When Los Angeles halted in-person film and TV production last year, actor and entrepreneur Terry Crews took on a role he’d never played before: nurse. Going into what he calls “battle mode,” he spent the better part of lockdown caring for his wife Rebecca King through her breast cancer diagnosis and a double mastectomy. To make a challenging situation more difficult, he faced an all-out attack from the internet over his tweets regarding the Black Lives Matter protests.
Out of the darkness of 2020, Crews created a state-of-the-art launchpad for the next generation of storytellers, named ‘Amen & Amen.’ His new virtual production studio is set to open in Pasadena, California in late July. Equipped with furniture designed by Crews and cutting-edge technology that accelerates the filmmaking process, the small, pandemic-proof space will play a big part in Hollywood’s messy recovery and beyond.
So what does the pec pop king and father of five know about building a virtual production studio? At first, Crews admits, not a whole lot. But after propelling Old Spice into the fan culture stratosphere, immortalizing Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” illustrating a children’s book, writing two books (most recently, a memoir with his wife, Stronger Together), and leading a prolific acting career without formal training, no order is too tall. Ahead of the feverishly awaited eighth and final season of his sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, airing on August 12, we spoke to Crews about his latest venture.
Click here for a tour of Amen & Amen with Terry Crews and David Rielly, group creative director of a.network’s space.camp.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Nina: I saw on your Instagram that you rang in 2020 in Shanghai. You come home and shortly after, quarantine and Black Lives Matter protests are underway. Where’s your mind at?
Terry: When the George Floyd incident happened, I actually went on CNN and was asked to speak because of an Instagram post I put out that basically said I could be George Floyd. I have experienced very, very violent racism in my life. I don’t know too many people who have had four police officers point their guns at their head at a traffic stop, and that was me. This was back in 1982 when I was on the Rams. And then once the country was tending to get very, what I would call “segregated,” I saw the need for all of us to work this thing out together.
About a week later, I put out a tweet that said, “Defeating White supremacy without White people creates Black supremacy. Equality is the truth. Like it or not, we are all in this together.” My issue was the fact that everyone needs to be involved, be it white, Asian, Hispanic, every nationality, every gender needs to be included. And I wanted to be very, very succinct in what I said. But it really blew up all over and it caused a huge backlash on the internet. But I stood firm and I followed that up by saying it doesn’t matter what race, what color, creed or denomination, I’m going to stand with good people, no matter what. We need to include everyone at this table because what we had and what we still have is an amazing opportunity for all of us to really see each other.
What did a typical day in quarantine look like for you?
This quarantine was especially difficult because my wife was recovering from a double mastectomy right before the world shut down. My wife was diagnosed in early February with stage one breast cancer, and it took us for a loop. She took this like a warrior and she attacked and she said, you know what? I’m going to go in and get my treatment and let’s make this happen right away. so we scheduled a double mastectomy. And it was a miracle because that was right before everything started to fall and everything started to shut down. She came out of the hospital probably a week before they called all of the quarantine actions in L.A.
So I was taking care of my wife during this whole time. We had no caregivers in the house. We had no housekeepers. We had no one even coming through. I was her nurse for roughly five months straight, on top of all of these things happening in the world. So it was a really tough, tough first five months of the quarantine.
I decided, OK, I’m going to go into what I would call battle mode. I had to be strong for my family. But one great idea that came out of the pandemic was my virtual studio. I decided that I was going to build one of Los Angeles’ best, most incredible virtual production studios that it’s ever seen. This is what I was consumed with during the entire pandemic. I mean, every day I would go down there and work on and find out what else we needed.
When did you first have the idea to create Amen & Amen?
The first time I got the idea was back in May last year. We had to come back and do judge cuts for America’s Got Talent and we were the first production to go back to work in the middle of a pandemic. I saw the technology of this AR (augmented reality) wall. It was this small, pitch LED wall technology that we used to create virtual environments for the acts. And I went… “Oh my God.” When I saw it, I went, oh, this is the future and I need to be a part of this.
We decided that small was going to be the new big because the thing about Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is my sitcom, is that we could not go back to production simply because there were 400 people in the crew and cast all working in close proximity.
What was your vision for Amen & Amen?
One thing about Hollywood is that most of these studios are filthy because they’ve been there for 100 years. But I thought, OK, we’re going to do this small and clean. I was actually looking for a gym because I was going to make my own little gym. I found this beautiful place on Maple Street in Old Town [Pasadena, CA] that used to be a stable for the firehouse, which is now a studio next door. And it was open. I couldn’t believe it. We grabbed it.
We redid it from the inside out. And I mean everything. We redid the bathrooms and I had these special, Neorest toilets, which I call the Lamborghini of toilets, put in. We redid the air conditioning with a UV system that cleans the air. We insulated the place; we have a handheld mobile UV light that they use in hospitals that would disinfect all of the equipment every night; we have a handheld UV light that you can run over all the keyboards and anything that’s touched by human hands would be clean. We had ‘Purell’ stations put in, and it has a little outdoor area with seating. So only the people who are necessary could be inside.
We put in outdoor professional steaming units that steam all of the doorknobs, I mean, we went in. You’re going to be safe when you come through our doors because I’m liable for the safety of my employees, the safety of my family and any client that will come through there.
I think small is the new big because this virtual wall creates any environment you want.
Tell us more about the virtual wall.
What we found using Unreal Engine is that you can actually digitally create the foreground, and this is one thing they did on AGT (America’s Got Talent). Unreal has created all of these wonderful virtual environments that they were giving away for free. And we were like, what?! It’s groundbreaking.
One thing we decided to do was go all in because once I saw this, I said, wait a minute. The vision was to create a full-fledged movie. You wouldn’t even have to do the turnarounds. What you do is turn the background around, not the actor. It was so sick because all you would need is a 3D play of any environment and you could be anywhere and no one would know the difference, which was so scary. We got the best, best pitch LED wall we could afford. The wall we have is at 1.2 [pixel] pitch.
We were like, “OK, we’re going to need one wall.” And then we found out we would do better to get a dog-leg, so we have a 20-foot wall by a 15-foot wall. This creates the environment fully so you’d be able to get lighting. It gets people’s faces off the other wall while you’re in the background. It was really, really difficult at first because the whole time I was like, this might all be a mistake. But, to me, it’s worth it. I said, “if we do this right, if we just make our mistakes quickly, we’ll be able to adjust on the fly.“
What style were you going for design-wise?
I’ve always been a big fan of Milk Studios, the one down in LA… because it’s so classy, oh, it’s a beautiful place. Like if you got a photoshoot at Milk, you know it’s ‘the big time.’ I wanted the studio to compare with Milk. So we put walnut on the walls at Amen & Amen. We upgraded every detail of the studio. We changed all of the lighting and made it really clean and beautiful.
We’re still working on it every day. There are always little things we’re adding. We added bookcases. We basically outfitted the whole place with the furniture that I’ve designed—my new armchairs, my sofas, my benches, my tables. We wanted it to feel like you would never want to leave. It feels a little bit like Melrose Place, but it’s in Pasadena, you know what I mean? And we love Pasadena.
Who do you hope to work with and what do you hope to work on at Amen & Amen?
Well, first of all, I plan on doing a full film that I wrote there. This is the ultimate goal—to show people, “Wow… you can do this from beginning to end.” We’ve had so many people who’ve come and vetted it. I’ve had the head of Disney, Paul Briggs, who directed Raya, come through and give us all kinds of advice on the workflow that they do at Disney. He recommended this technology called Bluescape which is basically like Pinterest for projects, so we put up two giant touch screen monitors adjacent to the wall. I was just so thankful.
Then I brought in the AGT guys that create all these wonderful video packages for all the acts. They helped us decide what camera system would work best with the wall so we got a RED KOMODO because it has a global shutter so it captures everything on the wall perfectly.
And I had the DP from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, my man Rick Page, come down and he was like, “Terry, do you know what you can do in this thing?” And I was like tell me, tell me!
We also hooked up with Stargate [Studios], which is in South Pasadena. Sam Nicholson, a leader in virtual production, came by and audited our studio. He’s been pivotal in coming through and helping us build this studio. Right now we’re about to get all our volumetric lighting, which is lighting that attaches to the ceiling that changes color to the background. So let’s say you’re in the desert and it’s a hot day, that same sun will play against the volumetric lighting in that color, which will be indistinguishable from you being in the real place. It’s unreal.
A company called AR Wall came in and created the tracking system. They have proprietary software that allows the camera to move perspectives inside of every environment. So when the camera moves, it looks like it’s there. I mean, the background moves. And you just go, “oh, my God, you would never know.”
I never ever thought, I know what I’m doing. We don’t even know, even now, the capabilities of what this could be. But we’re finding out day by day because the technology is changing so fast every day, and we’re ready.
What role do you hope Amen & Amen plays in fostering the next generation of artists?
Artists have the hardest time owning their own ideas. If you write a novel, you can own it when you sell it. But if you write a script, you don’t. I’ve been on sets where the writer has never been invited to watch, which I think is a shame.
A lot of times it’s their vision but Hollywood has a way of taking things and yanking them from people and it’s lost forever. I’m not saying people are evil, but what I’m saying is that when you’re viciously competing, things get really, really weird. And artists don’t want to be a part of that. They just love to create.
Here in Amen & Amen, with this technology, people can create their own intellectual property from start to finish, at least in some sort of iteration. Let’s say you have a graphic novel. You can do it stylized. You can actually do a film.
This is going to be my big test when I start. In the fall, I plan on doing this movie I wrote in the studio to show people it can be done from the beginning to the end and you can create your own IPs, own your IPs, and if someone wants to expand it or take it, make it bigger—that’s up to you, not up to them.
You’ve played an array of characters — from Latrell Spencer in White Chicks and President Camacho in Idiocracy, to Hale Caesar in The Expendables and Terry Jeffords in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Is there anything that unites these disparate roles?
Yes. One reason why I think I’ve been able to last is that they’re all a version of me. They’re all Terry Crews. Remember, I never went to acting school and I didn’t start acting until I was 30 years old. So everything I had was just me to go off of. It may not be the studied way, but it was the way I knew to do it because I said, man, I just have to be myself. When you are yourself, the characters become alive. The truth is when you’re acting, it doesn’t really work. It looks a little “ehh.” But every character you see is really, really talking out of their own experience.
I heard that Amen & Amen created puppets based on your previous film and TV characters. Tell us about them.
I got a lot of backlash for things I said and people got really, really mean on the internet. So I created this puppet who basically represents every troll. He hates Terry Crews. He really dogs me out. All those mean tweets or mean things that people say, he’ll say to me, but he’s me. And we call him Lil Terry.
Then I created AGT Terry, who I call AG Terry. He’s my angel. He’s like, you’re the best. I love you. He cheers me on. Then I have President Camacho who deals with political things. And then I have Julius Terry from Everyone Hates Chris who kind of deals with financial stuff, like saving money. I have another puppet of my wife, who is much cuter, and there’s a puppet of my son.
We got together with a brilliant company that created these puppets that really look scary… like you touch them and it’s got skin. It’s not a Muppet. He’s like a really distorted version of me. We’re going to do a reality show with the puppets that we could do at the house.
And actually, I really want my puppet to have his own branding deal. There are a lot of things that people may not see Terry Crews right to represent, but that the puppet Lil Terry could be perfect for. There’s some product, something somewhere, that may not be me, but the puppet Terry could work in any kind of advertising situation.
My whole philosophy has always been go ahead and try it. If you can do it, do it and see what happens. You know what’s funny? People do not remember my failures. And there were plenty of things I did that sucked, and no one ever comes up to me about those. They come up to me about things that they love. The same goes for building a studio — we’re just going. It’s totally for experimentation and freedom. I don’t need to make money. I have other things for that. This whole thing is just to try stuff. The funny thing is that you end up making money when you do that.
It feels like whoever follows you on your social channels gets to experience the genuine Terry Crews. What community or brand-building tips do you have for creators and brands, perhaps even for your son and rising star Isaiah Crews?
My biggest piece of advice is to team up. I like to share. Terry Crews by himself? Ehh. But me in an ensemble—wonderful. I’ve always done better working with other people. All the way down to a 30-second TikTok. I teamed up with Michael Le and his little brother Jonathan, and we did a TikTok that went so viral. It’s almost at 100 million views.
The team up is everything. Like when Supreme does a new backpack with another company, you know what I mean? I’ll never forget when Dior did the Air Jordan shoe.
That’s me. I want people to go, oh, man, he would be great with so and so. And I have to say this, too, because I worked with Ayzenberg on my Crackdown 3 deal and it was so great. Right now, Dave Batista is trying to do Gears of War and he’s always brought me up. I told him I would love to do this with you. So I’m putting that energy out in the universe. Because my thing is you’re much, much stronger when you team up. And that’s the title of my wife and I, our book, Stronger Together.
Do you have a dream brand partner?
Old Spice was iconic. You can’t really beat it. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t even think that relationship will ever be surpassed. You can get as good but Old Spice, man, those guys, it was incredible. I also did a Nike campaign before the Old Spice stuff. I would love to regroup with Nike or another fitness brand like Adidas. I said this to David [Rielly]—I don’t mind selling. Terry Crews is for sale. That’s why I pop my pecs. But what I’m selling is health, wealth, and love. That’s the Terry Crews brand all the way.
When I say wealth, it doesn’t mean being richer than anybody. It’s about having wealth through your experiences. Living life to the fullest and doing things all the way makes you wealthy. Health being I love fitness. I love being in shape. I love the fact that I’m 52 and have the energy to hang out with the 25-year-olds. The third thing is love, and that we all truly have to love each other. Love is literally the energy of the universe. It makes your world operate. Once you find out what it is and who it is you love, now you know your purpose.
You have dozens of brand deals and commercials under your belt—have you noticed one factor that sets successful creative apart from not-so-successful creative?
The story is paramount. I am really good friends with Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Those guys did The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. They’re amazing. They actually directed the pilot for Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Oh, and they are story mavens.
The creatives who know how to tie in a story and make you care, they continue forever. Look at James Cameron, from Terminator to Aliens all the way to Avatar. The story is so big, every time those movies are on I have to watch.
Even in advertising, what’s so amazing is that they know the brand story and they’re able to tell it so that you can get it. I’ve never seen it fail. Where I’ve seen creatives fail all the time is when they make you look at bells and whistles. Like this looks like a commercial, but it’s basically a rip-off of everything people have ever done.
When do you plan to officially open Amen & Amen?
I would say we’re about a month away. I’m getting a star on the Walk of Fame on July 30th, which is my birthday, and July 29th is actually my anniversary. So it’s a big, big week. We’re going to have a huge party for about 200 people at the studio as our giant summertime coming out, and I call it “My Love Letter to Pasadena.” We knew in July the world should be pretty much open. We are requiring that our guests be vaccinated.
We are going to be very, very picky about who gets a chance to be here because the technology is so good and it’s also very, very delicate. Right now, though, I do want it to be a total experimental place. There are certain people that I said, “just come here and experiment.” One of the organizations I want to come and just experiment any time they want is Ayzenberg.
You’ve built a custom gaming PC with your son. You and your wife recently launched your audiobook Stronger Together. You’re about to open Amen & Amen. You’re back as the host of America’s Got Talent. You even have your own cryptocurrency now. The list goes on. What venture or medium are you eyeing next?
I want to own a farm. There’s some property I’m looking at where my grandmother lives in Edison, Georgia. One thing I got from the quarantine is that I need outdoor spaces. I thought I liked football, but what I really liked was playing outside with my friends. I went to Iceland with Bear Grylls and had the time of my life because we were outdoors, and I realized I need more of that. A farm would give me that. It would give me this connection to the Earth, where I could just be out there tilling the ground, watching something grow, and taking it from the seedling all the way to my table. That would be hot. That’s hot!