Times are tough in Sorry to Bother You, which takes place in an alternate version of our own reality. In Boots Riley's dark fantasy world, if you can't keep up with the bills, you can instead make a living via indentured servitude at a prison-like facility, where you have your basic needs met while you pay off your debts. One character (played by Terry Crews) seriously considers this option as his nephew (Lakeith Stanfield) takes a telemarketing gig that, in part, sells corporations the services of this form of slave labor. Meanwhile, a completely bonkers CEO dreams up even more ways to cut back on costs, however outlandish they might be.
Crews (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Deadpool 2) chatted with SYFY WIRE ahead of the Sorry to Bother You premiere about corporate practices in science fiction and the real world, the risks of speaking out against the establishment, and his not-so-secret inner geek.
You've only recently started getting into geek projects, with Deadpool 2 and this. How much of a geek are you? I know you collect comic books.
I am a quintessential nerd, all the way! [Laughs] It's kind of crazy. Star Wars changed my life. I'm not a Star Trek guy, but when J.J. Abrams did the Trek movies, I was like, "Okay! I can kind of get into it." I liked Battlestar Galactica. I'm a big Marvel guy, especially X-Men.
It was wild — I had to sell my comic books in my freshman year in college because I was hungry, but I regretted that. I had Iron Man #3 back then. And then, for my birthday about seven years ago, my wife bought me an Iron Man #3, just to make up for the fact that I lost that whole collection. That was heartfelt. That was a really good gift. I used to sit around and dream if these books could ever be movies, you know what I mean? I'm old enough to remember when the first Superman movie changed the game, when they were like, "You won't believe a man can fly!"
Was lack of representation ever a problem?
The problem is, even when you look back at comic books, there was no one who really looked like you. It was really, really hard to find those who did, and in fact, some of those were stereotypical or even racist characterizations, like Steamboat, Whitewash Jones, Shazam's sidekick. You'd see those images and it would make you crazy, you know? Yes, there was Black Panther, there was Luke Cage, there was Falcon, but after that, it kind of dropped off. Then, what we did, our music guys became like our superheroes. They were superheroes in their own right.
So I became a music geek — Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, which, if you look at it, that sounds like a comic book, you know what I mean? So you could be a geek and still be in hip-hop. Everything was combined.
I was still into science fiction. The Thing was my favorite movie of all time. Alien and Aliens, those kinds of things. So I've always been imagining myself in this world, even Night of the Living Dead, when you see Duane Jones. You always gravitate towards it when you see a black character: "Oh my God! We're here!" Because the thing is, in a lot of dystopic science fiction, we're not there. Mad Max — so the world's gone, and there are no black people? What are you trying to say? You know what I mean? So everybody's white in the end? When it's all apocalyptic?
Yeah, they didn't think about that…
You gotta understand, narrative creates reality. What creates reality is our own story, and if you have no story, are you real? I'm sorry to get deep, but it's really deep!
Let me tell you, right now, more than ever, especially after #MeToo and what just happened, you do a revisit of all these movies, all this entertainment, and you gasp. You gasp. I remember putting on Eddie Murphy Raw, and I thought, "Oh my God. Oh my God. No. Don't." [Laughs] Or you look at old comedies, where if you were Asian or any other race, or a woman, if you were anything other than [a] white male, you were the joke. They were not laughing with you; they were laughing at you.
I remember watching Heat with Robert De Niro, and it's the toxic masculinity guidebook! [Laughs] The fact that he's like, "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat..." you realize, "So he was using her the whole time?" Yet it's viewed as this chivalrous, "Oh, I have to leave, I'm now going off on my mission," even though he tied her into all this crime! And we all know it's bad, but it's not defined that way.
You go to The Cosby Show, and that's a perfect example of the, "Can I still like it?" question. Wow. I still remember the good times that I had watching it, but it's definitely colored by the sick feelings now.
Success is the warmest place to hide, and people who are very successful can get away with a lot of stuff. That's the point. You don't get away with it if you're a bum on the street. That element of success gives you the power to block, gives you the power to influence… And there have been a lot of science fiction movies based on that idea of abuse of power, especially the power of the corporation. Aliens…
The Weyland-Yutani Corporation…
Yeah! They want the alien more than they want you! That's how I feel about WME right now, you know what I mean? So I'm just supposed to be the host for the alien! That's what they want me to do! And it's happening in Hollywood. Hollywood doesn't seem to get the morals of their own stories. Let me tell you something that blows my mind. There are super brilliant people, creators and actors and crew members, who put together these beautiful stories about love, and don't know anything about it. Who was that little girl who was molested on the Schwarzenegger movies?
You mean Eliza Dushku? On the set of True Lies?
Eliza! Oh my God! My God! The stories she's telling are horrifying! And I'm going, "Why was there no one… You guys knew!" And man, that's the culture. This is the thing I think we have to really realize — that we are all capable. The problem is, people go, "I'd never do anything like that!" But by saying that, you've literally just made yourself the number one candidate.
It's also, are you turning a blind eye when someone is doing it but you stand to benefit from them financially? And that's also the conundrum some of the characters are facing in Sorry to Bother You, and it's what you've been facing in real life. You went to the head of your agency, Ari Emmanuel, and you had the letter he wrote when he wanted Mel Gibson to be kicked out of Hollywood for making anti-Semitic remarks. You crossed out Mel Gibson and put in the name of the man you accuse of groping you, and you crossed out "anti-Semitic remarks," and put in "sexual assault."
Yes! I was trying to find the line, and I found it. If you go to work, or any work event, and you molest another person, you should be fired. That's the line! But they're saying that's not true. They're saying that it's okay if it's our guy. That makes no sense because it's an actual crime. What Mel Gibson did was very, very bad, the crime was that he was driving drunk, plus he made anti-Semitic remarks, but there are people who do that every day and they don't go to jail for it. They should, but that's what I was trying to highlight for him.
And this is the deal, and this is what this movie deals with, in so many ways, is that there are people messing with your self-image, be it socially, economically, racially, politically… If they can fool you into believing that you are somehow "less than," you'll buy anything. If your self-image is down enough. What they're trying to tell me is, "You are not as big as we are, so we want you to sign off on this."
I say no. "Damn it, Terry, just sign off. Just say it's okay." And I refuse. Because I'm not saying I'm worth more than you, but I'm not worth one iota less than you are. Whatever you're worth, I'm worth that, too. And that makes people very, very angry. And there have been many, many science fiction movies that have been written about that very same subject! I'm not an activist. I just said no. I'm not going to say it's okay. I told you what happened, and I expect him to be gone.
Let me tell you, in this era, with Roseanne getting canceled, you can't do this. ABC figured it out: "We can't stand for this." It was the biggest flip of all time, and when they decided to let her go, I was like, "Thank god." Because I didn't know what they were going to do. I never thought they were going to do that, but they held her accountable. And you know what she said? She said it was Ambien. You know what my guy says? He was drunk. And you go, "But what's the difference?" There is no difference. Taking an Ambien doesn't make you racist, and being drunk doesn't make you a molester. It just doesn't. I don't want to hear it. I'm not buying it.
The CEO in Sorry to Bother You might blame his behavior and business practices on drugs — if he ever recognized that what he was doing is highly problematic on multiple levels. And Cassius has to decide which levels he's okay with, or not.
When you're talking about this movie, it deals with all these subjects. Do you buy in? Do you sell out? Or do you sacrifice?
I had a choice to make. Was I going to buy in — go along them, be one of them? Sell out — not saying anything as long as they take care of me? But I decided to sacrifice, by coming forward and saying my story, and hope that it would help other people. It could have killed my career. WME packaged this movie. This happened before the movie, before the whole #MeToo movement. This, and Deadpool. I have yet to see what's happening later. These kind of guys lay in wait. I've been around gangsters before. They don't do anything when the cops are standing around. They wait for the cops to leave.
It reminds of what recently came to light about how Harvey Weinstein operated, how he dissuaded Peter Jackson from casting Ashley Judd in Lord of the Rings by claiming she was "difficult."
Exactly. And Peter admitted to it. That's what these people do. And agents in Hollywood are kind of like Catholic priests. When you have a good one, they're the best. The whole community loves them. But when they are bad, holy cow! Look out – they ruin lives. They go deep. So in Sorry to Bother You, Cassius thinks he's part of something, but he's not. He doesn't know what he's party to. And when he discovers it, it's like, "Oh my God!" And he tries to alert the world, and he's gaslit.
All kind of stuff goes on! But see what we're talking about here are complicit systems, where people are dependent on an evil system when things going wrong are what gets you your check. The problem is, whatever you serve, you also have to eat. And until it gets to epidemic proportions, people don't question it. I was looking at one of my favorite movies, Star Wars, and the way Harrison Ford is with Carrie Fisher, it's a little suspect. You're like, "Leave her alone, man!" That scene would be rewritten today.
Would you want to be in a Star Wars movie?
I would love to be in a Star Wars movie. Whatever's coming up! I think there's space for me in one of those things!
What about a superhero film, other than Deadpool? Anyone you're dying to play?
No. I would make a brand new guy because I'm not a big fan of, "Let's change this guy into a black guy." Let's try something new. We can do it! People will buy it! It's okay! [Laughs] It's all good. I'm not stopping anytime soon!