Words by Terry Shropshire
Images by Hiltron Bailey for Steed Media Service
Just as the American Dream became visible on the horizon, Tyler Perry placed himself on career suicide watch. His fans watched incredulously as Perry, who had scaled the summit of black filmmaking, immortalizing himself in the annals of Hollywood found himself at his absolute nadir emotionally and unsure if he wanted to continue making movies. The string of No. 1 movies and the fulfillment of his dream — that of being a major motion picture filmmaker— could not obscure the fact that Perry felt ensnared in a gilded prison. The story of how he corralled his heart from the depths of despair, became the basis of his gripping tale The Family that Preys.
“I was going through this time in my life where I was having a lot of success but I wasn’t happy. I had just finished a couple of movies and I’d been famous for a long time among black people. When I was walking around, I was getting all this love and support and high-five[s] and whatnot, but when the movies started to come out and I started to raise my head above water, people started taking shots at me,” he recalls.
The verbal darts and nails from critics began to pierce Perry’s psyche. The encroachment into his private affairs became a constant irritation. The tide of hate that rose from critics began to drench his artistic fire. As much as he tried to immerse himself in his work, the personal pain became evident in his youthful looks. Even now, Perry still bears some of the emotional scars from being cut by fame’s sharper edges. “I had never dealt with this before, I had never experienced this type of negativity before,” he says. “I had never experienced people stalking me and jumping my fence and the other foolishness that I’d been dealing with.”
But as has been demonstrated throughout history, personal drama makes for the best art, especially when it can be harnessed through a transformational vehicle like the big screen. In this case it is The Family that Preys, starring Academy Award-winner Kathy Bates and Academy Award-nominee Alfre Woodard in a film that Perry wrote, directed, produced and starred in and which served as a catharsis for Perry. The movie centers around a pair of beloved matriarchs who watch helplessly as family members prey upon one another in the constant and futile pursuit of happiness and success — a fruitless endeavor that winds up destroying relationships as well as themselves. As in previous Perry productions, the movie’s inspiration emanates from his personal experiences.
“I was at a place where I didn’t want to continue. So someone said, ‘Are you living or are you existing?’ and I said ‘Wow, that’s a good thought.’ I heard Bobby Womack singing ‘I Hope You Dance’ [and] I said ‘Man, I’m not enjoying my life. I’m not enjoying this part of it,’ ” he confesses.
Even now, one can discern an underlying sadness tinged with resentment that still lingers in his voice. “So that’s where the story came from. That’s my catharsis. Every day is a gift to live. And I’ve since learned how to deal with all of those people,” he adds, blowing the gloom out of the room with one infectious guffaw. “I got this thing called ‘Go to hell’ that I’m really enjoying right now,” he says as the room of reporters erupted in laughter.
Acclaimed actress Taraji P. Henson of Baby Boy and Hustle & Flow, plays Perry’s wife Pam in the Lionsgate film and can corroborate how fame can alter reality in unintentional and very unpredictable ways. “Going home for me is different now, because … when I first got into this industry, people said ‘You’ll know [you’ve made it] if the people around you start to change. You won’t necessarily change, but the people around you will change.’ I started noticing … the way people regard me now,” she laments, nearly in mourning for her pre-fame social status. “It’s the screaming I can’t get used to. ‘Oh my God! It’s Taraji Henson.’ Like I’m trying to get used to that. I’m just a regular person. I go to PTA meetings for my son. I do all of my own shopping. I like living a normal, regular life. In my opinion, what I do is a job. I’m blessed to do what I love to do, but at the end of the day it pays the bills.”
Together, Henson and Perry form a mutual admiration society that percolates on-screen. Perry was already familiar with Henson’s body of work, especially after her breakout performance in the career-making Hustle & Flow opposite Terrence Howard. “After I saw her in Talk to Me, I said, ‘I have to work with this woman because she’s a firecracker.’ ”
For her part, Henson was just happy to not play another woman on screen who looked like she desperately needed shock treatment. “When I ended up getting the script, I was like ‘wow, I get to play a regular girl.’ ” Henson laughed, grateful to Perry for not casting her as a baby-mamma ‘hood rat. “Comedy is actually my strongest suit. Just because I haven’t been in a comedy doesn’t mean that I can’t do comedy. But I think if you watch all of my characters, you laugh.”
There’s no doubt about that. Henson is a routine scene-stealer whose electric performances and on-screen histrionics always seem to leave a lasting impression with her fans. Sometimes, she’s too good. The downside, Henson says, is that those characters began to stick to her like Scotch tape. She would get posted up on the streets from moviegoers who couldn’t differentiate the real Henson from her roles. “Yes, they think that’s who I am, especially [my character from] Baby Boy. That’s the one I can’t get away from. Like, I can be 80 years old and they will still scream ‘I hate you Jody’ to me,” she says with an undertone of amazement and wonder. “Yeah, they kinda think that’s who I am. If they saw me in person they think ‘oh, she’s boring.’ No I’m just joking. I’m far from boring. But they think that I’m going to be some baby’s mamma from the ‘hood, sucking my teeth and snapping my fingers. That’s not me at all.”
The real Henson is a Washington, D.C., native with a 14-year-old son, and she’s always seen herself operating in a space with the Hollywood upper crust — which has come to fruition. “When I started out on this journey I saw myself as an A-list actress. I mean, who wants to be a B actor? I saw myself with the likes of Forest Whitaker, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle and the other greats,” she says. “I’m trying to build a repertoire of work that will outlast me. Once I’m long gone, hopefully people will still be talking about my work in acting classes. That’s what I’m trying to do.
She’s certainly not doing it to get paid or to have people genuflect in her direction whenever she appears in public; if so she would have exited the business by now. “People get into this industry for different reasons. Some people want attention. We all want to be loved. That’s how God made us as humans,” she says. “Some people get into the industry for money. They wanna get paid. For me, it’s a craft. I train and I study. It’s about the craft and love for the art.”
The same goes for Perry. After emerging from that dark period in his life, with the aid of invaluable advice from friends like Oprah Winfrey [must be nice to have her on speed dial], Tyler is totally attuned to his larger purpose in life. Besides, he has too many people inside and outside of the business who feed off his success and need him to continue to make inroads in an unforgiving environment.
“I’m a big fan of Tyler’s, because one of the things that is lacking in the industry is our story,” says Sanaa Lathan who put forth arguably her best performance yet on the big screen. “Tyler obviously is putting different aspects of our story on the screen. There is such a lack of being able to see yourself on the screen in Hollywood. So I’ve always admired him for that.”
Tyler gushes unabashedly over his team’s ability to procure the services of Hollywood heavyweights, Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard, as well as young stars such as Lathan and Henson. But that’s the point: ever since he purged his soul of the negativity that began to corrode it, Perry has been able to level his gaze on the many blessings that he previously overlooked. The experience, though, helped birth the lesson provided in The Family that Preys.
“It is a twist in the story, but what Kathy’s character represented is that you can everything in the world. You can have everything you’ve ever worked for. You can have it where you have everything in life. You can have all the money, family, everything. But if you don’t have your health and your memory, what do you have?” he asks rhetorically. “So it’s like, live everyday like it’s your last.”