Sometimes the most important lessons in life can come from the most unexpected places. That’s one of the most comedic and enduring aspects of the new Tyler Perry movie ‘Madea’s Witness Protection,’ the fourth film based on one of the screenwriter-director-actor-producer’s plays. The filmmaker’s most well-known, beloved title character is back to not only show another family the true importance of caring for each other, but to also find out for herself what it means to experiment out of her comfort zone.
‘Madea’s Witness Protection’ follows George Needleman (Eugene Levy), the successful CFO of Wall Street investment bank Lockwise Industries, who contends with his frustrated second wife, Kate (Denise Richards), who has come to her limit caring for his senile mother, Barbara (Doris Roberts). They also have to deal with his rebellious teenage daughter from his first marriage, Cindy (Danielle Campbell), and their young son, Howie (Devan Leos), who wishes George was home more often. George gets the shock of his life when he finds out from his co-worker Walter (Tom Arnold) that the company is running a Ponzi scheme, and he’s been set up to take the blame.
Brian (Perry), now a federal prosecutor in Atlanta, gets the task of placing the Needlemans in witness protection, after they received threats from the mob. So he decides to move the family in with his aunt Madea and father Joe (both also played by Perry). As Brian works to solve the case, Madea works to straighten the Needlemans out with her trademark tough love. Jake (Romeo Miller), the son of the pastor (John Amos) of Madea’s church, decides to help in the case, after losing the money intended to pay off the church’s mortgage in an investment with Lockwise Industries.
The cast of ‘Madea’s Witness Protection,’ including Perry, Levy, Richards, Roberts, Miller, Arnold, Amos and Marla Gibbs, generously took the time to participate in a press conference at Le Parker Meridien hotel in New York. Among other things, they discussed the funniest parts of the movie, what it was like working together and what they learned from Madea.
Question (Q): Tyler, do you think it will be hard for audiences to accept you as Alex Cross in ‘Alex Cross’ when it’s released this fall?
Tyler Perry (TP): Alex Cross is such a departure for me. Wesley Deeds in ‘Good Deeds’ was the closest character I’ve ever played to Alex Cross. I think people will accept it, just as they accepted ‘Good Deeds.’
Q: Tyler, can you talk about two prominent themes in ‘Madea’s Witness Protection,’ and why you included them? The first theme being why corporations do the things they do, and also, what you drew from your own life and observations, to flush out the racial dynamics between a white and black family.
TP: Well, I had a bunch of money with Bernie Madoff, and when he took off…oh no, I’m kidding. (laughs) No, I was having dinner with a friend, and they were saying, and this is how the whole thing started, the best punishment for Bernie Madoff would to have a movie with Madea. I thought man, that is funny.
So I started writing the movie, and that’s where the whole process started. I thought, who would be the best person to play this guy? I thought, of course, Eugene Levy, who does an amazing job. (laughs) So that’s where it all started for me.
As far as the dynamic of drawing on my own experiences, I drew from my mother. God rest her soul, if we put her in a five star hotel, as we did once, or if you put her on an airplane and put her through security, you would have all of those scenes. Or if you put her at a dinner table with a bunch of white people, you would have a lot of things that we have there.
Q: We have followed Madea through all her movies. What would you say she learned this time around on her journey?
TP: (laughs) I don’t know if she’s learned anything. What I’m trying to do as I grow as a filmmaker and in life, I want to make sure the character’s growing. This is a classic fish out of water story. She’s a big fish out of water in New York, and so is this family down south in her house.
Q: Tyler, you said this was one of the funniest movies you’ve ever made. Can you or the cast talk about the funniest moments in the movie?
Eugene Levy (EL): For me, and I know for Denise, the funniest parts of the movie were being there for Tyler’s close-ups as Madea. (Perry laughs) When he isolates himself in a close-up, you do a scene, and that’s one thing. Everybody is doing the scene as scripted, more or less, because everyone’s got cues, and know when to come in, and when not to come in.
But when the camera goes in on a close-up, he just goes crazy. He just starts improvising and riffing in character.
TP: You had some great ad-libs. (laughs)
EL: Yes, once I was invited to. (laughs) Well, this is another thing too, when we started the movie, we were sticking to the script. I didn’t think about changing lines or anything. I thought, well, the man wrote the script, and he’s directing and producing, and it’s his studio. (laughs) Do the lines. I think it was on the first day, and he went, why don’t you just go nuts?
TP: I was like, what are you doing man? Go for it!
EL: Yeah, just go crazy! So that was it, and that opened the flood gates. The funniest moments really were watching Mr. Perry just kind of riff in character.
Romeo Miller (RM): I’m definitely going to have to agree. That scene when we were trying to convince Madea to go to New York. I think I had to pinch myself not to laugh.
Denise Richards (DERI): I didn’t want to screw up his coverage. So the three of us would look at each other, and then look away. We would start laughing…
TP:…and then I would start laughing.
Doris Roberts (DORO): I had a wonderful time, because he wrote a character that had slight dementia. (laughs) So that gave me the opportunity to be very naughty. (laughs)
TP: And she was. (laughs)
DORO: The other thing was, we had this Jewish family going to church, and behaving as if we were black. (laughs) That was great.
Q: John, you’re known for comedy, but in this movie, you play a straight role. With the background that you have, was it hard just to be a straight preacher?
John Amos (JA): It wasn’t much of a departure from some of the other serious roles I’ve had, like Percy Fitzwallace on ‘The West Wing.’ That was sort of a serious role. But I do a lot of stage work. I think stage is my favorite medium.
I’ve apologized to Tyler, because the only direction he gave me that I remember that was constructive criticism was that I was going to blow Romeo’s ears out. I was projecting a little bit too loud.
I only had the one day, and we hadn’t established a chemistry that you might get if you’re there for a longer period. But this young man (Miller) has one heck of a future in front of him. It’s always a joy for me to see younger talent coming along.
RM: Thanks, dad. (laughs)
Tom Arnold (TA): I’d like to say one thing about Tyler as a director. You go into these things, and we didn’t know each other, and I wasn’t very familiar with his work. But I know who the star of the movie is, obviously. But I felt like he wanted at least me, and I’m sure everybody, after you do your take, he’ll stand next to the camera, egging you on. He wants you to come up with something better.
It’s not about doing your lines. He’s literally cheering you. I thought that was a pretty amazing thing. You don’t see that often.
Q: Tyler, it seems like with every Madea movie, we learn more about her and her back-story. There was the really funny scene where she was talking about going back to her old job, and she was saying she was doing stripping to whatever. Will we ever see a Madea biopic that tells us about her up this point? How much of a back-story did you do for her to date?
TP: The back-story happens on every film. I found that out on one of the plays. There was an ad-lib that happened, I didn’t even know this happened in her life. But Brian says to her, I have an offer for you. She says, the last time a man said that, I found myself tied to five other women in Mexico. (laughs)
That came out of nowhere, but she tells me her back-story as go. Every time I do it, something new comes out.
Q: Romeo, what is the most valuable thing you learned about being on the set with Tyler?
RM: I’d probably have to say seeing his work ethic. He’s a hard worker, and wears many hats. I remember when I spoke to him, he said, you have to enjoy it and be happy. You can work hard, but you have to remember why you’re doing this.
So that was something that I really took to heart. It made me more passionate about this. I’m doing this to inspire people. He does it for that as well, and it was an honor to work with him.
TP: I was shocked about him. Talk about work ethic. A lot of kids come along these days, and don’t have it. I’m so proud of his father (Master P) on how he’s raised both of them. (Romeo and his sister, Cymphonique.)
You think of a rap star, and what his life must have been like, being Master P. But his kids are so smart and articulate and grounded. He’s there on time, and does what he’s supposed to do. He was there on time, and he’s very talented. I’m impressed. He ha bright future.
Q: What do you all think are the elements that turn comedies into classics, and what are some examples of those classics?
TP: I think Eugene is the best to answer that, because he’s been in a bunch of classics.
EL: Thank you, Tyler. (laughs) There’s all kinds of successful comedy. But if you’re not emotionally involved with the characters, then the movie ends when the jokes stop. So for me, everything has to be grounded. The story has to be grounded, the characters have to be grounded in truth. For me, that’s the most successful kind of comedy.
You can take your comedy as far as you want to take it. You can put the camera on yourself, and just go. But you’ve got to make sure that everything around those moments are rock solid, and are embedded in concrete. Then, you feel for the characters, and you’re invested in the story, and to me, that’s the most successful kinds of comedy.
This certainly has that. You can kind of go as far as you want comedically. But the moments are still kind of grounded in a truth.
Q: Tyler, did you direct in character as Madea? For the actors, is it strange for him standing there with his Madea voice?
DORO: What’s extraordinary is to watch him as Madea, talking to us as Joe, and he’s not going to play Joe until tomorrow. But you already see him working on what his reaction was to Joe, and Joe’s reaction to Madea. You think you’re only doing one part, and he’s doing three. That’s extraordinary.
DERI: I was in awe, watching Mr. Perry.
TP: (laughs) Thank you, Ms. Richards.
DERI: Watching him play three roles and produce and direct, I don’t know how he even slept. He’d have to get up early to do Madea, and be all made up for her and be in character. Then he’d have to cut and direct. But as an artist, just having the opportunity to work with him was such a blessing.
TP: It’s weird for me, especially working with new actors for the first time. I’d ask, can you see me? I know you see the costume, but can you see me?
Q: Tyler, you were quoted recently as saying, films with black casts don’t sell well overseas. Is this film a manifestation of that philosophy? You did ‘The Family That Preys Together’ with non-black cast members, and ‘Madea’s Witness Protection’ has a high profile non-black cast.
TP: Let me back up to the quote. I didn’t say that; that’s something that someone said to me. Someone said to me that black filmmakers are having so many issues recently. The problem they’re having with all-black casts, this is the problem they had with ‘Red Tails,’ all-black casts are very difficult to sell.
There is no over-seas market. That is the opinion of Hollywood. That wasn’t my quote, I was quoting the person that said that to me. He said it to George Lucas and a whole bunch of other people.
Q: Does that philosophy go into any of your films?
TP: No, because I made ‘The Family that Preys’ long before that statement was made. It’s about whatever story I want to tell at the time. This is a classic fish out of water story, and I wanted to do something different.
Q: Would you like to offer a rant to Spike Lee?
TP: Spike Lee’s a wonderful person and a great director.
Q: Marla, what are your thoughts on being in the film?
Marla Gibbs (MG): I love being anywhere now. (laughs) I love being in this film, because I think Tyler’s not only a great director, he’s also a spiritual person.
He’s hired so many people, and he doesn’t hire just one persuasion. I think he understands that we’re all one. This represents us as one. It’s a wonderful cast, and it’s diversified. But underneath, we’re all one. We all had the same experiences and aspirations.
He put me in as the nosy neighbor. (laughs) I don’t know where he got that from. (laughs) But I love having the opportunity to work with him and this cast.
TP: I said hi to Miss Gibbs earlier, and I said, it’s good to see you. She said it’s good to be seen and not viewed. (laughs)
MG: That’s my everyday response, and that’s the truth. We want to be seen, and not viewed.
TP: That’s a Madea line.
Q: Tyler, with such a talented cast, what was it like casting everybody? Did you get everyone you wanted the first time around?
TP: This was very easy. This was the simplest casting that we’ve had. Everyone we wanted, we made the phone calls, and it happened. That’s always fantastic.
Q: Did you write the script with the actors in mind?
TP: Yes, it’s always easier to write when I see the person. Usually, we always start with the main character. Once I saw Eugene as George, I was good. I thought that everyone else would come along. I always have the person in mind, especially the lead character.
Q: We have all gotten to know Madea over the past six movies. What is it about Madea that you all love about her?
MG: I think Madea’s someone in your family that you recognize.
TA: There’s a little criminal in her. (laughs)
RM: The thing I love about Madea is that tough love in your family. Someone’s going to keep it real, and not say what you want to hear. That’s what’s good about this movie. You go see it, and it’s going to make you laugh. When you leave, it’s going to hit with a good message at the same time.
TA: I’d like to see Madea as a bus monitor for 12-year-olds. (laughs)
Q: Tyler, what made you decide to use elements of ‘Ghost’ in ‘Madea’s Witness Protection?’
TP: ‘Ghost’ is a classic. I think Oda Mae Brown, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is one of the funniest characters in film. When I was writing the scene, I kept thinking, if Madea’s going to go into the bank, that feels too much like ‘Ghost.’
Then I thought, just pay homage to ‘Ghost,’ go ahead and put that into the movie. Rather than do it and feel like ‘Ghost,’ pay homage to where the idea came from.
Q: Tyler, when you first started out, you were sleeping in your car, and you came from nothing. Now you’ve accomplished so much. What drives you today? What do you still want to do or accomplish?
TP: Well, in the beginning, the drive was just to be able to do well enough to take care of my mother, which I felt took me much farther than I thought I would. Then it took me to where I’m looking around to all the people around me, and are depending on me, and I still feel the weight of everyone of everyone who have never gotten this responsibility.
I feel the weight of all the people who talk about having the studio and be in the position to do television shows and movies. I feel whatever their weight and responsibility was, for whatever reason, God let it land on me. I have to honor it, and that’s what I’m trying to do everyday. I try to honor it by doing as much as I can.
Q: Tyler, you have many roles, from actor to writer to director to producer. Is there one role you enjoy the most? Where do you go from here?
TP: I don’t know where Madea goes from here. You know, I was thinking about having her go to the White House, and babysit Sasha and Malia. (laughs) See, you laugh, it sounds like a good movie, right?
Whatever I’m doing at the time is what I enjoy the most. But if I’m acting, if I’m doing Madea, everyone on set is on pins and needles. The lighting, the DP (Director of Photographer), the grip, the gaffers, they’re all like, okay, he’s going to get dressed, let’s be ready. They know once I get in the costume, I want to take it off. I can not take it off fast enough, between the wig and the make-up. All of that stuff bothers me. But what I love about it is the end result.
DORO: I want to add something. You give something I don’t remember getting in the 50 years that I’ve been in the business, and that’s total respect. It’s extraordinary when you get that, because you’re loved, and you get his attention. You want to give the best you can.
TA: I got a T-shirt. (laughs)
JA: Tyler, you have the talent to do that, give respect to other actors. Plus, Tyler’s developed a knack for delivering a message that’s uplifting and comical. That’s what separates you from the legions of wannabes.
TP: Thank you.
Q: To the white actors, a lot of the time, the Madea films have been considered as black movies. What’s the thought process when you get the script, and you see, hey, I’m working with Tyler Perry and Madea?
TP: Black people are the only ones who think that.
DERI: Yeah, I was just so excited to have the opportunity, and I immediately said yes. I was excited to work with him and be directed by him. I thought the script was really funny, and I had a fun part to play. I didn’t even think of it as I’m a white actress. (laughs)
TP: That’s what’s fascinating. We as black people think of that, and that it’s a black and white thing. They’re white and we’re black, and we’re just telling the story. It’s just a film. I don’t think anyone went into it thinking I’m white and they’re black.
Written by: Karen Benardello