This, I now realize, was a very bad idea–suggesting we do whatever Terry Crews wants for the day. We’re at an Equinox (one of five gyms where he has a membership) at 7 a.m., and it’s supposedly a light shoulder day. Crews is doing exercises in which four sets are done at once, throwing around 185 lb. while I use 50. Normally when lifting, he listens to nonfiction books or, occasionally, recordings of himself reading his lines to help him memorize them. “The Old Spice guy is who I am all the time, so this calms me down,” he says, several seconds after grunting loudly. “This is my spa time.”
This is not my spa time, despite the fact that Crews started his day two hours late to be polite to me. I feel a little less faint after a shower, but as he neatly ties up his sweaty clothes into a plastic bag and swallows some of the 12 supplements (including horny goat weed) he carries around in stacked plastic containers, he tells me that he never eats until 2 p.m. The 16-hour daily fast, he says, makes him feel more alive.
Crews is not joking, even though he is the man who made muscle funny. Sure, Schwarzenegger had comedic parts, but he simply played sweetness against his intimidating size. Crews takes the image of the hyper, confident, scary jock and exaggerates it until you see how silly and put on it is. It turns out there’s a lot of need for that guy. This year he’s in five movies (The Single Mom’s Club, Reach Me, Draft Day, Blended, The Expendables 3), is a regular on the sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which returns for its second season Sept. 28) and just started as the new host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Meanwhile, he continues to be Old Spice’s pitchman in those weird, screaming ads. “I base these guys on guys from football–football is full of cartoon characters,” he says. “Imagine 20 Charles Barkleys in one room.”
He also wrote a book, Manhood, whose cover suggests it’s going to be a fun, cheesy take on being a kid in Roger & Me–era Flint, Mich., who goes to a magnet school for drawing, walks on to his small-college football team, plays five seasons in the NFL and becomes an actor. Instead, it’s a brutal self-examination about growing up in a house with an alcoholic father who beat his mom. (After the Ray Rice story blew up, Crews told Entertainment Tonight that he could have ended up like Rice if he hadn’t dealt with his anger issues. He also tweeted against domestic violence–only to be blasted by guys who questioned his masculinity.) It’s also the story of his joining a Christian cult in college, going through depression after leaving the NFL, going to rehab for porn addiction to save his marriage and learning that running his family like he runs his life didn’t work. “I had a performance-based family. I was in the NFL, and I applied those rules, [but] family doesn’t work that way.”
His Pasadena, Calif., house, next to a herd of goats and a yard full of horses, has a swimming pool and a tennis/basketball court. When I ask his wife Rebecca King-Crews, who was in the BET reality show Crews Family Values with him for two seasons, how she feels about her husband’s manic schedule, she sits me down on the couch. “I think it’s very annoying,” she says. “He’s like a self-help book in living form. I call him Tony Robbins in blackface.”
The Crews family–there are five kids–is regularly late for church, waiting for Dad to fit in a run; they once left hours late for Disneyland because Crews had gone to fit in a workout. During a trip to Hawaii with extended family, Crews took off on the second day to shoot a scene for Terminator: Salvation in New Mexico, which he was cut from. As soon as his plane left, Rebecca canceled all the activities he had overbooked for them.
Crews recently took a class to finally learn to swim. Two years ago, against the advice of his agent, manager and wife, he went on NBC’s reality show Stars Earn Stripes, in which he attempted military maneuvers like swimming to a boat after being dropped from a helicopter in full gear. He nearly drowned, having lost consciousness. He remembers coming to on the ship: “I said, ‘Dude, I swam farther than I ever swam in my life!’ I really felt great about it.”
The Right Cuff
A little before noon, we go to Crews’ tailor, Serj Ghazarayan. Crews comes here every other week to work on his 60 suits, all by designer Nona Boateng, all extremely fitted to his 6-ft. 2-in., 235-lb. body. Today he’s picking up a denim sports coat and a long brown wool coat without sleeves; last week he got a camo tux, which he wore on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. “Oh my God, Serj! This looks amazing!” Crews yells, squinting in excitement after putting on the sleeveless coat. “To me it’s like an art piece. I’m an artist. And I spend so much time shirtless, like for Old Spice, I have to go the other way.” When I ask if, even with all the premieres, talk shows and hosting he does, he still has too many suits, he asks Serj his opinion. “I think so,” says Serj. When Serj gives him a bill for a bit over $800, Crews leaves a check for $1,000.
Crews has wanted to go to the California Science Center since going to the Museum of Natural History in New York City years ago. On the way, we drive by the stadium where Crews, who was never in a play in high school or college, got his start as T-Money in Battle Dome, a modern version of American Gladiator. He had come to L.A. hoping to be an animator for Disney but took the TV gig for money. After that, he nailed his first movie audition, for The 6th Day. When Ice Cube saw that the security guard on his set was in that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, he gave him a role in Friday After Next. Later, Cube made Crews the star of the sitcom version of Are We There Yet?, for which he cranked out 72 episodes, three a week, for a year and a half. “That was my Beatles in Hamburg. That was my boot camp,” Crews says, citing Malcolm Gladwell’s book about needing 10,000 hours to master something.
Crews has called ahead for a private tour of the museum, which was smart, since everyone suddenly becomes a paparazzo. He’s happy to meet but won’t pose for photos, which he feels commoditize him as a Facebook post. Plus, his porn-addiction therapist said he, as a child from a violent family, had to learn not to people-please; otherwise he wouldn’t see his family at restaurants because he’d spend dinner posing for cell phones. We stare up at the space shuttle Endeavour, and Crews points to his arm. “I got real goose bumps!” When our guides point to an octopus in a tank, he asks, “Can we touch it?” He’s excited about a halibut that, the aquatic expert points out, is just a halibut.
We go to Houston’s just after 2 p.m. and finally eat. Houston’s, it turns out, is way better than I had remembered. Just before we part at 4, I am feeling great, like I could live like Terry Crews every day. I am going to work out! Read more! Stop watching porn! Jump off a cliff in Rio! Learn a foreign language! But after a hug goodbye, Crews takes all his energy with him. Driving home, all I want to do is get into bed and fall asleep. Crews, meanwhile, went for a four-mile run.
This appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of TIME.