Man of Action: Tyler Perry on Producing During the Pandemic and Why He’s Weighing in on Politics

Tyler Perry is entering a new phase — not just in his career as a media mogul who owns a 330-acre studio bearing his name, nor in his tax bracket, after being designated a billionaire by Forbes. Perry, who has consistently stayed above the fray for much of the time he has been a celebrity, is getting political.

“We’ve all been drafted on the worst reality show that’s ever been produced, and none of us have been paid for it,” Perry says. “For the last four and a half years or so, we have been dragged through the wringer, and it is completely exhausting. So many people are exhausted at the division, at the hate, at the pandemic — people are just exhausted and angry and frustrated. And if the people who bring hope [and] positivity give up, then the world has lost its balance.

“Negativity screams, and positivity whispers. So we just need more whisperers to help people,” he adds. “I know this sounds cliché and some people may think it’s bulls—, but the truth is, I’ve lived long enough and experienced enough good and bad to know that good wins when everybody pushes in that direction.”

Tyler Perry Variety Cover

It’s hard to stay positive in 2020, a year rife with so much political and social turmoil. The leadup to the impending election has been particularly charged, with added weight given by the coronavirus pandemic and renewed focus on racial injustice in America. Perry has made headlines on both fronts, becoming one of the first major Hollywood players to find a safe way to get back to production during the worldwide health crisis and donating time and money to social justice causes. For these efforts, he has been named Variety’s Showman of the Year.

Perry says of the distinction, “Just to try and use what I’ve been given — this platform [and] the gifts that I’ve managed to have — to celebrate and encourage and lift other people, that feels pretty awesome. I keep hearing the lyrics from ‘This Is Me’ [from ‘The Greatest Showman’] in my head,” he laughs.

With lyrics like “When the sharpest words wanna cut me down / I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown ’em out” or “And I’m marching on to the beat I drum / I’m not scared to be seen / I make no apologies,” there may be no better theme song for someone who has conquered Hollywood by doing things his own way in the face of naysayers. He’s a DIY mogul who crashed the A-list by leveraging success on the stage into an extended run atop the box office charts as the man behind Madea — then turned around and transformed that success into a media empire that spans books, plays, movies and television shows.

“This Is Me” holds special significance for Perry, who had singer Morgan James perform the anthem during the grand-opening gala of the Tyler Perry Studios complex in Atlanta last October for a crowd that included megastars Beyoncé, Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. Perry purchased the former Confederate Army base for $30 million in 2015, turning it into Hollywood’s largest studio lot with a $250 million renovation and expansion. Whoopi Goldberg was also on hand to witness the dedication of a soundstage in her honor.

“He’s doing life the way we all would like to do life,” she says of Perry.

Goldberg, who has teamed with Perry three times (acting in “For Colored Girls” and “Nobody’s Fool” and making a cameo in “Madea Goes to Jail”), believes the entrepreneur hasn’t gotten his full due.

“This wasn’t inherited; he earned every dime. Every piece of that studio he bought with his dough,” Goldberg says. “I think the idea of letting people know that this wasn’t a gift, this was hard-earned, [is important]. And in any other place, he’d be at the tip of everybody’s tongue, the talk of the town — it would be a huge thing. And yet somehow, people haven’t really stepped up to recognize it as far as I’m concerned.”

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Perry faced adversity from an early age. “Every statistic said that I will be dead or in jail,” he says about growing up Black and poor in New Orleans in the 1970s, in addition to having an abusive father. But his beloved mother, Maxine (who died in 2009 at 64), laid a solid foundation for his entrepreneurial spirit by encouraging him to “find a way” to be successful despite the hardships.

“As I entered into Hollywood, it was always about finding a way,” Perry says. “I’ve never had an open door, or an invitation or opportunity, while I watched my white brothers and sisters get opportunity after opportunity, no matter if their shows or movies fail or not.

“I understand that this is the hand that I was dealt. This Black skin that encompasses me is beautiful. I’m not going to apologize for it. I’m not going to be ashamed of it. But I’m going to make it work for me and for us.”

Perry is defined by a number of things — among them his work ethic and his propensity for innovation in entertainment. He broke the mold in TV, taking a wildly innovative approach to producing series with his first comedy, “House of Payne,” and regularly surpasses tracking forecasts for his films, which consistently open at or near the top of the box office thanks to his homegrown — and ultra-dependable — audience.

But in 2020, the writer, director, producer and entrepreneur “found a way” while facing one of the greatest challenges to hit the industry — the COVID-19 pandemic. Working with medical professionals, Perry and his team drafted a 30-page plan to make television shows as safely as possible and created Camp Quarantine at Tyler Perry Studios. From July to September, Perry completed production on four projects (BET’s “Sistas” and “The Oval” and BET Plus’ “Ruthless” and “Bruh”). That meant about 360 people were living and working at his Atlanta-based studio.

Though Perry was one of the first to come up with a plan for getting back to work, his good friend, writer-director Taylor Sheridan, was also planning to restart production on his Paramount series “Yellowstone.”

“It made me feel like I wasn’t alone,” Perry says of the timing. “Just to have somebody to talk to and just tell them what we were doing and to hear what he was doing.”

Sheridan shared similar sentiments: “We’re both fortunate in that Tyler has his own movie studio, where you can control that world. And I shoot in the middle of nowhere in Montana on a giant ranch, where I can do the same thing.”

Trading notes is a hallmark of their friendship. “We invented the frickin’ Zoom drink years before the rest of the world found out about it,” Sheridan laughs. The two hit it off when Perry cold-called the “Sicario” and “Wind River” scribe after watching his films. Sheridan has gotten only a couple out-of-the-blue calls like that — the other was from Steven Spielberg — and he says, “I’m sure glad I did answer because he’s become a great friend and someone in this business who I trust.”

The pair are teaming on-screen for Sheridan’s upcoming film, “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” with Perry playing a small role.

“He understands all facets of what we do,” Sheridan says. “He’s extremely creative; he’s extremely business savvy; he is extremely loyal to his cast and crew. Which is extremely important because when you push a crew as hard as he does, as hard as I do, they have to be believers. Aside from being such a leader to the people around him, he commands respect because he has worked so hard and is so kind and doesn’t distinguish between speaking to the executive or the boss of a network or the fifth PA. He treats them with the same respect.”

Tyler Perry is a trailblazer. He is one of a handful of Black moguls in a monochromatic industry, someone who has total control of his destiny by owning every part of the production process, from the studio where he films his projects to the intellectual property. Once asked by a teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up, the young Perry said, “A millionaire,” and the teacher laughed at his dream. Now he’s a billionaire — and a Black billionaire at that, joining a club made up of entertainment heavyweights such as Jay-Z and Perry’s mentor Oprah Winfrey. Of his friendship with Winfrey, he says, “That, for me, is surreal.”

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“I’d run home from school at three o’clock every weekday to see her on television — this Black woman who looked like my sister, aunt, friend,” he explains. “[She] was one of the first Black people I saw on television, certainly the first Black woman to control and own a television show and studio. So now to be able to pick up the phone and call her a friend is part of the miracle.”

Throughout his career, Perry has maneuvered like Winfrey — not just going “from rags to riches,” but moving strategically around those who underestimate his vision, never stopping at no and focusing on creating generational wealth through ownership of his properties.

Perry’s Hollywood journey began with his most popular character, the tough-talking, gun-toting grandmother Mabel “Madea” Simmons. When Madea made her big-screen debut in “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” in 2005, Perry’s plays had generated more than $70 million at the theater box office. He had not been an overnight success: Only 30 people arrived on opening weekend for his first play, “I Know I’ve Been Changed” in 1992. Perry spent his life savings of $12,000 to mount the production and fought through extreme poverty and homelessness as a result of the failure. But he did not give up, restaging the show in 1998. That time it was a hit, and after he created Madea in his 1999 play “I Can Do Bad All by Myself,” audiences began rolling in by the church busload. But getting his first show made into a movie was a battle. The industry simply didn’t understand Perry’s appeal, with executives telling him, “Black audiences that go to church don’t go to movies.”

“Those are the only things that I’ve said publicly,” he says. “There are some stories that I could tell that are really, really bad, but for the sake of the town, and for the sake of the people who said it, I’ve never said them, because especially in this climate [when] it’s so charged, it would blow people’s minds.”

Mike Paseornek was one of the rare executives who recognized the potential of the newcomer — and his massive following. He began pitching the creator to his bosses at Lionsgate after receiving a script from Perry’s agent. Paseornek, at the time president of production at Lionsgate Films, says that even though Perry had no experience in Hollywood, he had a preternatural confidence in his own profitability.

“Tyler had no leverage, [other than saying,] ‘Well, I’m not going to do it your way. I’m going to take my ball and go home,’” Paseornek says. “And he was willing to do that because he had such a clear-cut vision of how he saw his business.”

The studio hoped for a $20 million box office return on “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” Perry knew he could deliver that on opening weekend — and he did; the film grossed $55 million, 10 times its budget. Twenty movies later (10 of them starring Madea), Perry’s films have earned more than $1 billion at the box office.

But he hasn’t been without detractors. Some skeptics believe his films offer stereotypical or negative depictions of Black people. Others dismiss the quality of the productions, suggesting that since Perry writes them all himself, he’s stretched a little thin and it shows.

“When I hear that kind of stuff, I’m thinking, ‘Are y’all looking at the ratings? Do you understand that the audience is in love with this?’” he says. “Because if you’re complaining about my writing, you’re not the audience. My audience loves the way that it’s done and the way the stories are told. And from the beginning, it’s always been about being true to them.”

The average Metacritic score for Perry’s 21 films is a lackluster 41.6 (out of 100), and critics on Rotten Tomatoes give them a dismal average of 27.38% on the Tomatometer scale (his movies are almost 2.5 times more popular with audiences on the site, with a 67.23% approval rating), but he doesn’t let the negative reviews get to him.

“I grew up with a man who criticized me and said all kinds of horrible things to me every day of my life. And if that 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-year-old, beautiful kid can endure that and find a way, what kind of man would I be to be hurt or bothered by some other criticism?” he explains. “I never see a lot of it, but if it does get to me, I look for truth in it. There’s a lot of it that’s just vitriolic; that’s just ‘I’m going to hate on him because he’s Tyler Perry.’ I get that. But when there’s truth in the criticism, like, ‘Why did he do this, this and this?’ I go, ‘Hmm, let me think about that.’

“And if I start writing for the critics, the only movie that I ever wrote that got some critical acclaim [2010’s ‘For Colored Girls’] didn’t do very well. I know to speak to the audience — that is the business; that is the voice; those are the people that matter the most to me.”

Other critiques have come from Black creators. In a 2009 interview, Oscar winner Spike Lee appeared to take aim at Perry when he described modern depictions of Black characters as “coonery and buffoonery,” leading to a public back and forth between the filmmakers.

“If any criticisms stung, it would have been his, because I had so much respect and admiration for him,” Perry says. Indeed, in naming the 12 soundstages at his studio after Black Hollywood icons, Perry reserved one for Lee.

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“People’s opinions are their opinions, but that doesn’t negate the fact of the work that he’s done. And he’s due the honor of having a stage named after him and more than that,” he says.

Explaining how the two reconciled, Perry says Lee called him after seeing an interview on “Oprah” where Perry talked about the historic feud between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, in which Hughes called Hurston “a perfect ‘darkie.’” That interview prompted Lee to make the trek to Atlanta to talk things over.

“I opened the door. I said, ‘Come in here, so I can beat your ass,’” Perry laughs. “And [Lee] said, ‘Fair enough.’ And we sat and we had a conversation. … He laid out his views and his opinions, which I respected. And he heard mine, and he respected them. So we can both exist in the same world with very different views and opinions and still respect each other.”

The issue underlying the Perry-Lee debate over the on-screen representation of Black people persists: Not enough Black filmmakers are getting studio jobs, so fewer types of stories and experiences are being told. But Perry is encouraged by the most recent calls for diversity in Hollywood on both sides of the camera, hoping they will lead to more Black voices being heard.

“Ten or 15 years ago, I could call any Black actor from Idris Elba to Viola Davis and Kerry Washington — they were all ready to go to work,” Perry says. “But now it’s like, ‘Oh, their schedule is [booked] out two years. There’s this surge of Black is in, hire Black and diversity is in.”

Over the years, Perry has been celebrated by Black actors such as Elba (“Daddy’s Little Girls”), Taraji P. Henson (“I Can Do Bad All by Myself”), Tika Sumpter (“The Haves and the Have Nots”) and the legendary Cicely Tyson for helping to reinvigorate their careers. He says that making sure performers of their caliber got opportunities was a big part of his mission as a creator.

“In my ‘finding a way’ there were a bunch of people that were coming through the door with me. The doors and the tables that I was building for myself, they were allowed to sit at and create,” he says. “That’s why I tell people when they come to work for me, this is a place for you to come and build your base, a great audience that will support you.”

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Perry doesn’t only give back in business; he is set to be honored as the People’s Champion of 2020 at E!’s People’s Choice Awards in November for his philanthropic work. The mogul and his eponymous foundation also received the Governors Award at the 72nd Primetime Emmys. There, Perry gave an inspiring speech about a patchwork quilt his grandmother had given him, using it as a metaphor for diversity.

“That speech I wrestled with a lot, because there’s just so much going on in the country and there’s so much that I want to say,” Perry recalls. “And there’s so many sides of my experiences that want to speak, and they’re all battling for the microphone at the same time within my head.

“But for me, what the country, what the world, what we all need now is hope and healing. And if I can speak to that, then that’s my purpose. Anything that doesn’t serve that, I don’t want to do, because there are enough people who are working very hard to divide and destroy and tear us apart.”

That’s why Perry is speaking out politically.

Though he hosted fundraisers for President Barack Obama and invited former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton to his studio’s grand-opening bash last October, Perry has primarily taken a nonpartisan point of view.

It’s a tough position for a man who makes his home base in Georgia — a red state with a host of hot-button political issues, including the controversial “heartbeat bill,” aimed at limiting access to abortion, which rocked the local entertainment industry when Gov. Brian Kemp signed it in May 2019. In reaction, many Hollywood power players threatened a production boycott of the state, but Perry proclaimed that he would stay, telling Variety that October, “First of all, when you put a quarter of a billion dollars in the ground in one place, you can’t just go, ‘OK, I’m out.’”

The fight over the legislation, which has since been struck down by a federal judge, followed a fraying of relations between Tinseltown and Georgia over claims of voter suppression by Kemp in his 2018 gubernatorial race against Stacey Abrams. During those fraught political moments, Perry played a conciliatory role. The mogul made a point of inviting both Kemp and Abrams to his studio’s opening gala as a sort of olive branch.

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“I really, truly don’t want to get political. What I want people to do is vote because everybody has very strong opinions about this. As do I,” he says. “I have very, very strong feelings about the current administration. I have very strong feelings about a lot that’s going on. But I’m neither Democrat [nor] Republican — I’m an independent thinker. I vote for who I think is best to run the country.”

Perry may avoid party affiliations, but that doesn’t mean he’s unwilling to take a stand. This election cycle, he’s using his considerable influence to support the Biden-Harris ticket. He’s been actively involved in voter registration behind the scenes and is reaching out to his audience to get it engaged.

It’s a bold move given how much is at stake — not just in the election but for his business. A key part of the entertainer’s appeal comes from being middle of the road, almost relentlessly centrist, much like his longtime mentor Winfrey, who stayed out of the political arena before famously throwing her influence behind Obama’s 2008 run for office.

The decision also calls to mind self-proclaimed centrist Dwayne Johnson’s recent endorsement of Biden. Johnson received criticism on social media, but Perry has not been deterred.

“When you have influence, you have to be careful of how you use it and be specific in your choices of what you use,” he explains. “This is going to affect the country in the future. And the great thing about a democracy is every four years, you have an opportunity to make a change, and I’m hoping that there are enough decent people who are seeing that we need to make a change.”

One of the main reasons Perry is speaking out now comes down to his 5-year-old son, Aman.

“If it were just me, I could step back and maybe have a different opinion,” he explains. “But I want him to be able to go to the national parks and they’re not drilling inside of them, to be able to turn on a debate and see two men stand professionally, giving each other the respect to finish their two minutes that they’re allotted and not talking over and screaming at each other.”

For Perry, the choice is clear.

“If you want more of the same, then you vote the way that you did in 2016,” he says. “If you want something different, then we need to have a landslide out voting for Joe Biden.”

Outside politics, Perry is focused on creating a better future for the local Atlanta community, with plans to use his studio space to house battered women, displaced LGBTQ+ youth and sex-trafficking survivors and introduce them to the inner workings of the entertainment industry.

“I don’t know if people really realize how important it is for young Black and Brown children to be able to see examples of what it means to be successful outside of what they see in the neighborhoods,” he says. “Growing up, for me the only people that were doing well were the pimps and the preacher. And now to be able to set an example for kids that there are other options outside of sports and what everybody tells you — ‘These are the only things you can do’ — [is important]. You can be CEO; you can run a studio; you can use everything you have to help someone else.”

Styling: Crystal Hayslett; Makeup: Syretta Bell; Hair: Byron Johnson; Tuxedo look: Tuxedo by Carl Ulysses; Shirt: Eton; Shoes: Mezlan; Bow tie: Carl Ulysses; Glasses: Maybach; Cover/Casual Look: Jacket, shirt, shoes: Tom Ford; Jeans: Joe’s Jeans; Glasses: Maybach