'Brooklyn Nine-Nine's' Terry Crews Talks Going Against Character, Working With the NFL

"I always wanted to be that guy who pushed the envelope in all kind of ways and tried something new," the former football star tells THR.
Eddy Chen/FOX
"Brooklyn Nine-Nine's" Terry Crews

Terry Crews has come a long way since retiring from the NFL in 1997. The former defensive end/linebacker had tackled roles in Everybody Hates Chris; features The Longest Yard, Idiocracy and The Expendables; and even Old Spice TV commercials before booking Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom. Now, the 6-foot-3 athlete-turned-actor has moved away from his standard tough guy role to portray a gun-shy family man on Fox's freshman police comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Crews plays the squad's leader, Sgt. Terry Jeffords, who, following an emotional breakdown involving a mannequin, has lost his edge and desire to head back into the field, fearful that he'd miss time with his wife and twin girls, Cagney and Lacey.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Crews to discuss his acting success and how he didn't give up hope after nearly losing everything, as well as how he helps former NFL players segue into Hollywood.

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Did you always want to get into acting after retiring from the NFL?

I never wanted to act. My wife was actually the one who was the actress when we met, and we've been married 24 years. I knew I wanted to be in entertainment, but I wanted to be behind the scenes. A friend of mine invited me to an audition and the first thing I ever auditioned for, I got. It was TV show called Battle Zone, which was like American Gladiators. Then I was hooked. I've always been a ham. I've never shied away from getting out in public and doing my thing. The one thing the NFL prepares you for is being on that big stage and having a bit of pressure [on you] because you would often wonder, "I could go home in a wheelchair after this." Facing all that pressure all the time you realize it's not all that important. You can get out there and do your thing and have fun. I found this career by mistake, but I feel like I should have always been doing this for my whole life.

You've gone from HBO's The Newsroom to Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Do you have a preference between comedy and drama?

I have a rule that I like to try everything and just go for it. People like to put you in boxes and define you. They'll say, "OK, you are big, black, 240 pounds and this is the part you're going to get." And I'm like, "I want to play the sensitive family type." When I sang in White Chicks, that was something that nobody saw coming. I always wanted to be that guy who pushed the envelope in all kind of ways and tried something new. When I keep that rule going, it always takes me to a new place. There are times when I fail miserably but I always find myself knowing one more thing better, doing one more thing that I never did before. When I got the call from Mitchell Hurwitz to do Arrested Development I was scared because it was an established cast on one of the best comedies ever. I said, "I have to go for it, and if they don't like it then they'll just edit me out."

You received several offers during pilot season. Was that a big boost of confidence for you?

It's a testament to the work that my wife and I have been doing. We have five kids and have been together 24 years. I can't do it alone. She really has been the backbone and let me go out and try things. You have to have that support and then you can feel that confidence to come out again. There was a time in 2000 when we lost our house because jobs weren't coming and we had to give up the whole thing. It was a hard thing. I asked myself, "Do I really want to be here? Do I really want to do this anymore?" She was 100 percent with me. For me, it was a good thing. I see a lot of actors that are doing things to please their coaches, their teachers in the past. They say no to parts they should have said yes to simply because of the opinion of people in their past. I have no one in my past who is judging me and saying, "Maybe you shouldn't do that." I'll do it all. I'll do an episode of Drunk History, do an episode of Real Husbands of Hollywood, jump over to Newsroom, go back over to Arrested, go do The Expendables, then jump back over here to Brooklyn. There are no rules and I don't want to get into a judgment position with anyone. I always tell actors to go for everything. I've been hosting the Today show, doing segments on that. I co-hosted the Kris Jenner Show with her just to see if I like it. When I'm done acting, I might want to get into talk shows.

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As someone who is so invested in comedy right now, would you want to try stand-up?

I would love to try it, but what I don't like is the nature of comedy lately -- especially stand-up, which has become a bit psychotic. It's very mean. They murder people and let the blood lay where it is without thinking that there are real people behind the jokes. I get making people laugh but I like making people laugh at my expense, not someone else's. That's what I love about Brooklyn and that's what I love about Parks and Recreation. The jokes are on us -- and that's my whole career. If I ever do stand-up it would be where I would be the butt of the joke.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from your friends in the NFL?

Every year I get the newest, hottest football players coming to me because I'm their example. The NFL has not done a good job with players after the fact. There were times when I approached the NFL when I was retired -- I wasn't a popular player so I got no love. I asked for help and got lip service. This is what they do. It's a culture of using people and letting them go. It's the game, and we all go with it. It got me ready for entertainment but that doesn't make it right. It's one of those things where if you profit off these guys you have got to look after them. The NFL has no infrastructure set up for after the game is over, but they're just now starting [to build it]. It had to get to a point where [former players] are involved in major crimes every year. I knew crazy guys when I was playing; I had guns pulled on me in training camp, I had fights that just broke out. People were fighting on the bus -- it was almost encouraged. Back in the day, your dysfunction helped you; [the league] almost didn't want you to be together. I remember when [Detroit Lions running back] Barry Sanders quit. They were like, "What do you mean?" He left on his own terms and a lot of times they really capitalize on the fact that you need them -- it's almost to keep you dependent so they always got you.

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Are you involved helping the league take care of players after they retire?

Oh yeah. I do things with the league now all the time. I did a movie called Draft Day with Kevin Costner which is all about the NFL Draft, and you have the NFL's support. I love what they're doing now. They started to reach out, and I want to be a bigger part of that. I want to be an example for the players that your life is not over. I tell them all the time, "Guys, your best days are still ahead of you." Imagine you're 30 and you think everything that's good in your life already happened! That's ridiculous. There was a time I was depressed and didn't know what to do. My wife told me to wake up, that there was a lot of life left. That's why I'm so, so thankful to be where I'm at. I'm like the Harriet Tubman of the NFL! I'm going to get the underground railroad! Come on out y'all!

What do your friends and former teammates think of Brooklyn?

Michael Strahan is one of my best friends, Matt Leinart is one of my good buddies, Ndamukong Suh from the Detroit Lions and I talk all the time. I always go to these events and I hang out with the Madden crew like Barry, Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders. They're proud of me. You have to have something to offset all this negativity. I played with Junior Seau and he's gone, which blows my mind. These are people who have a lot of issues. The NFL player, the way they think, they don't want to get help; they're really afraid to ask for help. I always tell these guys to admit when you're down because we've all been there. I want to be there for them and I want to be that light.

What do you think of Crews' comedy chops? Hit the comments below with your thoughts. Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. on Fox.

E-mail: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit