It’s been a month of milestones for Tyler Perry. On Sept. 13, the actor, filmmaker and media mogul celebrated his 50th birthday, a date he didn’t expect to see. “I didn’t think I would live to even see 30,” says Perry, who has spoken openly about his abusive father and tough childhood. “I was a black boy in New Orleans and felt like the odds were stacked against me. Growing up, most of my friends were either in jail or murdered. I’d go to church on Sundays and four or five people had died that week from AIDS.”
This week, Perry sees two more major events, beginning with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Oct. 1. Then he’s back to his home base in Atlanta for the official opening of the new Tyler Perry Studios on Oct. 5, a celebration that includes Cicely Tyson and longtime supporter Oprah Winfrey on the guest list.
Asked how it all feels, and Perry has one word. “Gratitude,” he says. “It feels like gratitude.”
When he reflects on how he able to beat the odds and not only live past 30 but build one of the biggest empires in show business, he credits his mother, Willie Maxine Perry (née Campbell). “She was an incredible woman of faith and instilled within me great values,” he says. “I’ve got to give her credit for loving me enough that the love was correction, the love was healing, the love was enough for me not to go bad way. I loved her enough I didn’t want to disappoint her.”
Though his mother passed away in 2009, she was able to see a good amount of her son’s success. “It made her very happy and it makes me very happy to know, before she died, she knew I was OK.”
More than OK. Since the 2005 premiere of “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” Perry’s films have reigned supreme at the box office, often shot on minimal budgets and a speedy schedule, they have always turned a profit. While critics may not have embraced them, his frequent collaborator Taraji P. Henson puts it best. “Box office numbers never lie,” she says. “He’s laughing all the way to the bank and I’m laughing right with him.”
On the TV side, Perry turned out several television hits, from “House of Payne” to “The Haves and Have Nots.” And he still finds time to return to his theater roots, where it all began. Earlier this year, Perry performed “Madea’s Farewell Play Tour” to sold-out houses across the country.
Perry’s success is largely in part thanks to Madea, the gun-toting granny created and played by Perry in nine plays and 10 films. Yet earlier this year, he bid farewell to her onscreen with “A Madea Family Funeral” in March. While he’s grateful to his creation, Perry says he hasn’t spent a lot of time missing her.
“I don’t even think about it unless somebody brings it up or walks up to me and says, ‘Hellur!’” he says with a laugh, referring to Madea’s catchphrase greeting. “But she was a great gift, how can I ever not thank her?”
Perry likely doesn’t have much time to think about the past; he’s busy looking to the future. In 2015 he purchased 330 acres from the Fort McPherson Army base in Atlanta to build his new studio. It had been abandoned since 2011, leaving the grass to grow up to 10 feet high and was home to snakes as long as 7 feet.
“It was in bad shape,” Perry notes. “I had a lot of people asking me, ‘Are you really willing to take on this kind of undertaking?’” But Perry says he didn’t have much choice. “My last studio was right at 60
acres and seemed like enough, but I was outgrowing it with every step. We had outgrown it before we even put the last board up.”
Unlike his three previous studios, the new location isn’t just proprietary. “This is the first time I ever built a place where other creators could come create as well,” he says. “There are 12 soundstages here and none of my shows are shot on soundstages. It was all about building for other people to come and create and see this great town I live in.”
As Perry thrives not just as an artist but a businessman, Steve Mensch, general manager and president of operations for Tyler Perry Studios, compares him to another great visionary.
“I often think, ‘How did people who worked for Walt Disney feel?’” Mensch says. “People knew he was a creative person, but were they surprised when Walt went on to create the Disney empire? Tyler has an innate ability to execute on a vision that most would consider insurmountable. After all, how many people tour a decommissioned army base, imagine it as a major motion picture studio, and have the business acumen to make it a reality?”
For Perry, it’s not just about creating; it’s about giving back to the state he’s called home for the 18 years. “I never thought about Hollywood,” he says. “I came to Atlanta in the 1990s on black spring break — all white kids go to the beach for spring break, black kids came to Atlanta. And I saw a level of hope I had never seen. ”
Michelle Sneed, president of production and development at Tyler Perry Studios, lists the community as vital to their business. “We’ll always be excited about new opportunities to give back to the local communities that surround the studio and the development of our own art center, where we’ll be supporting those who want to work in the industry by providing resources for various industry crafts and technical skills,” she says.
On the business side, Sneed cites “the continuing expansion of our backlot and studio resources,” along with a new partnership with Viacom/BET, which includes content for the new streaming service BET Plus.
“Some of my proudest accomplishments have been returning to the studio to help lead the most efficient, committed and loyal group of people in the business and working alongside a true visionary that is Tyler Perry,” says Sneed. “Other proud accomplishments include producing quality content at lighting speed using the plentiful resources here at TPS, and casting and developing new talent both in front of and behind the camera. Also proud of the development team we’ve created, where we’re finding the stories and talent to help reshape how the black and brown experience is perceived and understood.”
According to Perry, talent can be found anywhere. He cast comic Kwaylon Rogers in “Madea’s Farewell Play Tour” after seeing his social-media videos. He discovered Angela Rigsby working at a Barnes and Noble bookstore and cast her in his series “Too Close to Home.”
As an actor, Perry has also made acclaimed acting appearances outside of his own movies – he stole scenes in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and he brought gravitas to Colin Powell in Adam McKay’s “Vice.” He’ll next appear in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” for Taylor Sheridan. “Tyler Perry is a creative force unlike anything our industry has seen,” Sheridan tells Variety. “He is an immense talent, businessman, and leader who I am desperately trying to emulate. I’m failing, but I’m trying … .”
With so much on the horizon, does Perry ever worry about running out of ideas or writer’s block? “No,” he says simply. “Oprah calls me a savant in the nicest way because she looks at how quickly I write and shoot and see things.”
Perry says it all goes back to his childhood, where in order to cope with abuse he would disappear into different worlds to separate himself from the pain. “A few years ago, I realized that when I sit down to write a story, I’m in that world. I’m using that same thing that was a curse, which I now see as a gift.”
What: Tyler Perry receives a star on the Walk of Fame.
When: 11:30 a.m. Oct. 1
Where: 7024 Hollywood Blvd.