In the opening pages of Terry Crews’ latest memoir, Tough, he writes of a night when everything changed.
In 2004, his acting career was taking off following his breakout performances in White Chicks and Friday After Next, with a role in the remake of The Longest Yard up next. While out for a celebratory dinner with his wife, he recalls being approached for an autograph. When one of the men spoke disrespectfully to his then-pregnant spouse, Crews writes that things quickly escalated into a “violent blur.” Despite almost being arrested, Crews was let go, later making a promise to his wife to refrain from getting violent should a similar situation arise again. But he also unknowingly would make a promise to himself to walk away from the man he had become over the years, ultimately jumpstarting a journey to what he describes as finding his “true power.”
Already having been vocal about the culture of toxic masculinity in his 2014 memoir, Manhood: How to Be a Better Man — or Just Live With One, Crews expands on that blueprint in his latest book, out Tuesday from Penguin Random House.
It’s not hard to see the similarities between his memoir’s opening story and the recent Oscars incident involving Will Smith and Chris Rock, with whom Crews worked on Everybody Hates Chris. The situation was one Crews could identify with — on both ends.
“Both Will Smith and Chris Rock are dear, dear friends of mine. I love them both as brothers, but there was a time in my life [where] I was Will Smith at that moment and let me tell you, I’ve done worse than Will — way overkill, just … the punishment did not fit the crime. Like people were like, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ My wife even had to be like, ‘You got to promise me you will never go off like this. You did not need to pick this man up and put him on his head, on the concrete,’” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Crews pinpoints the night former WME agent Adam Venit allegedly assaulted him at a party as one in which his controlled reaction “saved” his life, akin to how Rock reacted on the Oscars stage. “The toughness where I grew up and the way I was, it was always the ability to strike, the ability to punch, the ability to set things straight, to even the score. But the true definition of toughness was what Chris did in taking a punch and then holding everything together and then showing tremendous endurance and resilience in the middle of obstacles. … I’m very thankful to Chris, but also I understand Will. I’m not [one] to demonize Will at all because I was there.”
Looking back on that time he was “there” is what Crews does throughout his memoir. From growing up in Flint, Michigan, to his career in the NFL and an unexpected path to Hollywood, Crews unravels the varied threads that would lead to his transition from someone he describes as the “fiction Terry Crews” to becoming the “nonfiction Terry Crews.” And he details how his journey led him to confront his flaws, find his voice and live life on his own terms rather than relying on the opinions of others.
By detailing varied obstacles such as his addiction to pornography, coming forward with his sexual assault story and facing backlash following tweets about the Black Lives Matter movement, Crews examines how he went from once believing he was “broken” to assembling himself into the man and arriving at the “place of peace” he’s in today in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Tough’s release.
This now marks your second memoir after writing Manhood. Was there a plan to always write another one?
Actually, there wasn’t a plan to do another memoir. Then life started to happen (Laughs.) I wrote Manhood in 2014, but then there were so many things that happened over the last eight, nine years that my life totally changed. What was so incredible is I was asked so many times about so many things that I felt the need to write this book. Manhood kind of started a conversation that needed to continue. As a former, what I would call, “toxic male” — that term “toxic masculinity” has been used a lot, and it’s actually been misused. The term I really love right now is just “abuse of power” — and that really, really resonated with who I was; but then people just had more questions about how this goes down and what forms this, and how do you get control of this? Through all my therapy and through all my adventures over the last few years, I knew it was time and I was very grateful to get this opportunity.
You write about hardships that you faced personally while touching on a variety of topics, from your upbringing and parents to religion, race, addiction and money. It’s one thing to process and confront everything personally but another to now put it all on the page and share for readers. Was there anything you were hesitant or nervous to share with readers?
I was nervous about all of it! It’s so in-depth. It’s so revealing that it’s uncomfortable writing. What was so cathartic and wonderful about writing this book is that I found that in telling the story and actually revealing a lot of these things, they lose power over your life. So, take pornography [addiction], for example. It was what I called a “dirty little secret” for so many years, and as long as it was a secret, it could thrive. There was no reason for it to stop. Once I exposed it, first with people I love, in therapy and [with] family members, then I got the courage to go greater and bolder in going public with this. Now, I would never, ever recommend that people do things publicly. I would not. But the issue is I am already a public figure. I’m in the public eye. There’s never a place I walk where I don’t get stares and points literally since [my time] in the NFL [in] 1991. I’ve had some measure of fame, be it very small, like being on the football team, or being in the biggest movie in the world at the time. The fact that I was such a public figure meant that I could go public about who I am in the attempt to let people know that they weren’t alone. Because we always feel like we’re the only ones. I mean, I did. You feel like no one has this problem but me; everybody is fine; I’m the only one that’s messed up; I’m the only one going through this stuff. I had to let people know. I already have gotten so many people that said, “Man, wait a minute, the stuff you’re revealing, I thought I was the only guy [and] I thought I was the only person going through this stuff.” By you saying it, I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m not alone.” And that, to me, was worth revealing it.
I’d imagine it could be odd to call your memoir “timely,” but it kicks off with a story of you getting into an altercation with someone who disrespected your wife, which feels similar to the recent incident at the Oscars. What is it like to have your memoir release at a time when the things you touch on, such as toxic masculinity, are at the forefront of conversations, especially with people you’ve worked with before?
Both Will Smith and Chris Rock are dear, dear friends of mine. I love them both as brothers, but there was a time in my life [where] I was Will Smith at that moment, and let me tell you, I’ve done worse than Will. Way overkill, just … the punishment did not fit the crime. Like, people were like, “What in the world are you doing?” My wife even had to be like, “You got to promise me you will never go off like this. You did not need to pick this man up and put him on his head, on the concrete.” The minute I did it, I regretted it. I was like, “Why did I do this?” I couldn’t control myself. I literally had no control. If the wind went right, I was going right. If the wind went left, I was going left. And it wasn’t until I was Chris Rock literally in that moment — when I was assaulted by agent Adam Venit — and I chose to be in control. I chose to hold everything together. It could have descended into chaos. It would’ve been the end of me. When I look back, by what Chris did, by just deciding to hold everything together, it actually, I think in a lot of ways saved Hollywood. Because if there would’ve been a brawl on that stage, I don’t know if Hollywood would’ve ever gotten any respect again, you know? It’s hard to even imagine what would’ve happened.
The time that I was Chris was the time that saved my life. These things are tough — and this is another thing: The definition of toughness where I grew up and the way I was, it was always the ability to strike, the ability to punch, the ability to set things straight, to even the score. But the true definition of toughness was what Chris did in taking a punch and then holding everything together and then showing tremendous endurance and resilience in the middle of obstacles. I think it was a miracle what Chris did. I really do. I couldn’t believe his poise in that moment. I thought, holy cow, we owe him a lot. I think every performer owes him so much because it just really saved Hollywood in that moment. I’m very thankful to Chris, but also I understand Will. I’m not [one] to demonize Will at all because I was there. And that’s where I stand and I think it’s a perfect time to have this conversation and to really get upfront and close with these things that have always plagued us. I mean, it’s just one thing that travels in politics and sports and Hollywood, it’s that ability for people to just go off for no reason and not even understand why they’re doing it. Especially when I look at the way I was and to where I am now, another reason I had to reveal a lot is because you had to see where I was to understand where I am now. I have people now that can’t even imagine the things I did in the book that look at me and I’m like, “Hey man, that was me. And I have to let you know.” And this is the same place I feel Will is in, and because people still are trying hard to rectify the Will Smith they knew with that person that was there at the Academy Awards, but he’s the same person, you know what I mean? We all have to understand that that could be any of us.
Right. I think in any situation it’s so easy to automatically want to pinpoint one person as the hero and the other as a villain rather than actually just acknowledging that people are people.
That’s right, especially when everything is done in like a hundred characters [on social media] and people tend to create villains and heroes real quick and everything’s black and white. But there’s a lot of nuance. This is where a nice, long talk needs to happen. You can’t blurb this at all.
Or perhaps a reading of your book?
(Laughs.) Thank you! Again, no one planned this. I told the publisher, “I’ll be straight honest with you: This may be the most important thing I ever do, past movies, past all the entertainment, past everything I’ve ever done. This may be it.” My life changed. I can’t imagine where I would be had I hit that agent and I knocked him out. I promise you I would not be here today. I don’t know where I would be, but it wouldn’t be in this spot that I’m in now.
When reading your stories and recollections, it seemed as if once you confronted one thing about yourself or a situation, that led to yet another layer to confront and come to terms with.
I like to call it the dominoes. One thing you realize is if you clean one room in your house, it all of a sudden makes the rest of the house very, very dirty. You’re like, “This room is spotless, but the kitchen, however!” That’s what happened. It was literally getting one segment of my life together, and it highlighted how all the other things were off. There’s a lot said for work-life balance. People say, “How do you balance work and life?” But the true balance I feel that people need is [that] external success needs to even out with your internal success because what I was was externally successful but internally a failure. Once I began to rectify and work on the internal, my life changed dramatically. Being internally and externally successful is a place of peace. It really just heals so many parts of my life. That’s the balance that I’m concerned with, and the balance that I hope many, many people find through reading this book.
You write about moving through your early roles in Training Day, Friday After Next and White Chicks, and even after finding success, internally struggling with anxiety. You said that you weren’t doing well enough and felt depressed as soon as you got home after projects were done. So you’d be a workaholic as a means to not have downtime and be alone in your head.
It was horrible! What I had done is, I had determined my worth through the opinions of other people. So, it was like, if everyone loved me then I was great. But if I wasn’t working, I was horrible. I was a failure. When you determine your self-worth off of everyone else’s opinions and ideas of you, it’s a horrible place to be. I was never satisfied. I was always looking for the next pat on the back or the next laugh, and it had to be continuous. This drives a lot of entertainers [and] it drives a lot of people in the entertainment business, and sometimes it can lead to your downfall. It feeds addictions. It feeds all kinds of things. Because you got to feed the beast or you’re going to be nothing and that’s a really, really lonely, hard-core place to be.
How has your perspective on how you carry on in your career changed? What kind of boundaries do you set for yourself that you continue to hold on to to this day after recognizing the mindset you would have when it came to work?
It was the internal success. It was feeling good about myself because I was just me. As entertainers, you’re perfectionists, but you’ll never do anything perfect. So you’re always feeling disappointed about a performance. You’re totally insecure all the time. But I became secure in just [thinking], “Did I do my best?” And the answer was yes. Then I became very, very satisfied with that, and it started to grow. This is the thing: Your thoughts determine your feelings. What I had to do was start changing the way I thought about myself, and then I felt better about myself. But what was happening before was that I was thinking bad thoughts about me. I thought, “I’m not any good.” A lot of performers suffer from imposter syndrome where things are good, but you don’t see it as good, you see it as: You’re a fake and maybe you’re just lucky; you’re not really talented; you didn’t really earn this. I had to tell myself, wait a minute, I did earn it. I started to change those thoughts, and then I changed the feelings, and all of a sudden I felt great about just being me, and it didn’t matter what other people thought or said or whether I was working or not. It was wonderful.
Reflecting on working on the 2014 film Blended, you describe it as one of the most important films of your career given you spoke up about the issues with your role and you were able to rework your character given how originally offensive it was in the script. How did that experience influence your approach to assessing what projects and/or roles you take on, and how involved you are with those roles?
Oh, it was a life-changer because when you think you’re nobody [and] when you think it’s all about what everyone else thinks, you’re going to be scared to speak up because no one wants to hear you. But the moment I challenged that [and] I put myself out there, I said, wait a minute, I am viable. My opinion does matter. I can choose how I’m going to do this and I can bring it up to everyone else. Once I did that and it got accepted and it was through the roof a hit, I was like, oh my God, this is what I’ve been missing. It’s all a journey. It’s kind of like a chess match. Sometimes you have to move forward, sometimes you move backward and you move all over the board, but every move counts. It kind of highlights whether you win in the game or not. I had to go through a lot of different things in order to get to this place. One quote I love is, “Sometimes your greatest hopes are destroyed to prepare you for something better.” As an actor, you face tons of rejection, but each rejection gets you closer to the goal. It’s impossible to do this without those kinds of lumps. Once I found my voice — and it takes some years, takes time — and it went well, once I did that and I was doing Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and I started hosting, I just felt this wave of real, true confidence that was backed up by action. So, it was really, really healing for me. My performances were just wonderful things but not judgments every time I did anything. I didn’t go up and down. It was just another great thing to do and you get better and better when you do it. So, I feel so fortunate. Again, that’s one reason I wrote the book, to let people know that I’m not special. Like, you can do this too. I’m not the only one. Hopefully, you can get inspired by the story and you can find your own way, but you can find a way.
You touched on this earlier, but another difficult but life-changing moment you also reflect on is coming forward and speaking up about your sexual assault story. How do you feel about how everything went down and about that chapter closing with the agent resigning? How has your relationship with the industry changed since?
I feel like that’s literally probably the most important thing I’ve ever done, ever. When you’re talking about the inadequacy that most actors feel, the helplessness that people feel and going for their dreams, and then having it be manipulated or facing stuff like sexual assault in this business, it’s so normal that it became part of the lexicon. I was so inspired by those women [who came forward during the #MeToo movement] and it got to a point where if I remained silent, I knew that I wouldn’t be honest. The only way for me to be honest was to join the fight. Because I saw how they were taking a lot of lumps and people were calling them all kinds of names and [saying] they deserved it and this is what you got to do to get in Hollywood, and I knew the only way that people could really understand it, especially men, was if a man stood up. Because this was always looked at before as a woman’s issue. I think with me and several other men who came forward, it became a human issue. For the first time, people got to see this whole issue in 3D. I’m so thankful. And even today, like right now, it’s changed the fabric of Hollywood and I’m sure it’s still there to some degree. But now, being an example, men do have several examples that they can say, “Wait a minute, you crossed my boundary and I don’t have to put up with this.” I feel so good about [the whole experience] because they literally told me that because of how popular, and he was a partner and how big he was, that he had more rights than me, but you don’t have more rights than any other human being. If it was somebody in the mailroom, they would’ve been fired immediately. It’s this thing where, you know, the Hollywood system has always been, whoever is the big boss gets a pass. But no one gets a pass. Then toxic male culture, it is almost like running a business by the rules of the bench press. And you’re like, but that makes no sense. You have to make it make sense. Everyone has to be protected, every person.
You also write about the criticism over your tweets about the Black Lives Matter movement. You reflect in great detail on where you were coming from and acknowledge the mistakes you made. When looking back, how do you view that moment and the aftermath?
It’s kind of like I said [about] that chess game where we were all trying to figure things out. This is where I stand on the whole thing: Any movement I felt that didn’t start with reconciliation between Black and white, men and women, Republican, Democrat, it has to start there because if you don’t start it with reconciliation, you’re basically just postponing a war. I just wanted everyone to know that I wanted to unify with good people, Black, white, any race, creed, color, anyone that was willing to talk reconciliation because, you know, it’s not a sport. The thing is, there’s no winners or losers. This is a house that we all have to live in. You can’t take your ball and go home, and I can’t take my ball and go home. We have to be here and we have to live here. Reconciliation doesn’t mean agreement, doesn’t mean we have to agree, but we do have to reconcile. I did not feel that there was enough emphasis put on reconciliation. I felt that it was a little bit of line drawing … a lot of finger-pointing. And I just wanted to be clear about where I stood and where I felt we needed to be as a country and as a nation. It was a really, really volatile time and I understand the emotional feelings. Even facing backlash, I understand that, but again, I’m in a place now where I don’t have to judge myself by what other people think. That’s part of the therapy. That was part of getting through Hollywood. Because all I did was care about what other people thought of me. Now when you have this, you can see things a lot clearer. I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody or insult anybody. This was where I felt I could lend some really positive input into the conversation.
You write that social media is not built for any kind of nuanced, reasoned discussion and that there are better mediums for expression. Going forward, how has your perspective changed on how and what you share on social media?
Well, I don’t post a lot. I literally have learned that you just can’t win. It’s not the format. With the mistake I made, it was actually trying to have a nuanced conversation on social media. It’s impossible. So, I wrote a book. I think it’s the perfect way to do it. You can’t put it out of context. You can’t twist it, you can’t bend it. It is what it is. I feel like people are now realizing that the algorithm of getting people angry and keeping them there for engagement is a real thing. And we all have to be careful and watch it because there are a lot of people who profit off of us fighting. I’m not going to be that anymore. [Now] it’s all just going to be cat videos (Laughs.)
Nothing wrong with that! At another point in your memoir, you write about being at a crossroads of who you were, with the line blurring between the person you described as the “real” Terry and the one you felt you had to be. Who would you say is Terry Crews now and what would you hope that people understand or know about you?
My life has moved from fiction Terry Crews to nonfiction Terry Crews. (Laughs.) That’s the best way to describe it. People see me [as] a much more balanced me. They see me as a flawed individual. I had to make public apologies before. These things are not easy, but they’re definitely necessary. You’re like, “Man, I messed that one up.” But also they say I could still laugh. I still love doing comedy. The fact that I went all through this in Hollywood didn’t make me less funny. And also, it really created another dimension. I think it’s like almost three dimensions now where it’s impossible for you to see me just one way and that’s what the nonfiction Terry Crews is all about.
While looking back on your journey and life, what surprised you the most? What are you the proudest of, and what do you envision for the future?
The thing that hit me the most was last year when I got the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. One reason why I’m so, so proud [is] my grandmother, she just turned 95, but she was 94 at the time. She’s from the little town Edison, Georgia, less than 300 people and she’d never been to California. We flew her out for this ceremony and she just was looking and she could not believe [it], and this is a woman whose husband abandoned her and she held the whole family together. She’s the reason why I’m here today. I mean, this is my grandmother and you’re talking about growing up in the Jim Crow South, and she [has] seen the horrors of probably the worst of the civil rights era and to see her grandson get that star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and she was so proud of me, that’s all I needed. It was like to fulfill her, to let her know that her sacrifice was worth it. She sat there with such pride and all the pain that she went through, it wasn’t for anything. She lived to see it.
What do you hope readers take away from this memoir?
A real big thing I want people to take away is that you are not broken. You are assembly required. A lot of times, you get a Lego set and the whole thing and everything is shaking and it’s all in pieces. The competitive world tells you that you’re broken, especially worlds like sports, [and] entertainment, they’ll say you don’t have it. But the trick is you’re not broken. You’re just not assembled. You’re not finished. And what hit me is that I needed to assemble. I needed to take out the bad parts, put in new Legos (laughs), put in new parts and put together a new me that was better, that worked. Because there were so many things that weren’t working and people just told me it was automatic. Through therapy, I learned I wasn’t broken. I just wasn’t finished and I started to work on myself. When I say “true power,” that’s what it is. You literally just continually work on yourself. One thing I always say is that you telling everyone what to do does not make you the boss, but you doing everything you told yourself to do makes you the boss. It’s the internal stuff. Assemble yourself and man, your life will change. I’m a prime example of that. I changed.
When it comes to television, anytime a series ends, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end anymore. I’ve read that you are already pitching ideas for a Brooklyn Nine-Nine film. Is that something you’re still interested in?
Oh my God. I am definitely still interested. I still think we could do a heist movie. (Laughs.) We always had our yearly heist episode and I think that would be brilliant, especially with Peacock and all the great things that NBC can already do. I think that every castmember will be down for us to do a nice hour and a half episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, make it three episodes all involving the heist and a new heist and it would be all wonderful. I love, love, love my castmates. I spent eight years with these guys and they’re truly family, and I miss them every day.
You guys can make your own James Bond franchise of just heist movies.
(Laughs.) That’s right! We’ll go into theaters, and then a few weeks later we’ll be on Peacock!
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tough releases on April 26.