Tyler Perry is a self-made franchise that pulled him up by the bootstraps. Having been a product of an extremely abusive childhood, which included beatings administered by his father as well as outside sexual abuse, Perry could have very easily followed in his violent father’s footsteps, but instead, after dealing with teenage depression and living in his car at one point, went on to distance himself, eventually carving out a special niche by producing plays and films with a Christian moral tone and according to Forbes, has emerged as the entertainment industry’s highest paid man, earning $130 million in 2010-2011.
Perry’s first film was “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” followed by “Madea’s Family Reunion” in which he played the female lead of Madea, reprising that role in subsequent films. Stepping out of his “comfort zone,” Perry is starring in the latest film version of James Patterson’s iconic character, Alex Cross, originally created on screen by the inimitable Morgan Freeman.
Perry recently participated in a press conference to promote “Alex Cross” and the following has been edited for content and continuity for print purposes.
Given your extensive credits in stage and film, where you are always the one in charge, was it difficult to just be an actor?
Tyler: What I know about me is that when you know how to lead, you also have to know how to follow. So in this thing, I’m working with James Patterson, who created this brilliant character, and Rob Cohen who is a brilliant director and I had the opportunity of learning from both of them. So for me, it was all about surrender and staying out of anything that I would usually do and just be the character. It allowed me to go to places I’d never gone before and I’m grateful for that.
Could you elaborate on that?
Tyler: Great places for me means being on screen having the opportunity to just focus on the character, be the character, experience all his different levels, and all of his complexities, from the doctor to the family man, to being sensitive, to being a complete animal when he’s been wronged and has to track the killer. All of those things were quite intriguing me so that’s what I mean by having the opportunity to play all those emotions.
What were the elements that convinced you to take the role originally created by Morgan Freeman and given you are usually heavily costumed and made up, how did you feel about exposing your chest?
Tyler: There were certain things that made me say yes. James Patterson, his description of Alex Cross, and Rob directing – all of those things (Cohen said Tyler was closer to the look of the character than Morgan Freeman). When Rob told me he wanted me to be raw in it, he suggested Krav Maga (an Israeli self-defense trainer) and I liked it enough to know that I had to keep it up. It’s always been easier for me to have a costume to hide behind and here I had nothing and it was challenging and bit frightening, but usually that’s when I’ll take things on – when I’m a bit afraid. When there’s a bit of fear, I challenge myself to go as far as I can. So, taking the shirt off was pretty scary, but it’s okay.
How do you feel about having learned Krav Maga?
Tyler: When it’s all done, it’s so relaxing and it’s great to know how to defend yourself. It was Rob’s idea that I start taking it for the movie and I fell it love with it. It also has helped me to keep my weight down and I can now kick some ass and that’s pretty good. Thanks Israel (laughter).
Alex Cross seeks vengeance after tragedy befalls his wife and goes to a much darker place than the character in the novels. How did you develop that aspect of your character?
Tyler: I think everyone of us in life has some sort of moment that we wished we could have done differently or we wished that we could have had a different outcome. What I did in preparing for those moments, as I thought about those things, a lot of it was rooted in my past relationships, childhood situations, business deals, or things that I’ve gone through. So, there were many times when I had to tap into my own experiences to be able to get to a place where I could convincingly become that character in those moments – the intrigue, the revenge, the fight, the fight back. It’s not me by nature, but I think we all have a bit of it in us and I just had to find a way to tap into it.
Was it easy for you to take off the director’s hat and just focus on your character and also did you learn anything from Rob that you can take into your own directing projects?
Tyler: I made a 100 percent commitment to let go. When I said yes, I was going to show up as talent for hire and that’s exactly what I did. I’m good at giving up control to people who know where they’re going and what they want to do. I can sit in the back of a car and ride cross-country if you know where you’re going and you know how to take me there. Rob is that kind of director – he knew where to go, he knew what he wanted, and knew how to get there, so I just followed along. That was easy for me. It would have been a tedious process had it been a director who was unsure of every situation.
Did you see the other Alex Cross films and did Morgan Freeman’s performance influence you in any way?
Tyler: I saw both films when they first came out, but let me tell you something. That’s Morgan frickin’ Freeman, okay? (laughter) You don’t try to anything that Morgan Freeman does. He was the voice of God in a movie okay? (laughter) So I knew going in that I could not try to be Morgan Freeman playing Alex Cross. I had to be the best Tyler Perry I could playing Alex Cross, so in that sense I tried to forget everything I saw.
Did you ever speak to him about the character?
Tyler: I did not. He’s the voice of God man. I’m not going to call him up and say what do you think? I did not speak to him about it but now that’s it all over, and after he sees it, maybe I will.
Will you be taking on more roles as a bad ass in the future?
Tyler: It depends and I’ll tell you why. I really committed to being this character and spent a lot of time with the Atlanta Police Department in their homicide and cold case divisions and was really involved in some things that I don’t do in my day-to-day life. So, after it was all over, I had to check in with myself to see how I felt about it because when you take on something that dark, you really have to commit and go into some dark places. I would consider it based on how far I would have to take my person, my mind, my body, soul, and spirit into that type of world before I would do it again because the only way to do it right is you have to go in and try and understand as much as you can about it, and that’s not always comfortable.
Your films have a moral core to them but despite being a family man, your Alex Cross goes into some very dark places. How do you think the your audience will receive the shift in your character’s moral compass and will they accept you as a kick-ass character?
Tyler: The great thing about my audience is that even though there is an association with me with the character of Madea, they have seen me in other roles and have supported me. They’ll understand that this is an acting role and was something I didn’t write, produce, and direct so I don’t think there’s going to be any resistance to it. I have a very strong feeling that they’re going to enjoy the movie as a fun, action thriller and accept it as a movie rather than a moral play that tries to raise consciousness, which is what I’ve tried to do before. I think in this story, given what he (Cross) went through, the ends justify the means. I may lose a lot of the grandmothers who come out after church, but I’ll do something for them little later on. For me, it’s all about evolving, growing, and trying something new.
Do you feel that you’ve turned the corner and are now wide open to do whatever you want to?
Tyler: I don’t know if it’s wide open. The audience is going to determine whether it’s wide open or not. But for me, what I’ve never wanted to do was allow myself to be put in a box, so I’ve tried to do a lot of different things so this is a step in trying to do something different so we’ll see how it goes. I’m under no illusions that this is slam-dunk. I did the best I could and that’s all I can rely on.
Did the character of Madea inform your Cross character in any way?
Tyler: As far as Madea goes, let me tell you Madea doesn’t live with me all the time. These are two different, very specific characters and I don’t think there’s any part of her in him and I don’t think there’s any part of him in her. It’s taking on both roles and trying to be as convincing as I can with each of them.
The film had a limited budget but was it luxurious given your budgets are usually pretty small?
Tyler: Because he had three times what I had and what he was trying to accomplish? (laughter) What he managed to put together with this movie at that budget was astounding to me and he should be applauded because as I watched it played back, it looked like a big, huge $100 million movie.
Do you now want to make films on a larger scale or direct an Alex Cross movie?
Tyler: My movies are simple stories. Put the camera over there and tell the story. I have some of those ideas, but the thing is being Alex Cross on that set and watching and learning and paying attention to everything that was going on there, I realized that here’s a moment for me to learn so until I learn and understand more about how those types films are done – action, sci-fi – even though I have a desire to do it, I won’t go into it until I’m very clear that I can do it and that moment hasn’t come yet. Maybe one day I will ready, but for now, I just enjoyed playing the character.
Were you responsible for the casting of Cicely Tyson as your grandmother?
Tyler: I had nothing to do with her being hired and was very surprised and elated and happy to have an opportunity to work with her when I wasn’t directing her. She’s a legend with and class and the grace.
How do you see your association with OWN (Oprah Winfrey’s Network) in developing material for television and film?
Tyler: I’ve been doing television for quite some time, so Oprah and I thought it was a great idea to partner up. I am going to buy my own network and I thought it was a great opportunity for both of us. It’s a win-win because I get the opportunity to give her what she needs, which is programming, and at the same time, I get to learn how to run a network.