For the most part, confidence isn’t boastful. It’s just there, killing you softly. Now say hello to filmmaker Tyler Perry, who just may be the real Teflon Don who softly kills the movie and sitcom industry. Whether Perry is stiff-arming biting criticisms from critics who claim his characters perpetuate Black stereotypes or dispelling theories that his series (Love Thy Neighbor and The Haves and the Have Nots) are responsible for keeping Oprah’s OWN network afloat, Perry’s humble, well-mannered responses speak volumes of his self-assuredness.
After emerging from New Orleans, the spiritually led Perry became a household name when his motivational, comical, at times over-the-top musicals about relationships captured the hearts and minds of the Black masses. Then he strong-armed the box office after taking his talents to the movie theaters, with films like A Madea Christmas, Temptation and Madea’s Witness Protection, among many others. Perry also made pit stops on TV with successful sitcoms like House of Payne and Meet the Browns.
As the New Year sets in, Tyler Perry’s aims are to continue inspiring his fans with hilarious, serious and effective stories about love and relationships dipped in spiritual lessons. Last week, The Haves and the Have Nots returned this season with all-new episodes. Perry’s in vogue comedy Love Thy Neighbor (the number one cable series among Black women between 25 and 54) also returned for a new season.
EBONY met up with Perry and cast members Patrice Lovely (Hattie Mae), Palmer Williams (Floyd, both of Love Thy Neighbor) and John Schneider (Jim Cryer) and Angela Robinson (Veronica Herrington, both of The Have and the Have Nots). At Manhattan’s Eventi Hotel, Perry and cast discussed #BlackLivesMatter, OWN and much more.
EBONY: What’s new on your shows, and how are they evolving?
Tyler Perry: Well, what’s amazing is that we’re about to cross 100 episodes with these shows. And that’s insanely wonderful. You start one way and then the characters dictate where they want to go. I don’t have a writer’s room. I write my shows myself, because I want the voice to be authentic and the audience to hear from me and not from other writers. So, as I’m writing, the characters are telling me which way they want to go.
The first show, you may wonder if this’ll really work. But by the 10th show, the characters really start to gel. And that’s what happened with both these shows. By episode 15 and 16, we’ve settled in. To make this short, the characters evolve just as the show has organically evolved over time. If you look at Veronica, who had one line on the first show, I didn’t know that she’d be this character who’s sleeping with Benny and burning down houses. But I love the madness of it, the insanity of it.
EBONY: Explain why you put Tyler Perry above all of your titles.
TP: The Tyler Perry brand has never been about ego. It’s been about, “I want you to identify with this type of entertainment.”
Palmer Williams: Also, it’s proper edict to put the author’s name above the title.
EBONY: Can you talk about the energy on set?
Patrice Lovely: We have the most fun, because it’s almost like Tyler hand-picked each and every one of us. He knew our spirits, he knew we’d gel on script and off script. We can take vacations together. We enjoy each other and have a ball together.
Angela Robinson: We’re the same. We go out, hang out after we’re done filming. We just really love one another; we’re there for the highs and lows. But I believe that that kind of thing starts from the top. And so Tyler Perry promotes that at the studio, and we just kind of fall in line. We all love one another.
John Schneider: But it’s also hard work. It’s wonderful hard work. I liken it to doing a New York Times crossword with a sharpie: you are committed. And honestly, we do go out and have a wonderful time before we start a season and after we finish a season. But during, there is no time.
TP: I want to say this about it as well, just to give you a reference of how hard we work. Take a show like Scandal or a show like Empire; it takes them a week and a half to shoot one episode. Their budget is almost five times what we have. We shoot an episode in a day and a half. So we are moving nonstop. You have to come to set ready to go. And for the sitcoms, they are doing three or four episodes in two days. It’s a different kind of experience, because in Hollywood, one sitcom can take up to seven days to shoot.
EBONY: How do you respond to those who say you don’t discuss issues like #BlackLivesMatter? And will we see issues like #BlackLivesMatter on upcoming shows?
TP: For me, I love to have a more intimate fight when it comes to civil rights and things like #BlackLivesMatter.
There is a man named Terrance Williams and Felipe Santos, who I’ve been fighting for for years. They put them into the back of a police squad car—the officer’s name is Steve Calkins—and both of them disappeared. One was a Mexican immigrant and the other was a Black man with a history of being in jail. And no one would ever give their mothers any press when they would try to find out what happened to them.
So I prefer to be on the front line in that way on issues that move me. I think it’s just as powerful as being part of something like the #BlackLivesMatter. But what’s important to me is somebody like that has a voice, someone like me who can speak up. When I called press, they’d say, “Hey, your victims aren’t sympathetic. One has a history of going to jail and the other is here illegally.”
Now, as far as will things like that be on the show? I shoot too fast. My shows right now, we’re working on 2017 now. Yes, we’re that far ahead in how we shoot. It’s very difficult for me to be timeless in my messages unless it’s some prophetic thing that happens. And I’m not a social media person. And I work so much that people have to stop and ask me, “Hey, did you know that this happened?” And that’s how I like it. I’d rather focus on the good that I’m trying to put out rather than focus on everyone else’s problems and hardships.
EBONY: How do you keep up the creativity and not suffer from writer’s block?
TP: What’s great about it is, when you’re writing for people like these, who are very talented by the way, you can throw anything at them. Now this may sound crazy, but this is how I write: I sit in a room, and as I’m sitting at the computer I can hear these people talking. The only thing that’s difficult for me is to force one show and those characters out of my head so Annie doesn’t end up sounding like Jim. Or Momma Hattie doesn’t sound like Angela. And if you look at the shows, they are very different. I don’t think people give them enough credit for that.
EBONY: Is Oprah involved in the creative process, and is there pressure to work for her network?
TP: To be a kid that’s 18 or 19 years old and you’re watching Oprah and she says, “It’s lethargic.” And I don’t know what lethargic means so I have to go to a dictionary—my public school upbringing wasn’t the best. So I take that and I go and learn and I start writing. And you add 20, 30 years to it, and now I’m on her network writing shows for her, that is one of the greatest inspiring stories.
And to be in this moment, in this position where I’ve had four shows on the network doing really, really well… And I want to say this: had it not been for Oprah leaving her show, sitting in as the CEO, putting people in place that needed to make the network work, had it not been for Oprah, advertisers would’ve been left. It’s the power of Oprah that saved the network. It’s the power of Oprah Winfrey that turned it around, and the business sense of Oprah to say, “Come do this for my network.”
We’re not saving the network. Oprah is the wind, and she’s pushing it in the right direction. The gift for me to even be in the position to say, “Is there something that I can do because of all that you’ve done for me?” Even if I never worked with her, I still owe her a great debt for saying those words to me even, to the stranger in New Orleans who never met her.