Jeff Hephner just can’t stay away from Chicago. He sexed up the city in Boss, then ruffled feathers in Season 2 of Chicago Fire. Now he’s back (and doing a bit of both) in Chicago Med.
“I absolutely love it,” the Michigan native said during a phone conversation Monday. “It’s so weird how it happened. I went off to do some other things, but I feel like I’ve never left Chicago.”
Clarke first reprised his “Fire” role of Jeff Clarke in the first season finale of “Med.” When the show returns for its second season at 9/8c Sept. 22 on NBC, former firefighter Clarke is working as a fourth-year medical student at Gaffney Chicago Medical Center.
Hephner’s return to producer Dick Wolf’s One Chicago universe wasn’t as weird as he suggests. After starring in TNT’s short-lived “Agent X” and recurring on CBS’ medical drama “Code Black,” Hephner called some old friends from his days starring in “Easy Money.” They just so happened to be the producers of “Med,” Andy Schneider and Diane Frolov.
Hephner isn’t sure how many episodes he’ll appear in “Med,” in which Clarke gets close to Dr. Natalie Manning (Torrey DeVitto) and incurs the jealous wrath of Dr. Will Halstead (Nick Gehlfuss). But he has a plan if Clarke doesn’t make it as a doctor.
“He’s going to law school,” Hephner joked, referring to the upcoming fourth Wolf series, “Chicago Justice.”
Or was it a joke? The always fun and friendly Hephner and I talked about creating your own destiny, how to get out of tight-fitting scrubs and his chickens. Yes, chickens.
Are you home in Michigan right now?
I’m in Michigan walking around. Can you hear my chickens in the background?
You have chickens?
Yeah, much to wife’s dismay. My wife grew up in New York City and she gets to Michigan and, of course, I’ve got all kinds of animals and chickens and—hillbillyness.
Do you just have a little farm in your backyard?
I’ve got a little space. I’m not out in the boonies. I couldn’t take her out of New York City and put her in the boonies in Michigan. I try to have the best of both worlds; have some kind of human contact around and then have my animals.
You’re so “Hollywood.”
I just don’t fit in with that group; I don’t think I could if I tried.
Well, welcome back to Chicago, my friend.
I never really felt like I left. … My heart was there. I loved being there. I loved being in this Dick Wolf world. It’s a great place to work. I feel really fortunate to be back.
You had a great story when I talked to you on the “Fire” set about how you basically talked them into hiring you because you wanted to come back to Chicago after doing “Boss” here. (See that interview here.) I was wondering if you did the same thing this time?
[Laughs.] There are some similarities to that story. I had worked with Andy Schneider and Diane Frolov on another series years ago called “Easy Money.” We’d always stayed in contact. It was one of my all time favorite shows—a really underrated show. It was really quirky, and Laurie Metcalf was fantastic.
When they took over as show-runners [on “Med”], I was still off doing “Agent X” or “Code Black.” I had contact with them and we would just talk. A moment of freedom came up in my schedule and I may or may not have said to them, “You know, Clarke didn’t die on ‘Fire.’ ”
[Laughs.] “Just a heads up.” They may or may not have thought it was a really interesting idea to see if Clarke could become a doctor.
I applaud you for being the master of your own destiny.
Is that what it is? [Laughs.] Or is it just being blatantly, unabashedly out there, saying “Hey, I need a gig?”
You are your own agent.
Sometimes you’ve got to be, right? This game is a hustle and, honestly, they wrote for “Northern Exposure” and “Boardwalk [Empire]” and “Easy Money,” of course. Shows I hold in high regard. I just wanted to work with them, too. Sometimes you’ve just got to do that, just say, “Hey! I want to work with you.” I’m allowed.
And it worked, so that’s great.
Did you get to help decide what Clarke was up to in between shows or did they figure all that out?
I think they just ran with it. They were like, “How long have you been gone?” The gap in time kind of works. So it makes sense Clarke might have been off doing this on the side. It’s fun because the universe is so inter-connected so it’s an easy sell to say, “Well, you know, Clarke was just in night school learning how to be doctor.”
I think that’s one of the big questions, too: “Is the audience going to buy it?” I guess we’ll start finding out on Thursday. I hope they do, because I’m having a ball doing it.
It totally fits into the style they’re doing these shows anyway with all the crossing over of characters and storylines.
They love to inter-populate. … It’s a hard balance. They do a good job connecting everything, but letting all the shows stand alone, too. So people tune in and go, “Oh, crap! Was that the dude from ‘Fire’?” or “Who’s that old guy walking around the hospital?”
This is Season 2 of “Med” and you showed up in Season 2 of “Fire,” so you must be the One Chicago Season 2 ringer—the Sophomore Slump stopper.
[Laughs.] That’s exactly what it is. That’s exactly what Mr. Wolf was thinking. … He was at the table read, and I wanted to go up and say, “Hey thanks. It’s cool to be back. I’m glad you took a risk on doing something like this.”
I got right up to him and I said, “Hey, thanks.” He’s like, “Ah, just do what you did last time.” I didn’t even get to say anything else! I thought, “OK, well then that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll do exactly what I did last time.”
And Clarke is; he’s pissing people off again.
I just said the other day to myself,“Well, to the first five episodes, I think I’ve upset or disappointed almost everyone.” Someone is always yelling at me. I’m screwing something up. Clarke is very eager to prove that he can fit in, and, of course, when somebody does that they step on toes. I’m going to step on a few toes just by having a little bit of a past with Natalie Manning, Torrey DeVitto’s character. It’s natural for Clarke to just really bug the shit out of everyone.
Is Dr. Halstead just jealous of Clarke or is there something else there?
I don’t know. Just the glory of great TV, right? I think [Natalie and Halstead] had quite a little road last year that they traveled and literally Clarke comes in and couldn’t care less.
Is he even aware of it?
I don’t think so. I just think that is also incredibly irritating. … There’s something about the Clarke character in both shows where he’s never really eased his way into the new environment. There’s never been a get-to-know-you process with him. He’s just charged in and is participating without paying any sort of dues, or inquiring about the lay of the land. I think he just kind of does whatever the hell he wants.
Clarke and Natalie are easy together because they know each other when they and their spouses would always hang out. So it doesn’t feel like he is hitting on her. That ease has to irritate Halstead.
It’s so funny, because Nick Gehlfuss is the sweetest, nicest, coolest guy in the world. I’ll pick on him a little bit and totally throw shade and we just goof around.But it is irritating [for Halstead], because last year they never found the right moment. And Clarke and Natalie are just very easy together. That’s good fortune [for me], because Torrey DeVitto is a really easy actor to be on set with. It’s been pretty easy to be pretty easy.
Can we expect some romance between Clarke and Natalie or will they remain just friends?
I think that they’re going to spend some time together. On TV, those things tend to happen.
Men and women cannot be friends on TV!
Right? [Laughs.] They have to, like I said, disappoint each other. I’m sure Clarke will disappoint her on some level early and, hopefully, redeem himself. … I think that they’re going to explore the idea of their past as it leads to a future, definitely. I think it’s also a great device to irritate the hell out of Halstead. Nick plays cranky so well.
Are we going to see Clarke and Halstead physically fight?
He hopes not, because I would pull every bit of my “Agent X” bag out and whip his ass. [Laughs.] I don’t know what they’re going to do. You know what I mean? … They’re going to have to deal with each other, and that ED gets awfully small so they might bump into each other. (Read my “Agent X” interview with Hephner here.)
Is it odd to be back here and sort of in the same universe, but with a different group of actors?
It’s hilarious. It’s incredibly odd. I love every second of it. They think I’m such a weirdo. It’s funny, because on “Fire” it was very much like being in a locker room in a good way. There was a camaraderie.
You once told me doing “Fire” was like a summer camp.
Yeah, it’s summer camp. That’s exactly right. I forgot about that. It was and it is. I still kind of carry it that way. I’m carrying the character that way, and I’m carrying myself that way. It’s been a lot of fun.
I just get such a kick out of it, because what an opportunity as an actor to go revisit this [character] but in a different context. That doesn’t happen very often. You’re going back as the same guy, but you’re starting fresh—the character is starting life over. He’s starting his career over. He’s doing all kinds of things for the first time, and there’s an optimism this time around that wasn’t there. On “Fire” a lot of Clarke’s life was falling apart.
Have you run into your “Fire” friends?
It’s hard because the schedules are different, but I’ve never lost contact with them since I left. I’’ve played Fantasy Football with them. When I come to Chicago, I go David Eigenberg’s house and have dinner with his family. I’m still close with a lot of the guys. We even did a scene that didn’t make it to the [Season 1] finale. It was me, David and Joe Minoso. That would have been the third show Joe and I have done, because he was in “Boss,” too. When you’re on that show and connect with those guys, it lasts.
Is it nice to be in scrubs and not wearing the heavy gear you did in “Fire?”
Oh my God, life changing. I will say I felt like they’ve sewn me into the scrubs. Taking those things off at the end of the day, I almost need a pair of scissors. We are TV doctors so the sleeves are a little tighter than usual I guess. I remember putting it on the first time. I’m like, “Oh, Jesus. I don’t know how I’’m going to get out of this.” Sometimes it is a struggle.
I think they might put Colin O’Donnell in the tightest scrub shirts.
Oh, I know. His are snug, and we’ve had this conversation. I was like, “Dude, how do you get out of that thing?” Remember when Mel Gibson dislocated his shoulder in “Lethal Weapon?” That’s what it’s like to get out of the scrubs. When he just like smashes his shoulder to get out of the straight jacket, that’s me getting out of the scrubs after work. The hardest part about the job so far is getting the rubber gloves on and the scrubs off.
When we went on set last year, I was totally fascinated by the fake bodies and how real they seem even close up.
When you have to feel it and be around it all day, you get a morbid comfortableness with it. Macabre comedy is a must—especially if I’m sitting there too long. The high level of [the prosthetics] makes it really uncomfortable.
With that guy with the eye in the premiere, I was a little nervous. Those are real scissors. You got a plate over his real eye, but I about stuck the scissors up his nose. I’m coming in and I’m going to fast. “Oh, shit. Sorry, buddy! I guess you guys forgot to give me the rubber scissors because I’m the new guy.”
It’s intense. They do a great job … They’re constantly like spraying blood out. There’s this effects guy, Blake, just sitting there. It’s funny to look down and see him under the table, cranking this hose getting blood ready to squirt. … It’s hilarious, but he does a great job. It looks great.
When I was on “Code Black” it was the same thing. This stuff looks so amazing even up close. I thought they were special. Then I get here and these guys are just as talented. It’s absolutely insane.
Was “Code Black” your med school for the medical jargon?
Basically, right? It’s so funny saying this stuff. I Google it. I try to learn as much I can. I talk to the consultants there, but even sometimes saying it I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. I’m so full of shit.” You know what I mean? What the hell am I saying?
Do you know how many episodes you get to do? Have they told you?
I don’t. I’m still cranking away. You know me well enough to know that I’m going to try to stay as long as I can, but it’s kind of up to if the audience buys it. Are they buying the new doctor? Are they buying any kind of connection with Natalie? Any connection with anybody else? I think if it works great I’m going to hang around as long as it’s working. Or at least until they tell me Clarke’s going to law school.