Madea, everyone’s favorite wise-cracking, take-no-prisoners grandma, jumps into action when her niece, Shirley, receives distressing news about her health. All Shirley wants is to gather her three adult children around her and share the news as a family. But Tammy, Kimberly and Byron are too distracted by their own problems: Tammy can’t manage her unruly children or her broken marriage; Kimberly is gripped with anger and takes it out on her husband; and Byron, after spending two years in jail, is under pressure to deal drugs again. It’s up to Madea, with the help of the equally rambunctious Aunt Bam, to gather the clan together and make things right the only way she knows how: with a lot of tough love, laughter…and the revelation of a long-buried family secret.
Tyler Perry – screenwriter, director and two-time star (as Madea and her brother, Joe) – returns with another tender and hilarious look at love and family ties with MADEA’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY, also starring Loretta Devine, Shad “Bow Wow” Moss, David Mann, Cassi Davis, Tamela Mann, Lauren London, Isaiah Mustafa, Rodney Perry, Shannon Kane, Teyana Taylor and Natalie Desselle Reid. Lionsgate and Tyler Perry .
UB Full [access]: Tyler Perry’s Madeas Big Happy Family
With the release of Lionsgate’s MADEA’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY, writer/director/star Tyler Perry offers a testament to the healing power of faith and family, told with his signature blend of laughter and pathos. At a time when many commercial films fit neatly into particular genres, Perry bucks the trend by combining broad humor and heartfelt drama, creating a world where physical comedy, sight gags and caricature intertwine with deeply felt stories about loss, abuse and broken lives. It’s a balance that, in the director’s opinion, is not unlike life itself.
“Comedy is all around me,” says Perry. “Even in some of the most serious situations, even in some of my greatest sadness, I find something to be joyful about. That’s why my films are the way they are. The audience wants to laugh. They want to have a little drama or melodrama. So I just love going all the way in both directions. And with Madea I can do that.”
“Tyler understands the healing power of humor,” says producer Reuben Cannon, who produced Perry’s first film, Lionsgate’s DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN in 2005 and has been part of Perry’s team ever since. “Sometimes to get the truth across, you can do it more effectively while they’re laughing.”
MADEA’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY marks Perry’s eleventh film production in approximately six years. In that short span, he’s outpaced every other writer/director making films for theatrical release, produced hit television shows and built his own 200,000 sq. ft. studio facility in his hometown of Atlanta. But as the latest work in a steady stream of entertainment emerging from Tyler Perry Studios, MADEA’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY holds special significance for the film magnate. “I wrote the play that the movie is based on as an homage to my mother who had passed away,” explains Perry. “Now I’m just really excited about having an opportunity to use this movie as my instrument to get through my own grief. Writing this story has helped me a great deal. And to be able to use something so tragic for me and pass it on to someone else and make them laugh, I have joy. It’s a good feeling.”
MADEA’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY begins with bad news. Shirley, the aged mother of three adult children, learns that she is gravely ill. But she greets this misfortune with the unflappable positivity of a woman of strong faith. Anchoring the large ensemble cast, veteran actress Loretta Devine imbues Shirley with a deep, all-encompassing maternal warmth that is all but lost on her troubled, self-involved children. “Shirley’s been sick for going on seven years and due to her illness she hasn’t been able to manage her children very well,” explains Devine. “She’s a soft-spoken woman who relies on prayer, as opposed to hard discipline.”
Anticipating her final days, Shirley only wishes to have her fractured family united around her when she shares the news of her prognosis. “She wants to look at her children,” Devine explains. “She wants them to feel her love and her care and her kindness.”
“Loretta has tremendous range as an actress,” says producer Roger M. Bobb. “What you need to be able to do in a Tyler Perry movie is go from drama to comedy in a snap – not from scene to scene, but sometimes literally from sentence to sentence. Very few actors can really pull that off. Loretta can.”
Unable to wrestle her children’s attention away from their own dysfunctional lives, Shirley naturally turns to the only person who commands the authority to make people listen: Madea. The hilarious no-nonsense grandmother played by Perry, Madea is no stranger to the filmmaker’s fans. Since her first appearance in Perry’s debut film DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN, Madea has been the cornerstone star of Perry’s ever-expanding gallery of characters and one of the primary reasons for the filmmaker’s enduring popularity. Simply put, audiences love her.
“At a time when there’s so much elusiveness about what is genuine or not, Madea is steadfast in her convictions,” says executive producer Ozzie Areu. “She’s a truth-teller. She comes in with her no-nonsense, tough-love approach and gets straight to the heart of the matter.”
“Madea loves people, but she doesn’t really care about your feelings,” adds Devine. “She just wants to tell the truth. Whatever nationality or culture you come from, no matter what language you speak, I think everybody has a Madea in their family.”
MADEA’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY features more of Madea than any other Perry film. But for his part, Perry admits he doesn’t always relish donning the dress and make-up to bring Madea to life. “All the make-up and the costumes while I’m directing is a lot. But audiences wanted more so I sucked it up and gave it to them,” he says. “I do love watching it back later on. I love to see what happens after it’s over. Madea’s energy is contagious. She’s not politically correct. Don’t ask her if you don’t want to know the plain, honest truth, because she doesn’t give a damn. I think that’s why people enjoy her so much.”
In this film, Perry has supplied Madea with an inspired new sidekick in Aunt Bam, a guileless cousin who shares the task of uniting Shirley’s children. Played by Cassi Davis, Aunt Bam is, in Perry’s words, “a wildcat and a wild card.” “Aunt Bam doesn’t judge,” says Davis of her character. “She actually just loves really, really hard.”
Years ago, when he was writing, directing and starring in stage plays (many of which were later adapted into his films), Perry pursued Davis for one of his productions, eventually casting her in the first incarnation of Aunt Bam. Explains Perry, “We created that character together on stage, and we went on tour doing it.” That production subsequently landed Davis a regular role on Perry’s television show, “House of Payne,” but the memory of Davis’ hilarious turn as Aunt Bam wasn’t easily extinguished. Perry continues, “I kept thinking about her. She’s so great and so funny. I said, ‘I’ve got to have you in the movie. We’ve got to have some fun with it.’ People are used to seeing her playing Ella, Miss Goody Two Shoes nice woman on “House of Payne.” But you see her cut loose in this one.”
“You can’t imagine anyone else playing Aunt Bam,” adds Cannon. “Cassi gave life to Aunt Bam when Tyler wrote the play. And in the film, that life has taken on another dimension. Seeing her with Tyler as Madea is just amazing. There’s an almost telepathic communication that takes place between them.”
Such a bond is not something in evidence between Shirley’s two daughters. The eldest, Tammy, is often overcome with anger, and she has no qualms taking it out on her endlessly accommodating husband, Harold. “Tammy’s very angry, very bitter,” explains actress Natalie Desselle Reid. “She’s very sensitive and emotional. Tammy tries to keep it all in control, but it’s very hard for her. She just throws all of her pain and disagreements on her husband without giving him a chance to figure it out or say a word.”
Explains Perry, “Tammy’s problem is she’s looking for her husband to take charge. But because he won’t, she’s had to. And it’s caused quite a deal of frustration and dissension between the two of them.”
Reid is quick to point out that this is not the way she treats her real life husband. “My husband would never allow it. I would never do it,” she avows. “But this character was so much fun to play because I could do it to Harold and he couldn’t do anything back!” “Harold is henpecked,” agrees actor Rodney Perry. “His wife Tammy is wilding out on him, his kids don’t respect him and it’s only with the help of Madea that he kind of finds his way.”
Tammy has a combative, and competitive, relationship with her sister Kimberly, who, according to actress Shannon Kane, is perhaps the film’s most challenging character. “She is mean. Really, really mean,” laughs Kane. “But every ounce of anger comes from something much deeper. People might say that she’s abusive to her family, but what’s really happening is that she’s abusing herself.”
It isn’t until the end of the film that the audience learns the cause of Kimberly’s anger, a revelation that casts the character in an entirely new light. “Sometimes when we hold secrets in families, we think that we’re doing a good thing,” says Kane, “that by not saying anything it allows us to keep moving forward and progress. But we’re really digressing into a hole that just curses generations.”
Like Tammy, Kimberly finds herself in a troubled marriage with Calvin, played by Isaiah Mustafa, who makes his feature film debut. Says Mustafa, “Calvin wants to help Kimberly out, because he sees a growing rift between her and her family. He wants to pull everybody together. But whatever he tries, it just doesn’t seem to work.”
Actor and rap wunderkind Shad “Bow Wow” Moss completes the trio of Shirley’s children in the role of Byron. Having recently spent two years in jail for drug dealing, Byron tries his best to stay on the right side of the law. “He wants to do the right thing, get back on track, take care of his son, live right,” says Moss. “He doesn’t want any part of the streets any more and he just wants to go through life without drama. But the drama is still around him.”
That drama comes in the form of mounting financial pressure to support the son he’s fathered with an ex-girlfriend and to satisfy the expensive demands of his materialistic girlfriend, Renee, played by Lauren London. “She’s money-hungry,” says London. “She’s all about herself and all about trying to entice him and get him to go left and not right.”
“I’m trying to change my life and that’s where we clash,” adds Moss. “She wants it how it used to be when I dealt drugs. But I’m trying to tell her, ‘Listen, we can have money, but let’s do it the right way.’”
Actress Teyana Taylor mines every opportunity for comedy as Byron’s baby momma from hell, Sabrina. “I’m always screaming for money and then I take it and spend it on clothes. I’m a hustler, you know?” laughs Taylor.
Perry is particularly excited by the inter-generational drama that results with the inclusion of younger cast members. “I love to have young people come into this situation and see how they live and then see how Madea lives,” he says. “Having all of that magic happen together, all those different generations represented, is very exciting.”
Rounding out the cast are Tyler Perry mainstays David Mann and Tamela Mann, who play father and daughter in the returning roles of Mr. Brown and Cora. “I’m basically Madea’s ex from a long time ago and Madea and I share a daughter,” explains David Mann. “In this movie, Mr. Brown thinks he’s dying. So Madea, in her own special way, tries to comfort him — by slapping him!”
Cora is faced with the unenviable task of trying to keep Madea and Mr. Brown on amicable terms. “I’m the encourager of the family, and the only one that’s keeping them from taking each other out,” says Tamela Mann.
Relations between Mr. Brown and Madea only get more strained when the question of Cora’s true paternity is raised. To resolve the issue, says Perry, “they do what every respectable, upright, Upper East Side family would do when they’re having issues: they go on the ‘Maury’ show to find out who the baby daddy is!” Perry recalls the day-long shoot on ‘Maury’ as a particular high point of production. “That day I laughed till I couldn’t laugh anymore. We were having such a good time that I forgot I was in costume.”
While they play father and daughter on screen, the Manns have been happily married for twenty-two years, and both have worked with Perry for quite some time. “David knows that character like the back of his hand. His timing, his ideas, he’s just amazing” avows Perry. “And Tamela, who said to me during my first play, ‘I’ll sing, but I can’t act.’ Here she is nine years later with her own television show and doing movies. I’m very proud of her.”
Tamela Mann laughs about the strangeness of playing daughter to her own husband. “David is very touchy feely,” she says with a smile. “And after we put on our costumes and I become Cora and he becomes my dad, Mr. Brown, I don’t want him to kiss me and touch me because we’re in character! I have to fight him off. But he’s constantly trying, saying ‘I don’t care, give me a kiss.’”
As with his past projects, Perry invited the cast to try their hand at improvisation on set. “I love giving people the freedom to be able to create their characters,” he says. “If you read one of my scripts, they are very nondescript in a lot of things or actions. I like to let the actor work with me in developing those special moments.”
“Sometimes things go a whole different route from the script,” reports David Mann. “Tyler leaves room for that. It keeps it fresh for us.”
However, cast members find the stakes considerably raised when they’re improvising opposite Madea, who’s a proven master at off-the-cuff comic rants. “The problem is you can get caught up laughing inside about what Tyler is saying and then you’ll totally miss your cue,” explains Moss. “He can take a sudden left turn and go on for five minutes. And then when he’s done, you better know your line and get back on board. It’s a lot of fun.”
“I didn’t say anything extra because I was scared to death!” confesses Devine. “You have to be really good to keep up. So I just stuck to my lines.”
Production on MADEA’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY took place in August, 2010, at Tyler Perry Studios and in various locations in Atlanta. On set, Perry established an efficient, focused pace that was quickly matched by the rest of the cast and crew. “It starts at the top with Tyler,” says executive producer and Tyler Perry Studios President Areu. “He provides a great environment for everyone to come together and create, as well as fosters an atmosphere of respect for everybody and admiration for the talent that everyone feels and adopts.”
Adds Bobb, “We don’t mind working as hard as we do because ultimately, it’s a blessing to have the opportunity to make movies that help people feel better about the situations they’re in or that inspire them to make changes in their lives.” Bobb refers to the many testimonies posted on Perry’s website by fans who have been inspired to make lasting, positive changes in their lives, whether it’s getting out of abusive relationships or finally deciding to seek counseling for long-standing problems. “Those are the things that really make our sixteen-hour days worthwhile.”
With MADEA’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY, Perry hopes audiences will be moved – by both laughter and tears – to live authentically and to embrace the simple act of loving as fully as possible. That, he says, is the key to any family’s survival. “No matter what’s happening in your life, no matter how tragic, live the best life you can. That’s the message,” he says. “You know, live a life for God, live a life giving love, live a life sharing love, as Shirley did in the movie. And your children, no matter how far they stray, will come back to what they know.”
IN THEATERS APRIL 22ND!