Terry Crews On Art, Tackling Tough Subjects With Humor, And Being A Wild Man For The Camera

Terry Crews is a ball of energy, and chatting with him on the phone is every bit the energizing experience that you’d imagine it to be. For over two decades, he’s churned like a tornado through countless films and TV shows, including seven seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (where he can now utter strings of bleeps on NBC) so far. He’s the star of a recent micro-budgeted film called John Henry that’s been sitting atop Netflix’s Most Popular list for weeks. The movie, which also stars Ludacris, is really something, and Terry is as surprised as anyone over its popularity.

Terry is also featured in a new YouTube original series, Celebrity Substitute, which recruits an assortment of famous people (with expertise) to help energize distance learning during the pandemic. So, Ken Jeong, who holds an M.D. degree, is teaching biology, Bill Nye will be doing his Science Guy thing, and Terry’s stepping up to teach visual art and perspective, all to give high-school teachers a break. Terry’s episode premieres on May 21, and he was gracious enough to talk with us about a wide assortment of subjects, including why he adopted his signature “pose,” and how Brooklyn Nine-Nine could approach the pandemic subject when production fires up again.

I feel like I should have had ten cups of coffee before talking with you. How is your quarantine going?

You start to realize that you can get used to anything. It still sucks, definitely. I will not say that this is the best, but it’s something that I’ve gotten used to. What’s gonna be really weird is going back to work. Now that it’s been like two months of this, it’s gonna really strange.

You’ve been posting videos (like a scene from Friday After Next, in which you danced to Tupac Shakur) to boost people’s spirits. You also judged that nacho contest for Guy Fieri and Bill Murray.

That whole event was for the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund. When I think about the devastation of all the restaurants, in Los Angeles alone, where the whole industry runs on restaurants and all the waiters and waitresses and cooks and people who just make their living that way. It’s all gone. A lot of restaurants won’t come back, so I had to do this because I love the industry. A couple of times, I thought I would go to cooking school, way back after football. I thought I could be a chef, and I love the industry and Guy and Bill Murray and Shaq and [chef] Carla Hall, so to be a part of something like that, all of us getting together? To date, Guy Fieri’s fund has raised over $22 million for restaurants and their employees.

He’s stepped up, big time, I think more than anyone else for that industry.

Yes, he’s a man that loves what he does. It’s all about passion, I call him the big tentpole of cooking. He’s the Avengers of Restaurants.

Getty Image

When everything starts back up, you’ll be back to TV and film premieres. You’ve got a trademark pose that you do: the “jump.” Where did that come from?

Oh man, I’ve got a great story for that. Early on — I’ve been acting for 20 years — I used to be very intimidated by the red carpet. I remember going up there, I didn’t think people wanted to see me. I felt like I was in the way, and my wife was like, “You need to stop that. You deserve to be here,” and I thought, “I know, but this is weird.” So, what I decided to do was lean into it because it was [about] my own insecurities, and I was like, “Give them something to see.” Everybody just stands there and does a little pose, but I had to try something else. I decided to just count for the photographers and say, “I’m gonna jump!” I’d do a count of three, and they could take the picture they want, and every time, it would end up in the media. The photographers get paid for what gets published, and I had to learn the game. I’ve been doing that for 12 years now, and what’s really crazy is that [now] I know these guys, and they shout, “Do the jump!” So, I just do it again, and it’s kind-of my thing, and everyone knows to get out of the way. It’s my signature, and it’s just a way of feeling special and embracing it.

Let’s talk Celebrity Substitute, which you filmed in quarantine. How did this get started, and what’s your episode about?

It was wild. It was announced, and YouTube came to me and came to a bunch of different celebrities in their field that they love to do. They knew I was interested in art. I had an art scholarship before I had a football scholarship.

You originally wanted to be an animator, correct?

Exactly. I wanted to be an animator, I wanted to do special effects, I wanted to do anything with movies artistically, and I was the guy who wanted to draw movie posters and all that kind of stuff. I didn’t know I’d be in front of the camera. I had no idea that would happen, but with Celebrity Substitute, all I could think about was my own son, who’s stuck here, with me, at 14 years old. All I could think about was, man, I loved going to school when I was 14, and now these kids are all stuck at home. I wanted to do what I could do to help them learn, to make exciting, to make it fun. And there was a teacher by the name of Rachel at a school in Compton who taught art. I joined her class, and we talked scale, perspective, and proportion to her students, and it was so much fun to see their faces when I popped in. I was happy that they knew who I was. It makes you feel relevant when kids know who you are!

My daughter definitely knows who you are. She wants to know if you love yogurt as much as your Brooklyn Nine-Nine character does.

Oh, I loooooooove yogurt! That’s for real! [Laughs]

On the topic of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, there’s been some talk of whether the show will address the pandemic, since they are obviously in New York City with the show being about first responders. Do you have an opinion on whether realism should happen in that way?

By all means. I think it’d be a real mistake to not touch on the whole pandemic. Especially in the New York area? Oh my goodness. My daughter lives there, and it’s shut down right now, so if we didn’t, that would be whole definition of tone-deaf. But I think that we’ve always done a great job of handling very serious subjects with humor. We’ve dealt with racial profiling before on the show, we’ve dealt with gun violence, all kinds of issues but still in a very funny way. To me, the more serious things can be, actually, the funnier they are. I’ve always looked to find the real comedy inside of very intense subject matter. So I’m with that, and I think that our writers — we’ve been doing it, going on eight years now — are up to the challenge.

Back on the subject of education, do you remember your favorite teacher?

Yes, yes. My favorite teacher was my art teacher. His name was Mr. Dwight Eichelberg. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I remember he was taking my art, photographing it, cataloging it, and filling out all the applications for scholarships, and it turned out that he got me a scholarship to Interlochen Arts Academy and Western Michigan University by submitting the work that I did in his class without me knowing. He was telling me that I should, and he did that on his own, and I’ll never forget it. It blew my mind, but that level of care and attention changed my life forever. We actually regrouped five years ago. I went to Flint, Michigan and visited with Mr. Eichelberg, and he was telling me how proud he was. I was in tears, I actually broke down. He didn’t have to do that, and he did it anyway. I think that’s what really makes the difference in a kid’s life: when an adult takes that really caring touch and takes that extra step.

You also have America’s Got Talent, which you host, coming back next week. I screened a scary clip where you’re holding a sledgehammer. Can you tell me what’s going on there, with some guy holding his mouth over a blade?

[Laughs] You know, I love doing America’s Got Talent. My wife tells me not to say this, but I would host the show for free. It’s so amazing, to give a lot of normal, everyday average people who give the show their amazing talent, and it’s incredible. And it gives them the light they deserve, and you’re literally making dreams come true. So I would be a part of that. And that day when that guy asked me to hold a sledgehammer and basically hammer the block on the back of him when he was literally millimeters of cutting his face in half? I was just like, “You sure you know how to do this?” And the producers are ready to pay all my bills if something goes wrong? Oh my god, that was almost a mini-heart attack, it was unreal.

It looked very stressful. The clip that I saw cuts off at a dramatic moment, but can we assume that he survived?

I can give you the spoiler. He’s okay!

Speaking of sledgehammers, are you aware that John Henry (an action-thriller that alludes to the folklore) is currently a Netflix phenomenon?

I am very aware, and what’s crazy about that is — to be blunt — the movie was an experiment. It literally was a little bitty, mini-movie. We just decided to do something. I’m never shy of doing something, just going for it and giving your all to something. It was really fun to do, and I thought it might just go to the back of the bin somewhere, whatever, it’ll be there. It hit #1 on Netflix. I never saw that coming. I would have predicted the shutdown/quarantine easier than I would have predicted that John Henry would be #1. Also, The Willoughbys –the animated movie I did — was #1 on Netflix, too. I call myself the most thankful man in Hollywood, period. I don’t take it for granted. I don’t take people’s eyeballs or attention for granted. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been doing better than ever during this pandemic. People have been binging, and it’s been amazing, the comments and social stuff, and when this whole thing is over (and it’s temporary), I’m ready to do more things and keep trying.

There’s something like 500-600 new shows every year, so it’s a challenge to become the thing that people are binging.

It’s incredible. Again, it’s so hard. And I’ve always got people telling me to watch this show and that show, and it’s too much! To have people call what you’re doing “must-see,” and the fans have been rabid — again, I’m humbled because I’m an old football player. I never thought I’d be doing the things I’m doing right now. But the funny thing is that I hosted my high school talent show, and it was a total premonition of what I’d be doing for the rest of my life.

There’s a lot of crazy stuff in John Henry, but there’s a scene that stands out. You’re in the drug store, and you’re buying feminine products for a houseguest. That wasn’t your first rodeo, right?

Yes. Look, I have four daughters and a wife. What happened was that I had to do that when my first daughter turned into a teenager, almost 20 years ago, but now? Shoot, I put it right up there with the eggs and milk, and I’m like, “Yep, feminine products, got ’em!” Whatever I gotta do, I’m doing it, and look, if I need Depends, I’m not shaming that either. Those are for me!

Well, there’s such a variety of feminine products in those aisles. Guys usually stand there, looking confused.

You get to a point in life where you don’t care. You’re like, “I’m human, yes! Guess what? I do need those.”

You mentioned your wife. You recently wrote a Mother’s Day tribute about how she had breast cancer surgery as the pandemic took root. How’s she doing?

The level of gratitude I’ve got: she did not back down. She’s actually got a warrior’s mentality because she got the diagnosis one month before everything shut down. But we didn’t know it would be this way. Back then, the whole COVID-19 was just kind-of rumors. No one really knew what was going to happen. She got a mastectomy, and then she elected to have a double mastectomy, just to make sure she was okay. And it turned out that her second breast did have cancer that had not shown up previously, so she just made all the right calls. And the thing was, she was the strong one, for me. She was like, “Let’s go, let’s get this done,” so it’s kind of romantic, but I almost say it’s like the world shut down so that I could take care of her. I was her nurse, doing the laundry, cooking, cleaning. Two months later, she’s cancer-free, doing her thing. I’m thankful for modern medicine — the doctors, the nurses, everyone is so good. It’s a miracle, modern medicine doing things that we never thought we could do, 20 years ago.

Taking time out for one’s family is something a lot of folks are rediscovering right now, if there’s a silver lining to all of this.

Oh yeah, I’m never home. I’m always on the way out or the way back. And the fact that it’s quarantine, and you are just here… we’ve been closer than ever, it’s almost like a marriage retreat. But also to nurse her back to health, this is what love is all about.

‘Celebrity Substitute,’ a YouTube Original, launches Terry Crews’ episode on May 21.