- March 3, 2016
In one of the most memorable scenes in “Avengers: Infinity War,” the villainous Thanos finds himself almost overwhelmed by Earth’s mightiest heroes.
There, on a desolate planet, the behemoth Eternal is held down by myriad means by Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Drax and Starlord, while Mantis sits on his shoulders and places him under a trance. As Iron Man and Spider-Man attempt to remove the infinity gauntlet on his left hand, Starlord loses his cool and wakes Thanos — who snags the gauntlet and goes on to beat the Avengers and take the mind stone before escaping.
From a fan’s perspective, that scene — among the others featuring the character — are now a part of pop culture, and although everyone knows the voice of Thanos was done by actor Josh Brolin, no one really knows the actual man behind the CGI-created character. But one Horizon West man — Keil Zepernick — knows all about that scene and many others, because he was the stunt double in the motion capture suit playing Thanos.
“I don’t really think about it, and you kind of hit that switch and it’s like, ‘OK, rolling and action’ and you’re just in character,” said Zepernick, whose 6-foot-10 frame helped him fit the bill as Thanos’ stand-in. “The iconic part in the movie where Thanos is kind of sedated, and I’m in there and Tom Holland and Robert Downey Jr. are holding one arm, and Bautista is holding my leg and Chris Pratt is yelling in my face, and I had Mantis on my shoulder and Josh Brolin is behind me saying lines.
“I’m standing there and they’re all holding my arms and leg, and I’m just like, ‘This is freaking cool — I’m getting paid to do this,’” he said. “It was definitely interesting to be a fly on the wall, to say the least, but I have tremendous respect for all of them — I had a blast with all those people.”
Before Zepernick broke into the world of film, he found a home on the basketball court.
Although both of his parents are somewhat tall — his dad is 6-foot-3 and his mom 6 feet — the New York-born Zepernick grew to a skyscraping 6-foot-10, which drew attention from college basketball programs looking for a big man. Zepernick ended up bouncing around colleges before fracturing his lower leg.
Despite the injury, Zepernick found his way to playing with the Washington Generals — the well-known adversaries of the famous Harlem Globetrotters. On the first tour, Zepernick once again was hurt. But that’s also when he discovered acting.
“There are certain things where you have to spread your legs at the right time or you jump for the ball and open your arms to let the pass through, so you really try to make them look good,” Zepernick said.
Zepernick’s basketball tour continued overseas for a short while before he played for a few teams in the NBA. It’s during this moment that Zepernick had one door close and another open.
At age 23 — back in the early- to mid-2000s — Zepernick was on the verge of signing a contract with the Dallas Mavericks before a serious case of food poisoning put him in the hospital. The worst part of it all, though, was that the hospital performed a spinal tap that went wrong, which paralyzed him from the waist down for two to three months.
In the aftermath, Zepernick lost his contract, his then-wife left him and his agent drained his international bank account. For someone who fancied himself a hotshot at the time, it was a moment of incredible adversity and one that helped Zepernick get on the right path.
“This is like, ‘Where am I at?’” Zepernick said. “It was a really humbling time, but I’m grateful for the experiences and the other things that I’ve had since then — it’s really kept me humble working in the film industry.”
After his moment of crisis, Zepernick went back to New York for a short time to work at a bagel shop for a friend, before going to West Texas to coach basketball with a man for whom he had played for.
A few years later, Zepernick moved to Florida to help a friend start a church, but it was a year into his time here in the Sunshine State when the unexpected happened: He was asked to become a stuntman at Disney.
During one of the Indiana Jones shows, a man approached him about possibly joining. Soon, Zepernick decided to try. However, his audition was anything but smooth.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, honestly,” Zepernick said with a laugh. “They did a private audition, and they had a guy, and they were like, ‘I want you to take this guy’ — who knew what he was doing — and he was like, ‘I want you to throw him against the wall,’ and I said, ‘I’m sorry?’
“I looked at him and said, ‘You’re OK with this?’” he said. “And he goes, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ So I literally grabbed him and threw him at the wall. … He hit the wall, and he came back really slow with hands on his knees and he goes, ‘No, no, you’re not supposed to actually throw me against the wall — you’re supposed to go through the motion.”
That moment was the birth of a new, unexpected career. Just a year into the Indiana Jones show, Zepernick had his first big break playing a big, bad Russian in the TV drama “Person of Interest” — that’s normally the kind of character he often plays, Zepernick said.
From there, Zepernick found himself working with films like “Get Hard” with Will Ferrell, “Central Intelligence” with The Rock and Kevin Hart, “Alita: Battle Angel,” “The Avengers” and “Venom” — for which Zepernick donned the mocap suit as a stand-in for the villain. He even made a recent appearance in Marvel’s “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier,” and came close to playing Chewbacca in the most recent Star Wars sequel trilogy.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Zepernick said. “It’s been a crazy kind of turn of events as each step has happened … but it’s been amazing. I feel very fortunate to be able to do some of the things that I’ve done.”