Before the Scene is where we all start. In a small town with our families. In front of a mirror with our friends. The days spent sleeping on a couch. The nights working at a bar. Living with the unknown and surrounded by uncertainty. It’s about the times that define us. It’s about the darkness just before the limelight.
Terry Crews is an American actor and comedian from Detroit, Michigan perhaps best known for his roles in White Chicks, Bridesmaids, The Expendables and in TBS’s Are We There Yet? He can next be seen reprising his role as Hale Caesar in The Expendables 2.
What made you want to become an actor?
I have always been an artist. As a kid, my claim to fame was my art talent, and I would get awards for pictures and paintings and comics that I wrote and drew. I always knew I wanted to use it in the film industry. I had a big, big desire to somehow be involved with film. That’s where I got my morals from, it’s where I got my focus on life, and it just affected me to the point where the first time I saw Star Wars or I saw The Thing, and I thought I was going to be a special effects artist. I went to an arts academy to study art, but it just wasn’t going to pay all my way. I was from Flint, Michigan and I didn’t have a lot of money. I knew football was going to be my way to get a scholarship. Then I went pro, and a friend of mine who played with me at the Rams, he was an artist also from Detroit. We were both like two art-drawing football players. And we decided, let’s just make a movie. We went to Detroit and shot this movie – it was called Young Boys Incorporated – and it was horrible! I mean, like, just a terrible movie. We got kicked out of locations, people didn’t show up, it was just a mangled mess, and I loved every second. I said, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
I told my wife when I met her, that I was going to play in the NFL, then we were going to move to L.A., and we were going to make movies. She was like, “Alright, let’s do it.” So when it was time to retire she was like, “Hey, you remember you said you wanted to move to L.A.? Let’s go!” And I’m like, “You’re right. It’s time.” Well, we went out to L.A. We went broke. We didn’t find any investors [to finish my film]. Then I ended up doing security for the motion picture industry. I also had another job as a bouncer, and a friend of mine invited me to an audition – he was a police officer who had been working with Billy Blanks, a consultant on a show called Battledome, which was an extreme sports American Gladiator-type show. And he said, “They’re looking for warriors for the show in Venice Beach, so why don’t you come on through?” I had been told, “Man, you should try acting. You have a good look.” And I was like, “Nah, I’m a filmmaker.” You know, “I’m a creator.” So my wife told me, “You know what? You should try it. Go on down.” And I blew it away. Then, I didn’t hear anything for like six months. I get a callback: “Hey man. We’re still doing this show. You did a great job six months ago.” We were really struggling trying to hold on, trying to make it, pay the bills every week. And I was so hungry, man, I would do anything. We need a breakthrough here cause nothing else is happening. And I painted my face like Darth Maul and went and got this crazy outfit. “I’m going all out.” I’m like, “If I’m not going to get it, it won’t be for lack of effort.” Then they said, “Congratulations. You are one of our warriors. You are now on the show.” It was to the point where I had nothing else. I said, “I got to go for this because I got to feed my kids.” I had two daughters, and one was on the way at the time. My wife was pregnant with my third daughter. We have five kids now. It was a breakthrough that I’ll never forget, man. And, lo and behold, I became an actor, and I’ve been acting ever since.
What was your biggest fear?
My biggest fear, totally, was the fact that I did not know what I was doing. And I was scared that people would find out. I was petrified. We were down at the L.A. Sports Arena, and it was packed with kids and people screaming. I remember right before the doors would open and the warriors would come out, I would have these panic attacks. These little, small panic attacks. “You can’t do it. You’re in the wrong business. You are a fool. You don’t know what you’re doing.” People were getting hurt. It was a lot of crazy, crazy games that you could really injure yourself in. I’m like, “I could get killed out here.” But what I would tell myself was, “What else do you have? Are you going to go back to security? What are you going to do?”
What kept you from walking away?
Just the fact that it was more money than I had ever seen! We could actually eat! It was to the point where we would buy flour, spaghetti sauce and a block of cheese, and make pizza. We didn’t have $7.99 to go to Little Caesar’s and grab one. And then it was like, “Wow, I’m getting $2500 a week.” Just looking at my kids as they ate a meal. I said, “I got to do this.” There is no “not doing it.” You don’t have a choice, man.
What did you walk away from?
I had to give up that “creator” dream. I came in there to be this writer/director and became an actor. I felt like that was a total shift. I had to give up being considered that type of person. Because mostly you want to be considered a creative type, and as soon as you hit that actor mode, they’re like, “Ooook, you’re an actor.” And they don’t really respect you a lot of times above the line. I had to give up that artist moniker.
Who was your closest ally?
My wife. My wife. We were about a year and a half in, and she said, “Honey, how long will we keep going for this? If, it’s not working, how long will we continue to go before we realize we need to do something else?” I said, “We’re never quitting. We’re never stopping.” I said, “I’ll be a janitor for twenty, thirty, forty years. If it happens when I’m ninety, then we’ll be fine.” She looked at me and she said, “I’m with it. That’s all you had to say.” That’s my ally!
What were you doing the morning before the audition that changed your life?
I had two on the same day. One was for a series regular on My Wife and Kids with Damon Wayans, and then the next was with Keenan Ivory Wayans for White Chicks. And I bombed the first so bad. I’ll never forget it. I went in for Wife and Kids. And it was a series regular. I was just so nervous. Something was off, man. I just saw eyes and judgment. A big table full of people, and I just couldn’t get it together, man. My voice was cracking. It was wrong, like I had never done it before. But then I drove right over to the Keenan Ivory Wayans audition for White Chicks. It was like everything just clicked. It was the total opposite of that morning. Keenan was rolling, and the casting agent was rolling. Sure enough, they told me I didn’t get Wife and Kids and I was crushed. But one week later, they were like, “You got White Chicks.” And that was a whole other deal, man. That took me from big, bad brute guy into the comedy realm that solidified me in comedy.
What were the words that kept you going?
There was a book that I used to hold, and it was called Let Go of Whatever Makes You Stop. That was the name of the book. It was a cheap little grocery store book, just a motivational book. And it had these little sayings, like, “Don’t ask why, ask why not.” It was like, just keep going. And I would pull that book out, man. And I had a lot of tapes at the time — cassette tapes, that’s how old I am — of different pastors in my life that were very motivational. One pastor said, “Hey man, every situation is subject to change.” So, as bad as anything looks, all is subject to change. I was like, “Wow, you’re right, you’re right.” My wife and I would always just pray together. We’ve been married twenty-three years, and there’s no way I could imagine doing this by myself. I have gone infinitely farther with her than I ever could have gone by myself.
How have you changed?
A lot of times, as an actor, when you start out, you are doing things for other people. And where I’ve changed is that I started to do things for me. In becoming a whole person. Becoming a person that, I’m honest about my performances. I’m honest about who I am. There are certain roles that I would not do now that I would have done readily in the beginning, even if I didn’t agree with it. You have to decide who you’re going to be. And the moment you do, you gotta fight for it.
What words do you have to inspire others?
Watch your habits. This is talking to young actors, and every person in any business, anything you’re doing. There’s a compound effect. And I discovered that when I was off track, it started way back with the little things. Always keep an eye on your habits. You can have good ones, you can have bad ones. Keep the good ones, but always get rid of the bad ones, and you know what they are.