Tina Gordon Chism began her career as an intern in the writing department of The Cosby Show. She went on to write the films Drumline and ATL. Now she makes her directorial debut with the new comedy feature Peeples. The film stars Craig Robinson (The Office) as Wade Walker, the longtime boyfriend of Grace Peeples, played by Kerry Washington. Wade crashes Grace's posh family reunion in the Hamptons, only to find that she never even told them he existed.
Peeples comes from Lionsgate and 34th Street Films, Tyler Perry's production company. It opens in theaters Friday.
Tina Gordon Chism joined Tell Me More host Michel Martin for an interview.
On being part of Tyler Perry's team
"He showed up on set on something called Moby Dick Day in the movie. And I had so much to do that day. It was all the cast, it was a big day, it was a big production. And he was talking to me, and I was just like, 'What?!' You know, like there was no deference or respect. I'm like, 'Listen, sit down. I'll talk to you in a minute.' But it was fun to see him sit on the side and watch. And I thought, OK, I can't be Tyler Perry. I can only be myself. And luckily he did not want me to be Tyler Perry. He wanted me to be Tina, and he just stood back, and he's like, 'I wanna see what happens.' "
On casting Kerry Washington in a comedy
"Really when I'm writing, I never think of actual actors. ... And sort of close to the end of the final draft as I'm tinkering on it, actors start popping in. And the first actor to pop in was Kerry Washington.
"She likes to know the details behind every choice she makes as an actor. I didn't know this about her. I didn't know her personally, but I just sort of gleaned this from her, from just watching her, observing her socially. And I thought if I could get Kerry to sort of make fun of this type-A perfectionism that I believe her to have, then that would be a likable Grace Peeples. Because she has to be high-achieving. You have to feel like she [Washington's character, Grace Peeples] is striving to be at her father's level in terms of accomplishment and achievement. And I just thought Kerry could pull that off perfectly if she could make fun of it. And she was more than game to have fun."
On the real man who inspired the character Judge Virgil Peeples
"He's not my father, but he's a very accomplished, very powerful African-American father, family man, husband. And I was at dinner with a friend — it was not even someone I was dating, but he considered that that was someone I was dating. And throughout the entire dinner, he would whisper in my ear about why this person was so unsuitable for me to be with. And I just remember thinking, 'This would be the worst father to bring someone home to!' "
On breaking the pattern of racially mixed dramas and segregated comedies
"African-American actors that have been in mainstream films that are so funny but they might not have had the biggest role — you know, Craig (Robinson) in The Office -- their comedic chops, what they think is funny, it's present in Peeples. It is an all-black cast, but I feel like the reliability of the plot, the comedy and the music present in it, I promise that they'll have a good time. We've seen the movie. White audiences, black audiences, brown audiences — and it has really translated. That makes me happy above all. Laughter, I feel like, breaks through a lot of that."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now we want to tell you about a new film, whose premise will be familiar to just about anybody who's ever been in a relationship. At some point, the question arises: When am I going to meet your family? And, boy, can that be awkward.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PEEPLES")
KERRY WASHINGTON: (as Grace Peeples) This is Wade Walker, everybody.
CRAIG ROBINSON: (as Wade Walker) Guilty.
WASHINGTON: (as Grace Peeples) Yeah. And he's my friend.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, how wonderful.
WASHINGTON: (as Grace Peeples) And also, we are in a relationship.
DAVID ALAN GRIER: (as Virgil Peeples) Excuse me. A relationship?
WASHINGTON: (as Grace Peeples) Dad, I'm sure I mentioned I was seeing a Wade.
GRIER: (as Virgil Peeples) No, no. I don't remember that.
MARTIN: That was Kerry Washington, whom you may have seen in the hit ABC show, "Scandal," as well as last year's controversial film, "Django Unchained," taking a very different role as Grace Peeples in the new comedy, "Peeples." Craig Robinson, whom you also know from "The Office," plays her longtime boyfriend Wade Walker, who for some reason, Grace has not seen fit to introduce to her family until he takes matters into his own hands and decides to crash her family reunion.
As they say, hijinks ensue. The film opens in theaters tomorrow, and director Tina Gordon Chism is with us. She's a veteran writer, and now making her directing debut with the film.
Welcome to you, and congratulations.
TINA GORDON CHISM: Thank you so much. I'm so happy to be at NPR. Thank you.
MARTIN: How did you get the idea for the film? And, as I said, this is a premise that I'm sure will be familiar to a lot of people, so you know I'm going to ask if this happened to you.
CHISM: I was dating a guy, and he was perfect, and then the moment came where I had to meet his family. And I'm looking at pictures of them, and that's where the idea for, in the film, the chocolate Kennedys came from, because I looked at them, and they were just perfect. And it just seemed impenetrable. I was, like, how am I going to relate to these people? And everything stayed perfect the entire weekend, but I would see cracks in the family. And when I tried to have an honest conversation with the family, they were totally in denial. I just found that, as a writer, so funny. And that's the beginnings of "Peeples."
Really, what I wanted to talk about is unconditional love and how we can't be safe in our families to not be perfect. Where can we be?
MARTIN: I'm dying to know who you based the character of Grace's dad on.
CHISM: Judge Virgil Peeples is definitely inspired by a real man. I asked him to do a cameo, but to him, it was in just poor taste, Tina. And he would not do it. So...
MARTIN: Well, that's funny to me, because, in fact, in the film - we don't have a clip of that, but in the film, when Wade tries to call him mister, it's always judge.
CHISM: Yes, exactly.
MARTIN: No, it's judge. It's judge, which is a little like having your daughter's boyfriend call you congressman.
CHISM: Exactly. It was just sort of the formality of the real Virgil Peeples. That was a nod to him. But he's not my father, but he's a very accomplished, very powerful African-American father, family man, husband. And I just was at dinner with a friend. It was not even someone I was dating, but he considered that that was someone I was dating and, throughout the entire dinner, he would whisper in my ear about why this person was so unsuitable for me to be with. And I just remember thinking: This would be the worst father to bring someone home to.
MARTIN: Well, you know, one of the other things that we notice - and your film career was originally about writing. You started as an intern in the writing department of "The Cosby Show," and you went on to write the films "Drumline" and "ATL." One of the reasons I'm interested in this is "Drumline" and "The Cosby Show" take place in kind of a very black space.
MARTIN: And one of the interesting things about this film is that these characters clearly live very mainstream, upper-middle-class lives. And I was curious about how important was that to you to kind of put them in a context where, yes, they're still an African-American family, but they live a very kind of chichi...
CHISM: The issue of class - it really wasn't something that I overtly was setting out to represent in the film. What I learned from Dr. Cosby when I worked there was that he felt - whether the house had eight bedrooms or one bedroom, whatever - that, fundamentally, if you're writing a comedy, you have to deliver the comedy, obviously, but use that opportunity to show the culture, as well. So I tried to also add that texture in the production of "Peeples." So it's a mix. You know, I wanted to show that they were strivers, and that they worked hard and were educated and obviously were high-achieving, but also have a sense of the culture that they came from, that they always knew - had a cultural reference. And so I try to do that in the art.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new comedy film "Peeples," with director Tina Gordon Chism. Speaking of high achieving, you know, you've got David Alan Grier in the cast. You've got Kerry Washington, who is you know, hot, hot, hot, Craig Robinson playing her love interest. You also have Diahann Carroll and Melvin Van Peebles playing other roles. I've got to ask, as a first-time director...
MARTIN: ...a little intimidating?
CHISM: A lot intimidating. You are at the mercy of the cast. And they just rallied around me. They loved the script. They all came to play and give their best, so that was a huge relief. But on day one, that was Diahann Carroll and Melvin Van Peebles day. I just remember having a meltdown, thinking why did I not catch that day one is Mel - it didn't hit me because I was so busy until I was in route to the set, and then it started snowing and I had to re-block everything. As I'm driving there, just snowflakes start falling and I'm thinking, oh my God, we can't be outside, we have to be inside and Diahann Carroll is there, I'm going to have a meltdown. And when I got to set, Diahann Carroll sort of stopped everything and made the most incredible speech about how excited she was to play this, as she would call it, very modern, you know, sort of frisky grandmother. And she was also excited to play with African-American actors that she felt made really smart career choices, that she had actually followed as a fan and was excited to play along beside them. And I really, really thank she and Melvin Van Peebles because they grounded that first day and they set the tone in a way that I couldn't. And it was totally me standing on their shoulders and their experience in that moment and I was able to move out after that, so I'm grateful to them.
MARTIN: Well, another person who clearly had confidence in you was Tyler Perry. I mean the film comes from Lionsgate, but Tyler Perry's production company, 34th Street Film. In fact, we have a clip of him talking about the project and why he decided that he would work with you on it. And here it is.
TYLER PERRY: Giving this person and opportunity who had written here, written there, but having the opportunity to write and direct your own movie, I know what that feels like. So if I could use 34th Street to take her life and lift her and elevate her and give her a platform to do some great things, then I want to be in. And to watch Tina, as the director, stress out and pull her hair out, I was thinking oh, OK, this is pretty cool.
CHISM: That's Tyler. That's funny.
MARTIN: That's kind of mean.
CHISM: Yeah. He's a...
MARTIN: What did he mean by that? What was he talking about? What was he talking about there, Tina?
CHISM: He showed up on set on something called Moby Dick Day in the movie and I had so much to do that day, it was all the cast, it was a big day, it was a big production, and he was talking to me and I was just like, what? You know, like there was no deference or respect. I'm like listen, sit down. I'll talk to you in a minute.
CHISM: But it was fun to see him sit on the side and watch. And I thought OK, I can't be Tyler Perry, I can only be myself. And luckily, he did not want me to be Tyler Perry, he wanted me to be Tina and he just stood back and he's like, I want to see what happens and that's what he did.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of standing back and seeing what happens, how did you come upon the idea of Kerry Washington for the role of Grace Peeples? I understand that that was your idea. Am I right about that, that you really wanted her?
CHISM: Yeah. It was my first idea. And I - yeah...
MARTIN: And I think like a lot of people might be puzzled by that because of the things that they've seen her in recently are really serious. I mean there's "For Colored Girls" and "Scandal," which is scandalous and, of course, "Django Unchained," which was a very controversial film last year...
MARTIN: ...very brutal to watch, very sort of difficult to watch. So how did you get the idea that she could do comedy?
CHISM: Really, when I'm writing, I never think of actual actors. They're always these sort of people in my mind that aren't actors. And sort of close to the end of the final draft, as I'm tinkering on it, actors start popping in and the first actor to pop in was Kerry Washington. She likes to know the details behind every choice she makes as an actor. I didn't know this about her. I didn't know her personally, but I just sort of gleaned this from her from just watching her, observing her socially. And I thought if I could get Kerry to sort of make fun of this Type A perfectionism that I believe her to have, then that will be a likable Grace Peeples. Because she has to be high-achieving, you have to feel like she is striving to be at her father's level in terms of accomplishment and achievement, but you want to like her at the same time and I just thought Kerry could pull that off perfectly if she could make fun of it, and she was more than game to have fun so it worked out perfectly.
MARTIN: I want to play one more clip from the film. And one of the reasons that, again, I just want to show that this is the kind of situation that I think a lot of people will relate to when somebody really wants to impress the dad. The setup in this film is that Craig Robinson, who plays Wade, is really trying to impress Virgil, who plays, you know, Kerry Washington's father, Grace, and is kind of the patriarch of this clan, and he's facing off with him a number of times as a potential sons-in-law will do. And finally would Wade wants to see if they can - you've got to follow me here if you haven't seen the film but the sweat...
CHISM: The sweat off? Are you talking about the sweat off?
MARTIN: I'm talking about the sweat off. Yes, we're talking about the sweat off...
MARTIN: ...where Virgil - for reasons which I cannot explain here - is in this sweat lodge and Wade is determined to try to keep up with them. And I'll just play that clip. And here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PEEPLES")
GRIER: (as Virgil Peeples) Well, you're the chief. Walk through the flame into manhood.
ROBINSON: (as Wade Walker) Is that supposed to scare me? You think this is hot? This is ain't nothing but July in my bedroom growing up.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRIER: (as Virgil Peeples) More coals.
ROBINSON: (as Wade Walker) A lot more.
GRIER: (as Virgil Peeples) I'm an iceberg. Glassy eyes.
ROBINSON: (as Wade Walker) I'm off 44 ounce Big Gulp.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING HANDS)
GRIER: (as Virgil Peeples) (Singing) Wade in the water.
ROBINSON: (as Wade Walker) I'm an ice cream cup filled with delicious cream cheese.
GRIER: (as Virgil Peeples) (Singing) Wade in the water, children. Wade can make it without water.
ROBINSON: (as Wade Walker) I'm a cold picture of grape Kool-Aid with a smiley face on it.
MARTIN: Now just thinking, we've got the two African-American men in a sweat lodge.
MARTIN: In a Native American sweat lodge on Moby Dick weekend in the Hamptons, OK, so a lot going on.
CHISM: I mean I think that happens all the time, right?
MARTIN: Does it ever happen? But...
CHISM: But, you know, I have to say about Moby Dick, people ask me like whalers, black people, I'm confused, like what's going on? Well, I will tell you that I was in Sag Harbor and I discovered that there was a bustling whaling community. And I also found out that fugitive slaves were whalers. And I thought whaler, black, Moby Dick. I see the logic. In my mind...
MARTIN: I'm so there. I'm so there.
MARTIN: But let me ask you this, Tina, a question. I have to ask this question. Is it part of it, it has long been sort of a kind of an understanding or kind of unspoken that dramas are racially mixed but comedies tend to be segregated. Are you kind of hoping that maybe you can break that pattern once and for all?
CHISM: I am. African-American actors that have been in mainstream films that are so funny but they might not have had the biggest role, you know, Craig in "The Office," their comedic chops or what they think is funny, it's present in "Peeples." It is an all-black cast, but I feel like the relatability(ph) of the plot, the comedy and the music present in it, I promise that they'll have a good time. We've seen the movie - white audiences, black audiences, brown audiences, and it has really translated. So that makes me happy above all. Laughter, I feel like, breaks through a lot of that.
MARTIN: Tina Gordon Chism is the writer and director of the new film "Peeples." It opens in theaters tomorrow and we caught up with her at NPR West in Culver City, California.
Tina Gordon Chism, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations.
CHISM: I really appreciate this. This was fun. Thank you so much, NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.