The very first Tyler Perry movie to be released by Netflix is "Tyler Perry's A Fall From Grace," a court drama and thriller that Perry produced at his own Tyler Perry Studios. Crystal Fox (seen in Perry's series "Tyler Perry's The Haves and the Have Nots") stars as a woman named Grace who has been accused of murdering her husband Shannon (Mehcad Brooks), and is convinced that her life is over. But the public defender assigned to her case, Jasmin (Bresha Webb, who previously appeared in "Tyler Perry's Acrimony"), starts to believe that there is more to Grace's story, especially as Grace offers flashbacks of what went wrong with her marriage; Jasmin also has to prove herself to her boss Rory (Tyler Perry), who is convinced she's too inexperienced for the job. Meanwhile, Grace receives support from close her friend Sarah (Phylicia Rashad), who is the landlord for a mysterious character played by the legendary Cicely Tyson.
With the film set to release on Netflix this Friday, January 17, RogerEbert.com sat down with Tyler Perry, Crystal Fox, Bresha Webb, and Phylicia Rashad to talk about making this thriller in less than a week’s time, Perry's dissociative writing process, the true stories that inspired its shocking ending and more.
When you first got the script, what was your reaction? What did he tell you about it?
PHYLICIA RASHAD: He didn’t say anything. He said, “I want you to read this script, tell me what you think about it.”
And what did you think about it?
PR: I’m here.
TYLER PERRY: Usually if it sucks, you’re like, “Uh … you know, I’ve got this other thing. This isn’t for me.”
How long did it take to film "A Fall From Grace"?
TP: We shot the script in five days, so there wasn’t a lot of time for that kind of stuff.
BRESHA WEBB: I forgot it was a thriller! When you watch the movie, when I’m coming down the stairs, I forgot! I really was trying to solve the case. I didn’t know what was going on! I was really scared, terrified.
Is there a lot of rehearsal time?
CRYSTAL FOX: Let me just say this. The beauty of how it works with Tyler, and that speed, is that he casts people who bring their work to work. We read the script and we have our arc. And then we listen to each other.
TP: That’s all homework. When you guys come to set, I’m ready to shoot. I wanted to live in the moment. I don’t want to rehearse it to death, I don’t want to overshoot it to death, I don’t want to do a hundred takes. I don’t want to have that many options in the editing room. I want it to live in the moment and I want to see what happens right away when they get together. Sometimes if it’s not there you’ll see me doing a lot of takes because I’m not feeling it, but when you hire people like this, take one—it’s there.
The scenes where Bresha and Crystal are in the jail ...
BW: That was our first day!
CF: We didn’t even meet.
TP: Which I thought was great for the characters, because they hadn’t met.
BW: I come from the comedic world, but I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I was going to come into the room like, “Hi Crystal, nice to meet you.” I opened that door, she was chained to the table. I said, “Oh, OK, let me bring my Jasmin in here and work off the instincts and react.”
Crystal, how do you do the homework for such an emotionally taxing role like this?
CF: I was gonna say, I’m not trying to to be funny, but I was like ... to be this age, I’m a surviving black woman, I know those stories. I’m telling a story for myself and for other women, and whose stories haven’t been told. The emotional life, all of it. That’s not hard.
TP: And it’s also in her DNA. This is Nina Simone’s niece.
CF: The history and where she comes from, that is my legacy, that is my family.
When you’re performing the flashbacks of Grace's happier moments, are you in a completely different space than when she is in jail?
CF: It wasn’t until recently that I thought about that, and I realized that that was one of the most challenging things for me. Because no, I had to sit and read all of it. And it wasn’t until I started that as an actor my mind was saying, “Alright, you’re going to be narrating Grace’s whole life before we have done the scenes, from the standpoint of someone who feels like their life is over.” But for the sake of storytelling, everything couldn’t just stay right there, because when there was joy, and you see the joy, we had to tell it from this woman who was disparaging, and that was one of the most challenging things that I’ve ever done. I really was worried about it, because I read it all, sitting, after the interrogation scene. I wanted to keep asking Tyler, “Is that gonna read?” That was one of the hardest things to wait and see.
TP: That answer is too long for them. If you want something to show up, nail that down to something small. You just got really excited.
CF: I just want to say, "man, let me talk to you!" [laughs] You're right, I'm sorry.
TP: You know, because you’ll read it and it says, “She thought it was interesting.” That’s it.
CF: You're right, I'm sorry.
And Phylicia, there’s a tricky element between your character's friendship with Grace. When you’re playing it in the flashbacks, are you thinking about the changes coming?
PR: No, I’m being honest in every moment. I am being what the character is in every moment.
TP: And there was a duality for every character, almost. For [Grace], she has that duality, you see her in that happy time and you see her in that sad time. And that layer of narrating between the two, and even Sarah, she’s got this face of “I’m your best friend,” and then there’s the other side of it. With him, everybody had those layers.
When you were writing these characters, was that something you were intentionally trying to get to?
TP: No, because in my writing I do something called “dissociative writing,” in which I am just seeing it as it’s coming to me. I’m not trying to make the character be something, I’m listening to them in my head. They are dictating the story to me of how they feel as I go. That’s how I write. When it all comes together, I look at it and I go, “Wow, this is the story you wanted to tell me.” Some people think it’s crazy, but it was born out of trauma for me. That’s the way I write.
How quickly did you write this movie?
TP: It was probably a two-week process for me. And people want me to stop saying how quickly I shoot, and how fast I write. But the intention in saying this is not make anybody judge it based on that, but that’s just my truth. And it’s not about bragging or boasting, it’s that I don’t know how to work in the Hollywood system. I didn’t come up in the Hollywood system, I don’t know how they do things. And seeing some of the things, the way that they do it, I was thinking, “There’s got to be another way to do this that’s much more efficient for time, for money, and management of people.” I’d rather you waste my money than my time.
Does this project feel that much different than a Hollywood project?
BW: So different. You have every set available to you, and that’s how it was easy to shoot it in five days. It’s like a play in that way. The crew, everyone is in that same type of energy. They’re working for the project, and this moment, and this moment. Get in the car and go to the next place—you could walk there. But it’s already pre-lit, his camera is already set up, the people are there, you just have to act present and show up.
TP: And I think part of that is our theater background, we all come from different versions of theater. Theater is about movement, and quick changes. It’s gotta happen, and you don’t have a chance to re-do it when there’s a live audience there, you’ve got to nail it. And if something goes wrong, you’ve got to keep going.
Bresha, there’s this important aspect to your character Jasmin in that she doesn’t give up on Grace's case—innocent until proven guilty. What was important to you guys to express about that?
BW: Well, when I read, that was what really drove me to Jasmin’s character. When [Perry] asked me to play her, I was like, “There’s so much food here!” But she discovers herself in this, she finds her fight, and there’s something about Grace, when she starts talking to her and sees something beneath what is being told to her, and she goes against everything for the first time. And even though she fails, she still has a fight in her to say, “I still want to be there.” But she fights, and I was finding myself while I was doing this among these masters of the craft. I had to fight for myself, and my truth, and not doubt myself and be confident. I identified with Jasmin a lot. I was like, “You can do this, Bresha! You can do this, Jasmin!”
CF: I felt the same way. I felt like it was women empowering women, because Grace was ready to just give up on her life. And she kind of knew and had heard, that they were trying to get a plea not to help [Grace], but [Jasmin] helps [Grace] see the value of her life as well. When she really says, “Let me fight for you,” I will put my money on a determine woman any day. And it made her say, “OK, if you believe in that, I have something to live for, maybe.”
Tyler, where did this kind of story come from?
TP: I had done boy meets girl, girl gets her heartbroken many times, with different versions, different people. But I wanted this one to be a thriller, and I wanted to twist it up a bit. And when I’m writing, when something doesn’t make sense, I’m tracking down the character’s motivation. As they’re telling me the story, literally that’s how it comes to me as I’m writing it. I try to get to where everybody else is getting to toward the end of the movie. And in the meantime, I had seen some amazing things like “Gideon’s Army,” this documentary about the public defenders office and the things that they deal with. As well as, there was a story of a woman who was going around the country grifting people. These stories have happened where people have done some of the things that Grace is accused of in this movie, but it was all in my head as this was going.
CF: I have to say something—I’ve been working with Tyler for so long, and I’ll get these moments of goosebumps, where we’ll get a script for “The Have and Have Nots.” And he may not have read the paper that day, but it’ll always have something to do with something that just happened, or follow suit right after.
TP: There are many times when I’m working with actors and I’ll send them a script and they’ll go, “Whoa. How do you know I’m going through this?” And it feels like, I saw them as I was writing. This is getting really weird—I did not see [Fox’s] face when I was writing her in particular, when she’s doing that stuff, just to make that clear! [laughs] But just in many situations, yeah.
Without spoilers, then—did you freak yourself out with the ending?
TP: Oh, yeah. When I started getting to the end of it, it was like, “Whoa, is that what she did?!” I promise you that’s what happens to me. I feel like there’s more coming to me about this.
CF: Because he’s a writer, when we add something, sometimes he’ll yell out a line. “It’s not over!” wasn’t in there until we came out of the court room.
TP: Neither was “Ashtray, bitch!”
BW: He’s editing, as he’s directing.
TP: That’s another reason that I can shoot so quickly. I’ve spent countless hours editing, so I know when I have it. A lot of directors don’t really know. And I think every director should spend time editing. Because then you’ll know right when you have it. I’ve worked with directors who weren’t sure when they had it or not. I’m like, “I’m looking at it 50 ways to Sunday.” And with all this new technology where you used to do the wide, the medium and then the close-up and all the other stuff, these new cameras, I can put a camera over there and shoot you and zoom into one eyeball and it’s crystal clear. There’s all these different tricks that you can do for efficiency, but some people are purists when it comes to how they want to shoot. I respect that so much but that can be very expensive.
When it comes to performance, that’s got to be a special kind of energy, not knowing if it’s your close-up or a wide shot.
CF: For me, that’s nerve-racking. But if I don’t want to think about that, I can think about what I want to do as an actor.
You have immense pressure to carry the pain and the heart of the movie.
TP: I had a friend who was acting and she was doing a scene where she had to be so emotional. I said, “Go to the director and ask him to shoot your close-up first.” Because usually it’s the wide, then the medium, and he does this other coverage, and he goes over, and then he finally gets to the close-up. Well, if an actor has poured their heart out in every one of those takes, by the time they get to the close-up they have nothing left. And I have only seen very few people who can still bring it in that amount of time.
Given your comedic background, Bresha, was this even more demanding?
BW: Of course. I started off in drama, and I did stand-up as well, but I always say I was the crying pregnant teenager on all the one-hour dramas. I don’t know what it is about my face that screams sorrow [laughs]. And I took a break from that and I started doing comedy, and I love comedy. But this was a step back into what I also love, that people don’t really get to see. So, I just jumped at the opportunity. I had a lot to prove to myself that I could do it. I knew people only see me mostly in a comedic way.
TP: I’ve never seen you like that.
BW: And I am honored, honored! Because he cast me in “Acrimony,” and I had a nice part. But I was just so excited to do a drama.
TP: Taraji [P. Henson] and I were watching the movie, and she was like, “Who is that?” And I was like, “That’s Bresha. We gotta find something for her.”
BW: And people saying they love my comedy and they also enjoy this, it just warms my heart. And proves to me that my parents did spend the right amount of money on my college tuition, and my gift. I am thankful that I did those Shakespeare monologues and all those things that prepped me for this day!