When people reinvent themselves, they usually shed one identity for another. In the case of Pasadena resident Terry Crews, he just adds each new personal iteration to the already considerable whole. “Renaissance man” may be an overused cliché, but in Crews’ case, it might be an understatement.
Throughout the course of our interview (conducted by phone as a result of the lockdown), I was forced several times to expand the list of “identities” that I had already collected for Crews, as I learned of yet another enterprise that had captured his intense interest. Athlete, musician, fine artist, game show host, film actor, children’s book illustrator, product pitchman, TV actor, social activist, furniture designer—all describe Crews. And what links them all together, other than his evident multiple talents, is the intense focus he brings to whatever it is he is involved in at the moment.
We began by addressing the elephant in the living room and I asked Crews how he had been dealing with the shelter-at-home restrictions. “It’s been difficult as it has for everybody, but it’s necessary,” he says. Fortunately, the tools that allow him to address the multiple disparate demands inherent in his life have allowed him to maximize his time and stay productive while we shelter in place.
Without having to travel to the West Side (which he laughingly says he may never do again after experiencing the alternative), Crews says he’s “taking a lot more meetings” while locked down than before. He wakes up every day beginning with a two-hour workout at 4 a.m., intending to ensure the rest of the day is as productive as possible. For Crews that demands routine and focus. Lists are made. Schedules are planned and goals ruthlessly tracked, and those that go uncompleted move to the next day’s list.
Crews suffers from a hearing condition that makes certain frequencies difficult to hear without complete focus on their origin, but he believes his learned ability to compensate in this regard allows him to focus intently only on what is immediately required. “People call it ‘multi-tasking,’” he says. “But I don’t multi-task. I focus absolutely on one thing at a time.”
Crews was born in Flint, MI (“It’s just a tragedy what has been allowed to happen there,” he says.) He was (and remains) a talented artist, receiving a scholarship for a six-week fine arts program from the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy upon leaving high school, before going on to Western Michigan University where he walked on to the football team, eventually earning a full scholarship. After a successful college athletic career, Crews had a journeyman’s experience in the NFL, playing for five teams in seven years, including one in Germany for the World League of American Football. “It was anything but glamorous,” he says.
Crews had a wife and two children to support (married for 30 years, he now has five children), but he also knew he was more than a football player, and each time the ax fell and he would get cut, he says he would “humble himself,” falling back on his fine art skills and making ends meet by offering to produce portraits of his former teammates, eventually creating a line of NFL-licensed lithographs. Perseverance is a quality Crews knows well.
Crews retired from football in 1997 and was living in Los Angeles, paying the bills by working as a security guard on a movie lot. Even then his positive attitude was infectious and (undoubtedly along with an incredible physique) soon got him noticed. After a stint on TV’s “Battle Dome,” he landed his first small movie role in 2002’s The Sixth Day. Since then, some 90 TV and movie credits have followed.
When I ask Crews what he’s most proud of, however, it’s not those roles that get him recognized in public but rather, his less-heralded work on behalf of the survivors of sexual assault. “I was fortunate enough to be asked to talk about toxic masculinity before the Senate Judiciary Committee…I think it was important for me as an actor, author, former athlete, advocate, and a survivor of a sexual assault to be in a position to speak candidly in front of Congress.”
As a survivor, Crews’ words carry particular weight. And it took particular courage for him to come forward with them. If you’re familiar with Crews’ Old Spice commercials and his dancing pecs, cantaloupe biceps, and eight-pack stomach, it’s difficult to think of him as a victim. But Crews puts the crime and its effects in a proper perspective. “What happens is somebody has power over (an actor’s) dreams…you get tricked into thinking this type of behavior is expected…it’s part of your job description.”
While advocacy is a big part of Crews’ life, TV audiences likely know him best as “Terry” on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (which was just renewed for its eighth season), and as host of “America’s Got Talent.” The roles are very different, but Crews seems to love them both equally. For “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “producers Dan Goor and Michael Schur literally wrote the character of Terry Jeffords with me in mind,” says Crews. “Over the years, the writers have used my own personality traits and likes, and incorporated them into the character—one long-running thread is that both me and Terry Jeffords LOVE yogurt!”
As for “America’s Got Talent,” Crews appears to harbor genuine affection for the contestants. “I just love that job,” he says. “We change people’s lives.” Of course, he knows performing in front of judges can be as anxiety-producing as it is exhilarating. He very much sees part of his role as providing “security” for the contestants. Keeping them comfortable and on point during a nerve-racking and potentially life-changing experience. When I ask him about his favorite performers, he’s audibly emotional speaking about a singer he recently “gold buzzered”—moving him directly to the quarter-finals—that had spent 38 years of confinement for a crime he didn’t commit, singing every day in prison. Now he’s a finalist on “America’s Got Talent”—an outcome Crews finds immensely gratifying.
When it comes to his gig, as a Pasadena resident another big plus is the commute. Auditions are filmed at Pasadena’s historic Civic Auditorium. Crews says he genuinely loves the grand old building—and not just because it’s close to home. He fondly remembers his first-ever awards hosting job was for an NAACP event held there, obviously unbeknownst to him that he’d be returning in another hosting capacity on one of America’s most popular TV shows.
This year, after co-judge Heidi Klum got sick (it turned out not to be COVID-19), “America’s Got Talent” began filming in front of an empty auditorium. Not ideal when it came to generating the kind of electricity that helps buoy a performance. Crews, in typical fashion, took it upon himself to help the contestants keep their goals in mind and maintain their focus and intensity, despite the unusual circumstances.
“America’s Got Talent” is still formulating plans for this year’s next round, known as The Judge Cuts. Here, those acts that have passed the audition round compete to go on to the live rounds held at the Omni Hotel. As with the last few episodes of auditions, the Judge Cuts may be filmed in an empty Civic Auditorium, though no plans were announced at the time of this writing.
As Crews waits for the new season of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” to begin filming and for “America’s Got Talent” to resume, his plate remains full. In addition to a starring role in the upcoming animated feature Rumble (currently slated to open January 2021), he’s become an award-winning furniture designer. Once again turning to his fine art skills, Crews partnered with Bernhardt Design, premiering a capsule collection at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City in May 2019. If it’s possible, Crews may sound even more passionate about furniture design than any of his other current endeavors. It’s clearly captured his imagination and he is proceeding full speed ahead. Recently the collection was awarded “The Best of NeoCon 2017,” and he has a new collection teed up for when design shows resume.
Crews’ capsule furniture collection doesn’t contain a bed, which is surprising since a man as busy as he is ought to be looking for a place to lie down. But rest is the last thing on his mind. He’ll soon be receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in addition to his numerous acting, voice, and pitchman roles, Crews’ philanthropy and activism continue, along with the design work…and the flute. Crews says he’s been playing a lot during the lockdown and he’s apparently quite accomplished. Hardly surprising. I just hope we go to print before Crews’ resumé expands yet again.
Photo: Benjo Arwas
Groomer: Keshia Smith
Stylist: Melanie Powell