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Interview With Jeff Hephner, Boss' Hot-Shot Politico / Onscreen Lover Extraordinaire

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 17, 2012 4:00PM

Jeff Hephner stars as ambitious Illinois Treasurer Ben Zajac in Boss

During on-site filming in Chicago for the second season of the STARZ hit, Boss, Chicagoist sat down with Jeff Hephner, who plays the savvy, sexy Illinois State Treasurer and candidate for Governor of Illinois, Ben Zajac. The Michigan native says he's become immersed in the state's politics since filming the first season, and opened up about pension reform, on-screen love scenes and his least favorite show on TV.

Chicagoist: Have you done a lot of research on Illinois politicians?

Hephner: You know, I hadn't other than the obvious—the national stuff. I read the paper here now, religiously. There's a column i really like in the Tribune, a Page 2 guy. (Ed. Note: That would be John Kass.—CS) I love him. I get a little more engrossed in it now because Chicago has this ability to be incredibly unique, politically.

C: In the first season, your character is set up as this young, hot-shot political player that kind of reminded me of Illinois Representative Aaron Schock.

JH: Everyone actually used to come up to me and ask if I was Alexi Giannoulias! I used to get that all the time. People would come up to me and say "oh, you're (playing) Alexi" and I'd think "Oh, uh (mumbles)." I was at a restaurant and someone came up to me and asked if I wanted to come over and talk to this guy—and it was Alexi! And then we started commiserating about the show and he said "You're not playing me, are you?" And thought "Oh! Aw, no!" It's funny because you know, he's not really like (my character), but I guess he was state treasurer.

I think the storylines in Chicago politics are incredibly rich, you know? It's bizarre, when we first started shooting, there was the whole thing about the pensions with Daley and the criss-cross that you from state to city and what you do for higher pay, and you work for the city one day, but can collect a state pension…It was amazing to me that that happened! It's technically legal, but that's mind-blowing that it happens here.

Then, like in last season, we do things on the show and thing "Oh, we're going too far" and then you realize—we're really not.

C: Have you heard any stories about Chicago politics that are your favorite? Meig's Field?

JH: Oh, well yeah: tearing up the field in the middle of the night. Just going out there and making "Xs." I think right now I'm most focused on the pension one, because it just blows my mind how that's legal. There are no repercussions; you can do that because someone's set up the playing field for that. There's brass balls that goes into this, but then there's also the point of view of "well, the garbage is getting picked up…" The city is beautiful, it's a world-class city, and shit's getting done…but how?

C: In the show, your character has a lot of moves that are very savvy, politically, and then he has this whole philandering thing going on. Is there a quota that STARZ has for...

JH: How many times? [Laughs] You know, it's funny because Zajac seems to be able to get an adult in the room where all the business is taken care of and things can move forward so he can act up. It's a borderline addiction, if you will, and it's also…you know when people position themselves one way, they have to have this one peccadillo. His happens to be philandering.

C: Very public, aggressive... uh, philandering.

JH: Yes, it's very aggressive. It's odd, it's weird, because I'm married, I have three kids, but to even think that let alone play that (kind of role) is a bizarre experience. All the guys go "Oh, God, you must have the greatest job in the world!" But it's work. It's different. This is not what you think it'll be.

C: Are you and Kathleen Robertson (Hephner's onscreen mistress Kitty O'Neil) extremely close now?

JH: Oh yeah, it's all (mid-sex scene) "Oh hi, how are you?" "Very good, thanks!" From a character standpoint, what's interesting about this show is that they wear their flaws very openly. There are people who do scumbaggery, if you will, but the characters in the show do bad and they keep going. They lament, or regret, but they keep going forward toward their ambitions. It's weird study in humanity. If you want that power it's like nothing else matters.

C: How do you find a way to anchor or build the character when he's not very redeeming? All the characters on Boss are into power, they're all out for themselves. In real Chicago politics, Rod Blagojevich or Mayor Daley were noted for being devoted to their families even though they did a lot of things that violated the public trust. Something about their characters made them sympathetic to some, but your character doesn't even have that going for him.

I think that's what my character is working towards, too. When you devote yourself to The Machine, part of that machine is to build redeemability. That's what you see in real life—you see a family built up to kind of counter ambition. And we as the public feed on that. "Well, he loves his kids, so it's ok he hit that man with his car." They know that works, it's almost a talking point.

You see that in Zajac and how he's building this campaign on family values, but it's utter bullshit. But people will eat what you feed them. And no one wants to be the governor. I don't want that job; I want to be here (at the racetrack)! I don't want to deal with Medicaid! I don't want to deal with paving roads. We've gotten to a point in society where it's just such hard work because it's so bureaucratic. So we think, "Okay, he loves his wife, he doesn't hit his kids. So what that he stole a bunch a money?" That's what you do, right? It's weird what you'll allow. Now, if the garbage doesn't get picked up, that's what we don't stand for. When gas prices go up, people get mad, but when they go down, the public thinks (of its leader) "Eh, well, he didn't kill anybody yet…" It's what we'll put up with because we don't want to do the job. And a savvy manipulator-slash-politician will feed that.

C: Now that you're on a critically-acclaimed cable show, are there other shows you like to check in on? Do you watch a show like Game of Thrones and think, "I'm so glad I'm not on that show because next week, my character could be offed?" On Boss, it seems like you're pretty safe.

JH: I love TV, so it's hard not to watch. I've been a Breaking Bad fan for a while, and of course Mad Men, just because one of my best friends is on it and I'm jealous.

C: What's his name?

JH: I can't tell you, because he'd enjoy it if you put it in print. I love you, but I'm not saying your name! But I'm a TV fan as it is, but it's hard. TV right now is so good! It's hard to differentiate. Actors are coming to that conclusion: it's become incredibly competitive. You think to yourself [laughs nervously] "This is going to go for ten years, right?" I do love all kinds of TV shows. Except Homeland, who beat us out for a Golden Globe.

Even though it's really good.

The second season of Boss premiers tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central time on STARZ.