Even with a string of six hit films, a sitcom deal worth $100 million, and the ability to do anything he'd like in Hollywood, Tyler Perry was still haunted by his past.

"I had just finished a couple of movies and had been famous for a long time, among black people," says Perry, whose latest film The Family That Preys, opens this week. "When I walked around, I got all this support, high-fives and all this stuff."

Tyler Perry on the Preys set with Kathy Bates

Tyler Perry on the Preys set with Kathy Bates

He was the most famous African-American star Caucasians had never heard of, until he started appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was there he began telling his rags-to-riches tale, one that included an abusive father—Emmitt, a carpenter—while growing up in New Orleans.

"He used his hands to pour concrete and hammer nails," Perry told O Magazine last year. "He also used those hands to beat me. My father—a man with a third-grade education who was orphaned at 2 and sent to work in the fields at 5—understood only the physical. He thought he could beat the softness out of me and make me hard like him."

Instead, the abuse almost led Perry to kill himself as a teenager. He still has the scar on his left wrist as evidence of his suicide attempt.

But even then, he had an inkling of hope. He liked to draw—and get lost in his own imagination. He had no desire to follow in his father's footsteps and work construction.

He found more solace with the women in his life—mother Maxine (a pre-school teacher) and his Scripture-quoting grandmother. "Women are usually the center of everything in the household," he laughs. "You don't say, 'I'm going to my grandfather's house; you say I'm going to my grandmother's house.'"

Observing strong women eventually led Perry to prefer writing female roles to male roles. "Growing up on my mother's hip, I learned a great deal about women," he tells CT Movies. "They have so many colors and so many shades. They can be so much more vulnerable than men. Women are the richest characters to write."

'Miserable and unhappy'

While working as a bill collector in the early '90s, Perry was inspired—by Oprah on her TV show—to write down his thoughts as an act of catharses. At first he fictionalized his life story, to protect himself from scrutiny. His first play, I Know I've Been Changed, covered the theme of surviving child abuse. With true entrepreneurial spirit, Perry then took his $12,000 in savings and drove to Atlanta to rent out a theater and stage the production.

Unfortunately, Changed didn't do as well as he hoped. By the mid-'90s, Tyler Perry was sleeping in shelters and his Geo Metro—a tight squeeze for a 6-foot-5 man.

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"The first 28 years of my life I was miserable and unhappy," says Perry, now 38. "I did anything I thought I was big and bad enough to do. If I was hurt, I wanted everyone else to hurt. So I started building my life on unforgiveness and anger and frustration."

Still, Perry notes that God was present in his life even then. "It was a miserable time, but I was still believing in God."

Perry with Cicely Tyson on the set of 'Madea's Family Reunion'

Perry with Cicely Tyson on the set of 'Madea's Family Reunion'

The spiritual conflict only spurred his desire to tell honest, gritty stories—from a Christian perspective, but with unflinching, raw candor. "If more Christians showed their battle scars, people would be more inclined to believe that they can be born again," he says. "That's why I don't want to write stories with 'perfect Christians,' because it is so unreal, it is so untrue. We all sin. We all fall short. We all make mistakes."

Through a grassroots outreach to area churches, Perry's story started resonating with religious crowds, and his fanbase began to grow. His play sold out the House of Blues in Atlanta, which led to several massively-successful tours of his plays. African-American audiences, which reportedly spend 8 billion dollars on entertainment annually, became enthusiastic fans of the brand Tyler Perry was selling.

But once his plays became hit films—starting with 2005's Diary of a Mad Black Woman—and turned Perry into a superstar, some of the love diminished from his core fan base. "I started getting people taking shots at me. I hadn't experienced the negativity. I was in a place where I didn't want to continue." He considered quitting the business.

That's when a friend asked Perry, "Are you living or just existing?"

The question stuck in his head.

Let us prey

Soon after, Perry was driving down the road when Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" came on the radio. He turned it up loud: Time is a wheel in constant motion / Rolling us along / Who wants to look back and their years and wonder / Where all those years have gone?

Those lyrics inspired Perry to write The Family That Preys, a relationship drama starring Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard that stands to widen his audience beyond the "African-American" comedy for which he is known.

"I don't think it's taking a chance," he says. "There are so many sides of who I am as a man. The silliness of Madea and Meet the Browns, the over-the-topness—I do that when I want to have some fun. But then there's a whole other brand at work—Daddy's Little Girls, Why Did I Get Married? and The Family That Preys, all in the same line. I'm gonna tell a lot of different stories."

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Sanaa Lathan says Perry tells stories well

Sanaa Lathan says Perry tells stories well

Actress Sanaa Lathan (Alien vs. Predator) had her own reason for wanting to be part of Perry's latest film.

"I was a big fan of Tyler," she says, "because one of the things I think is lacking in the industry is 'our stories.' Tyler is putting different aspects of 'our stories' out there. There's such a lack of being able to see yourself on screen."

Perry insists its not just African-American stories he's trying to tell. "When you look at any of my films with an open mind, you'll see the message. I think Diary of a Mad Black Woman has ministered to so many people—black and non-black—who can relate to this story."

He believes his films can narrow the racial divide, even among believers. "The thing that really bothers me about Christianity, especially being from the South, is the division of the church," he says. "White people go to their church, black people go to their church. What kind of God are we serving when we believe this is how it's supposed to be?"

Not about the money

If Hollywood has learned one thing about Tyler Perry, it's that he's not afraid to voice his convictions. When pitching the idea for a TV show called House of Payne, he says studio execs initially informed him that his characters couldn't use the word "Jesus."

Perry responded by taking the deal off the table, and then the studio relented. House of Payne (TBS, Wednesdays 9/8c) is now one of the top shows on cable television.

"It was never about the money," says Perry, who nonetheless pocketed a reported $100 million for the contract. "It was about me being able to stay true to what I believe. If you do these kinds of things, God truly honors your faithfulness to him."

When asked what he thinks of the label "Christian filmmaker," Perry sits back and thinks for a moment. "I'm a Christian and I'm a filmmaker, so I guess it fits," he shrugs.

Tyler Perry as his star character Madea

Tyler Perry as his star character Madea

But don't expect safe, Hallmark-type films from the man who's known for dressing in drag and playing the character Madea, a feisty, out-spoken, opinionated, gun-toting grandmother.

"I don't believe in telling one dimensional stories and I don't believe in putting people to sleep," Perry explains. "I don't believe in beating people over the head with the Word. There are some people in this world that are meant to plant seeds, there's some that are meant to water, and there are some who are meant to harvest and prune. I think I'm a seed planter. I think I'm just there to give people thought. To say, Hmm, is this me?"

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Perry says he's not interested in writing movies where every character is a believer. "That is not our reality. I'd rather have a good representation of Christianity in the film, but not have the whole film be about Christians who are not real."

He points to The Family That Preys as an example: "Alice [Alfre Woodard's character] is a Christian, but she lived her whole life inside these four walls. She never ventured out to see what else is out there. It was important for me to say that just because you're saved doesn't mean you have to live within four walls and wait for Jesus to come."

Perry is handsome, popular, ridiculously wealthy (Forbes named him in a story about the next generation of possible billionaires), and was recently named one of the 50 Smartest People in Hollywood by Entertainment Weekly (at No. 8, ahead of George Clooney, Peter Jackson, Johnny Depp, and Disney chairman Dick Cook). He's got the world in his hands—maybe not the whole world, but certainly the world of entertainment.

But Perry says it's all a result of one miracle after another, and adds that the message of his new movie is one he's learning to appreciate himself.

"God gives us life as a gift," he says. "If you have your health and strength, you have been given an amazing gift. Enjoy it."