May 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

Terry Crews doesn't have a calm button

In 'Blended,' Terry Crews plays Nickens, who fancies himself 'the South African Tom Jones.' (Warner Bros.)

Terry Crews is used to being a scene stealer. The Flint-raised actor and former NFL linebacker has stolen scenes in films such as “White Chicks,” “The Longest Yard” and “Idiocracy,” and he’s back at it in the new Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore comedy “Blended.”

In the film, which opens Friday, Crews plays Nickens, a singer at a South African resort who acts as a Greek chorus to narrate the action of the film. Crews plays Nickens with his usual bug-eyed, pop-locking insanity, which has become something of his trademark.

“I don’t have a calm button,” says Crews, on the phone Monday while backstage at “The Wendy Williams Show.” “When I go to directors, I tell them, ‘I’m going to start out at 100, and you tell me on scale of 1 to 100 where you want me.’ ”

Crews has always been this way. Growing up in Flint, he says his report cards used to say he was a good kid, he just needed to learn how to sit down. The middle child of three, he says he was always looking to please everybody, and he found that outlet through constantly entertaining everyone around him.

He also learned early on that he wanted to get out of Flint. He used athletics as his ticket out of town, earning a football scholarship to Western Michigan University, which he transitioned into a four-season career in the NFL before retiring in 1997. But he never planned on football being his end game and always envisioned himself working in Hollywood.

In 1999 he scored a role on “Battle Dome,” a pumped-up “American Gladiators” knock-off that traded on his impressive physique, and the next year he nabbed a role in the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick “The 6th Day.” He plugged away in various small roles before landing a part in the Wayans Brothers’ 2004 comedy “White Chicks,” where he stood out by memorably singing along to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” and performing a hilarious shirtless dance routine in a club scene.

“ ‘White Chicks’ changed the world for me,” says Crews, who has been married to his wife, Rebecca King-Crews, for 25 years. He says Keenan Ivory Wayans, who directed the film, gave him free reign to push things as far as he wanted, and Crews didn’t hold back.

“In certain circles, you don’t want to be the funniest guy, because then you become the target,” says Crews, 45. “But the Wayans Brothers did not have a culture where anybody felt threatened. They were like, ‘If you’ve got the best joke, you win!’ ”

Crews based his “White Chicks” character on NFL players he knew, just as he modeled his President Camacho character in “Idiocracy” on hustlers he knew from his neighborhood growing up, guys “who weren’t saying anything at all, but because they would say it with pizazz, everybody was like, ‘Yeah, that’s right!’ ”

He connected with Adam Sandler on “The Longest Yard,” where Crews played Cheeseburger Eddie, a prison inmate who spoke only in McDonald’s puns. The partnership with Sandler extended to a cameo role in 2006’s “Click” and now to “Blended.”

For “Blended,” Crews took the initiative to get his character’s own wig and tailored clothes, which he calls “a gamble that paid off.” He says the character fancies himself “the South African Tom Jones,” and he based Nickens’ brash confidence on local TV anchormen.

In addition to “Blended,” Crews released his first book this week, titled “Manhood: How to Be a Better Man — Or Just Live With One.” This summer he appears in the action monolith “The Expendables 3,” and in the fall he’ll return for a second season on Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” like “Everybody Hates Chris” before it, allows Crews to simmer down and inhabit a role. But when it comes to his movie work, he still plans to turn up the volume for maximum effect.

“I think it’s a crime to mail anything in,” Crews says. “You’re a performer, and if you don’t perform with energy, you should give people their money back.”

'Blended'

Opens Friday

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, and language

Running time: 117 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com
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Terry Crews grew up in Flint and got a football scholarship to Western ... (Ben Gabbe / Getty Images)