The first time I met Tyler Perry, in 2008, what struck me most about his perfectly appointed Atlanta studio were the clocks. Everywhere I looked, I saw them. My team from Ebony magazine was told that “Mr. Perry” — everyone in his orbit addresses him formally — was always on time, meaning early, and that we should follow suit.
Perry was uber-serious that day. I don’t recall that he cracked a smile once, which was notable, given that he was best known for having created and embodied the comic character Madea, a no-nonsense auntie who’d anchored a run of successful plays and films. Back then, the actor, writer, director and producer seemed like a man on a mission.
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Fast-forward to this past May, when I ventured back to Atlanta to visit Perry in his latest studio complex — a 330-acre spread that he opened in 2019. Now a certified billionaire, a best-selling author and the creator of 24 feature films, Perry seemed far more relaxed. He has all kinds of success to buoy him: Along with the blockbuster Madea series, he has written, directed and produced TV series such as OWN’s The Haves and the Have Nots and BET’s The Oval. As an actor, he’s played everything from an action hero (in the 2012 thriller Alex Cross) to Colin Powell (in the 2018 satire Vice). Long a mega-celebrity in the African American community, Perry is gaining popularity with a broader audience. And his studio provides hundreds of production jobs, as well as opportunities for performers, writers and directors.
Perry, 52, arrived at our interview in a white Hummer. Wearing a sparkling smile, the 6-foot-6-inch entertainer unfurled himself from the vehicle, strode past my extended hand and wrapped me in a warm hug. But some things hadn’t changed: He was right on time.
We talked about the release of his upcoming Netflix film, A Jazzman’s Blues, as well as the philanthropy for which he is receiving an honorary AARP Purpose Prize Award this year. Fiercely protective of his family’s privacy, Perry still talked a bit about his 7-year-old son, Aman, whom he shares with former partner Gelila Bekele. But we started by discussing a better-known part of his history: the difficult childhood that inspired his very first play — and the dogged ambition that made it a hit.
We Honor Perry’s Charity
AARP is presenting Tyler Perry with an honorary AARP Purpose Prize Award for his leadership of The Perry Foundation, which strives to “transform tragedy into triumph” by funding a variety of human-services and arts organizations. The award honors extraordinary people 50 and older who tap into the power of life experience to build a better future for us all. In July, AARP awarded Purpose Prizes to five other changemakers. Learn about the 2022–2023 class of honorees at aarp.org/purposeprize.
Q: Your success began with Black audiences, who packed chitlin circuit theaters in the 2000s to see your touring plays. Why did you choose that route, instead of striking out for Broadway or Hollywood?
I grew up in Louisiana, and my mother grew up in the Jim Crow South. She didn’t have a healthy trust of white people. Because of the things she had endured — horrific things — she wanted me to know the value I had within me. I never felt like I needed to look outside of my own race for success. I knew that if I mined what was in our community, what I had in me, it would work.
Q: You’ve talked about growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father, in an area rife with poverty and despair. So many people aren’t able to escape that kind of environment. Why do you think you were able to get out?
I have some survivor’s guilt about that, because there are a lot of people I went to school with who did not make it, who ended up in prison, who ended up murdered, especially during the time of the crack cocaine infusion into America. I credit my getting out to my mother, my aunts, my grandmother — all these incredible women who prayed and taught me things and believed in me. Had I not had their examples and their straight-up backbone — their insistence that I make something of myself — I don’t know where I’d be.
Q: You hit bottom before any of this success was within your reach. Can you take us into that moment?
It was the early ’90s, here in Atlanta. I had this dream of being a playwright, and I had written a play called I Know I’ve Been Changed, which was about child abuse survivors and the power of prayer. I was working as a bill collector, and I had saved $12,000. I spent all my money to put this play up, and it didn’t work. I lost it all. After that, I tried again — many, many times — to produce the play. I would get different jobs between those times, but I’d quit to work on the play, and I ended up homeless. For three months, I lived in a Geo Metro that I was hiding from the repo man. The despair, the suicidal thoughts, the overwhelming feeling of not wanting to live in that kind of moment — that was real.
Q: And yet you never gave up, and the play succeeded.
That never-give-up thing came from my mother and my aunts and the ministers and preachers in my family. I can trace the preachers back to slavery. My great-great-great-great-grandfather was a minister. That faith is in my DNA.
Q: How did you get from that moment to this one?
The seed was planted when I was 9 or 10 years old. My father was a subcontractor. He came home one day and was happy, because he had made $800 building a house. But he told me that the white man who owned the house later sold it for $80,000. That didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to be the owner of the house.
Perry’s Career Firsts
I Know I’ve Been Changed, a semi-autobiographical work, filled theaters during a tour from 1998 to 2000 and gained the attention of Oprah Winfrey.
Q: You’re a big proponent of ownership — especially of your intellectual property. How did you maintain that ownership once you started working in Hollywood?
I was able to make some incredible deals by allowing people to underestimate me. I always played it small, listened to what they had to say and made the deal. I’d say, “Well, I’ve got to own it.” They’d say, “Oh, OK — whatever.” They didn’t think that my first film [2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which debuted at number 1] was going to amount to much. But the support I had from the audience that knew me — those voices, those standing ovations — gave me the confidence to understand that it’s a blessing to be hidden.
Q: And you now employ many people.
Thousands of people come through the gate every day to work here. And it’s a beautiful thing. A lot of them are former prisoners who wouldn’t have had this shot.
Q: Your studio is housed in a historic location. Can you tell me about that?
The land itself was once a Confederate Army base, which meant there were people here fighting to keep my ancestors enslaved. From the moment I walked onto the property, I was haunted by it. Sometimes when I’m walking here at night, I get a chill from all the things that have happened here. So, as we built each of the 12 soundstages, we buried Bibles underneath them, as a way of refocusing the spirit of the place. I wanted this to be a place where everyone was welcome.
Q: You have given a lot of Black actors a chance, or a second chance. Your roster includes Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis, Idris Elba. And then there’s Cicely Tyson.
I’ve never said this publicly, but I took care of Ms. Tyson for the last 15 years of her life. She was a proud woman, and the only reason I mention this is because she wrote it in her book. This woman had done so many amazing things, but she wasn’t well compensated for it. She made $6,000 for Sounder, you know? I wanted to make sure she knew that there were people who valued her. So, she did one day of work on my 2007 film Why Did I Get Married? I paid her a million dollars. I loved working with her. And it makes me feel great that I was in a position to give this incredible woman some security in her latter years.
Q: Oprah Winfrey is godmother to your son, and she was your business partner during your collaboration on the Oprah Winfrey Network [OWN].
When she was struggling with her network, I said, “I can help you.” Finally, she said, “Let’s see what you can do.” I brought scripted material to the network with the crime-drama series The Haves and the Have Nots. It ran for eight seasons and is still the highest-rated show that was ever on the channel. For Oprah and me, it was important to show Black people that you can work together, that powers can come together and be successful.
Q: Every time I talk to a Black man who has a son, I ask: “How do you protect your child? What do you teach your child about becoming a man?”
I haven’t had the conversation with Aman because he’s only 7, and I want to hold out as long as I can. I don’t want to tell him that there are people who will judge him because of the color of his skin, because right now he’s in a school with every race, and all these kids are in their purest form. When he describes his friends, he never defines them by race. So, the moment he loses that innocence is going to be a very, very sad day for me. I know it’s coming, though, because he’s already asking some really tough questions. What I want him to be, more than anything, is somebody who sees injustice, speaks out against it and effects change.
Q: Your mother, Maxine, passed away in 2009. You’ve told stories about the way she and her girlfriends would talk when they got together — and the way humor was a kind of anesthetic for her pain.
I’d watch them play cards on Friday nights. There would be so much laughter in the room. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in a comedy master class, watching all of those women.
Q: Tell me about forgiving your father, whom you support but don’t spend time with.
What helped me get to a place where I could forgive him for all the abuses is that I found his life story. It made me understand that we all arrive at a place from somewhere. His childhood was full of abuse. I had an opportunity to either carry that on into another generation or dig it up and cut it at its root. The thing that allows you to get to the root, to really get down in there to pull that up, that’s forgiveness.
Q: You are very private about your personal relationships. Why?
Because these people are not famous. My son’s not famous. I want him to have as normal a life as he can. I want him to know what it’s like to have his own name and his own life and not have the pressure of trying to live up to whatever or whoever your father was.
Q: And Gelila Bekele, your former longtime partner? What would you like to share about her?
She’s an incredible mother.
Q: Gelila runs The Perry Foundation, which has allocated millions of dollars to grassroots charities that benefit children, families and communities globally. What was your impetus to create the foundation in 2006?
When you’ve been given a lot, you have to do a lot. And the need is great. I’ve tried to align myself with people who have the same sensibility when it comes to helping others. My mother put it in me. I would wake up in the morning and get out of bed, and I’m stepping on someone who’s sleeping on the floor. I’d ask, “Who’s that?” And my mom would say, “They needed a place to stay.” She didn’t have much, but what she did have, she shared. As I do this work, I’m always thinking of her.
Q: What advice do you have for people who have a dream like yours?
Listen, I would love to say, “Follow my example.” But I would never do that. There are no guarantees. You can be as talented as you want to be, and if things don’t line up, it’s never going to happen. There are many people way more talented than I am who didn’t make it. I had some grace and some favor from God. I didn’t do it all. I just did the work.
But I had no other choice than to follow my dream. I had no other strategy. I had one thing, and that was that first play. It had to work. I wasn’t going to write another play if that one didn’t work. So, I had to wait and hope and pray for that to happen.
For me, humility stays very present because I remember [living] in that car. You know, I don’t care if I’m on my plane at 40,000 feet in the air. I still remember those moments. And also, I understand that if something goes wrong at that 40,000 feet, ain’t nobody gonna help me but God.
Q: Who is Tyler Perry today?
I’m Maxine’s baby. I am defined by everything she put in me. She was the kind of woman who tolerated or accepted nothing but your best.
And I’m Aman’s father. All of this other stuff is really great. But the thing that gives me motivation every day is being Aman’s father.
Harriette Cole is the author of seven books, including How to Be, and a former editor in chief of Ebony magazine.