Jeff Hephner discusses his ‘really fascinating’ journey to Mars

In Season 2 of MARS, the mission to colonize Mars becomes a battle between science and self-interest when a privately held corporation makes its home on the Red Planet. (photo credit: National Geographic/Dusan Martincek)
In Season 2 of MARS, the mission to colonize Mars becomes a battle between science and self-interest when a privately held corporation makes its home on the Red Planet. (photo credit: National Geographic/Dusan Martincek) /

Jeff Hephner is still missed on Chicago Med, but he’s braving a new frontier on NatGeo’s original series Mars and spoke about the adventure.

Jeff Hephner has traded in his lab coat for a space suit. The Chicago Med and Chicago Fire alum is now starring in the National Geographic series Mars, which is unlike anything he’s done before.

Mars is a half-scripted, half-unscripted drama that tells the fictional story of a near future where mankind lives on the Red Planet—but intercuts that plot with real scientists and other experts as they explain the truth behind the fiction.

In the second season, Jeff is doing what he does best: shaking things up. His character Kurt Hurrelle lands on the planet to head up a mining operation that could make a ton of money, but doesn’t go over well with the scientists who have already colonized the planet.

Find out what Jeff Hephner had to tell us about his role on Mars below, then make sure you tune in to the next new episode tonight at 9 p.m. on NatGeo. If you missed the first episode, you can also find it on iTunes for free.

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One Chicago Center: You’ve never starred in a sci-fi series before. What made you want to join Mars?

Jeff Hephner: I had worked with [showrunner] Dee Johnson on Boss, and when she was doing the show we talked a little bit, and I was like you know, I would really like that. I had [played] two doctors in a row [on Code Black and Chicago Med]; I’d really like to do something different.

And the show presents itself in such a different way. The narrative is different, because you’re mixing in the unscripted side. Also it’s so unknown and out of body, because it’s Mars. We’re projecting ourselves onto an unknown and that was really fascinating to me.

OCC: How much can we say about Kurt Hurrelle? Because from the premiere, he looks like he’s the primary antagonist of Mars season 2.

Jeff Hephner: [It’s] literally the gold rush. The second wave on Mars would be what the second wave was colonizing North America, or to go to Africa. To go for resources and that’s what my character is representing. The capitalization of Mars and the using of the resources and seeing how to make it profitable. Essentially what Stephen Petranek says in his book: [it’s like] the farmers that went to Sutter’s Mill, it’s for gold. It’s the same idea, which has already been played out with Elon Musk and SpaceX. That’s a for-profit situation.

OCC: And you get a very interesting costume, which looks like it was a challenge, too.

Jeff Hephner: It looks like a pain. We shot in the summer in Budapest last year, and it was 100 degrees. I lost ten pounds, I think, just standing in it. Because not only that, but you’ll see I have this little shoulder pad set and a giant helmet on top of it.

It’s so hard too to have serious moments. You’re stepping onto Mars for the first time, and you’re like I’m in this stupid suit and I feel like an a–hole. (laughs) But that’s part of it, and it gives you enough fish out of water stuff to use, the suit included, as an actor.

OCC: You mentioned the unique format of the show, which mixes scripted drama with actual science. Was that something you had to adjust to from an acting perspective?

Jeff Hephner: I had watched season 1. It was a show that I watched on my own anyway. And as an actor, it’s weird to dip into a world where huge chunks of our storyline are filled in by someone else. You like to be able to experience it and interact with other actors to get to the other side, and sometimes you just have to start over and that’s filled in. So it’s a little bit of a challenge.

But with editing, they seamlessly tie these together and I like it. The science, if you can see the real world application unscripted, then you’ll believe what you see in the scripted. So I think ultimately I think it’s going to help the audience get into what we’re doing.

OCC: For the third time in a row, from Code Black to Chicago Med to Mars, you’re jumping into a show that’s already underway. Are you used to that by now?

Jeff Hephner: I kind of like it. I’m a good new guy. I feel I can always make chemistry with people, but at the same time, I’m a hit the ground running type of actor.

And for this to be foreign and out of body in a weird situation helps, because it’s Mars. If I’m the new guy, wearing the suit and helmet and all this stuff, you can use that as an actor to participate in the story.

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OCC: But how much fun is it? Because people grow up wanting to be astronauts and travel in space, and you’re getting to play that on Mars.

Jeff Hephner: We’ve had astronauts come up to us, they watch it and they get a kick out of it and they live it in the real world. There are people that are going to go to Mars, and they’re going to watch the show. I get a kick out of the possibility that our storytelling will at least give them a moment to dream about what it’s like when they get there. Obviously it’s going to be wildly different. But I think it’s a really fun concept to think about.

And it’s just inherently optimistic. The fact that people think we’re going to go there, it’s optimistic. Humanity has to exist long enough to get us to Mars and if it does, the opportunities are endless. And to fix mistakes, when you think about doing it over again. As it was colonized here, or as the world was discovered in a European mindset, I think we made a lot of mistakes and I think people want to project that we’ll do it better next time. Will we? I think the show, this season, really opens that conversation.

Next. Watch Jeff Hephner in Mars season 2 trailer. dark

Mars airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on National Geographic; last week’s season premiere is available for free on iTunes.