TP: Because I never stopped chasing it down. I don't think the dreams die—I think that people give up. I think it gets too hard. There were so many dark days when I wanted to lie there and die.
O: You actually considered suicide?
TP: Yes. When the rainbow wasn't enough.
O: When was this?
TP: Well, it was twice. Once when I was very young—I slit my wrists. And the other time—
O: Whoa. You can't just say "I slit my wrists" and then move on. How old were you?
TP: About 11 or 12.
O: And you had to be taken to the hospital?
TP: No, it wasn't that deep, wasn't that bad. I don't know if it was more a cry for help—
O: Well, it was obviously a cry for help. And when was the second time?
TP: Probably when I was around 22. It was winter and I was living in Atlanta, trying to get a play going. I was carrying a lot of frustration, I was homeless, and I had just scraped together enough money for this pay-by-the-week hotel that was full of crackheads. Every morning all the people who lived in the hotel—it was very cold that winter—would start their cars to warm them up. And the exhaust would fill my room. The cars would be out there warming up—at least ten, 15 cars—and I would get up and ask them to move. But I got to a point where that morning, I just lay there waiting.
O: For the fumes to kill you?
O: What does that feel like, to want to die?
TP: You feel there's nothing better for you.
O: It's the end of hope.
TP: It's the end of a lot of things.
O: So this was after you had written the play I Know I've Been Changed and it failed.
TP: Yes. Moved from New Orleans to Atlanta, wrote the show, had all my money tied up in it. I had worked selling used cars, I had worked at hotels, I had saved my tax return, I'd saved $12,000 to put this play up, and I thought 1,200 people would see it over a weekend. Thirty people showed up. It was pretty devastating, because to do this, I had to leave the job I had.
O: What was your job?
TP: At the time I was a bill collector. But there are at least 40 companies in Atlanta with a record of me working there over a period of five or six years. I was a used car salesman, shoe-shine boy, bartender, waiter.... And listen, I use all those skills today—I can pour a mean drink!
O: So you believed that after saving that $12,000, now you're going to be on your way. But the play failed. The end of the dream as you knew it.
TP: Not necessarily the end of the dream. I went back to work, started trying to do the show again. And then I got an opportunity to do it and went to my boss and said, "I need time off." They wouldn't give it to me, so I had to quit. I tried to do the show again the following year. It failed again. But there was something in me that said, This is what you're supposed to do.
O: Even though it had failed twice.
TP: Yes. I stayed the course. I tried it again the following year. Had a job. Lost the job.
O: You failed a third time.
TP: Yes. Then there's the rent, car payment, everything. So I'm out on the street.
O: That's why you ended up in the pay-by-the-week hotel.
TP: Yes—when I could afford it. Other than that, I was sleeping in my car. I'd get another job and fail again. This happened once a year, from 1992 until 1998.
O: And when did the play finally hit?
TP: March 1998. A few months before that, I had gotten into an argument on the phone with my father. He's yelling at me, cussing and screaming, and something happened in me. I started saying things I never thought I'd be able to—things I did not even know were in me. "How dare you? Who do you think you are? You are wrong." It was as if the little boy in me was screaming out everything he'd never been able to say. And my father is silent on the phone because he has never heard this side of me. And at the end of it, I hear him say, "I love you," which at the age of 27, I had never heard before. I hung up the phone and I knew something had changed. My entire source of energy had been ripped from me. From the time I'd left my father's house until that moment, I had been plugged into negativity. I was plugged into anger to keep moving, to do the play, to work, to get up every day. It was based on "Fuck you; I'm gonna prove you wrong." But that day, when I finally said those things, I had to find a new source of energy.
O: Before that, you'd been coming from anger.
TP: And wanting to be around negativity. I enjoyed being a bill collector because I could make people miserable. That's why I made so much money—I got to pass on the hurt.
O: But after you hung up the phone with your father...
TP: It was like a car that runs on diesel fuel and now suddenly diesel doesn't work.
O: Because you had released all the energy you'd been carrying. Big, big, big.
TP: That took me back to the times when my mother would bring me to church, which took me back to God, which took me back to my faith. And prayer.
Next: Tyler talks about his first big success and how the Madea character came to be