From playing in the NFL to acting in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” to writing a new book, Terry Crews does whatever he likes—and does it well
Author Dan Jackson Photography Piper Ferguson
You may not recognize Terry Crews’ name, but you probably know his pecs. Though he’s spent more than a decade stealing scenes in films and TV shows like White Chicks, The Expendables and “Everybody Hates Chris,” the 45-year-old ex-NFL player is perhaps most recognizable for a series of increasingly absurd and hilarious ads that used his muscle-bound body to sell Old Spice deodorant. But over the last year, Crews has proven he can be just as funny with his shirt on, scoring guest spots on critically acclaimed shows like “The Newsroom” and “Arrested Development,” while also landing a regular part on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
Always on the move, the father of five (and grandfather of one) spoke to Play from his car on one of his days off. Speaking with passion about his love of physical comedy, his 25-year marriage and his upcoming book, Manhood, due out in May, Crews showed why he’s more than just a physical presence.
On “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” you play a character named Terry who has a family full of daughters. Is it easier to play a character that’s similar to you?
Yes and no. When you’re playing someone else, like when I was in White Chicks playing this crazy character, Latrell, it’s so not like me, so it’s cool to play. There are benefits to both. I wouldn’t say one or the other is easier. Part of the fun of acting is getting to play people who are so far away from what you really are, but when you’re doing something longer, like a day-to-day role on a TV series, it’s much more fulfilling if you can play something that’s close to you. That gives it an arc. I couldn’t play Latrell every day for 10 years.
You’ve had a lot of sitcom experience—on “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Are We There Yet?” What drew you to “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”?
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is my first true ensemble. On “Everbody Hates Chris,” it was really all about Chris and his adventures. It was based around one person and I was the dad, and I loved that and they had a great group of people, but this is much more interrelated. It’s a workplace comedy. So even though it’s Andy Samberg’s show, the A story, the B story and the C story have the same level of importance. And we’ve really clicked as a cast. When I started thinking about doing another TV show, I was like, “I really wanna be on a winning team.” I wanted to be part of a great ensemble like “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation,” where everyone has their own moment and gets their time to shine.
It’s such a deep cast with so many funny people on it. You must have some big laughs off camera.
Oh man. There are so many. For me it’s the little things. On set, Chelsea Peretti will say something, and the way she delivers it will just make me crack up, and I can’t stop laughing. It’s to the point where between takes she’ll be like [imitates Peretti] “Hey, Care Bear,” and it’s just the way she delivers it. [laughs]
You do a lot of big physical comedy on the show. What’s the trick to make that stuff funny and realistic?
I’m from the Carol Burnett, Jerry Lewis school of comedy. That’s the stuff that makes me laugh, so I think there’s a big benefit to that. And that’s what’s great about being in an ensemble. We’re like the Avengers. Andy is Iron Man, Chelsea is Black Widow and I’m the Hulk.
Most people know you were a great athlete growing up, but you were also into painting as a teenager.
I just liked what I liked. I liked to draw. I liked to play football. When I found something that I loved, I just did it. What’s weird is that if you just follow those things and live your life like that, all of a sudden you become cool. All of a sudden you start getting compliments like, “Oh, he’s just doing him.” I decided I wanted to be the best painting, football-playing actor ever.
And now you’re an author too, with your book, Manhood. How did you find the time to write with your busy schedule?
There’s a lot of down time when you’re acting and you’re waiting for things to be set up, and I’d always write things down, and I realized I had a lot of things I wanted to say, and you can’t just tweet everything. [laughs] I’d think something and be like, “That’d be a great tweet!” And I kept saying that, but then I realized, “That’d be a book! I need to sit down and write this stuff!”
What were some of the thoughts that inspired the book?
I learned most of my life through mistakes. Pretty much in every area you can think of, I’ve made them. I’ve had big issues with money. I remember going into the NFL and I bought a car before I had a house. Then I was like, “I can’t live in my car.” [laughs] Also, being married for 25 years, you think you don’t understand women, but in reality you’re just selfish. You can’t control someone and love them at the same time.
So it’s more of a memoir than an advice book.
Exactly. It’s all the things that I had to learn before I could go to another level. Frankly, as an African-American man from where I grew up [Flint, Mich.], there are a lot of guys, my friends, who are not here, who have died or are in jail or are living up to less than their potential. When I look at what happened to me, I feel like I landed on the million-dollar spot. But there were a series of decisions that got me here.
Who were some male role models you thought about while writing it?
I had so many great coaches, and my father, of course. I had a composite view of a bunch of different guys. You have to pull your ideal man from all these different areas. Bill Cosby was always one that I loved. I had coaches that I really admired and some pastors that really taught me some great things. And then I look at the industry, at people like Sly Stallone. Eddie Murphy has been another guy who I’ve always looked up to in a comedic way.
It’s interesting you mention Eddie Murphy and Sylvester Stallone, because they both write and produce their own films. Is that the next step for you?
Totally. I’m always writing things. It’s part of the creative process. Acting has a shelf life. You start out as an extra. Then you become a featured player, then you become a lead, and when you’re a lead you grow into being a creative. I think that’s my next move. It’s shocking, but a lot of people in this business don’t like it. They actually hate it. I knew a lot of football players who were playing in the league and hated it, and it’s the same thing with entertainment. But I’ve always done only what I love.