There’s no explaining the brilliance of Terry Crews. One must simply bear witness. Unfortunately, to do this in the past, one had to wade through some… wildly uneven movies: e.g. Friday After Next, White Chicks and The Longest Yard. Luckily, there are now two solid seasons of Everybody Hates Chris and Mike Judge’s cult classic Idiocracy, both of which showcase Crews at his comedic best. Hell, one sampling of Crews as President Camacho in Idiocracy should do the trick; there’s no one working in film or television today with this guy’s mix of physical intimidation and unabashed lunacy. The man is fearless.
And it seems like Hollywood is finally catching on. Aside from the forthcoming third season of Everybody Hates Chris, there’s a role in Peter Segal’s Get Smart and, most intriguingly, an intensely dramatic turn in David Ayer’s The Night Watchman (based on a story by James Ellroy). And for those who in need of a Crews fix this week, there’s his supporting appearance as the Ray Lewis of professional ping-pong in Ben Garant’s and Thomas Lennon’s Balls of Fury. As is often the case with Crews, he may not have the biggest role, but he certainly makes the most of it.
And Crews wouldn’t have it any other way; he takes great pride in enlivening heavily improvisational comedies with a big ol’ dollop of silliness. But as you’ll learn in the below interview, like many comedic actors, he plays all of his characters very seriously, as if they’re in the most intense drama ever written. Mugging and goofing off is for amateurs; and Crews, who came to acting late following a six-year career in the NFL, is as professional as they come. He’s also one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet – though he did have one of his boys hanging out with him waiting to "whup my ass" should I ask the wrong kinds of questions. With this in mind, I kicked things off by getting on his good side.
Q: I know you played pro football, but you played college ball at Western Michigan.
Terry Crews: That’s right!
Q: I’m from Bowling Green, so…
Crews: The MAC Conference! (Commence handshaking and ritual midwest bonding.)
Q: So you started in football and worked your way into the comedy racket?
Crews: It’s funny. I was always a clown in the locker room, and I’m doing the same exact thing I would do in the locker room. Everyone would be like, "Man, you’re funny!" I just feel privileged to do it and get paid for it, because I’d be goofing off anyway. My wife was like, "You would find a way for this thing to work out, wouldn’t you!" Because I thoroughly embarrass my family at all times. (Laughs) If my daughter and wife don’t feel that tinge of embarrassment, I’m not doing it right. "Hey, I took my shirt off, honey!" And they’re like, "Oh, lord!" That’s when I know I’m doing it correctly. But believe me, a lot of guys that I do in acting are based on a lot of people I met in the football world. They’re so funny. And they’re serious. They really believe they’re cool. But it’s so funny when you see these guys [in their element]. It couldn’t be made up. You would think I was lying; you would think these are just characters. But they’re real people.
Q: Anyone in particular who amused you?
Crews: Oh, I can’t name names! If I named a name, they’d shoot me. Like Michael Vick, man, they choke puppies! What do you think they’ll do to me!?!? (Into recorder:) Michael Vick, I’m sorry, man. (Laughs) But, you know, ball players are very unstable, so you have to be careful naming names. But there are some people who know. They’re like, "You been watchin’ me, dog! You been watchin’ me!"
Q: So you hear back from ex-teammates?
Crews: I do. I get called all the time from guys I played with, and really because they’re proud. A lot of people don’t realize, especially when you’re playing, that there’s life after football. I mean, you spend your whole life geared to get to the NFL. Everything about you is training. Even when you go to college, you don’t even study; you’re playing football. I’m not going to lie! Ain’t no studying going on! They were like, "Hey, you’re going to college!" And I’d be like, "Huh? What’s that?" And they’re like, "This guy’s been here three years, and he doesn’t know anything." And that’s because it’s all football. Football is your job. I think the NCAA is running a game. I was an art major, and I had to take labs, but I could never go to any of those labs because I was practicing. It’s like, "What joke is this?" So you spend all your time preparing for football, and all of a sudden when it’s over, when it’s done, you’re like, "Okay, what am I going to do now?" So the fact that I’ve made it in another career – and I don’t even feel like I’ve "made it". I feel like it’s a day-to-day process. But the fact that these guys can see me actually doing something in this business, it gives them hope. They’re always like, "There is more." I mean, I was at the bottom of the totem pole, and to be here right now, to be working with Christopher Walken and all the guys on this show… it’s an honor.
Q: When did you realize that this acting thing was going to work out for you?
Crews: I got the film bug a long time ago. When I was playing with the Redskins, me and my friend, who was also a football player, wrote and directed this movie called Young Boys Incorporated. We shot it in Detroit, and it was awful. (Laughs) It was absolutely terrible. We got kicked out of locations, my friend would lie to me to make sure I would go in and do these things… but I caught the bug! This was the only thing I felt fulfilled in doing. I wanted to be in entertainment. So I remember when I retired, I said to my wife, "My heart’s not in football anymore." So she said, "We should move to L.A. We’ve always talked about it; let’s do it."
Now, I moved out with the mindset of getting behind the scenes. But after a couple of years out here, we were struggling, all our money was gone, I was working security, and I was trying to get the movie sold. But, again, it was terrible. (Laughs) That’s a hard way to go. I didn’t know it was terrible at the time, but I was starting to read other scripts, and then I started to realize what good scripts were. I thought, "I’ve got a good movie just because I’ve got good elements: you’re going to like this part, and you’re going to like that part." But it wasn’t cohesive. I started to realize what film was. So when I was working security twelve hours a day, I would read books on films and the business and all that stuff. I put myself through college. Then the strangest thing… I was working a club in Burbank, and a guy comes in, we sort of befriended each other, and he’s like, "Dude, I’m doing security for Billy Blanks. He’s doing a show, and I would love for you to try out for it." And I sort of pooh-poohed him. I was like, "Oh, whatever." But I went and auditioned for it, and it was the first thing I ever got. It was a show called Battle Dome. It was like American Gladiators to the tenth power; we were really hurting people. (Laughs) But coming from the football land, it was the perfect segue: it was competitive sports meets a game show. It was the first thing I got, and I never looked back. Right after that, the first movie I ever auditioned for was The Sixth Day with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I auditioned for it, and the lady was like, "You’re pretty good." I’m thinking she’d tell everybody that. But she brings me in on a call back and tells me, "Terry, I know you’re a really nice guy, but you really need to be mean. This director wants a really mean guy." And I’m like, "Okay. I’ll whup his ass! I don’t care. I’m coming from security!" So I go in to audition, and the director’s like (cheery British accent:) "Hello!" And I’m like (mad-dogging:) "Yeah, what’s up." (Laughs) I do the audition, and I get the part. And I’m thinking, "I’m going to get killed by Arnold; it’ll be a week. I’m just happy to get some work." It’s four months in Vancouver. It’s a big part. I’m like, "Oh, my god!"
Again, I never looked back. I kept acting, kept getting different roles, kept rolling. Then Friday After Next hit, and I was famous in the hood. And once you’re famous in the hood… (Laughs) when black people love you, they love you forever. R. Kelly, Michael Jackson… you can’t do no wrong! "Oh, you peed on a kid? You didn’t do it! You went platinum!" I ain’t done nothin’ like that, so I’m okay! And Friday After Next made work. The Wayans caught wind, it just kept going, and here I am. I have no shame. I’ve been married eighteen years, and I’ve got five kids. I’m not trying to get girls. I don’t care about being cool. In fact, I’m so uncool, it goes full circle. They’re like, "Oh, he’s cool again." I am that bad. I’m the corniest guy you ever want to meet. I have Tony Robbins sayings pinned to my corkboard. But I give 120% every time. And I was so happy that Ben and Thomas gave me this chance to work with them. I was like, "I’m going to bring something to this character that’s so special." I wanted to bring a street ball mentality to the ping-pong world, so you can really see how ridiculous the street ball mentality is. It was really fun.
Q: Was this one of those instances where they said, "This role is small, but it’ll grow with what you put into it?"
Crews: That’s it. The role was almost a paragraph; it was like, "He plays ping-pong". But it was all about how he did it. Dan [Fogler] and I hit it off right way. Dan is amazing, so we just started improvising. I was asking Ben and Thomas, "Am I doing it right?" And they’re like, "Keep going!" So I said, "Whatever you want. How intense do you want it?" It was really fun. I was actually doing Norbit at the same time, so we were trying to work it out with the schedules. I was one of the last guys to sign on, but I’m glad we worked it out. It was so much fun.
Q: With every movie you do, there’s this excitement from people who know your work. We’re always wondering if this is going to be the one. I was talking to Peter Segal last month for Get Smart, and I told him how happy I was that he’d cast you. I asked him what you do in the film, and he said it was one of those things where, again, the role is small, but it will grow. What’s it like to have people trust you so much that they’ll give you a small role knowing that you’ll turn it into something bigger and special?
Crews: It sounds weird, but I just want the piece to work. I don’t really care about me; it’s about the piece. If my part is small, it’s small. A lot of people count lines, but if I don’t have any lines, that’s fine. I can do more with a facial expression than I see a lot of people doing with a bunch of lines. That’s not comedy. Just because you talk a lot doesn’t make it funny. For me, it’s always been "How can I serve the piece?" If I can serve it in five minutes, then cool. Adam Sandler called me up to do Click, and it was a forty-second scene if that. But I’m just as proud of that as anything I’ve done because it served what Adam wanted. And people appreciate it. People appreciate passion. And for me, there’s no excuse for a lack of passion. Even if you see something I do and it’s not that funny, you’re not going to see me ever mailing it in. Ever. Because people work hard. People go to work. They’re going to get their girl and take her to a movie – when the movie is going to be out on DVD in two months anyway – and when they get to the theater, they don’t want to see somebody mail it in. "Look how cute I am. Look how handsome I am." I’m not into that, because I’m a hard working guy myself. And I know that when I go to a movie, I want to see somebody do their best. Or at least try. That’s something you can appreciate it. I’ve seen so-so movies that have tremendous efforts by certain people, and then it becomes a whole other thing.
With Pete, he said, "It’s a small part." I said, "Whatever you’ve got, I’m going to give you 100%. If I don’t have anything to say, cool. I’m going to give you the reactions you need." And then it just grows. The same thing happened with The Longest Yard. It’s all about serving and helping everyone else. In my mind, if I make this other guy look good, it makes me look good. Some people have it the other way around; they’re like, "It’s my time to shine!" And then you end up getting cut out of the movie. With me doing Everybody Hates Chris and my commitments to the show, I’ve been able to do more cameos. I would love to do bigger roles, but I’m thankful that they let me do both. I’ve got my foot in the film world and the television world. My time is coming, but I’m not in a hurry. I’m just enjoying it. I get to work with the best in the biz, period.
Q: So you’re planning to stick with Everybody Hates Chris for the duration?
Crews: Until it’s done. That’s my plan. It’s funny, because Chris Rock’s father died in 1989; we’re at 1987, and I’m a little nervous. "Are we at ’88? What year is this?" I’m nervous. I’m like, "When did he have that heart attack?"
Q: Do they have plans to write you out?
Crews: Well, they’ve been giving me high blood pressure, gout… and I’m like, "Am I going to be okay?" (Laughs)
Q: They could Good Times you.
Crews: Right! But I’m in it for the long haul. I love the show; it’s like a big, long movie anyway. And once it’s in syndication, it will play forever. Because it’s set in a period, you can watch it thirty, forty years from now, and it’ll still play. I’m out for leaving a legacy. I’m out for something that will last. And even when I’m off doing other movies, I’ll still have that show that I can be really proud of.
Q: You’ve consistently been one of the most memorable actors in a lot of movies, be it White Chicks or The Longest Yard. But Mike Judge’s Idiocracy is one that really seems to be sticking. President Camacho is such a great character.
Crews: I can’t wait to play him again. I am waiting for a reason to play him one more time. I don’t care if it’s the MTV Movie Awards or something. Camacho’s coming back. I love all of my characters, every last one of them, but he’s so special. And I felt like people didn’t get a chance to see him. It’s out on video now, and people are actually throwing parties to watch it, which makes me feel very, very good. He’s just one of those characters that’s just so intense, but you can’t hate the guy. (Laughs) Mike Judge’s sensibility was right on.
Look, I’ve been privileged to work with Ice Cube, the Wayans, Adam Sandler, Mike Judge, Chris Rock, Ben and Thomas… I’ve hit the holy grail of comedy. Now I’m moving into this dramatic thing [The Night Watchman] with Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker. It’s not my first dramatic role, but it’s definitely my biggest. There’s nothing funny about it. And there’s more of that coming. I have two sides; I can laugh, but I will whup your ass. (Laughs) We can have fun, but when it turns, it’s over. I think a lot of people are waiting to see me in that, too. You kind of test the waters. My mantra is "I don’t want to let anybody down." Maybe that’s not the right attitude, because you can’t please everybody. But I’m giving it everything I’ve got.
Q: Segueing into drama can be so difficult for comedic actors. Your audience has certain expectations.
Crews: It’s a hard thing. But I aspire to have a career like Christopher Walken. Christopher goes from the wildest comedies to the craziest musicals like Hairspray – and this is coming from stuff like The Deer Hunter and The King of New York – without missing a beat. You are totally with him in every one of those roles. Even in Man on Fire. He’s not laughing. But he’s so intense, you believe it. I want to be a cat that you can believe. I don’t care about looking sexy or cool; I just want to look believable. When I was Camacho, I played it like a drama. I play all my comedies like dramas. When you look at Balls of Fury, I damn near broke my neck trying to do the ping-poing and the whole thing. I was really trying to play it as intense as a drama, but the magical thing happens: it’s funny! But when you play it for laughs, it’s like, "Eh."
Q: You say you want to bring President Camacho back. Have you talked to Mike Judge about that?
Crews: I have. I actually talked to Mike a few months back. You know, it was a hard go the way Fox treated him and all that. It’s hard. But I would love, in any way shape or form, to play Camacho again. Believe me, that’s something I’m definitely going to talk about with him again. I’m just going to badger him and badger him until I can bring Camacho back in some form. You know? The Camacho Chronicles. (Laughs) You know what I mean! There’s another movie coming! There’s something else there! How he got there, his rise to power… I could do that all day. I can make Mike more money. I can do that.
Balls of Fury opens in wide release August 29th.