Words by Terry Shropshire
Images: Courtesy of the TBS Network
Tyler Perry’s new sitcom “For Better or Worse” will have a fortuitous beginning since it debuts around Thanksgiving. That’s because urbanites already have their figurative dinner cloths tied around their necks, waiting to feast — no, wait … gorge themselves — on the hilarious theatrics of Tasha Smith’s and Michael Jai White’s characters.
From the pyrotechnics that popped off with impunity in the blockbuster movies, Why Did I Get Married? and Why Did I Get Married Too?, fans of the famous on-screen couple believe that Marcus and Angela have their metaphorical carving knives already sharpened, ready to dissect each other into sections of meat in the TBS half-hour sitcom that begins Nov. 25. Reuniting with Perry, who directed the films, Smith and White will reprise their roles as the ex-athlete-turned-sports commentator and the wife with the molten lava lips. It’s like settling in and waiting for the fireworks to light up the nighttime skies.
That’s why, when White and Smith joined me for a brief interview about how the actors turned their popular characters into a highly anticipated show television sitcom, “For Better or Worse,” it really rocked me to hear them shower each other with sibling-like affection.
“Hey, Tash-Tash!” White says.
“Hey, Mike-Mike! How are you?” Smith answers with her signature high-octane and energetic voice. “I am happy to hear your voice!”
Listening to these two having a long-distance love-fest was like watching a thunderstorm indoors or seeing water running uphill. It just didn’t register with the brain initially.
“The first thing you should know is that Michael and I never fight off-screen,” Smith says, setting the record straight for the Marcus-Angela fan club, some of whom have associated White and Smith so much with Marcus and Angela that they’ve become almost interchangeable. That’s what is so significant about this grand production. There are a lot of things that you don’t know about Tasha and Michael and Marcus and Angela that you soon will.
It was also a treat learning: what topics will be broached on the show, how the characters will be fleshed out for the fans’ delight, how they feel about Tyler Perry haters, their favorite sitcom couples, and their most irritating fan encounters.
All right, strap yourselves in and get ready to ride the emotional corkscrew roller-coaster ride called “For Better or Worse.”
What do you hope people will be able to see now that the characters you’ve made famous on the big screen have been fleshed out in a sitcom setting?
Michael: That’s the thing, people are going to be able to see the quieter moments between Marcus and Angela. Something that we always wanted to show, to show why we’re in this [marriage].
Tasha: I agree exactly with what Mike says. We’ve always wanted people to see why these people are so committed to one another. And the root of that is their love for each other. And we still believe that, through this show, we’re going to be able to go out of the four corners of the script that people saw in Why Did I Get Married? and Why Did I Get Married Too? and see more of their life and more of their love and more of their communication. And hopefully, some of the qualities that Michael and I naturally have for toward another, we’ll be able to reveal more of that through the relationship between Angela and Marcus. They are very much in love; they’ve just had circumstances that create drama and trauma in their relationship.
You may want to present well-rounded characters, but trust and believe that people also want to see you two fire verbal missiles at each other as well:
Michael: Oh, they’re going to get that [outbreak of laughter]. But, as in the movie, the only way people root for us, [is that] we’re able to show the qualities and the love for each other even while bickering. There are subtleties that you have to have in the character. If they fought for us from the movies, then I think they will have more to draw from with the TV show.
In fact, who are your favorite TV couples from your childhood?
Michael: I didn’t use any for inspiration, but I do have my favorite couples. Tasha is one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met in my life. She’s inspiration enough. So [Marcus’ and Angela’s] dynamic as a couple is their dynamic. You can’t really borrow from that because it wouldn’t be organic. However, there are things that can be influenced. I have not seen a couple quite like Marcus and Angela. I’m excited to do something that I haven’t seen before that I think is very much in the modern world and [[chuckles] very much closer to what people are living right now. But my favorite TV couple is Edith and Archie Bunker. Because they were such individuals that I can’t imagine anyone else playing them. And I think that Archie was one of the greatest characters ever on television. Even with his flaws, you loved him.
Tasha: I like George and Weezie [from “The Jeffersons”]. If I looked at George and Weezie, my character would be George and Michael would be Weezie.
But if I had to use a reference — I don’t see anyone on TV like them — different couples, you could say that Marcus and Angela are a cross between “Mad About You” “Married with Children” and the love of “The Cosby Show” that you may not have seen a lot of on the big screen. But [Marcus and Angela] do have that love, that sensibility, that passion to raise their children right and love them.
With all that Tyler Perry has accomplished, how do you feel about the haters who keep popping up at regular intervals to try to tear down his game?
Michael: Personally, I’m very disheartened by what you call “hateration.” I feel like I missed my era, because I remember the time when black people uplifted each other and looked for the positives. I feel sorry for the people who live their lives in the negative default setting because they filter out what’s good, and that’s no way to live. In this day and age, the media, these tabloid [blogs] are making their living off the negativity. I think blacks have been through enough of that and I think there is a whole lot that’s wonderful about ourselves. And what is great is that Tyler is bringing light to all of that.
Tasha: One thing that I love is seeing the hundreds of people that are employed because it takes a collaborative effort for Tyler to film a television show, to film a movie — to do whatever it takes to do what he did within that studio that he built in an urban community. When you look at the economy and with unemployment the way it is right now, we have to give credit and celebrate the fact that this man has stayed on his course regardless of what people have said. He has stayed on his track, which has created opportunities for people to take care of their families. When I see the lighting, the grip, the drivers, the PAs, when I think of the families that they have that are being supported, I can’t get caught up in the “hateration” because he has like 300 employees there and think about how blessed they are because they have those jobs.
Tasha, when you get, like Drake’s song “Fancy” says, “nails done, hair done, everything did,” who do you turn to and who are your favorite designers?
Tasha: First of all, I am the very low-maintenance girl, but when I need to put it all together, I always need the help of a great stylist. Kiyah Wright and Rico Jackson out of L.A., are my go-to people. Designers? I’ve got to tell you, I’m stuck on that. Don’t get me started. I can’t even begin to break it down to you. I just put on what they give me and half the time I don’t know who they are. But it’s so true. I’m a jeans and T-shirt person.
Mike, you have ventured into directing recently, so what did Tyler teach you as he went about his work?
Michael: Tyler is a hybrid, the guy knows writing, directing and construction. With construction, you have to be able to map out things ahead of time. And it kind of explains how his success has happened. I look at that, and I’m influenced by that. I directed a movie last year for Sony, and I had two movies back to back. And I said, “Well, I know it can be done because I’ve seen Tyler do it.” I darn near needed to go to the hospital afterward, but I did it.
What topics are going to be covered in the sitcom?
Tasha: Every single thing that has to do with marriage and relationships. And when you think about marriage and relationships, there are so many dimensions: communication, children, family, work, household … everything. We are going to touch upon everything. It’s not just going to be about them fighting every week, but it’s going to be about them living their life. And in that, sometimes they are loving and making love and talking and laughing … and sometimes they may have their disagreements they have to work through with each other, their families, their household.
Michael: We have a wonderful opportunity to play two characters from somewhat dysfunctional backgrounds. And a lot of us are from single-parent households and haven’t learned the dynamics of a male and female household. You can’t learn the nuances and tricks [in advance]. You have to learn them along the way. And I think it’s great that we are able to do that and represent for so many in the black community who are learning as they go along, just like Marcus and Angela.
What would you be doing if you weren’t actors?
Tasha: I would be a preacher or psychologist [laughs heartily].
Michael: What I was before I became an actor, and that was a teacher. Either that or a cop.
Most weird or most touching experience with fans?
Michael: One time in public, this guy yelled out, when he saw the first movie, “Hey, did you get that VD worked out yet?” And I said, “what?!?’ and then everyone got quiet and he shut up. And then he said, “Oh, yeah, you also played Mike Tyson,” to which [I] answered: “Yeah, you have to decide which one I’m closer to.” … I was really touched when some dude, in some foreign country with his friends, made a video and called it “Michael Jai White Night.” It was all about them getting my movies, hanging out, drinking beers and watching two of my movies back-to-back. And I thought “Oh, my God,” I was really touched.
Tasha: I don’t have a lot of irritating moments other than people assuming I’m Angela. That’s kind of irritating, but not really, because I guess they believe the character so much that they think it’s me, you know?