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Tyler Perry, Jeremy Zimmer, Tim Armstrong Talk #MeToo, Diversity, and Success at Milken Conference

Tyler Perry surprised the audience at the Milken Institute Global Conference on Monday with a candid thought about one of his signature characters, the cantankerous Madea.

Perry spoke alongside UTA chief Jeremy Zimmer and Oath CEO Tim Armstrong on a panel focused on what it takes to build a successful business and healthy company culture. Perry told moderator Gayle King, co-anchor of “CBS This Morning,” that success can have some downsides. He admitted he has grown tired of donning the gray-haired wig and flower-print dress to play Madea, the character that fueled his early success as an auteur.

“The minute (audiences) stop coming I’m killing that bitch,” Perry confessed. He joked that he would have made different choices as a young man, had he known he’d still be playing Madea 25 years later. “Why can’t I be like Black Panther or something?”

The wide-ranging hour-long conversation among the foursome touched on the impact of the #MeToo movement, efforts to foster diversity in their organizations and the qualities that they look for when interviewing job candidates.

Armstrong said he has made a point of giving “tougher feedback overall” to women who work for Oath, a content unit of Verizon, based on feedback he’s received from women on the thorny subject of why it is harder for women to rise through the ranks in corporate settings.

“Women will say we don’t get as much coaching at work as other people. Men are afraid to give us feedback,” he said. Armstrong added that the focus on gender equality issues has made him “really attuned to getting women in the room and really coaching them.”

Talent agencies have been at the center of the #MeToo reckoning in Hollywood because of their role as talent reps and matchmakers for employment deals. Zimmer said UTA leaders have sought to be mindful of the potential for “unconscious bias” to color decisions. “We’re trying to be as aggressive as we can about changing the lens that we look through on so many decisions,” he said. “We’re looking very hard at changing the balance in terms of diversity.”

King offered the suggestion that men in the workplace should think before they speak. “If it’s not something you’d say in front of your mother, your wife, your daughter or your girlfriend, you probably don’t want to say it,” she said. She also noted: “It’s probably not a good idea to have a meeting and take out your penis.”

King alluded to the firing of Charlie Rose from “CBS This Morning” last November by commenting that she never thought her show would be “part of this story.” At the same time, she said there needs to be appropriate care in handling of sexual harassment allegations. “I think we have to be very careful — there has to be due process for all involved,” she said, nothing that accusations can be a “death sentence” for men.

Perry noted that he is usually a hands-on director or producer on his projects, likening it to a “mom and pop operation” albeit on a large scale. That gives him good visibility into working conditions. He said the goal is to “make sure you foster a safe environment” and have the procedures in place for people to come forward with problems.

On the question of gender, racial and ethnic diversity, Armstrong said he is increasingly bowing out of meetings with outside entities if he finds there is no diversity at the table. “I just show up and if the meeting doesn’t have any diversity I say ‘The meeting is not happening,’ ” he said.

Perry joked that the level of diversity at his sprawling Tyler Perry Studios operation in Atlanta is so great that he needs to implement “a not-so-much inclusion rider. We’ve got everything there. It’s really, really great.”

Among other highlights from the discussion:

  • Zimmer disclosed that he left college about halfway through his sophomore year. “It was a mutual decision,” he joked.
  • Armstrong said all Oath employees are asked to come up with a three-word personal oath that they live by. His is “never give up.”
  • King told the crowd that she periodically calls Perry with “questions and concerns” about his movies. “And his response will be ‘It opened at No. 1. Goodbye.” Perry added that living in Atlanta keeps him grounded and close to his fan base. And they’re not shy about giving him feedback to his face. “They’ll tell me ‘Your last movie sucked but we’re going to hang in with you.’ “
  • Perry advised job-seekers to pay attention to their personal social media profiles and what their posts say about them. He has nixed hires after finding questionable material on Facebook and Instagram. “If you’ve got ‘cocaine’ written all over your Facebook, it might be something you want to pay attention to. And I did.”

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