By Peter Wallace
Widely regarded as one of show business’s nicest guys – and with a ripped physique that can put anyone to shame – Terry Crews is one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, but in recent years he has been putting his talents to positive use off-screen as well.
There are few people in modern showbiz who can emulate the kind of effect Terry Crews has on a room. It’s not just the seemingly boundless smile and 6’ 3” ex-NFL-worthy frame that have made Crews a much-loved entertainment staple since his breakthrough in the early noughties. The Michigan-born star has also developed a reputation for being one of the industry’s most enthusiastically positive influences – a trait which was crucial to helping him win his first high-profile moments on the silver screen.
When visiting the set of the 2002 Denzel Washington-fronted Training Day, Crews was approached by director Antoine Fuqua and asked to do some background shots as ‘Unnamed Gang Member’.
‘I’ve always realised that you just have to go,’ he told GQ. ‘If you just show up, a lot of times the opportunities are there. He [Fuqua] said, “Terry, come back every night for the next week; I’m going to find ways to use you in the movie.” I was like, ‘Whatever you need!’
‘I didn’t get one dime for Training Day. I showed up, I volunteered, I said whatever I can do, I just want to help the movie and for this to be the best thing ever. This is the thing – a small role like that – I cannot even describe to you the satisfaction of being in a movie that good, and that iconic.’
Crews had made his first impression on the landscape of Hollywood. Known as he is now for his long-running light-hearted turn in the award-winning cop comedy series Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Crews was quick to showcase the kind of expectation-subverting persona that has won him fans around the world.
‘At the time, that was going to be my career trajectory,’ he continues. ‘I was going to be the heavy, I was going to be the mean guy. There’s a stereotype about big, muscular African-Americans being security guards: he’s big, he’s mean; he’ll rip you to shreds. I love the fact that I have killed that trope, that you have to see us as three-dimensional, with happy families.’
For Crews, this ability to channel both his innate masculinity and rarely showcased vulnerability on-screen has allowed him to occupy a unique space in various TV and film projects, from the aforementioned Brooklyn to bombastic action franchise The Expendables, and even as the host of America’s Got Talent.
But Crews’ determination to eschew potentially damaging preconceptions of what a man should be were realised in an altogether more serious light in October 2017. In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, in which numerous actresses went public with their stories of sexual harassment in the industry, Crews himself revealed that he had been groped by a male film executive at a party in 2016. As well as being one of the ‘Silence Breakers’ to be named Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ for 2017, Crews was also asked to testify on the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
‘As a man, I was taught my entire life that I must control the world,’ he said at the time. ‘I used power, influence, and control to dominate every situation, from the football field to the film set … even in my own home with my wife and children.
‘Then, in 2016, while at a party with my wife, I was sexually assaulted by a successful Hollywood agent. I was told over and over that this was no abuse, that this was just a joke, that this was just horseplay. But I can say that one man’s horseplay is another man’s humiliation. I chose to tell my story and share my experience to stand in solidarity with millions of other survivors. I know how hard it is to come forward; I know the shame associated with assault. It happened to me.’
Crews was the most high-profile male in Hollywood to stand up and speak out about his experiences. By making that decision, he risked his career and his reputation – but dig deeper into Crews’ personal life, and it becomes apparent that the star can rely on a strong personal faith to see him through even the toughest of circumstances.
‘I heard this great quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that sums up a lot of life for me: “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards”,’ he has said. ‘That sticks with me and haunts me daily. Am I scared to fail? Or scared to succeed? Am I willing to do everything it takes to make it? Or will I hide safely behind my excuses forever?
‘I discovered you don’t even get to be born unless your mother has the courage to endure childbirth. Everything fantastic, amazing, or extraordinary takes courage. But here’s another thing I discovered: you can’t be a pessimist and courageous at the same time. In order to move forward, you have to believe that you are going to win. What you believe engages you with power that trumps everything in your life.’
Crews’ conviction even led to his being commended, alongside his wife, Rebecca, at events such as the ‘Gospel Goes to Hollywood’ ceremony.
‘The big thing for me was, now that I know I can do away with a lot of things that tend to hold you back, what am I going to do with my gifts?’ he explained while receiving their joint award. ‘What am I going to do with what I’m given? And I decided that I was going to do everything as unto the Lord. And that means everything.
‘When you look at my career, and certain things that I have done, a lot of the questions I get from Christians are, “How can you do that?” But this is the thing: as a performer, I do everything unto the Lord, and I enjoy it. I don’t do it for the money. I don’t do one thing for one red cent. Everything is for Jesus, this is why I had no problem putting my family on-screen and showing how I really am, because for me it was refreshing to be able to show people that a black man does love his wife, that a black man does love his kids, and he does love Jesus.’
His wife, Rebecca, is an actress and musician who travels the world attending and speaking at religious events. The couple have shown their personal lives off in the goldfish bowl that is reality TV since 2010 on The Family Crews, including their daughter’s purity ball, and regular church outings. Small wonder, perhaps, when you consider that it was in church that the pair, who have been married since 1990, first met.
‘He wasn’t my type when I met him, he was a nice little church boy trying to get next to the keyboardist and I was like, “He’s OK,”’ Rebecca said of their first meeting. ‘He was just a sweetie. He was a nice young man, came at me all proper and he won my heart.’
Crews may well have found his sweetheart in church, but during his formative years in the troubled town of Flint, Michigan – once the murder capital of the USA, and now more well-known for its ongoing water crisis – both Crews’ home life and religious life were wracked with problems. His father was a violent domestic abuser and alcoholic, while his mother sought solace in the more hard-line aspects of her faith.
‘We grew up Christian, but we were really on the far-right,’ Crews told Relevant. ‘We weren’t allowed to listen to music. We weren’t allowed to go to dances. We weren’t allowed to go to the movies. We were in church a lot; I have to say probably in a seven-day week, we were in church four out of those seven days and then we went twice on Sunday.’
Despite this near-zealotry, or perhaps partly because of it, Crews’ relationship with his faith has at times been a fractured one. He has admitted to driving his marriage close to destruction, first through a one-time fling and then a near-crippling addiction to pornography that saw him eventually enter rehab. The Terry Crews fans know and love today may well always be ready to tackle the issue of ‘toxic masculinity’, but even this element of Crews’ persona has been hard-forged in the fires of self-awareness: ‘I was thinking I may be bad, but I ain’t that bad,’ he said. ‘And I found out, “Yeah, you’re that bad.”
‘I was in the NFL, I was a card-carrying member, because you don’t want to be kicked out,’ he told Esquire last year. ‘Did I look the other way? Hell yes. While all those things were going on, I didn’t say anything. Because what are they going to do to me – will I be excommunicated? It’s a cult. You don’t go along with what everybody’s saying, all of a sudden, you’re out. That’s hard.’
Even at his lowest ebb, however, Crews was starting to mould that future all-positive ideal of his.
‘This is the deal: to find success, it’s in those moments, the moments when you’re off,’ he told CNBC. ‘You don’t see it, you don’t know it, you’re alone. But you hear a little voice that says, you know what? Maybe it’s me. Because any time you point out that someone else is the cause of your problems, you’re wrong. It’s you.’
By the time Crews came to face down this same mentality with the movie industry in the wake of his 2016 assault, he was ready for the worst-case scenario, even going so far as to tell his wife in no uncertain terms that his Hollywood career was probably over. Instead, he has risen to become an integral figurehead in the current post-#MeToo incarnation of the entertainment industry – a fitting position for one who has long been admired by his co-workers.
‘Some people find creativity in self-exploration, but they don’t have the motivation to do anything about it,’ Joe Lo Truglio has said of his Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-star. ‘Others have an incredible work ethic but nothing to say. Terry’s rare. Terry has both.’
Those casting an approving eye over Crews’ contemporary life would do well to remember the obstacles he has overcome on his way to success. There are many possible reasons to be envious of Crews, not least his superhuman physique, but the man himself is adamant that his achievements have come from a higher source.
‘When you’re going through something you’re always like, “God, are you here?”’ Crews said. ‘And He’s like, “I’m here.” It’s funny because there’s a will to pleasure, there’s a will to power and then there’s a will to meaning. I think every true Christian lives his life with a will to meaning. Because pleasure and power, they all fade, they don’t last.
‘But you can find meaning in suffering. You don’t learn it before you go through it. And let me tell you, it’s weird because no one really had answers, but the answers were spoken to me. It’s kind of like as I was more open to them, they just came out of my heart. It’s like God speaks to everyone and tells them what the right move is. But you’ve got to be open.’
Yet ‘openness’ comes in many forms – to be open-handed with your positivity, open with your faith and family, open about your worst experiences, and open with your own limitations, even when you’re Terry Crews, a 50-year-old man with 18.5” biceps.
‘Of course, I still write down my goals, I still see the value in being fit and doing my job well,’ he wrote in his 2014 autobiography, Manhood (Zinc Ink). ‘But trying to be perfect will leave you empty-handed, whereas trying to do your best will keep you fulfilled. The best you can do is always good. I realized you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be faithful in your attempts.’