During a storyteller conversation with Gayle King at Tribeca Film Festival, Tyler Perry spoke publicly for the first time about the moments after Will Smith infamously slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars. Perry was seen speaking to Smith after the incident, but the actor-director-producer made it clear that he was “de-escalating” the situation, rather than comforting Smith.
“I was there close up, I left early to go and check on Chris because it was wrong in no uncertain terms,” Perry said. “I made sure I said that to Will, and when we walked over to him, he was devastated. He couldn’t believe what happened.”
He continued, “I think he is very much in reflection of trying to figure out what happened.”
Perry went on to cite Smith’s best-selling memoir “Will,” where the Oscar-winning actor illustrated a moment when he was not able to protect his mother at 8 years old.
“I know that feeling, I’m getting chills thinking about it,” Perry said. “I know that feeling of being a man and thinking about the little boy. If that trauma is not dealt with right away as you get older, it will show up in the most inappropriate, most horrible time.”
But when King asked if Perry was comforting Smith at that moment, he made a clear distinction.
“There’s a difference between comforting and de-escalating,” Perry said. “Being friends with both of them, it’s been very difficult.”
However, the conversation mainly focused on the success of Tyler Perry Studios, which King was fast to point out as she introduced Perry.
“Tyler Perry Studios [is] 330 acres. How big is that? It’s reported to be larger than Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony — combined,” King said. “Round of applause, please.”
He responded, “Every time I hear that I think, ‘That’s why you’re so tired. That’s why you’re sleeping so much.’”
Perry, 52, was once homeless and sleeping in his car that was up for repossession. He’s now the highest-paid Black actor in Hollywood, and his payroll last year was $154 million.
“My payroll — not my bills — my payroll was $154 million,” Perry said. “And that is to 99 percent Black people. These are people who would never have had a shot in the industry.”
Much of Perry’s fortune comes from his gigantic film complex in Atlanta that is currently home to 12 soundstages. Perry said each stage was named after African Americans who truly inspire him, including Smith and fellow filmmaker Spike Lee, who once criticized Perry’s audience for voting with their time by “sitting in front of the idiot box.”
“I honored him because I don’t care what he said,” Perry said. “How can I ignore his contribution? Had he not done what he did, I wouldn’t be here.”
King, who emanated a fond appreciation of Perry’s work throughout the one-hour panel discussion, said he wasn’t driven by fame or money, but by loving his work.
“I’m not thinking about being tired, I’m not thinking about making another No. 1 movie,” Perry said. “Honestly, my hand to god, I’m thinking about the audience that I’ve cultivated from the beginning of my career. What do we want to see? What is going to speak to us? What’s going to make us laugh? That’s always the intention and everything else follows.”
That audience that Perry has cultivated over the years, however, hasn’t always been in line with the mainstream interests of Hollywood studios.
“There was this thing called ‘crossover’ when I started having success,” Perry said. " 'Tyler, what are you gonna do to crossover?' which meant 'what are you going to do to make white people like you? What are you going to do to be more mainstream?' I always rejected that because I always felt like whoever invented that line to crossover, that line goes both ways. Come over to what we doing, I don’t have to go over there.”
King accentuated how Perry has talked candidly about being an abuse survivor and the violence he witnessed growing up. When asked how he was able to heal without seeing a therapist, Perry pointed to his work.
“The work is the therapy,” he said. “As a writer, every character has a motivation. If I’m writing, ‘And she got up and she went over to the stove,’ there has to be a reason. Why did she go to the stove? What was she trying to do? Does she want to cook this? I started applying that to my own life. Why do you feel this way? Why did you say that? Why did you get so angry about that? Because I feel like everything in our lives as men, women and kids — there’s a string going back to something in your past. And for me, as a writer, I try and chase down that string for the motivation.”
To many people across the globe, Perry is best known as the creator and performer of the Madea character that has appeared in 11 films. While Perry initially planned to retire the fictional elderly woman, he’s decided to bring back the character for more projects.
“I was done, but the political divide, the social injustice, the hate and anger and rage, and us being bombarded and constantly fed with negativity was killing me,” Perry said. “I was like, ‘We gotta laugh. We got to do something. What do I have to make us laugh?’”
Perry believes that the solution to reducing this negativity is embracing bipartisanship.
“If nobody wants to come to the middle and have a conversation, then we’re always going to be polarized,” Perry concluded. “The healing and the help happens in the middle, and I’ve wished that we started electing officials that ought to stand in the middle.”