Terry Crews has been through a lot. After a childhood in Flint, Michigan and a career in the NFL, he became an actor, currently beloved for his portrayal of lovable softie Sergeant Terry Jeffords on the sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
But he’s also become an outspoken advocate of the #MeToo movement. In October, he spoke out in a series of Tweets about being molested at a party by a “high level Hollywood executive” at his agency — later identified as Adam Venit of WME, against whom Crews filed suit in December and dropped the agency. In March, prosecutors decided not to press charges against Venit.
But Crews hasn’t stopped speaking out — most recently on June 26, when he testified before Congress and advocated for the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights.
And that’s in keeping with his latest gig: a small part in Sorry to Bother You, a satirical social comedy with a political bone to pick. The movie, a hit at Sundance, is directed by activist rapper Boots Riley and stars Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson. Crews plays Stanfield’s uncle in the film.
Being part of a film that doesn’t pull any punches feels like a good fit for Crews’s own advocacy and his passionate call for others — particularly men — to not “sell out,” but rather to sacrifice, to make Hollywood’s culture a place in which predators have no part. Last week, we sat down in New York to talk about his role in Sorry to Bother You and his experience as an advocate for change.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So, this is a wild movie. How did you get involved?
First of all, I’m a big fan of Boots’ music — The Coup, a great group. We’re from the same era ... When I read Sorry to Bother You, I was like, this is a movie movie. The vision was so fresh and new. I remember getting to page 10, I was like, what? [Louder.] Whaaaat? WHAAAT? By the time I hit that last page, I said, “I’ll pay him to be in the movie.” ... It’s so creative, so original, it makes you know why you got into the thing in the first place. Why did you become an actor? Why did you do this? For this. It’s so great.
I was at the Sundance premiere, and the crowd felt as if you were at a concert. Everyone was so hyped.
Yeah! The energy was that good! I was so proud, because usually I’m the guy in the audience being like, “Damn, I wish I was in this!” And I looked at my wife, I was like, [whispers] “I’m in this.” [Laughs.] That was a great feeling.
The movie had a theme when I read it, and I was like, “I got the theme of this movie.” Didn’t get it. Then, while I was acting, I was like, “Oh, this is the theme of this movie.” Didn’t get it. At Sundance, I’m like, “This is the theme. The other two, nuh uh, that was surface. Now I see it all together, it’s a whole other theme.” Then I went to San Francisco and they premiered it in Oakland and San Francisco at the same time, and being there in Oakland, I went, “Oh my God, this is a whole other theme here.” I bet when it comes out nationwide, I’ll pick up another one. It’s that layered. It’s that deep.
The best thing about this movie is that it doesn’t give answers. In America, we’re used to having answers. We’re used to turning on MSNBC or Fox News and getting the answer that you want. But Sorry to Bother You just raises more questions — lots of questions. You have to think.
What themes did you pick up on in it?
One of the themes was about self-image. If I wanted to gain power over you, the first thing I want to hurt is your self-image, to shame you so you listen to whatever I say, so you feel like you never measure up. I’ve seen women do it to other women. I’ve seen blacks do it to other blacks. Even in the color code, there’s light-skinned black versus dark-skinned black. I’ve seen men definitely do it to women. Men do it to other men in regards to money — “I have more money than you, so therefore what did you do wrong?” Subtle moves that damage your self-image just enough so they can tell you whatever. It’s almost like apartheid.
You’ve been watching the movie through a period of time in which you’ve been vocally speaking out about the #MeToo movement and your own experiences. Do you think those two things have informed each other — you’re attached to an activist piece of art, but also speaking out publicly?
Oh, definitely. The whole question is, are you going to buy in? Or sell out? Or are you going to sacrifice?
There’s easier ways to go ... I could have just bought in and said, that’s the way things are. Powerful guy does what he wants. People who do that go, “Okay, I’ll take it until I can become powerful and then I can do what I want,” because abusers protect abusers.
Or, many people are discovering, you can sacrifice. You step out, and say, “No. This suffering image thing you’re trying to put on me, this shame you’re trying to put on me, I’m not having it.”
I look at this movie and [the lead character] Cassius. There’s a time when he knows he’s selling out. But there’s a point where we all have to question, have we sold out? I’ve sold out before and I had to be like, “Ughhh.”
There’s no way I’m sitting here like “Terry Crews, he got the light, he’s seen it before,” but I remember looking the other way when very powerful people were doing wrong things. You know what I mean? From my time in the NFL! You’re just like, “Well, what can I do?” It’s like when people get attacked on the street, but others won’t help because they’re waiting for someone else to do it. But you’re that guy!
I realized I’m that guy. I realized if I don’t speak, no one’s going to get help. I remember just feeling like my tweets that I had to put out there was about, “Wait a minute, I have to support these women simply because it’s the right thing to do!”
Coming out about your own pain is like flying an airplane from L.A. to New York and you’ve never flown a plane before. You feel like you’re going to crash. But I live in the public eye.
I’ll be honest: he touched the wrong guy.
It sure seems like it.
Every day, they’re wondering, “Dammit, man. What in the world? He wasn’t supposed to say anything!” Most guys won’t! I was like, “You got the wrong one, dude,” because I’m empowered. The thing is, every dime I spend on litigation, every time I speak on it, it reminds me of my own value. It’s my own therapy.
It’s like Terry, you’re worth fighting for it. Terry Crews, you’re worth fighting for. [chokes up]
I think what’s powerful about that is that when you’re lower on the totem pole, you feel less empowered. But the further up you go, you realize, “I have that power that I can use for other people.”
You’ve always had it. That’s the trick.
I’m from Flint. I’m from one of the worst cities in America, from a dysfunctional family, an abusive dad — I have been been digging out of a hole since I was 4 years old. But I’m like, “I’m here for a reason. You didn’t trick me.”
What’s funny is, I’m already famous! People say, “Well, you’re trying to get fame by this Me Too thing.” I’m like, I’m already famous! How long have I been famous? I’ve been famous for the last 20 years. I don’t know what to tell you. What is there to gain? What more is there to gain? If anything, I could have cut my own head off.
So I’m going, “Wow, that’s what gaslighting feels like” — to make you feel like you’re crazy. You’re crazy for even saying that you’re worth anything. I can stand and I know what these women feel like. I had to be the male example of what that is.
I have to be like, “Hey, guys, if you see other guys acting this way and doing these kind of things, you gotta stop this.” It’s wild because we tend to take it easy on our own. Like, “Well, you know, as a black man, I think that they’re trying to take Bill Cosby down.” And you’re like, dude, you don’t get it. You don’t get it. This crosses political, racial, and economic lines all the way.
I’m really anxious to see us get beyond symbolic victories. I’m done. Totally done. “We took down the Charlottesville statue,” or whatever, and everyone goes, “Yay!” and life goes right back to normal because everyone feels like we won. No, we haven’t really started. That’s not even a real victory.