TERRY Crews is a glass-half-full type, grateful for his all chances, writes Alistair Harkness
Terry Crews is a man who likes to subvert expectations. Take his appearance in The Expendables movies. Though his pumped up physique (a hold-over from his days as a professional American football player in the NFL) means he has never looked out of place amid the roster of veteran action stars headlining the retro men-on-a-mission franchise, at the relatively tender age of 46 he’s the only regular cast member who has been able to use the films to cement a new career rather than revive an old one.
Not that he would ever put it in such derogatory way, of course. He has nothing but genuine awe for the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone and generously credits the latter with giving him the boost he needed to take his own career to the next level.
And well he might. Since Stallone first cast him in The Expendables as the brilliantly monikered Hale Caesar (“It’s the name of the century, man,” laughs Crews), he’s gone from bit parts and cult roles – most notably as the Nile Rogers-esque President Camacho in Mike Judge’s merciless Bush-era satire Idiocracy – to enjoying huge mainstream success as one the stars of the new, Golden Globe-winning US sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
“I guess I’m proving they made the right decision,” laughs Crews over the phone at the end of a heavy day of press for The Expendables 3. “I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder and Sly was just as happy as anybody else to see me up on the Golden Globes stage with my Brooklyn Nine-Nine guys.”
His interim success certainly made returning for The Expendables 3 a sweet experience, not least because the expanding cast of Saga-qualifying action stars this time included Wesley Snipes, whose legal travails (he was sentenced to a three-year prison term in 2010 for tax evasion) were the reason Crews had the opportunity to join the franchise in the first place.
“He was supposed to be in the first one and I was chosen because he was not able to do it. So it was kind of weird when I met him on set. I told him,‘I’ve been keeping this spot warm for you for the first two films and now that you’re part of this franchise everything is right with the world.’”
Such magnanimity is typical of Crews – and admirable given that he seems to have less screen than expected in the new film. Crews, though, is a glass-half-full kind of guy and he loves the fact that Caesar’s trajectory in this movie is the catalysing force behind Stallone and Co taking on new villain Mel Gibson, playing a ruthless arms dealer.
“All you can ask for as an actor are great moments, so to have what I mean to a movie become that important… that’s one of those things you dream about.”
Besides which, Brooklyn Nine-Nine seems to be where his heart really lies at the moment.
Set in the titular New York police precinct, the show may have been created as a vehicle for ex-Saturday Night Live star Andy Samberg, but the rapidity of its success – the show was ten episodes in when it beat the The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family to win the Golden Globe in January – has as much to do with the wonderfully warm and witty dynamic provided by the rest of the cast, with Crews in particular generating a lot of laughs (and heart) as Detective Terry Jeffords, an imposing-looking cop paralysed by fear since having twin baby girls.
Currently gearing up for the second season, Crews thinks of the Brooklyn Nine-Nine characters as his second family and he’s particularly proud of the fact that, like a lot of his most notable roles to date – the workaholic dad in Chris Rock’s biographical sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, the gay ex-con in Ice Cube comedy Friday After Next, the right-wing politician Herbert Love in Arrested Development, President Camacho in Idiocracy – Detective Jeffords goes against the grain of what people expect from him.
“It’s always the element of surprise that gets you,” elaborates Crews. “You’ve got to pull back enough so that people can get in and go, ‘Oh my God, I’ve seen that guy before.’ He may not have been a 250lb muscular African American guy, but they can identify with him. And you have to be able to tap into that humanity, because a lot of times, a guy like me would just be the stereotype.”
This desire to upend people’s expectations started while he was growing up in Flint, Michigan. His prowess on the American football field may have won him a full college scholarship, but he used it to go to art school to study painting, illustration and graphic design. When his subsequent career in the NFL – he played professionally for six years – coincided with the American indie film explosion of the 1990s, he became obsessed with filmmaking and remembers reading indie film guru John Pierson’s book Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes and being so enthralled by the DIY spirit of people like Spike Lee, Richard Linklater and fellow Flint escapee Michael Moore that he eventually pooled his NFL wages and wrote and directed his own movie – an urban drama set in Detroit called Young Boys Incorporated.
“The movie never came out, but that experience changed me,” says Crews. “I said to myself, ‘I’m willing to move to LA to start over and get involved in entertainment, no matter what.’”
After retiring from the NFL, that’s exactly what he did and he hasn’t looked back since securing his first role in 1999.
His plan now, he says, is to get as successful as possible to increase his career options for the future – although, amusingly enough, his current benchmark for personal success is not The Expendables 3 or even Brooklyn Nine-Nine: it’s a commercial he did recently with The Muppets.
“The fact that they felt I was a big enough name to support The Muppets, I was like, ‘This is a different place’,” marvels Crews. “I’m reaching a place where I can work with icons and it makes sense to a lot of people.”
• The Expendables 3 is in cinemas from Thursday. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is currently screening on E4.