It might not be immediately clear where from, but chances are you know Terry Crews. Perhaps you saw him trading tough-guy banter with Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables or dispensing quiet wisdom as Will McAvoy’s bodyguard, Lonny, in The Newsroom. You may have seen him flexing for Old Spice during a commercial break or, more recently, as action-averse desk jockey Terry Jeffords on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Even if you’d studiously avoided all these venues, however, Crews’s face and Herculean muscle mass will have likely carved a niche in your subconscious, somehow. The actor’s shotgun-spray approach to working has made him a force that’s impossible to ignore.
When Terry Crews was courting his wife some 25 years ago, he explained to her the blueprint of his future. First, he was going to play in the NFL and then he was going to make movies. Before he had a football scholarship, Crews had an art scholarship–a fact belied by his physique, both then and now. In any case, this career prognostication proved rather prescient. Crews was drafted into the NFL in 1991 and continued to play on various teams for six years. Toward the end of his football tenure, Crews and a friend made a film called Young Boys, Incorporated, and it was then that he fell in love with filmmaking. After retiring, he decided to uproot and move to Los Angeles to see if he could make it in movies.
Crews’s first real role wasn’t that far removed from organized sports; he played a character on an American Gladiators-style TV show called Battle Dome. “It was kind of like grand theater,” the actor says. “I was playing this character named G-Money, and I was this big bad warrior and I loved it. Once the crowd started screaming and the lights started going I was like ‘My God–I think I’ve found my calling.’”
Since that first role, Crews has never looked back. He managed to make the leap into action movies, starting with the Schwarzenegger flick, The Sixth Day, and transition into comedy with the Jamie Kennedy spoof Malibu’s Most Wanted. Over the years since, Crews has worked with everyone from Adam Sandler to Aaron Sorkin. It’s not the big roles that stand out the most when looking at the actor’s resume, though: it’s the sheer breadth and variety of roles, including his new one as author of the forthcoming book, Manhood. Fresh off of the Golden Globe win for the sitcom he co-stars in, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Crews talked to Co.Create about the constantly evolving path of his career and the benefits of trying to do it all.
The story of my career is: I’ve tried everything. After I decided to try acting and I found out that I loved it, I decided to try comedy, drama, reality, voiceovers, cartoons. You have to try it all to see if it’s for you. And if you don’t like it, you can do something else. I’ve kinda fallen in love with everything I’ve been doing, though.
When we were filming Malibu’s Most Wanted, I was backing up the main villain, and I kept trying to do funny things I made up on the spot. The director was like ‘You gotta do that again.’ And I’d do it again, and then he’d be like ‘Do this, do that,’ and I was always willing. The big thing is, just to be willing and open to experiment. That’s really given me all the opportunities that I needed. Because a lot of other people will just flat out say no.
I have one rule, which is to always make every one else better. Go in with the attitude that you are gonna improve every one else around you, and make yourself the go-to guy. If you need somebody to bounce off of, I’ll be that guy. Instead of being a problem, I want to be the solution. I think it comes from my football days. If you do your job well, someone else is gonna look good. Someone else is gonna get the touchdown, but you shared in it. You’re winning. I think that’s the approach we took with Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Every member of that cast could be on their own show doing their own thing and it would be fine, but they’re better off all teamed up. I almost look at it like The Avengers or The Justice League. We can do something by ourselves, but imagine what we can do together.
I had a meeting with [Brooklyn Nine-Nine creators] Dan Goor and Mike Schur while I was doing the last season of Arrested Development. I went in and they told me they were putting together this show with Andy Samberg, and it didn’t even have a title yet. The part was basically tailored to me, though. It was based on my personality, because when I went in we talked. I told them I have four daughters, I have a mini van, this is my life. And I didn’t know they were putting this stuff in the script. While we were doing negotiations, I was actually offered two other pilots, and I was making my decision and they said ‘Terry, look. If you don’t take this part–whoever gets it is basically you. We’re gonna have to find a doppelganger.’ When you have people who are really working that well and tailoring the part for you, I knew that was the way to go. It’s one of the most successful things I’ve ever been involved in.
I think comedy is much harder than drama because nobody can agree on what’s funny. It’s all so subjective. And to make a room of people laugh is a very rare skill. It’s something that happens slowly over time. When I was starting out, I would try little things, but I’d be scared to do it. Then on the next movie, I’d get a little more opportunity to try new things. When I did The Longest Yard, Adam Sandler and Chris Rock were telling me to just go for it. When you get that kind of thumbs-up on an idea, you’re like ‘Wow, okay, I will go for it.’ It’s a confidence game. And as my confidence increased over almost 14 years, I learned how to take advantage of every opportunity I was given and really make it happen. I thought The Newsroom was a little more dramatic than anything I’ve ever done, and maybe it’ll help me do a strictly dramatic role eventually.
The ad agency (Wieden + Kennedy) was looking for a Terry Crews-type to do an Old Spice commercial. And a couple guys from the agency were like, ‘Why don’t we just call Terry?’ When my agent got the call and I saw the creative, I was like ‘This is me.’ We actually made three more commercials the day we were filming what we’d already arranged, and then came up with new ones while we were there. My best skill is overacting. I can go big. And so I loved it. But more importantly, doing those ads kept the whole thing going. That’s why I think trying new things and just staying in the game keeps your momentum up. Sometimes you do something that doesn’t quite work out, but you’re momentum stays up. At least you’re out there.
A lot of people talk about Richard Sherman and his tirade against the 49ers but what people don’t understand is that football is a life and death game. It really is. You could lose your life out there. A lot of people don’t understand that. That passion, that level of intensity, it is fight or flight all the time. It’s not golf where you just walk patiently to the next field. It’s like people are calling you out and if you make a mistake, you could get cut, you could lose your whole career immediately. That kind of passion is what I learned. You’ve gotta go. And when it’s time to go, go. And I took that whole thing into entertainment, where you don’t know when your next opportunity is gonna come. You can’t say I’m gonna be here forever. Because there are guys who’ve said that. And they’re not here anymore. You just gotta go. When you get your shot, you give it everything you have.
I have a ton of projects I’m working on right now. I have like three or four scripts I’m sitting on. You just gotta wait for your opportunity. I think the better I get as an actor, it makes you even more open to being a filmmaker. It’s a natural progression. One of my heroes is Clint Eastwood. He was really a great actor who became actually a better director. There’s a natural transition there. And the good thing is that there’s time for that. I wanna really enjoy this acting thing but you gotta keep moving, and doing new things.