When you juxtapose the outsized image of Terry Crews beside the reality of Crews the man, the husband and the father, the two are very much incongruent. That dichotomy is further crystallized when you speak at length with the introspective and multidimensional thespian and star of TV’s hottest sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
Based on his memorable role in, say, Friday After Next, many people instantly and reflexively think of Crews as an over-caffeinated, hyper-masculine former NFL football player that was seemingly sculpted out of a block of cement – and, coupled with a stare that could bore holes in concrete – who used to dine on quarterbacks on plane rides home.
But if you spoke to him over the phone without ever knowing him or seeing him before, you could almost mentally affix a bowtie on him and stick him behind the lectern at a local college. Crews broke down the game of Hollywood success like a science. After all, the man got two art scholarships after high school (yah, it’s hard to wrap your brain around the idea of this body-building mass of humanity holding a paint brush. But I digress).
He brings that level of intellectualism and refreshing perspective to the role of Terry Jeffords, the troubled and embattled New York police sergeant in the hilarious, award-winning Fox comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” that also stars Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher and Melissa Fumero.
After accruing increasing cache borne from quality roles over his 15-year acting career, Crews happened upon the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” role in a way that is as rare as a Mike Tyson sighting at a spelling bee: the show’s creators made the role just for him.
“(The creators of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) said ‘Terry we want to create a role just for you, that we want to tailor it just for you,” he recalls, still a trace of astonishment coating his baritone-rich words. “In fact, we called the character ‘Terry’ because want it to be you. We’re just going to start from scratch with you. Now, nobody had ever told me that before. I said ‘holy cow! Where does that happen in Hollywood?!?’”
Like, hardly ever. So when Crews left NBC studios after finally reading the script, he immediately fired up his agent’s phone and told him that he had to have this role. “And bam! A year later we are standing on the Golden Globe stage,” he said, still astounded by the turn of events the past 18 months.
There’s a symmetry to Crews’ career success – and it’s because it’s been … well … asymmetrical: it’s often unsafe, uncertain, volatile, and Crews said he loved it.
“I had determined a long time ago that I was going to just try everything, and do new things, and force myself into new positions. I grew up in a factory town. And I noticed that people were doing the same things for 40 years. My grandmother worked at AC Sparkplug for almost 50 years doing the same thing everyday,” he said. “And I remember thinking ‘I don’t know if I can do that. I just have to rediscover and try new things.’
That mentality never wavered as he matriculated through Central Michigan University via a football and art scholarship and played in the NFL. Not knowing exactly where the journey would take him and how it would turn out gave Crews the kind of adrenaline rush he got on the football field.
“To me the risk was worth it. When I moved out to L.A. after the NFL, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t’ know anything (about the business). I was broke, I was hungry, I was tired – and I was happy,” he laughs. “Just the excitement of a new thing, the excitement of trying something different, the uncertainty of it wasn’t scary for me,” he added before pausing and restarting.
“It was scary, but in a good way. You get the bubbles in your stomach because you know now is where good things can happen.”
With “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” that good thing has happened, with an exclamation point. Crews plays the role of a paranoid health nut sergeant who’s been chased from the streets due to his overriding fears of dying in the line of duty and leaving his children fatherless. “Brooklyn Nine Nine” turned out to be a role of a lifetime as the show went on two win two Golden Globe Awards, including Best Television Series: Musical or Comedy in its inaugural season.
It’s fruitful times like these that Crews is forever grateful that he did not settle for the often debilitating and soul-robbing life of sameness. Besides, as Crews explained, nothing in life is totally safe-proof, not love or jobs or anything for that matter.
“I noticed that, back home (in Flint, Mich.) everyone wanted safety,. and they had safety, and they ended up closing the (auto manufacturing) plant down anyway,” he recalls somberly. “Everybody traded in all their dreams, all their hopes, for safety and all the factories closed up regardless.
“I said ‘you know what? That will never happen to me. At least, if something is going to close down, it’s because I did it, not because someone else shut my life down. I never, ever wanted to be that dude.”
“So jumping (from the NFL) into the a new career, it was wild at first. I took my wife on a roller-coaster. That’s for real,” he recalls. “But … it’s always worth it. When I look back, I say ‘wow, I’m so glad I did it.’ I tell everybody, this is my life and I am so thankful.”
Crews is at an enviable perch in his life: successful, married for 25 years to the same woman and with five children. He poured the contents of his soul into his debut book, Manhood, which chronicles his journey from that self-centered, super-machismo man of his football playing days to a more balanced being with some wisdom stored in his soul.
He said the wisdom and better perspective helped him to change his life — and it changed the quality of roles he got. During that journey from his first big role in Friday After Next opposite Ice Cube, Mike Epps and Katt Williams that fans began to see that Crews has dimensions to his persona, which served him well when he exponentially raised his profile in such films as White Chicks and The Expendables and especially the sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris.”
Part of that journey was the discovery of just how accurate that certain age-old truisms really are, such as: “If you surround yourself with junky people, your stuff is going to turn out junky. That’s just the way it is. So I said I had to surround myself with great people,” which he has gotten to do working with the likes of Denzel Washington (in Training Day), Ice Cube, the Wayans Brothers, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and a host of other A-list actors.
He also spoke about how the little-known pow-wow conversation that he had with Katt Williams on the Friday After Next that changed both of their lives, sending both of their careers soaring on an upward trajectory.
“I said ‘this may be it. This may be the only chance we ever get.’ This is what we said to each other,” Crews recalls nostalgically as the two broke actors looked to squeeze through that tight window of opportunity. “So I said ‘man, we’ve got to blow this thing up. Let’s make this so memorable that, even if this is the only shot we got … let’s take this to a whole other, unforgettable level,’ and Katt was with it. It changed the movie … and it changed our careers forever.”
That last statement is indisputable. That role, along with many others, helped Crews’ career intersect with that of the creators of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Crews is looking to further flesh out the character on “Brooklyn Nine Nine” as the process of “life happens” continue to provide hilarious outtakes on real world situation.
And, so what some of the roles that he has played are partially stereotypical or typecasted? Crews, counter to the mentality of most, likes those stereotypical roles. He knows that he is going to bring something unique to the character that will make the script’s words jump off the page and make the the role he’s playing leap out from the screen and land into the consciousness of the audience. Much like he did with Friday After Next and “Everybody Hates Chris.”
“When you go in there, you are the only one that is like you. There will never be another Terry. (For example), there are a lot of people who write, but when you write your story your way, it’s never going to be like anyone else’s, ever. So what I do – I’m fine with stereotypes – is that I plug me in it (the roles). You are never going to see another person like this. They can’t make faces like this, and they can’t emote like this. And what happens is that it becomes something that you’ve never seen before. It totally does,” Crews shares. “I remember playing in White Chicks,(opposite Shawn and Marlon Wayans) about this man who falls in love with (what he thinks is) a white woman. What happened was, I would see the faces of the people behind the camera, and they would be like ‘Wow, I didn’t know it could be this way!’ See, I put me in it.
“What happens is that (many other less successful actors) play the stereotype, but they didn’t put themselves in it. And you watch it and you say ‘yah, they could have put anybody in it.’”
But for the role of Terence “Terry” Jeffords in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the creators of the sitcom said they could only put Crews in it. Because he put all of himself into his previous roles that made him stand out among the Hollywood throngs like neon lights. From that self-emitting light, the incandescent Crews came to the attention of the “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” comes on Sunday nights at 8:30 pm EST on Fox.