A multifaceted and tenacious talent 20 years into his screen career, Terry Crews has always defied the efforts of others to put him in a certain box. A former NFL player who moved to Los Angeles in 1997 to pursue acting, Crews built a career with a specific mission in mind. “I wanted people to see me, and see what was possible,” the actor says. “I’m telling you man, it took a long time to get here. I’m 50 years old, and now I’ve actually changed the way people could see people like me.”
When Crews came to Hollywood, he knew he looked like no one he’d seen on screen. And as a tall, muscular and athletic individual, typecasting was a force with which to contend. “It’s one of those things where everyone tells you the right way to go. So many people tried to put me into action movies. ‘You could be this kind of action star, where you’re killing a bunch of people,’” he reflects. “But I was like, ‘I like being funny.’”
Because of the way he looked, Crews had to fight for the opportunity to demonstrate his comedic chops. “Someone told me a long time ago, ‘Terry, you really changed it, because muscle was always considered not funny.’ Even in comedic circles, they were like, ‘Once you get in shape, you’re not funny anymore,’” the actor explains. “But I always wanted to be like, ‘No, you can find comedy in anything.’”
Forging his own path, Crews ultimately proved himself to be the consummate comedic talent, showcasing his skills most recently throughout six seasons of the Golden Globe-winning sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Driven by his love of a challenge, Crews has never stopped branching out to pursue new forms of creative expression, setting his sights in recent years on the realm of reality television. Dipping his toe into those waters as host of series like Ultimate Beastmaster, World’s Funniest, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Crews was invited last year to host America’s Got Talent: The Champions, a new spin-off of NBC’s Emmy-nominated reality competition program.
This year, though, Crews has reached his own personal summit, succeeding Tyra Banks as host of the flagship series—“the biggest talent show in the world.” A tour de force, Crews proved once again, to himself and others, that no vision is unattainable, when passion is met with strategy, and a lot of hard work.
What inspired you to get into reality television, and continue down that path with America’s Got Talent?
First of all, you have to know one thing about me—the term ‘unicorn’ has been thrown around. I realized a long time ago that I couldn’t just have a career; I had to make one. There were things that were not accessible to me, simply because of how I looked, what people assumed. Everyone was like, “Oh, he can’t do that,” so I went out of my way to make sure everybody realized that I could.
As an actor, things can be a little limiting. You wait for them to pick you, and it’s always been this way my whole career, because I don’t fit anywhere. When you have great actors like Steve Carrell or Adam Sandler, they look like the normal guy, so you can slide them into anything. But I don’t. So, it’s always been a thing where there were no roles made for you. Everything I’ve ever done has always been one of those things where people go, “You know what? If you hadn’t done it, I didn’t know it even existed.”
So, a few years ago, I went out of my way to start hosting. This was all a part of my nefarious plan. When I started hosting the daytime version of Millionaire, I did 197 episodes, all on the East Coast, and then flew back and did Brooklyn Nine-Nine at the same time. Because I wanted to learn it. I wanted to know it. It was hard, but I would go to bed really peaceful. And when you love what you do, the energy is there.
Then, I hosted World’s Funniest. I started hosting New Year’s Eve [Live] for Fox, and the one for NBC with Carson Daly. I made sure that people saw me on The Today Show, really being able to expound on subjects, and just go. I even hosted like the 1000th episode of Cops, [taking] any kind of opportunity, because you want to be able to be thrown into any scenario and keep things moving on.
What was crazy was that you wondered if it worked, and then I get the call to do Champions. I had no idea they were thinking about making a spin-off, and it all timed up. Now, I’ve always been a fan of America’s Got Talent. This is where I always saw myself, because I’m not a comedian. I’m a comedic actor, so I never get comedy on stage. But I’m a stage hound; I’m a big ham. I love the live aspect—the crowd and the energy—and most of the time when I do a TV show, you have to wait two months for it to come out. Or if you do a movie, you’ve got to wait a year. I’m the kind of guy who would sneak in the back of theaters and watch the audience’s reactions, because I need it, and this right here fulfills me in every way.
What was your experience on Champions like, as your introduction to the AGT franchise?
My experience doing Champions was unreal. Here, I had the world’s biggest acts. It was the Olympics of talent. But the sports analogy is really perfect, because this replaced, for me, the NFL. The only reason you play football is for cheers. You don’t play football for the money; it’s literally for when you cross that goal line.
The crowd, the energy, there’s nothing like that. You get hooked on it, and since I retired from the NFL, I hadn’t had it. This is why most athletic stars want to jump into entertainment, because it feels the same, but they can’t do it a lot of times. So, I was so blessed to get this—to move not only to film and television, but into the hosting genre, which gives me that—with no knee injuries, no concussions. It’s all love.
From your perspective, what sets America’s Got Talent apart from other reality competition series?
It’s the perfect family show. I’ve been married going on 30 years, with five kids and a grandbaby, and America’s Got Talent is played nonstop in our house, because it’s the only show you can watch and actually be inspired. There are plenty of reality shows that I’ll watch, and I’ll feel like I need a shower. And that’s just real. But never with America’s Got Talent. And to see the stars that they made…Actually, there were a couple times during the season where I was in tears on stage, and I couldn’t hold it. Because it’s that emotional. It’s that real.
You must have witnessed some incredible talent on set, throughout your career. Which collaborators have really wowed you personally?
You’re only as good as the people you work with, and I have been blessed to work with the best from the beginning. My first movie was with Arnold Schwarzenegger, on The 6th Day. Then, I went on to do a movie with Ice Cube, who started so many careers, from Bernie Mac, to Jamie Foxx, Chris Tucker. Nobody would be here if it wasn’t for Ice Cube. I’ve done movies with Tyler Perry; [there’s] Chris Rock, who did Everybody Hates Chris; all the guys from Saturday Night Live. And then Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher—when you’re standing next to these guys, you get better. You learn what’s good. It’s funny because when Lord and Miller directed our pilot for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, you started to see the correlations between people who are successful, and who aren’t. They just got the Oscar for Spider-Man, and you go, “There’s something to these guys.” Some people are one-hit wonders, and there’s others who’ve got it.
And I’ll be honest with you: You just steal. When I look at [former AGT host] Nick Cannon, when I look at Tyra, I want to be a mix of both of them, because they did it wonderfully.
What lessons did you bring to your work on America’s Got Talent, from your experiences hosting in the past?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you have to enjoy the mistakes. The deal is, if you did it perfect, everybody would be bored to tears. That’s it. The secret is, the mistakes make you. The only reason you watch is to see somebody mess up. It’s always the, “Whoa, what? Ah!”—just a little awkwardness—that makes you human, and I like my imperfections. I like the scar on my lip; I like the lumpy head. I like the fact that I’m big and whatever.
Because people want to see humanity, and never has that been more evident than over this last year and a half, with the #MeToo movement, and me coming forward. We’ll all been through immense amounts of pain, immense amounts of struggle, and we’re here being happy anyway. That’s really what it’s all about.
When you’re not so concerned with everything being perfect, all of a sudden you’re like, “I’m not competing, I’m creating. Now, it’s no pressure.” That’s the thing I try to tell the acts that come up, too. It’s like, “Guys, you’re just creating. You’re just doing your best.” What else can you do? It’s all subjective, anyway. Jennifer Hudson didn’t win American Idol, but she’s a superstar. So, don’t even worry about that.
What has your relationship been like with the talent on the show?
[On Champions] I realized, I am the bodyguard to their dreams. I’m the first face they see when they go out, I’m the face they see when they come back, and I want to protect that dream. There’s a responsibility to it. I don’t have to judge them. It’s just, “Hey man, I want to give you the best platform you can have, so you can do your best.”
Season 14 just kicked off this week. What else can you tell us about it?
I’m going to say this confidently: What happens is, when you have certain iterations, things improve. I really feel like this is the best season ever. Because people know what it is, they’re kind of familiar with it, [but] it’s almost like comparing a car from the ‘80s to a car now. They’ve all got push-button starts now. So, it becomes a well-oiled machine. But it’s better, and cleaner, and more beautiful, and more special because of the history.
We’ve had acts that literally grew up watching [the show]. So, when they’re here, they’re not playing. And let me tell you something. The entertainment value in the work, the stuff they’ve done, I’m like, “I have never seen this in my life.” You think you’ve seen it all, and you go, “Oh snap, we didn’t see that!” There were so many of those moments.
You’ve had a remarkably diverse career to this point. What is your mission statement as an artist going forward?
My mission statement is, I want to represent creativity, 100%. Whatever you love, do. I’m designing furniture, I’m doing art, I’m doing fashion, I’m doing whatever I want. I want to farm eventually, with horses and the whole thing. I’m not kidding; that’s for real. That’s going to happen, very soon. I love doing whatever my heart tells me to do.
[Hosting] is a dream come true, and I want to do this literally until I can’t anymore. This is one of those shows where it’s timeless and beautiful, and I want to represent that creativity in everything I do, especially here.