Terry Crews Gets Real

One of TV’s most recognizable faces comes clean.

BY TYLER HUCKABEE GOD / ISSUE 89 / ISSUE 89 / TV September 26, 2017

Terry Crews has a presence. He’s tall, taller than you think, and his muscles are shaped in such a fashion as to make ancient statues of Greek gods look as shapely as a bag of melted taffy. But even his wrought-iron frame can’t keep up with the sheer force of his personality. An overwhelming sense of Terry-ness reverberates from him in boundless reserves.

It’s easy to see him on TV, flexing in an Old Spice commercial or stealing scenes on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and think for a guy like him, this all just came naturally. But he’ll be the first to tell you that everything he has is because of hard work and an ethic centered in his Christian faith. It’s that hard work that has given him a different view of what it means to be “successful,” because, as he also knows firsthand, as hard as it is to achieve, all it takes is one mistake to have everything you’ve worked for go away.

“For me, the main definition of success is doing what you want to do the way you want to do it,” Crews says. “That’s it. It has nothing to do with money. It has nothing to do with image. It has nothing to do with what other people think about success.”

On the one hand, that might sound easy for a guy like Terry Crews to say. When you’ve got a great image, lots of money and are successful by any possible definition of the term, it’s easy to wax philosophical about how image and earthly success don’t matter. But Crews does speak as an authority on the subject. This is a man who’s fought through one of the more dramatic career roller coasters in modern pop culture history. His professional life has been a series of unlikely breaks and long hours. And if his professional life has been dizzying, his personal one has been a tornado—one that’s tested the bonds of marriage and fatherhood like few have. Crews is aware of how rare his story is, and he’s grateful.

“The fact that we are still here 28 years, five beautiful kids, one grandbaby (yep, Terry Crews is a grandpa)­—I know a lot of people in Hollywood that wish they could be close to something like that. And I think that’s my proudest production,” Crews says.

“Because let me tell you, it was a horror movie for a while.”

Addicted to Religion

Terry Crews was born in Flint, Michigan, the son of a man addicted to booze and a woman who, Crews says, was “addicted to religion.”

“We grew up Christian, but we were really on the far-right,” Crews says. “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.”

Flint was (and still is) a dangerous place for a young kid, regardless of how religious his mom might be. “It was one of those things where you knew if you went out to an event or a party, someone was going to die,” Crews says. “Someone’s beef was going to be settled there. I had to become a hermit because there were so many shootings. At one time Flint was the murder capital of the United States.”

Even today, Flint has the fourth-highest murder rate in the country, but in recent years, Flint’s been infamous for a different kind of headline: the water crisis, and the government’s subsequent attempt to cover it up (“Everybody has been affected by it,” Crews says.).

In his youth, Crews wanted to escape Flint. He played football during the day and painted portraits in the evenings, balancing his obvious physical acumen with a creative gift in much the same way he still does today. He went to Western Michigan on half an art scholarship and half a football scholarship. While there he met and married his wife, Rebecca, and played well enough to get drafted by the Los Angeles Rams.

“It was funny because I got married while I was in college, and while I was dating my wife, I told her, ‘First of all, we’re going to play in the NFL, and then we’re going to move to L.A., and we’re going to make movies,’” Crews says. “That was one of the first things I ever told her. It’s so wild because it’s actually how it happened.”

And it’s true, that’s what happened. But things took a few turns along the way.

“What I Wanna do”

“I did not want to be an actor,” Crews says. “I was going to be a creator.”

He’d been inspired by a drive-in movie theater showing of Star Wars—he begged his mother to make an exception to the “no movie” rule until she relented—and the movie changed his life.

“I saw what I wanted my art to do for me,” Crews says. “I was painting spaceships, heroes and comic books, and drawing all this kind of fantasy art, and Star Wars was everything. I was like, ‘This is what I wanna do.’ So I was talking about being a creator, never an actor.”

After the NFL, Crews moved his family to L.A. with intentions of getting involved in the animation industry—even shopping his creative portfolio around Disney—but this was during Pixar’s CGI boom, and hand-drawn animators were in low demand. Crews started sweeping floors to make ends meet and eventually worked his way up to doing security on film sets.

A job on the set on Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day led to a walk-on role. A job on Ice Cube’s Friday led to a small role on Friday After Next. A job on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s End of Days led to a role on The Sixth Day.

“Just show up,” Crews says. “I’ve always been one to realize that if you do just show up, amazing things can happen. Just go. Me just going to see Denzel work turned out to be a thing that changed my life forever.”

But it was also the thing that nearly tore his life apart.

All of a sudden, Crews had a taste of fame and was hanging out with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. It was enough to make him forget about what had brought him to that point and to betray the morals he’d always leaned on. It was enough to make him risk losing everything he’d worked so hard for.

“I actually went to a massage parlor, and I cheated on my wife,” Crews says. “I vowed I would never tell. And eight years went by, and my wife was always questioning me, and I would just deny it.”

Rock Bottom

“There are times when you think you hit rock bottom and what you’ve done is you actually hit a cliff,” Crews says. “You just hit the ledge; you haven’t fallen all the way yet. The thing about religion is that it can become a mask that you wear so long that you become it. Here I was: a Christian, a churchgoer, but I had a double life.”

The subject of double lives comes up a lot with Crews—particularly the way religion can breed them. “It’s funny,” he says. “They say during church conventions they sell more pornography from the hotel rooms than any other time. You look at the state of Utah as super big on the Mormon faith, but they’re also the No. 1 place where people consume pornography online. It’s because of that double life. It’s that religious thing: Let me keep my image, but deep down underneath I have to do something else.”

Crews isn’t being judgmental here. He’s speaking from the experience of heartache—an ugly secret he kept buried for eight years, dismissing his wife’s frequent questions about what was wrong, shoving it all into a sordid place in his heart that he could almost wish away from existence. Almost, not quite.

“I was also addicted to pornography at the same time,” he says. “Once the internet came out, even before that I remember going to bookstores. It was like my dirty secret. It was the thing that I couldn’t beat. And what I figured is everybody is just like that. That pastor, that preacher they’re probably addicted to porn, too.”

None of this makes Crews angry at the Church, but he understands why so many people are. He’s deeply aware of the hypocrisy, and he doesn’t deny that it’s a real problem for leaders. Christian influence can become a means of control in ways both extreme and subtle, and it does a number on the people who get hurt in the fallout.

Crews knew he’d “taken things too far”—his addiction and affair were risking his marriage, his family and everything that he was building for himself as a real actor in Hollywood. But for years, the risk of exposing his secrets felt greater than the risk of hiding them. He grit his teeth and smiled through the secrets and lies. That’s no mean feat, but Crews is a good actor. And then one day, the whole performance fell apart.

“It was eating at me, and I knew that I wasn’t right,” he says. “But because of the image, you have to keep it. And here I am successful, a churchgoer. But I knew I wasn’t telling the truth, and one day—we call it D-Day around our house—my wife just confronted me. I was actually in New York, she was in L.A., and she said, ‘Terry, what is it I don’t know about you?’”

Crews says at this moment, a divine voice in his head told him: “If you don’t tell her the truth, I’m done with you. You can go ahead, but you’ll be doing everything without me.”

That woke him up to the severity of the moment, and a facade that was nearly a decade old fell to pieces.

“I told her,” he says. “And I remember just everything falling apart. She was like, ‘I’m done with you. You’ve got to go. I’m through. Don’t come home. It’s a wrap.’”

“Get Better for You”

Terry Crews does not seem like the type of Hollywood star who would have a story like this. Terry Crews is the fun guy—like a walking subversion of the alpha male.

He—along with Parks and Rec’s Ron Swanson and Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World—turned the patriarchy on its head by leaning into it. When Crews jiggled his leaden pectorals for the most famous entry of Tim and Eric’s Old Spice campaign, you couldn’t tell if he was laughing with America’s doofus bro culture or at it. By removing any trace of irony, Crews’ entire persona became ironic.

The fact that he never winked at the camera made you wonder if the entire thing was a wink. It took someone with Crews’ level of ultra-masculine confidence to make America question its own ultra-masculine sense of confidence.

And so it’s difficult to imagine this man, this living cultural meme, scrambling, desperate, drowning. But that’s where Crews found himself personally, even as his career was soaring.

“The thing is Hollywood doesn’t care that you lose your family,” Crews says. “They just don’t care. You’ll still be very successful. They’ll just go ‘OK, next, no big deal so you can just keep these plates going.’ But I knew who I was. I knew what I had done. And I knew that I wasn’t truthful. And the hard part is going home and knowing who you are. And let me tell you something, it was the hardest thing ever.”

His world ripping at the seams, his family splintering, Crews turned to his pastor who, he says, gave him “the best advice ever.”

“He said, ‘Terry, you can’t do anything to get your wife back, but you have to get better for you.’ And I realized he was totally right. And I went to rehab. I went to a rehab in Phoenix that dealt with a lot of pastors and church people that had gotten involved in scandals and different things, and kind of had double lives and all this stuff. And the first thing they told me was to really …”

Here Crews breaks off for a moment, searching for the right word.

“I was in denial the whole time,” he says finally. “I was thinking I may be bad, but I ain’t that bad. And I found out, ‘Yeah, you’re that bad.’”

His marriage didn’t end. Crews thought it was going to, but it didn’t. He’s still married today, but those were, he says, hard days.

“There were times when I just knew I didn’t have a wife, I didn’t have a family, I knew my life was over, but there is going to be something that comes from this,” Crews says. “God was literally telling me, ‘Hey man, there is a greater meaning here.’ And now I can see it. In hindsight you can always see it, but you can’t see it going through it.”

It took a few months after Crews confessed to the addiction and infidelity, but eventually his wife agreed to give therapy a try. He says it took “years of us really being honest and sharing and it was a lot of tears, a lot of heartbreak.

“I would come home, and my wife would be in tears and I didn’t even know how long she had been crying,” he says. “And I would put an arm around her and it was one of those things where you can’t fix it because you’re the guy who did it.”

Crews set about trying to improve his life. He realized how much of his life had been split in two—the public grin and the private anguish. “I’d learned to hide who I was. You learn to hide your feelings. You learn to just split in two. You’re in a very strict religious environment and also you’re wrapped up in your dad’s an alcoholic, the whole thing, you learn to be two people.”

But it was ultimately his commitment to fixing it that convinced her he was serious about their marriage.

“What [Rebecca] did see is that I was authentic about being real and really battling what this was,” Crews says. “Because again, I did not improve my life or change in order to get her back. I did that because I needed to be a better person and by being a better person, she knew she could come back. It took a while.”

With the help of his pastor, his therapist, his wife and his faith, Crews found a way to bring the two split sides of his persona into one and heal his marriage in the process.

“Our relationship is better than it’s ever been,” he says. 

“I realized that the big thing for me, even in therapy, was talking about it,” he says. “And the more I could talk about it, the more power I had to fight it. And it’s really strange, because when everybody knows your issue, it’s like this is the thing, the more you try to hide it, the more strong it got. The bigger a secret, oh my God, it consumes your whole life. It’s kind of like once you expose that stuff you sweep it away, but the more you try to hide it the worse it gets.”

“It Sucked, but I’m Free”

These days, of course, Crews is focused on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, one of the highest-rated comedies on network television. Crews plays Sergeant Terry Jeffords, an over-the-top caricature of a lead dog, with an easy-touch heart hiding just a single scrape away from the surface. It’s a great performance and it’s made him a TV star, but Crews is just happy to feel successful. Not just in his career, but in his life.

“Success to me is when my wife can look at me, and she’s proud, and my kids can look at me, and they’re not ashamed,” Crews says. “And they know I’m the same person in the house that I am when I’m outside of the house. There’s no double life. It’s all me. It’s all one. We had to break down all this stuff with the kids too. Just let them know. No hiding. Dad has this problem. And we worked it out and they went through the whole thing with us. It sucked, but I’m free.”

And now, he’s in the business of freeing others. Crews has become a regular on the speaking circuit, telling his story in hopes other people suffering under the burden of pornography and infidelity can be inspired to get real about their own issues.

“If I would have heard this when I was a young man or even earlier in my marriage it might have saved me,” Crews says. “So what I said is, ‘I’m going to be the guy who is going to tell his story and hope it helps someone else.’ Not to point fingers. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a church, a community function, a group of entertainers or a podcast.

“I don’t limit myself to religious events or anything like that, but my job I feel is to tell my story, and whoever invites me to do that and is willing to support me and basically give me a platform, I love talking about this stuff. Especially about the toxic masculinity thing and the way I saw myself in regards to my own family that affected everything I was about.”

Still Showing Up

“Just show up” is one of Terry Crews’ mottos. It’s served him well. Show up to a football practice, get drafted into the NFL. Show up to a security job, get cast in a Denzel Washington movie.

Crews’ secret isn’t just showing up for gigs, but showing up for life. And not just showing up, but showing up as his whole self. The mistakes. The heartache. The healing. His athletic side. His creative side. All of it—it’s all Terry Crews … but it was never just Terry Crews. He’s always had someone else there with him.

“When you’re going through something you’re always like, ‘God are you here?’” Crews says. “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.”

TYLER HUCKABEE

Tyler Huckabee is a writer living in Nashville TN.

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