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updated: 8/15/2014 9:29 PM

Tyler Perry at Willow Creek talks about mixing artistry, leadership

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  • Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels, left, talks with Tyler Perry onstage during the Global Leadership Summit on Friday at the South Barrington church.

       Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels, left, talks with Tyler Perry onstage during the Global Leadership Summit on Friday at the South Barrington church.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Tyler Perry tells Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels how a difficult, yet inspiring childhood informs his work today.

       Tyler Perry tells Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels how a difficult, yet inspiring childhood informs his work today.
    Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer


Faith in God and a desire to champion underdogs like himself took Tyler Perry from a poor and abusive household in Louisiana to being one of the most influential voices in American entertainment.

The actor, filmmaker, writer and director spoke about the life lessons he's both learned and taught during Willow Creek Community Church's Global Leadership Summit in South Barrington Friday.

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In front of a packed church, Willow Creek Senior Pastor Bill Hybels interviewed Perry about the many dualities of his life -- poverty and affluence, artist and businessman, anger and forgiveness.

Perry said the creative and business roles he juggles in his life are ones he tries to keep rigidly separated for both their sakes. But he believes both are products of the pain and joy he experienced in childhood.

"For me, they were both born in the same place," Perry said. "They're like twins in my head."

His alcoholic and abusive father created in him a need to escape through imagination. But his father's work ethic and pride as a carpenter and contractor were an equal influence, he said.

Perry finds both traits necessary not only in his own work but also in those he works with. He finds it difficult to interact with people whose artistic gifts have crowded out all self-discipline and business sense.

But when hiring people at his 30-acre studio campus near Atlanta, he's more likely to go with the person less qualified on paper but who possesses the right attitude.

"What I try to do is surround myself with people that are like me," Perry said. "I was the underdog."

Perry spoke about the long, difficult relationship he had with his abusive father and the path to glory that was shown to him by his mother.

"Being a little boy there, not being able to protect her, was traumatic to me," Perry said.

But every Sunday morning his mother would wake him up to take him to church, where he would see this victimized woman transformed into a singing, dancing, joyful person.

"I want to know the God that makes my mother so happy," he thought. "I want to know that Jesus."

Hybels commended Perry for addressing in his writings an aspect of forgiveness too often overlooked by most Christian theologians. Though it's expected and beneficial, it's far from easy.

Perry said it takes as much energy to forgive someone who has wronged you as it did to survive their abuse or betrayal in the first place.

"You can't just turn on a switch and it goes away!" he said.

What was scary to him about forgiving his father was having to give up the fuel that had sustained his quest for success up to that point. But freeing oneself from the effects of another's bad influence provides its own reward, he said.

"You do not deserve that, and they do not deserve to have that kind of power over you," Perry said.

In talking about Perry's work itself, Hybels could hardly avoid the recurring character of the wise but crusty "Madea" whom Perry has played in several films.

Perry said the original influence came from seeing Eddie Murphy play an older woman in "The Nutty Professor" films. But Madea herself is specifically "a PG version" of the women in his own family. Many of her mannerisms come from one particular aunt, while Perry's mother is the kind side of the character, he explained.

In all of his television series, films and plays, Perry said he wants there to be a message, not just a story or a laugh. One much more serious film, "Good Deeds," reflected his own experiences of being both a "have" and a "have not," and how people from those two worlds relate to each other.

Dealing with critics is a responsibility shared by both the artist and the leader, Perry said. When two critics once varyingly described one of his plays as both the best and worst thing they'd ever seen, he realized critics are more often describing their own life experiences than the work of art itself.

He was once told that a woman who'd planned to commit suicide gathered her kids together for what -- unknown to them -- she intended to be their final weekend of fun together. One child asked that they watch a Tyler Perry play on DVD, which ended up inspiring the mother with a new perspective on her life. No bad review could compete with the importance of that, he said.

Asked to comment about the state of race relations in the U.S. -- especially with tensions boiling in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of an unarmed teen by a police officer -- Perry said gradual improvement is all one can expect.

"What I hope is that every generation gets better, and I think that's what's happening," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight."

On philanthropy, Perry said at first he simply felt so guilty about having money that he gave it all away. But once that passed, he became more thoughtful and strategic about identifying needs and where money could do the most good.

"I'm my mother's son, and she had a heart for giving," Perry said.

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