Jeff Hephner ruined some takes while filming a particularly brutal fight scene in “Agent X,” but not because he got hurt. He couldn’t stop giggling.
“This monster of a human being” is supposed to tear up a bookcase by tossing Hephner through it in the scene. When the stunt coordinators pulled the actor through the bookcase from behind, the director had to yell “cut.”
“It’s supposed to be I’m getting the shit kicked out of me,” Hephner said. “And I’m laughing because it’s just so much fun.”
Hephner used the word “fun” several times while talking about “Agent X,” in which he plays the title character. John Case is a top secret agent who reports only to the vice president. He’s dispatched for crisis cases that the VP feels traditional law enforcement can’t handle.
In the series, which airs at 8 p.m. CT Sundays on TNT, Sharon Stone plays Vice President Natalie Maccabee and Gerald McRaney is Malcolm Millar, who runs the VP’s residence and oversees all the secrets it holds, including Agent X.
Michigan native Hephner, who has spent time working in Chicago on “Boss” and “Chicago Fire,” talked about all the joy he experienced filming “Agent X”—especially while getting his butt kicked doing most of his own stunts.
Is it true that you worked with a DEA agent to prepare for this role?
Hell yeah, my neighbor. And it’s funny, we would be in my basement and he brought these—he brought all kinds of like target practice stuff and my whole basement was just taken over.
We built little walls to practice how to enter rooms and how to clear rooms. We did a lot of situational awareness and how to actually work the weapons and stuff. He brought me all kinds of shit he probably wasn’t supposed to bring me. I love it. It would be freezing cold; it was February; it was like -20 degrees and he comes over with a bag full of goodies and we sit in the basement for two or three hours playing guns.
You weren’t actually shooting in the basement though were you?
No. I would never do that. [Laughs.] My wife is here so I can’t admit to those kinds of things.
It would get kind of loud and scary for the kids.
The cement is like 18 inches thick so we’re good.
You live in Michigan now. Do you miss Chicago?
I do; all the time. I was just texting one of the guys from the show who throws parties every once-and-a-while and just said, “Hey dude, why don’t you throw a party soon?” Because I only live up in Ann Arbor and I’m like, “I’m looking for an excuse to come down and drink your beer and hang out.”
I miss it. I love it. … I had been in New York City for about 15 years and right after I left “Chicago Fire” and started this I moved my family to Chelsea, Mich., which is right outside of Ann Arbor.
You are filming in L.A.?
Yeah, but the reason we picked [our place] is I’m 30 minutes from Detroit Metro Airport and it’s the easiest airport to get in and out of. I would work all week and then I’d come home either Friday night or Saturday morning, spend the day with my family, go back to L.A. on Sunday. And I did that for about six months. But that means the rest of the time I can be home. I can hang out and be with my kids and just be in Michigan.
Tell me about John, if that’s his name.
If that’s his name. You know what, it’s two-fold, of course. It wouldn’t be a fun character if it wasn’t. There’s Agent X—the unknown agent sent out by the vice president to kick everybody’s ass. And then there’s the hopefully relatable human that is kind of stuck in this world. And he has a past.
I think that we’re going to try to marry different aspects. We’ll be a fun action show. You get a little bit of the past. You get a little bit of John going on out and whipping everybody’s ass or getting his ass whipped, whichever you prefer to see because both happen a lot. And at the end I think you’re going to have watched a fun action show that isn’t going to make you any smarter, but you’re going to enjoy the shit out of it.
I think you’re going to be curious about the characters, John and also Gerald McRaney’s character and Sharon Stone’s characters. I think they’re fun.
Talking more about John’s emotional state, how do you think keeping his work secret takes a toll on him? Or is he one of those kind of guys who can compartmentalize everything?
No. I don’t think he is. I think it very much drives him nuts. … You’ll come to a point as our story unfolds that he’s going to question why he does it; for whom does he do it.
It’s just like everybody’s life. We all have shit that’s driving us fucking crazy and I think that this guy is no different. I know when I have pent up whatever and then when it comes out it comes out with a bit of an explosion.
I think he’s lucky to have a job where he can just fight all the time. So he doesn’t have to get hammered all day, he’d just go beat the shit out of somebody.
He’s also not one of those agents who really just gets into the job and actually kind of enjoys killing folks?
No. I don’t think so. … I think there’s a conflict in John. I think that hopefully we’re building a self-aware character—if I can be so pretentious as to say that. These little things build up and they irritate him. Every episode starts with the flashbacks to the past of the John Case character, then that all pops up into the present. So when you see those elements from his past showing up in his present it’s going to make him stop and think about what he’s doing.
How different is this kind of action role compared to past roles you had like in “Fire?”
“Chicago Fire” was great because it was a very cool, manly, tough guy role. And the fire was a whole other character and it was really awesome. … The first day I walked in, I might have even told you this when you interviewed me last time, this fucking fire shot across the roof of the building and I’m like that’s insane and I’m in there. And there’s a joy to being able to do that.
It’s the same with this. … I really love contact. I’m a very rowdy person. The third episode they were just starting to get comfortable with how this was going to go. And they were starting to get the sense that I like to tear things apart and I like it to be messy. I’m not a very clean martial artist fighter; it’s going to be a mess and something is going to get broken and it’s going to probably be attached to my body.
I was like, “Can we destroy the whole fucking room?” And the guy is like, “Yeah, we built it so you can have it.” And we did. Me and this kid, this young stunt guy trying to make his bones—we destroyed this room.
At one point I have a book over his face and I’m elbowing the book as hard as I can. And I’m like, “You OK?” And he says, “Fucking A.” He’s just screaming. We were having so much fun.
Then I throw him through a window. And when you see the final cut of it, there’s so much energy in it, and that was something I can’t ever get in any other kind of style of acting. That energy doesn’t have a place to go. With this, there’s an outlet that’s so fun.
You compared “Fire” to a guy’s summer camp. Is this like a child’s play time?
I think for an actor or anybody creative to keep everything fresh in your job, it’s like you have to take a child-like joy toward everything. And I’m very fortunate that I have an eight-year-old, a seven-year-old and a five-year-old who constantly remind me what that is. And so there’s just so many ways to find so much joy and fun in all of it and I think that I find it in this.
There can be bleakness. There are these character elements to it that can get heavy, but in a show like this we don’t want to tune in to see that shit; we want to see some running, some fighting, some good times. We want some action and a cool story with a little suspense. I think that we nail the shit out of that in this show. I guess I shouldn’t name other shows, but it’s not them—those serious, bleak shows; it’s just a cool badass action show.
For “Boss” you had to be in shape because you were naked half the time.
Oh my God, I wish I was in better shape. I see some of those pictures I’m like, “Oh no.” Because in my head I was like, “Well, he’s a state treasurer. He doesn’t have to be too in shape. I can go have some beer right now. I don’t need to do any push-ups.” Then I see the pictures it’s like, “Oh fuck.”
In this you have to be in shape because you’re doing a lot of the stunt work yourself.
I am. I wouldn’t know what the percentage—I know that when you talk to producers they’re like, “Well, he did 90 percent of the stunts.” And I’ve got to say that it would be pretty close. It’s like there’s a few windows I didn’t jump out of and a train I didn’t jump off of. Other than that it’s pretty much me.
I had no time during the pilot to get in shape. I went straight from “Chicago Fire” to Vancouver to shoot the pilot and I had two weeks and I worked with a Krav Maga specialist in Vancouver and just was working on fighting. But in between the downtime I spent a lot of time working out, but also working in different fight genres. It’s funny because most of it goes out the fucking window once you start flying around. You’re like, “I’m never going to be that cool.”
For me the joy of the character is the fact that he’s not [cool]. It’s almost like there’s a relatability to the lack of technique and also how close he is to all the time getting the shit kicked out of him. It’s the Harrison Ford of it all. It’s like you can tell he was always—didn’t want to get hit. He was scared, “This is going to hurt damn it. I don’t want to get hit.”
But yeah, I had to get in shape and then try to stay in shape, which was next to impossible because I worked every day and then would fly from L.A. back to Detroit to be home for a day. I feel like I lost about 15 pounds during the filming of it.
They didn’t let you do push-ups on the airplane floor?
You know what, I’m surprised I didn’t. I would get up and stretch though. I remember this one guy—we had this bad guy come in and he was a Navy SEAL—I don’t know he was some specialist in the military, a really nice guy. But he kneed me in the head during a fight. I had to fly home the next morning and my head I was still spinning. I’m like, “Man this can’t be good.” I had to keep getting up out of my chair on the flight and just walk around and just stretch my neck and take my vitals every once in a while to make sure I was still alive.
Well, they have you fighting an MMA fighter in your very first fight.
Oh yeah. Oh my God. … Mr. Paul Lazenby—you couldn’t find a nicer guy on the planet.
There’s this one scene where I’m supposed to punch him in the stomach. I hit him and I’m like, “Oh dude. Sorry about that.” And he’s like, “What?” And I was like, “I just made contact.” He’s like, “No, no dude. You can really hit me. That’s cool.”
I thought I had hit him hard, so now I’m really going to hit this guy. … I hit this dude as hard as I thought I could in the gut and I come back around and I expect him to go, “Hey, nice one. You laid a hard one on me.” He didn’t say anything. He’s like, “Dude I mean it. You can hit me.” I’m like, “Well fuck you, Paul. That was all I got right there.”
I mean these guys are studs. We had this kick boxer who was a double for one of the bad guys and I was like, “Oh yeah, kick me this time. Don’t be a pussy—fucking kick me.”
I’ve got a Kevlar vest on, mind you. I think I’m bulletproof quite literally. This guy kicked me square in the sternum. I think he folded the vest and myself in half. I mean I’ve never been kicked it that hard in my life. It hurt my shoulder he kicked me so hard in the chest. Unbelievable. I was like, “Oh that’s how you got that world title in kickboxing. Good job.”
You’ve got some big acting hitters on the show, beside yourself, of course.
Oh yeah, totally. Sharon Stone being at the top of the list. They’re all for different reasons. Gerald McRaney is a television icon from the ’80s. Sharon Stone is a movie star icon from the ’90s. And then James Earl Jones is just a legend. And so to have all those people tucked into the show is kind of phenomenal.
I took advantage of it. I’m lucky to be with Max—Gerald McRaney—a lot. It was like working with Kelsey Grammer. It’s like master class. I’ve been lucky to be around some pros and he’s right at the top of the list.
And then Sharon, she’s just—like I said—a fucking movie star. Just weird. But again, they’re stars for a reason and you see why when you work with them and you’re like, “Oh that’s what this is.” These fuckers come to work.
With Mr. Jones I just tried to be around him as much as possible. I don’t have any scenes with him, one that got cut out, but I just tried to be around him and talk to him. We actually were in New York and saw him on Broadway and he was phenomenal. We got to sit with him backstage for a little bit and talk. He’s one of those people, again, you sit at their feet and you just try to get whatever you can from him. It’s a pretty neat experience.
I heard you say in an interview I saw from New York Comic Con that you were a teen when “Basic Instinct” came out. You haven’t told that to her have you?
Oh, I’m sure I have. I’m sure I have because I get a little candid when I talk. Yeah, I was fucking 14 or 15 years old when that movie came out. I’m fully aware of the timing of that and it adds a level of intimidation. And to meet somebody who may not know you had a wild crush on her when you were 14 years old. She played a big part of my teenage years, man. I’m not the only one. It’s not like I’m the only dude who saw that movie and thought that.
William Blake Herron said there’s going to be a big shake up sort of mid season. Can you tease anything about that?
He’s the writer. He teases that shit so much better than I do. I always just end up ruining it for everybody.
Well, were you surprised by it when you saw it in the script?
Yeah, I was. One of the cool and one of the hard things for the writers and creators of a show like this is you’re creating this mythology. And so in doing that you got to stick to what you did in the past and build on it going forward. And so when certain forces get in the way of that, mythology wins. And I think that it’s hard to see it. You’re like, “Holy shit, did that just happen? Well fuck, it’s TV. I guess it did just happen.”
The “National Treasure” aspects of this, like the more fantastical aspects, they’re the kind of thing that might make somebody turn off because they’d think there could never be a hidden chamber in the vice president’s mansion. But how cool would it be if there was?
I think most people who are going to tune in are going to give that a shot because it’s a really fun entry point. You have Sharon fucking Stone, who is the Vice President of United States. And by the way, she finds this secret room. And then there’s this guy who she sends out on missions.
And then you go, “Yeah that’s awesome,” because honestly she handles it, from an acting standpoint, in a very grounded way. It’s very believable and it’s fun.
Also you can project it onto Joe Biden and Dan Quayle and Al Gore. Can you imagine if Al Gore was sending me out on a mission? We would joke about that all the time. I think it would be great. It’d be like, “John Case, go down to Tennessee. Call my mother.”
It would be fun and I think that if you like TV and if you like storytelling you’ll allow it. Of course there’s going to be people out there that are going to go, “That would never happen.” Well, no shit. It’s a TV show. You’re not going to get any smarter watching. I’m not going to make anybody any smarter at anything I ever do.
Will Olga Petrovka (played by Olga Fonda) be a frenemy throughout the season?
I can’t wait to call her after this because a lot of people I’ve spoken with say they’’re very interested in her and they should be. She’s fucking lovely. And yes, Olga will be along for the ride.
I love that you are enemies, but you admire each other too.
Exactly, and it’s fun. She makes it very fun. And she’s written in such a way that she kind of is aware. She’s aware of what she is and what she does and does it anyway. And those characters to me are fun. And there’s a likability to her because she’s one of those, and this is the truth we all fall in love with that beautiful woman who really doesn’t walk around and brag that she’s beautiful or maybe even know she’s beautiful. Olga fits that category. She’s stunning and talented and just cool as fuck.