I’ve personally never felt that characters of African decent should be inherently good, educated, or of a particular caliber in order to be presented in film and on television. In my opinion, that is an argument of past centuries, when the narrative of Black Americans on screen may have needed a particular sort of trajectory. I also feel that everyone has a right to tell their stories, but I don’t feel that these stories should be mediocre or inherently stereotypical, which is why I often find the work of Tyler Perry extremely problematic. Still, despite my criticisms and the criticisms of others, Perry has carved out a prolific path for himself in the entertainment industry. From his stage plays to his body of films, and now with four shows on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network, including, “Love Thy Neighbor” and “The Haves and the Have Nots”, which premièred last week to over 3 million viewers, it’s clear that his audience is always eager to tune in.
At a recent press event for “The Haves and the Have Nots” and “Love Thy Neighbor”, Tyler Perry, as well as some of the casts from both series, including John Schneider, Angela Robinson, Patrice Lovely, and Palmer Williams sat down to talk about the success of the shows, Perry’s writing process, and being a part of OWN Network. Shadow and Act was there to take it all in. Here are some of the highlights.
On the Evolution of Both “The Haves and the Have Nots” and “Love Thy Neighbor”
Tyler Perry: What’s amazing about this, is that we are about to cross one hundred episodes for both of these shows. What’s so great about it is, that you start one way, but the characters dictate where they want to go, and how they want to go. If you look at a show when it first starts, you go, ‘hum…how is going to go?’ but by the tenth episode, you see the characters start to gel, and you really start to believe them. That’s what has happened with both of these shows. By episode fifteen we had settled in. I think at this point in both the shows, the characters have evolved and the show has a evolved. With Veronica (Angela Robinson ‘HAHN’) having one or two lines in the first show, I didn’t know she was going to turn out to be this character, but I love the madness of it. I love the insanity of it.
On the Writing Process
TP: I’ve said this before, I don’t have a writer’s room, I write all of the shows myself. Ninety-one episodes a season, I’m sitting at the computer writing, writing and writing. I want the voice to be authentic, so the audience is hearing from me and not other writers. There are a lot of other shows on the air that are fantastic shows, but they have writer’s rooms. The people that we love the most only write one or two episodes a season. What’s great about it when your writing for actors like this, who are tremendously talented, you can throw anything at them. I sit in a room and as I’m sitting at the computer, and I can hear these characters talking. The only thing that is difficult for me is to force one show out of my head so that Eddie doesn’t sound like Joe, or that Mama Hattie doesn’t sound like Angela which in a way they kind of do. If you look at the characters themselves, and the shows themselves they are very different and don’t think people really give credit to how different each show is. The pleasure that I take is being at work for the actual characters themselves. So, the minute that they stop talking we have a problem.
On Branding “Tyler Perry Presents”
TP: Very early on when I started doing these plays and live shows, I was traveling from city to city and there were a million shows out there, and I wanted to step out among it. So, I started putting my name above the title. I remember getting to a city and talking to one of the promoters because my name wasn’t on the marquee, and we had this argument about it. He said, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Even then, when nobody knew my name, I had this idea to build a brand, and if you’re going to build a brand then people have to recognize that brand, and when they see that brand, people have to get what they expect from that brand. For example, when you buy Coca-Cola you don’t taste Pepsi. So that’s what is always been about for me. The “Tyler Perry Presents” has never been about ego; it’s never been about look at me. It’s about the fact that I want this brand to be identified with this kind of entertainment.
Palmer Williams: Also it’s proper etiquette in theater to put the author’s name first.
On the Energy on Set Between the Casts of the Various Shows
Patrice Lovely: We have the most fun because it’s like Tyler handpicked each and every one of us. It’s like he knew our spirits, he knew we would gel, and that’s exactly what happened. On script and off script, we have a ball. We enjoy what we do. Even when we’re on vacation we’re running lines, we just enjoy each other’s time. That’s why its so awesome onscreen.
Angela Robinson: “The Haves and the Haves Nots” is the same way, and we also really enjoy the cast of Love Thy Neighbor.” We have a great time together when we are together. We go out and we just really really love one another. We are there for the highs and lows of one another’s lives; when there are losses we show up for each other. I believe when it’s that kind of thing, it really starts from the top. Tyler Perry promotes that at the studio and we all just fall in line. We all love one another a whole lot, and you can feel that love when you come to the studio.
John Schneider: It’s also hard work, but it’s wonderful hard work. I liken it to doing a “New York Times” crossword puzzle with a sharpie. You are committed to whatever the task is at hand. 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. We work a lot hours
On the Filming Structure at Tyler Perry Studios
TP: A show like “Scandal”, or a show like “Empire” takes a week and a half to shoot one episode. Their budget is almost five times what we have to spend on an episode. We shoot an episode in a day and a half, so we are moving non-stop. We have to come to set ready to go, that’s why I love these people, and that’s why I love working with theater actors and people who have been around this a long time. We all come together to do this, and they all get it right away. And for the sitcoms, they are doing three and four episodes in two days. It’s a different kind of experience because in Hollywood, a sitcom takes seven days to shoot. I just started a whole different system, I went out to LA and I saw the way things were done and I thought, there is another way to do this without killing everybody. I think we’ve managed to do it very well.
On Celebrities & Social Responsibility
TP: For Black Lives Matter and those kind of issues, I will say this, I love to have a more intimate fight when it comes to helping people and those kind of situations. There was a man named Terrence Williams, and a man named Felipe Santos that I’ve been fighting for years. They were put into the back of a deputy ‘s squad car, the deputy’s name was Steve Calkins, and both of them disappeared . One was a Mexican immigrant, and the other was a Black man with a history of incarceration. No one would ever give Mr. Williams’ mother any press when she would try to find out what had happened to them. So, I prefer to be on the frontlines of things that move me in that way. I think it’s just as powerful as being apart of like Black lives Matter. But, what’s important to me is that someday these two men that disappeared almost 14 years ago now, have a voice from someone like me who can speak up for them. As far as issues like the Black Lives Matter movement appearing on the shows, I shoot too fast to stay current of what’s going on. The shows are already done for 2016; we’re working on 2017 now. So we’re that far ahead in how we shoot, and it’s very difficult for me to be timely in my messages. I’m not a social media person; I don’t know what’s going on unless somebody tells me. I write and work so much that people have to stop me and say. ‘Did you know this happened?’ That’s how I like to live my life because; I’d rather focus on the good that I’m trying to put out versus everyone else’s heartache and hardship.
On Keeping the Faith
TP: For me, there is a guiding compass that just lives inside of me. Every time I‘ve gone against it, something bad has happened. As long as I stay in line and honor it, it has really been life changing. That is the way I have written these shows, and that is the place where I write these shows from. If you look at “The Have and the Have Nots”, I didn’t want to write a show where everyone is great and wonderful and perfect. I wanted to write it so that you’re not really sure who the haves are. You look at Hanna and you see that she doesn’t have much, but she has great faith. The Christians were having a fit because Hanna is so all over the place, but she’s so real. She represents such a real version of a Christian. I couldn’t make her too perfect so that nobody would be able to relate to her. She represents that Christian that falls short, that makes mistakes, that has to repent, that has to pray hard for forgiveness. I don’t know one Christian that can’t relate to that, so for me its my compass that is leading me to whatever is truth, whatever is right, and that’s the path I’m supposed to go down.
PL: I think I just kind of stay in tuned to everything. I don’t do a lot of TV, I just do a lot of meditating, I listen to a lot of music, and I do a lot of outside stuff. I think that’s what keeps me grounded.
JS: I’ve always believed that God designs us to do something very specific for his purpose. When you start to fail, is when you think God has designed you to do something for your purpose. It’s not your purpose; it’s not about you. What are you? What are you designed to be? It’s important to me to always check whether I am operating within my design; my specific design. It’s a very specific design, there are as many designs as they are people. So the trap is to look at somebody else’s design and say, ‘I want to be more like that’, because that’s not what its about.
TP: This speaks to my shows and how I write. People say, ‘Well Tyler why aren’t you doing this, or using this kind of person? Why do your characters have to look like this? All of that speaks to what John just said. As an individual, you don’t have to conform to what everybody else thinks. You don’t have to conform to what everybody thinks success should look like, it has to be true to you. I’m not interested in doing “Star Wars”. It’s an amazing movie, but that’s not my gift. I tell the stories that I tell that relate to the people who love what I do. That is the place and the path that I know I am supposed to be on. The minute I try and go do something else, it will be amazing to watch how quickly that don’t work.
AR: I’ve always prayed, God show me my purpose, what would you have me do? I believe that purpose from a young age was acting; that’s what I wanted to do. I realized that was my purpose would lead to my service. So, whatever I do as an actor I have to serve though that. My mantra everyday is ‘How can I be of service you God?’ ‘How can I use what you’ve given me?’ Sometimes you don’t know about it, sometimes these are things you would never here about but we are servicing others.
PW: Just coming from humble beginnings, and not feeling like I knew where I was gong to end up. I still feel like I’m only forty percent of where God has me to go. I know that you gifts and your talents are what got you there, but your character keeps you there, and that’s why I want to be a man of great character.
Choosing to Film in Atlanta
In New Orleans growing up, Hurricane Katrina blew the roof off of the poverty that was there. So when I got to Atlanta for the first time, I saw Black people doing well. They were taking their kids to restaurants and theaters and things that we had never done growing up. So, that’s why its so important for me to have the studio right in the heart of Atlanta. I’ll never forget when President Obama came to the studio to do a fundraiser back in 2012; when he drove that police motorcade down the blocked off streets, I got a chance to see the faces of all of those brown children looking and waving their flags, I knew they would never have had that experience had the studio not been in that place. I saw the hope.
On Oprah Winfrey and OWN
TP: The biggest thing for me is that when I was watching “The Oprah Winfrey” show at eighteen or nineteen years old, and she says ‘Its cathartic to write things down”, I had to go and look up what cathartic means. So, I take that and I learned, and I started writing. Adding twenty something, thirty something years to that, having the opportunity to be on her network and writing shows for her, that is one of the most awe-inspiring things ever. I couldn’t even write that story. And, to also be in this situation where I have four shows on the network that are doing really well. I want to set the narrative straight. If it had not been for Oprah leaving her show and sitting in as the CEO and putting the right people in place that were needed to make the network work, and becomes successful; had it not been the power of Oprah, the advertisers would have left long before I even got there. It was the power of Oprah that saved the network and turned it around, and it is the business sense of Oprah to say, come do this for my network. So, that is the true narrative. Yes we have great ratings, but Oprah herself has set that network on the right path and she is the wind that is pushing it in the right direction.
PL: I think I’m just excited. I’m love Tyler Perry, I love Oprah and I appreciate everything. The fact that he took the cast of ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ there, I’m just overjoyed. I say that wherever he leads I’m going to follow.
AR: I think we all just hit the jackpot here, having the opportunity to work for the OWN Network. I have had the pleasure of doing “The Color Purple” on Broadway that Oprah produced. Knowing she was producing it gave us all this comfort just knowing we were all well cared for. Fast-forward years later, and having this opportunity to work with both Oprah and Tyler Perry, I just felt like I was in the best hands.
PW: I’m very exited. I have the two greatest bosses you can have in the entertainment industry. I get to go to work only 35miles away from my home. I work with one of the most prolific writers of this generation, and I get to go home and take my son to baseball practice. I get to be in Hollywood in Atlanta. I get do all of that because this gentlemen has allowed me to fulfill my dreams through his vision so I can’t be nothing but excited.
JS: I have had the great fortune of being on television since 1978. So I’ve seen a lot of changes. I came from a three-network world, and then cable came in, and then the Internet came in. Even when I was on “Smallville”, it was frightening to know that the fate of a television show and the fate of all of the people on it, their livelihoods, and their ability to be able to able to care for their families were in the hands people who really had no vested interest in the show. Now to being doing a show like “The Haves and the Have Nots”, and being able to play a character that is so delightfully wickedly wrong, I know that my fate with regards to the show is in the hands of two people who are incredibly invested. They’re not just invested emotionally, spiritually and financially, but we know them, we work with them. Yes we work for them, but it feels like we’re all in together, and we’re all enjoying tremendous success that is shared with us. That’s a completely foreign experience to me.
Check out Tyler Perry’s “The Haves and the Have Nots” Tuesdays at 9PM ET on OWN
Tyler Perry’s “Love They Neighbor” has new episodes Fridays at 9PM ET on OWN.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami