true, and it pissed me off.
But that was a decade ago. How do you still not have a writers room?
I’m not done.
Later on, my mom got sick. So I put a writers room in place for one of my shows. Now we’re a WGA show and I’m paying WGA rates. Scripts they’re turning in? Ratings are going down. So now I have to go in and give notes on how to rewrite them.
And you have to pay them again.
And if I still don’t like it, I have to pay them again for another rewrite.
But that’s how it works.
At one point, I thought they were submitting scripts that would need rewrites in order to get paid multiple times. And these are Black people.
Okay. But unions are doing what they’re supposed to do.
Fine, so can I get the scripts I want?
I’m sure the writers you want are out there.
I had a moment where I asked for a rewrite and the writer filed a grievance with the union. They felt like I was asking for too many changes and would never accept the script. I was furious.
Is this about the finances or the content?
All of it. Look, one year, we overpaid the WGA by a million dollars. They said, “Go get it from your writers. We’re not paying it.” It’s like, nah.
So no more writers room.
After dealing with all that bullshit? No. I ain’t doing it.
So you write it all.
My audience loves it. My shows do well. I write authentically.
You still have a responsibility to support writers — in my opinion.
I do and I will. We have four shows coming up with showrunners who will have their own writers and their own writers room. There will always be opportunities at Tyler Perry Studios for writers. Always. But for these particular shows, my audience wants my voice.
As a writer, it’s hard for me to grasp how you can write that much, that quickly.
It takes me two weeks to write anything. A full season, a film script. Two weeks. It’s my job. From 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. I’m sitting there. Writing.
I mean, all the writers I know can bust out 12 hours a day, but we’re still not —
Wait. But you have to remember. My writing was born out of trauma. So, when I start writing, I disassociate. I write and I’m not there. I see how it shows up on the page and I’m like. Whoa. That’s just how my imagination works. I have writer friends who need two weeks to come up with two pages.
That would be me.
Hey, I don’t knock it. But for me, if I’m not doing 300 pages in two days, I’m not productive.
300 pages. Two days. You are a writers room.
And what about White people who don’t have writers rooms. What’s his name. Aaron —
Aaron Sorkin, who wrote every episode of “The West Wing.”
And the guy from Euphoria. He writes every episode.
There are lots of people who don’t have writers rooms. It’s not that I’m not trying to stop people from work. I’m trying to avoid all the bullshit I went through with these people.
And that’s why folks were tight. You did go through bullshit with some people. You can still continue to work with new people.
Now that I understand. And I appreciate that. That’s true. When I posted that, I wasn’t thinking about how it would look to people who want to work with me. That’s fair.
Someone said, “Ask him if we should ever have a way of honoring our work.” The Oscars and the Emmys and all of that never really recognize our work. Can’t you start something at the studio?
That was quick.
The awards season is so much more about politics than anything else.
And money. It costs a lot to mount a campaign.
And plus, how do we judge work? And how do we decide this film was better than that film. You really can’t. If you don’t understand Bollywood or Nigerian films or abstract art or — it’s all subjective. Make art for your audience; it doesn’t have to be judged.
Just so you know, I’ve never shared my side of the WGA story. So run that. People need to know.
We will, and I appreciate it. I think people should know. It explains the writers room situation. Last question: How did she get back on the boat?
How did she get back on the boat?
[laughs] Are you talking about Acrimony?
It’s a thing. People want to know!
Okay. There’s a moment when she sneaks out of the house. She sneaks on to the boat during their reception.
The reception was on the boat?
No! The reception was somewhere else.
And while they were at the reception, she sneaks onto the boat?
Yes. The boat was docked and she snuck on. So they take off. And she’s been hiding on the boat for hours.
How did she get back on the boat.
She swam back up to the boat!
While it was moving?
It stopped. Remember? When the wife went to get the crew?
But her clothes didn’t look wet.
Can you just make sure to write about my WGA story. That was an exclusive.
So was the mystery of how she got on that boat.