You can count on one hand the number of NFL players who successfully traded touchdowns for Tinsel Town—OJ Simpson comes to mind, as does Carl Weathers and Jim Brown. In the last decade Terry Crews, who had a 7-year NFL career in the ’90s, has joined that tiny club. Crews is a muscular guy, and like other athletes-turned-actors he kick-started his career by playing characters with names like Big T, Big James, or simply, Thug. In the last few years he’s eased into his career, expanding his repertoire to include more complex roles like Lonny Church in HBO’s The Newsroom and family fare, like the sitcom Are We There Yet? But Crews shines brightest as a comedian. Who else could have played President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho in 2006′s Idiocracy with so much zest? Or brought enough raw energy to turn a deodorant commercial viral?
Crews has joined the original cast of Arrested Development for its fourth season, streaming on Netlfix starting May 26th. As part of the show’s promotional campaign, Netflix launched pop-up frozen banana stands around New York all this week. On Tuesday, I hoofed it down to Columbus Circle to meet Crews. “Oh my God, is that the Old Spice guy?” I heard a girl squeal as I made my way toward him. Crews was excited to the point of giddy by the banana stand, the crowd, and the rest of the spectacle. We ducked behind the booth to discuss Arrested Development, his career, and how one day, you too can be ripped like Terry Crews.
Were you a big fan of Arrested Development when it aired? It’s funny, I became the biggest fan after it was off because of Netflix. I watched it streaming and I just got hooked like crazy. My 22-year-old daughter was like, ‘You gotta watch this dad.’ You know, I’m always busy and working and all of the sudden I was all in!
To hear that it was coming back, and then to get a call from Mitch Hurwitz, I was freaking out! He’s the funniest—everyone worships the ground he walks on. And he’s like, ‘Dude, I want you to be in it.’ I was flipping. He said, ‘I’ve got the greatest character for you, a politician called Herbert Love.”
What can you say about Herbert Love? That’s all I can really say! I can say Portia [de Rossi, who plays Lindsay Funke] and I have a lot of things together and Buster [played by Tony Hale] and I have a lot of things together. It’s all tied in—it’s a humongous web. It’s like the Star Wars universe, you know what I mean? That’s the only thing I can really compare it to.
Before you were an actor, you played in the NFL. How’d you make that transition? I was always an artist first. I had an art scholarship before I had a football scholarship. I was painting, drawing, doing graphic design, the whole thing. I actually shot an independent film and fell in love with making movies after my first year on the Rams. It was a terrible little movie—we got kicked out of locations—it was garbage, but I was like, I could do this for the rest of my life and be happy.
When I retired, my wife asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to get involved in the industry. She was like, ‘Let’s move to LA.’ I didn’t have any ties. We moved to LA and I was broke, doing security, and a friend of mine invited me to an audition. The first thing I ever auditioned for was a TV show called Battle Dome. And I got it! The first thing I ever auditioned for.
Everybody gets a shot in Hollywood, but the key is a consistent career. That’s a hell of a lot of work. You will get a shot, but the big deal is keeping it.
But you managed to pull it off. I started in ‘99 and I’m going on 13, 14 years in this career. I never had another gig. After that it was all about acting. I’m just thankful.
From President Camacho to the Old Spice ads, you’ve done a lot of comedy. Were you always attracted to that aspect of acting? Here’s the thing: I am the biggest honey-baked ham you have ever seen. I get turned on just by being in front of a crowd. A lot of people resist that—I love that attention. It’s just one of those things that energize me. I was always like this. I was the kid at the family reunions who was doing all the latest dances and it was like ‘Look at him go!’ Actually getting paid to do this kind of thing? I walked right in.
I also have a very high embarrassment threshold. I don’t really care. There’s nothing that really, truly embarrasses me. I know who I am, I know what I’m about. I can do whatever I want to do because I can go home, and my family still accepts me.
I go for it, with the Old Spice stuff, or President Camacho. Here’s another thing: I don’t have that old acting coach sitting around being, ‘You should not do this! You did The Bard in college! You are disrespecting the art!’ There’s nobody around. I’ve got football players being like, ‘Do that dude! Do that!’
There’s no judge that’s constantly on me about what I’m doing. Terry Crews is in freeplay. I don’t even know what I’m doing! I’m a free agent. So I can do Arrested, I just got my show Brooklyn Nine-Nine picked up on Fox, I can host the Today Show—there’s no rules!
But Hollywood is a difficult industry to crack, especially for an ex-athlete. What was your trick? Try everything. Don’t let anybody define you—that’s the key. Everybody wants to say that you’re the guy who does this, this and this. No. I remember when I came in, because of the way I looked, people were like, ‘He’s got all these ladies around him.’ I’ve been married 24 years. I got five kids. I’m a grandfather. You can’t define me, you can’t put me in a box. I make that determination.
You can’t do an action movie! Well I just did The Expendables. You can’t do drama! Well I just did Newsroom. So, what’re the rules?! You just try it, and you do it. I never let people define me. Tomorrow I’ll probably have an art show and flip everybody out. And if I wanted to get into finance and all of a sudden quit the business, that’s me. Never let anybody put you in a box, because it’s always too small. You can never fit.
Is it true you write too? I write all the time. I have a graphic novel I’m doing right now called Notorium which is all about the music industry. It’s written, and I’m doing part of the illustrations but I have another guy too. I’m into everything.
Summer is around the corner, which means it’s about time to hit the beach. What advice can you give a scrawny film columnist trying to get ripped? The secret is start very small. The problem is people try too hard too quick. You’ve got to treat the gym like a spa. Go in, do two exercises, maybe one. Then leave. But go every day—that’s the key. What happens is people go and blow themselves out and they’re worn out—the trainer kills them, and they can’t move a muscle. They don’t come back for like six months. You’ve got to treat it like relaxation. Put your iPod on, listen to music. Just go in there and sit down, but go. What’s going to happen as you go every day, you’ll be like, I did two exercises, maybe I’ll do three today. Over a year, you’re addicted, you’re hooked! You’ve got to go to the gym just to get your mind together because it’s a relaxing time. It’s not, ‘Oh god, I hate the gym.’ It’s, ‘This is where I get my peace.’ That’s what it is for me. I get my best ideas on a treadmill. The exercise gets the fluids running through your brain and the greatest ideas come. That’s where I get in my zone: no kids, no bills, no projects. That’s my time. I come out and I’m ready.