Under the Radar

Marine Veteran Steve Seapker Helps Keep 'Shooter' on Track

Steve Seapker is a Marine Corps veteran and former homicide detective who's found a new career as a military technical advisor on USA’s series Shooter, now in the midst of it second season (new episodes on Tuesdays at 10/9c on USA).

Ryan Phillippe plays veteran Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger in the series based on Stephen Hunter's novels. Season one was based on the same book that inspired the 2007 Shooter movie starring Mark Wahlberg but added a wife and daughter to the mix. Season two picks up after Bob Lee is cleared of involvement in an assassination conspiracy.

Steve Seapker talked to us about his time in the Marine Corps and what he's trying to accomplish in his role on Shooter.

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Tell our readers about your military service.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and joined the Marine Corps in 1989. I think I was looking for a coming-of-age experience. My grandfather had served in World War II and I was looking for that similar experience. I read a lot of Hemingway and I was looking to start my adventure, if you will.

I spent the summer of '89 at Paris Island and went to infantry school at Camp Lejeune, where I was trained as a machine gunner. I wound up at Camp Pendleton and ended up in the STAP Platoon, which most people called the sniper platoon. It stands for Surveillance, Target, and Acquisition Platoon. I learned long-range precision rifle fire on what was then the M40A1 Sniper Rifle. Now, I think, the Marine Corps is up to like the M40A6 or so. I left the military in 1995.

SHOOTER -- "Someplace Like Bolivia" Episode 207 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ryan Phillippe as Bob Lee Swagger, Omar Epps as Isaac Johnson -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

What made you decide it was time to transition out?

I had come back from a six-month MEU or Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment and we had spent some time in Somalia. At that time, it was kind of frustrating; there weren't a lot of missions going on. I was a sergeant, I was the team leader, and I had recently been married. At that point, I had a choice. I was in the zone for promotion to staff sergeant or E-6. If I reenlisted, then I would be in for the long haul because the next reenlistment would have put me at 10 years in and then I might as well have stayed in for 20. At that time, I felt like I really wanted to go back and get my education. I had done a few deployments and I was ready to move on to the next adventure.

That time was very interesting because you lose that sense of purpose. You identify yourself as a Marine. I'm 47 years old and I've been out of the Marine Corps since 1995 and I still identify myself as a Marine. I think a lot of veterans, regardless of the service, feel that way. That’s a life-changing event when you make that commitment and that shapes your values for the rest of your life. You get out and you're kind of adrift there for a little bit. Now what the heck am I going to do?

Fortunately, I didn’t have the issues with transition that a lot of guys are having now, the ones who have been in sustained combat for 15 years now. But it was definitely a stressful transition, because you are jumping in the deep end of trying to figure out your purpose now and your direction. It's been 20 years since you got out.

SHOOTER -- "The Hunting Party" Episode 201 -- Pictured: (l-r) -Director Yuval Adler, Omar Epps & Steve Seapker- (Photo by: Isabella Voskmikova/USA Network)

How did you get the job that you have now?

After getting my degree, I ended up working as a police officer. One of my good friends is Kurt Johnstad, who’s a feature film writer. He wrote the 300 franchise, Act of Valor and Atomic Blonde. Kurt and I go back quite a ways. John Hlavin, who is also now a good friend of mine, is our show runner on Shooter. John and Kurt are both repped by the same agency, UTA.

When John was developing the pilot script he called Kurt and said, “Hey, man, I need a guy. Our character is a Marine sniper; I need a guy with that background. You seem to know all these military dudes. Do you have a guy?” Kurt said, “Why don’t you call my buddy, Steve?” The next thing you know, John and I were sitting down having lunch.

At that time, it wasn't a job. I had a job. I was working as a homicide detective at the time, so it was more like, “Yeah, I'm helping my buddy Kurt out by sitting down with this guy and helping him out.” It’s been interesting for me because working on the show is so very different from anything I've ever done and it’s interesting to explore the creative process.

SHOOTER -- "Someplace Like Bolivia" Episode 207 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ryan Phillippe as Bob Lee Swagger, Omar Epps as Isaac Johnson -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

Shooter seems more grounded in real experiences and family life than most other military tv shows.

I think you're spot on with that. What we've tried to do in the writer's room with John and the rest of the writers is to use the Bob Lee character to get people to understand that veterans are just regular folks who, at some point in their life, made a commitment to something higher and to serve a purpose higher than themselves. Most people who are transitioning out of the military are just trying to get on with their lives.

We wanted to get across the fact that Bob Lee was a quiet professional. What he did in the Marine Corps, that was work for him, he was good at it, he was skilled, but now he's home and focus is on his family. If not for circumstances, he'd probably just be going about his business.

A lot of military shows don’t focus on that aspect of it. They can be formulaic. “Hey, the guys in the white hats hop on the helicopter and they go get the guys in the black hats, and there's a whole bunch of action in-between.” The next thing you know, the episode is done. Those are fun rides, too. They're just a little bit different from how we wanted to do it.

SHOOTER -- "Someplace Like Bolivia" Episode 207 -- Pictured: Ryan Phillippe as Bob Lee Swagger -- (Photo by: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

Since we started Under the Radar, it seems like the responsibilities of military technical advisors have changed. A few years ago, it was all about the mechanics, about how people held the guns, whether it was the appropriate weapon. When I talk to someone like you now, it's a lot more about the psychology of what it's like to have that job.

I think so. For guys like us who have served, you sometimes can't get invested in the story if those mechanics and the fundamentals are off. You don't buy it, you don’t buy the character. Obviously, he hasn’t been trained how to do that. My wife hates watching those kind of shows with me. “Well, they do it wrong.” We all do that, right?

We now have a huge base of veterans that have extensive combat experience. You can't just fake that stuff and get people to buy into the story. By having those fundamentals correct or correct as we can make them in Hollywood, we get people to say, “Yeah, okay, I'm willing to buy a ticket for this ride and invest themselves in the story and in the character.”

But there are certain things you’ve got do to tell a story in a movie or a tv show that mean that not every single technical detail can ever be correct. I had a conversation with Simon Cellan Jones, our director for the pilot, about how a character was going do a certain action with a firearm and clear a building. There were some camera angles and some looks that he wanted because he felt that they conveyed the story better visually if we did it his way. He said, “Look, Steve, we're not making a documentary; we're telling a story."

It definitely is a balance, but I think the more you get the mechanics and the equipment and the uniforms right, then the more audience members will sit back and relax and enjoy the story.

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