Jeff Hephner is most recognizable from roles on “The O.C.” and “Hellcats,” but that’s about to change as he makes a bold career move on- and off-screen with tonight’s premiere of Starz’ “Boss,” a Kelsey Grammer-led political drama.
Grammer plays Chicago Mayor Tom Kane, a ruthless politician with good intentions and questionable methods, and a secret degenerative neurological disorder creeping in at the edges. He recruits Hephner’s character, Ben Zajac, an idealistic if misguided young politician, to run against the sitting governor. Charismatic and relatable, Hephner is a bright spot in a series about power and greed.
“He’s this young, ambitious law student who could’ve been a star lawyer, but decides to go the public service route,” Hephner tells us. “He’s basically brought in by Kane to push out the man who used to be Kane’s boy, and to become Kane’s new hand in Springfield. He makes a deal with the devil, in a sense, to skip in line. He cuts in front of a lot of people who were probably more qualified and gets himself tangled up in a web of power. It’s fascinating to see what power does to him, and how he’s going to navigate this.”
Before it even premiered, Starz made its confidence in “Boss” very clear, picking it up for a second season. We spoke with Hephner this week about his new direction, his reverence for the series’ home of Chicago, and, of course, working with Grammer, who floors us in his first dramatic television role.
Zap2it: We’re familiar with your work on “The O.C.” and “Hellcats” — this could not be a bigger departure from those roles.
Hephner: I have no idea what you’re talking about! They feel like parallel television series.
Zap2it: You did go straight from “Hellcats” to this, didn’t you?
Hephner: I did, I rolled right into this. We finished “Hellcats” around February, March, and by the end of March I was in Chicago, doing “Boss.” I had gotten so comfortable doing Red Raymond on “Hellcats” and being around all of those people. It became a bit of a family up in Vancouver. You get into a nice comfortable groove, there, so to switch — not only to a different character, but to a different setting and a very different style of work, it was weird to get into gear.
Zap2it: Speaking of style, “Boss” is an incredibly cinematic experience. I’d imagine it’s very different, in terms of process, from other shows you’ve worked on.
Hephner: You know what? It really is. We have two cameras going, mostly hand-held at all times. There are never any marks, there are no lights, and for me, there’s very little make-up. It felt very run-and-gun. You sometimes didn’t know where you were in relation to the camera or the other actors. Once I got used to that happening, it really freed me up to just be the character. It felt like being on stage.
Zap2it: You got to shoot it on location in Chicago. How did that add to the experience?
Hephner: When you get to shoot in a city — especially a cool one like Chicago, not to diss any other city — you get to see parts of the city that the people that live there don’t even get to see. In the pilot, we’re on the top of City Hall. They restructured this natural prairie on the rooftop for an environmental program, and it’s just so cool – we were getting covered by honey bees. It’s just a fascinating chance to get to see the city as most people don’t get to see it. Plus, the people of Chicago are, rightfully, very proud of their city, and the crew brings that to work every day. It makes you really want to do it justice, to be a part of the fabric of the city.
Zap2it: The scene in the pilot with you and Kelsey on the roof was my favorite. Not to diminish anyone else’s performance, but Kelsey is so amazing in this role. Is it inspiring, to work with someone who is a TV veteran?
Hephner: Of course. I’d get caught, sometimes, just watching him go. He puts the show up on his back and carries it. He delivers this epic performance. If we’re making an example of that scene, I mean, I’m up on a roof with Gus Van Sant and Kelsey Grammer, and I’m watching them work together — I just didn’t want to f*** it up! I didn’t want to get in the way! It was fascinating to be around it. I obviously realize how fortunate I am to have gotten to do that, because the experiences I’ll take away from this show are second to none.
Zap2it: Zajac starts off with really good intentions, but it seems that the natural inclination when someone is given a lot of power very quickly is to take it down a dark road.
Hephner: This is going to be a mosaic of how people can destroy themselves, and how they can get in their own way. With Zajac and a lot of other characters, you’re going to see how much damage they can inflict upon themselves. I think that as the story unfolds, it becomes more about people doing things to themselves in order to make room for ambition, for control and power.
Zap2it: Your first season is short, just 8 episodes, but you’ve already been picked up for Season 2. What kind of journey do we see for Zajac in those eight episodes?
Hephner: It’s really about watching the way that he evolves and the way that he handles himself. Honestly, I think you’re going to sit there at the end of Episode 8 and go, ‘Holy s***.’ Because it’s eight episodes, everything is at an accelerated pace. Everything happens so quickly on screen. It was great for us, because you do eight episodes and you’re still in the groove, you’re still excited, and you’re not burned out, you’re still ready to put your foot on the floor and keep after it. All of us, from the cast to the audience, are left wanting. I can’t wait to get back at it.
Zap2it: It must be nice to know, already, that you get to go back for Season 2, especially after the “Hellcats” waiting game.
Hephner: It’s true. My whole life has always been about waiting, so honestly, even now I can’t fully go “Phew, I’ve got Season 2, this is going to be great.” As an actor, you’re always thinking, “Well, they could do it without me. My character could get hit by a bus.” There’s never real security in this job, so you don’t fully let your guard down. Barring the bus, I can’t wait to get back, and I think it’s a really cool vote of confidence for the show, for everybody, because we don’t all have to scatter, looking for other work and trying to take care of our families. We can focus on where this goes and we can stay excited. It’s still in the forefront of our minds.