Former NFL linebacker-turned-actor (not to mention past and future President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho) Terry Crews took a slightly different journey to action stardom than folks like Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger; his route carved a path through the comedy world, with turns in films including Friday After Next, White Chicks, and Balls of Fury. Cast as the bicep-flexing, quip-happy Hale Caesar in 2010's The Expendables — a role he admits Wesley Snipes might have otherwise played if things had worked out differently — Crews more than earned his spot on the team, backed by Stallone's vote of confidence: "He literally told me, 'I’m going to make you an action star.'”
Back alongside his brawny brethren in The Expendables 2, Crews took time to share a few revelations about his Expendables experience with Movieline — starting with a surprisingly in-depth analysis of the art of delivering the perfect action movie one-liner.
What is the secret to delivering the perfect one-liner in a movie like The Expendables 2?
It’s funny because Sly, Bruce and Arnold kind of perfected it — and let me tell you a little thing that a lot of people don’t know. In the first Expendables there were a ton of monologues, and I mean monologues. Mon-o-logues. Everywhere! I remember I had a two-page monologue and spent about two months learning this whole thing, so did Randy [Couture], he had his own monologue — and we get on set and Sly’s like, “We can’t say any of this.” [Mimes crumpling paper.] I was like, “Ahhhh, the script is gone!” And you realize in an action movie, the one-liners are about necessity because you have to find a way to move the story without talking all the time. So those one little lines — “Hasta la vista, baby” — they’re cute, but they let you know and signal that we’re moving on to another part.
“I’ll be back” — the whole thing turns Terminator on its ear. And he did come back! Everybody had them. Those one-liners were so cool because they’re like chapter headings, you know what I mean? You realize, that’s what that is — you need that little thing to keep it the movie flowing but let people know with a signpost, this part is over and we’re starting a new section.
And also to inform characters, especially when there are so many in an ensemble like this.
Exactly. You need them just because you can’t say it in a monologue. You’ve got to hit it, hit it, hit it, quit it. And then let’s go. Nobody really wants to hear you talk all day. [Laughs]
Do you remember what Hale Caesar’s original Expendables monologue was about?
Oh, it was about social things in America, how the man in the hood in the ghetto… [Laughs] But after that it was, “Remember this shit, Christmas?” That’s all I had to say!
There’s a scene in Expendables 2 where a rocket comes toward you and before diving out of the way you yell, “OH!” And there’s just something wonderfully perfect about that one “OH!”
[Laughs] Well you know what, it makes things real! Because we don’t talk in monologues. You say, “What in the world?” It mimics real speech. Sly is a really great writer; I mean, he wrote Rocky.
Did you improvise much?
There wasn’t a lot of improvisation because he told us exactly how to go — there were times he’d say, “I want a bigger reaction!” Because he had a picture of it in his head. I learned to trust him all the way. You have to trust him.
Sure, particularly when there were so many moving parts involved.
You can’t improvise gigantic scenes that way, or somebody’s going to get hurt. You have to really stick with it and make what you planned the best it can be, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for [improvisation]. I’ve done a lot of comedies and when you improv a lot, you say a great joke and the whole crew laughs. Well, you have to do that same scene maybe twenty times, so on the fourth time you say the same joke nobody laughs. What happens? The guy improvises. He makes people laugh again. But you can’t edit it. So you get to the other side and they can’t put it together, because you started changing your act in the middle of the thing to make everybody laugh. So, stop! [Laughs] I’ve been there with the comedians when you’re like, “No dude, say the line. I promise you it’s the first time in the theater that they’ll hear it!” Trust it. But comedians are trying to make the crew laugh.
You had more comedy experience than many of your fellow Expendables — when did that came in handy the most?
You lead a guy — I can lead a guy just by my expression, and it’s natural. You lead them instead of making it like, “Knock knoc.k” “Who’s there?” It’s all about the timing and the flow. Sly knows it perfectly.
It sounds like this shoot was really quickly paced, with little margin for error with rewrites happening on set and having to get coverage of these big elaborate set pieces.
It was huge. The biggest movie I’ve ever been involved with. I was looking at the script wondering, “How are they going to do it?”
Especially if they couldn’t get certain cast members on jet skis…
[Laughs] I know! Well, they did work it out — they just rigged it. You’ve got to have a bigger boat attached to the jet ski and you can get the shot.
I like that they thought that they had all these seasoned action stars, of course they can just stick them on jet skis and let them do their thing.
Look, let me tell you: One plus one is two. I knew how heavy I was and I felt that jet ski. And you wanted to put two more people on there? [Laughs]
Jean-Claude Van Damme played the villain and said that on set he chose to be rude to everyone in order to stay in character, until the very end.
Well, this is the thing. We had to have a little distance between him and us. There had to be. If we hung out with him, and he was our pal… it’s really hard to dig up that emotion when it’s time. Because first and foremost, we’re in Bulgaria — we don’t want to mess around. You don’t want to come back and hear, “You didn’t do your emotion right.”
You can’t just, like, go down the street to reshoot a scene.
Yeah — you’ve got a one-timer. We were like, look — Jean-Claude’s the villain. Let’s treat him like that. And there was a distance; we would shake hands, “Hey, how you doing?” but after that…
With so many iconic action stars in this film and the previous one, I imagine you grew up watching some of these guys in their heyday. Who was the one you were most excited to rub elbows with? You do get to memorably drop a Terminator quote directly to Arnold…
The first movie I ever did was The 6th Day — and what was weird was watching how much I’ve changed since then. I was nervous, I was scared, I didn’t know what I was doing. Then to go into our scene together here… he noticed how much I’ve grown. It’s such an honor. Because you do change; as long as you keep going, you can get better and better. It’s about effort. But the guy that I have enjoyed the most is Sly, because he hand-picked me for this. He literally told me, “I’m going to make you an action star.” Because I was kind of worried!
You mentioned your role was initially meant for Wesley Snipes. Did that make it more nerve-wracking?
Yeah! That’s the thing — there were four other choices before me that all fell through, and I was a little nervous. I was like, “Sly, I come from the comedy world…” and he was just like, “You just stay in shape, give me your all, and I’m going to make you an action star.” I just love that guy. He’s like my mentor. He’s amazing. He has that creativity and a will that just won’t quit, and I love him.
The Expendables 2 is in theaters today.