Travis Van Winkle: Service, spirituality & ‘The Last Ship’
It’s difficult to imagine gregarious “The Last Ship” star Travis Van Winkle remaining silent for 10 days.
“Thank you. That was a nice subtle dig you just gave me there,” Van Winkle said, laughing, when I made the suggestion during a phone interview.
Van Winkle did spend 10 days in complete silence while practicing Vedic meditation in an ashram. He planned the 2013 trip to India as a way to do some soul-searching.
“I feel like the purpose of human life is to understand who you are as an individual and the only way to do that is to face yourself head on,” he said. “I’m a big believer in doing whatever it takes to get to know who you are.”
After years as a struggling actor, the 32-year-old Georgia native seems to have found himself both professionally and personally. Van Winkle, it turns out, is a whole lot more than the handsome, fit actor who, as Lt. Danny Green, single-handedly holds off a squad of enemy fighters when “The Last Ship” returns at 8 p.m. June 21 for its two-hour Season 2 premiere.
When I interviewed him earlier this summer, he was preparing for his second trip to Malawi, Africa, with the group buildOn.org to build a school for an impoverished village. Van Winkle and a group of his friends calling themselves Team Hollywood raised enough money to send 15 inner-city kids from Detroit to Malawi to build yet another school. He’s also a big supporter of and participant in the Big Brother/Big Sister program in Los Angeles. This fall, he’s heading to Nepal to build yet another school.
“I think what’s happened is as I’ve gotten into my 30s I realize the importance of just giving back and I’ve realized how that actually feeds my creativity,” he said of his service work. “It’s a big part of who I am now and it’s not that acting is first or service is first or second or whatever, they both work together in harmony and they feed into each other.”
Between discussing his globe-trotting philanthropic work, his exploration of spirituality and his childhood pet pig named Crazy Carl, Van Winkle and I did manage to talk about “The Last Ship,” Lt. Green’s new kick-ass attitude and Green’s relationship with Lt. Kara Foster (Marissa Neitling).
“Bigger, better, badder,” he said is his pitch for Season 2. “If you thought last season was a ride, well, last season was like riding on the little teacups at Disneyland” compared to Season 2.
The edited transcript of our chat has been subheaded to help you navigate to your interests. But he’s an interesting guy, so I suggest you read all of it!
I think I read that your parents were in the Air Force. You’re in the Navy in this show, but did that exposure to the military helped on the show? Were you a military brat?
My parents did meet in the Air Force and we moved around. I lived in Victorville, Calif., and then I moved to Michigan and then my dad got out of the Air Force and we moved to Georgia.
So I had that lifestyle where we moved around a little bit, but we never had that military family home life. … But, it’s really interesting to know that on the show Danny and Kara meet in the Navy, Danny and Kara end up getting pregnant and they have this budding relationship. It’s pretty much what happened to my mom and dad.
My mom and dad they fell in love in the Air Force and I’m falling in love on TV in the Navy.
Except your parents didn’t have somebody who wanted to do something with your unborn baby.
Speaking of Danny and Kara, how is that relationship playing out in the new season? They had a little bit of a rocky time in the first season and there’s some peril coming up?
Well, first season there were some rocky times. You’ve got to put responsibility first and the mission was first and love got in the way of that. Emotions got in the way of that and I had to put myself in check. The first season was all about me relearning leadership. I feel like I lost the respect of my crew and I had to gain it back. And in that process of gaining it back and almost losing Kara when she was tested with the cure, there was a moment when we realized mission is really important but these connections and this love, that trumps everything. This is first.
I think going into Season 2 she and I know we’re going to be together, we just don’t know how yet in this new broken world. Because Season 2 is all about us discovering what is actually happened to the world and the people that are still living in it. So she and I, through Season 2, we come face to face with this new reality and this new reality isn’t too kid friendly.
So, it’s pretty much a discovery of what to do next with us; how do we move forward? Mission is still first because we have to actually distribute the cure worldwide. So I mean we still got a lot of shit going on. A lot of mission left here.
One of my questions was will we see the emo Danny or the soldier Danny shine through, but it sounds like maybe a mix of the two?
Well, I think in this season the leader, take-charge military Danny shows up a lot. You get to see Danny really take charge and kick some serious ass this season.
Cool. Congratulations on getting 13 episodes this season. How did your approach to doing this season change now that you have one under your belt? Was life onset different?
It was a very different. The first season it’s basically a blank canvas and you’re painting and you’re choosing different colors and you’re finding out what your groove is and you’re getting cast chemistry, you’re building something together from the ground up. So the first season there’s more pressure and there’s more at stake because no one knows what this is yet and we’re finding it.
I think after the first season aired and people tuned in and people really liked it, coming back to the set second season and preparation for the second season was like jumping into a pair of shoes that already fit. They’re already comfortable and you know that you can run a long distance in them. So coming back second season we were all in a groove and we were having fun. We were just laid-back and you could tell the relationships were much deeper and the writing just got so much better, just this camaraderie and the collaboration was like on steroids this season. So it was great.
So Season 1 pressure was bigger than the Season 2 pressure of maintaining the success?
Well, luckily we have brilliant writers. Our show creators Hank, Steve, Jack and Tony and all of our awesome producers know how to write. … All the way through Episode 13, I don’t have a doubt that the audience will like it. If they liked Season 1 they’re going to like Season 2 because Season 2 is so much more epic. Season 2 the writing just takes you to a place you don’t expect.
Season 1, I think, felt a little bit more stiff because we were an unknown quantity at that point, but now at least we have people who want to tune in and people who are interested. I think that gives us motivation to just do even better work.
What is in store for the crew of the Nathan James this season?
Well, basically this season is about America. We found out the world is sick and all the governments and structure that once existed are no more. Season 2 is us coming home and trying to find our families, trying to assess the damage and then to somehow find and regain structure. Because in the Navy we’re the rock that hasn’t wavered throughout this whole thing and we all know that it’s our mission to come back home and re-create a world that’s worth living in.
I think Season 2 is about getting reacclimated with what home is, finding our families and then starting a new life while also mass producing this cure that we found.
Also, there are always new enemies looming in the background.It’s like in life, whenever you’re doing good some people are always trying to bring you down. It’s just the way that it is and you just got to roll with the punches and keep fighting for what you know is right and know your intentions are good and the outcome, with persistence, usually will turn out the way that it is supposed to, which is in your favor.
There’s a lot going on this season. There’s a lot to tune into and watch.
You still have Granderson to deal with, so that season premiere is going to be loaded, isn’t it?
We have a two-hour season premiere. It’s going to be a movie because we left knowing Granderson is evil and she has taken our ship; she’s done a lot of damage and how do we get everything back to normal? And it’s going to be quite a ride for the first part of this season.
If you guys are back at home now, are you going to be more land-based or will we still see a lot of ship-based action on the water?
We’re a ship show, so you’re going to be seeing some ship stuff, but I’m on the land crew, like I’m on the tactical squad. I’m the Navy SEAL so I get to be on land quite a bit. We go to some cool locations and we’re all over the place so it’s not just one thing this season, it’s a lot of cool things, a lot of cool locations.
With all the land missions, did you have to learn more military stuff?
Absolutely. Oh yeah, it was so much fun. This year we learned a lot of tactical training and this year we really learned a lot about working as a team. Not that we didn’t work as a team last year, but the tactical stuff is really interesting. When you’re working with five guys and you’re entering a specific location, there’s a certain way you have to enter. There’s a certain way you have to communicate with one another; you silently communicate with one another. So it was cool this season getting into the groove of learning our tactical training.
Are you getting ready to leave the country?
I most certainly am. I am headed to Malawi, Africa. [He’s since returned from the successful trip.] I’ve got a group of my friends together here in Los Angeles and we’ve raised $100,000 and we’re going to go build a school in Malawi, we are going to go build a school in Nepal and we’re going to send 15 inner-city kids from BuildOn’s after-school program in Detroit to go build a different school in Malawi.
BuildOn is a nonprofit I worked for (buildon.org). And the whole process we’re going to document. My buddy, [“Jane the Virgin” star] Justin Baldoni, owns Wayfarer Entertainment and we’re making a documentary of this whole experience called “Ground Work.” So lots of cool stuff going on.
Where does your desire to do this kind of thing come from?
I’ve got a really strong community here in Los Angeles … Well, first of all, about five years ago I was in a place in my career [and] in my life where I was struggling and I had all these questions and I was looking for answers.
Someone recommended that I join the Big Brother program. Someone I was close to used to do clothing drives and I started reaching out and giving back.
I started finding a lot of healing in it. I started doing it more and more until it became a part of my life where now I’m not doing it for healing, now I’m doing it just to maintain well being. Now it’s become a part of my life. And I’m a Baha’i. Do you know what a Baha’i is?
Isn’t the Baha’i headquarters here in Chicago, well Evanston?
It is. One of the temples. They believe in the unity of all religions and investigating your own truths and putting service at the forefront of your existence. It’s all about science and religion being one, equality of men and women. … That’s also been a big part of my service because our community here in Los Angeles puts service first. We’re put on this Earth to serve humanity in some way and it’s our job as a human being, as an individual to find out what that specific, unique thing is to us.
Not everybody in your position does the things you do in that regard. I kind of get the impression from your Twitter and your WhoSay that maybe acting isn’t your No. 1 priority.
Well, it’s interesting that you say that because for a long time it was. Acting was No. 1 in my life and I had relationships fall to the wayside because of it. …
I think what’s happened is as I’ve gotten into my 30s I realize the importance of just giving back and I’ve realized how that actually feeds my creativity. It’s a big part of who I am now and it’s not that acting is first or service is first or second or whatever, they both work together in harmony and they feed into each other.
How He Got Started
You’re 32 and you’ve been acting for what—12 years, 11 years?
Twelve years on June 5.
What got you started in acting?
Well, when I was in high school there was a guy that modeled for Abercrombie and Fitch and all the girls liked him. And I was like, “Dude, how did you do that? I want to do that.”
The guy said that he could get me a meeting with his agency. So I asked my mom and she said, “No. I don’t want you modeling until you are out of high school.”
So I waited.
We had a potbelly pig at the time named Crazy Carl. For my pictures I took my shirt off and I had Crazy Carl in my right hand, I had a football in my left hand. I took the pictures into this meeting and they ended up saying OK. They brought me on and I started doing some modeling in Georgia while I was going through college. So for my first three years of college I did modeling for Abercrombie and Walmart. I have this embarrassing Walmart ad that was in the stores for a while, like Goodies department store, wherever.
I did that and that actually led me to come out to Los Angeles after my junior year of college. And I came out to Los Angeles for the summer and I realized, “Holy crap I am not going back to Georgia because California is amazing.”
And I jumped into a cold reading class and it was my first acting class ever. I was hooked. “I do not want to go back to college and sit through business management courses.I do not want to go back to living that kind of life.” I never looked back.
Were your parents OK with that decision?
Oh my Gosh. My parents were so supportive. They loved that I moved out to Los Angeles. My grandma and grandpa were all about it. My mom and dad were so stoked. When I told my dad I wanted to go out to California for a bit he goes, “All right, let’s pack up your car. I’ll drive with you and then I’ll fly home.” So it was this awesome trip with my dad. We drove from Atlanta, Ga., at 4 a.m. on a Thursday morning. We arrived in Orange County at 5:30 p.m. Friday. We only stopped for gas, Subway and for Monster energy drinks. And we made it to California in what, 36 hours or however many hours that is.
That’s crazy. What does it mean for you to have this steady gig on a popular TV series?
It just feels good. I’ve put a lot of years into acting and into learning the craft of acting and to just diving deep into discovering who I am and my interests, my relationships.
I’m big into psychology and I’m big into service and spirituality. In my first 10 years in Los Angeles were a whirlwind, from having awesome jobs to then not finding work and then to getting big jobs and then to those jobs not really doing much.
There was a lot that I went through to get to “The Last Ship.” So to be where I am on a show that’s doing really well and to have a character that I really love and to have a cast that I enjoy hanging around and a crew that is top-notch and to have show runners that know what they’re doing, I feel incredibly blessed and lucky and I feel really grateful to just have this opportunity. And I do not take it for granted. That’s for damn sure.
I saw that you went to India on a trip in 2013 and did 10 days of silence. After meeting you at Comic Con last fall and watching the videos that you’ve put on Youtube, I kind of feel like being silent might have been a difficult thing for you to do.
[Laughs.] Thank you. That was a nice subtle dig you just gave me there.
Not a dig at all. You were so much fun at Comic Con; I just kind of feel like maybe that would have been a real challenge.
Well, honestly when it comes to meditation, it’s something that I do every day. Again, spirituality is a big part of my life. I’m always doing what I can to learn this spiritual reality of life. …
There is an invisibleness to life. We can’t see everything that’s happening, but there are so many things happening behind the curtain that we don’t know. I’ve always been curious to know how life works and the flow of life and the flow of myself in this life. I think going to India for a month was an experience.
I had been doing Vedic meditation before India and I wanted to go to the source. I wanted to go trek through India and just get lost.
Going to an ashram for 15 days, you have a schedule from 5:30 a.m. till 9:30 p.m. You wake up and you do prayers. And then you have joint and glands exercises. Then you have reading exercises. Then you have long meditation. Then you have breakfast. And it’s only 8:30 in the morning [by then]!
You have this schedule throughout the day. I was so able to just drop in and turn my phone was off for a whole month. I feel that in the entertainment business in Los Angeles, you sometimes have overstimulation. There’s a lot going on all the time. There’s always something to do. There’s always somewhere to go. There’s just a lot.
As much as I can have an abundant personality and be a goofball, this trip for me really symbolized my detaching from all that I knew and just exploring the world in a very different way. And during the 10 days of silence you don’t even make eye contact with anybody. It’s a very personal experience and it wasn’t hard to drop into it.
I had moments of challenge, absolutely moments of like, “What am I doing? Am I crazy? What the fuck, I’m in the middle of India, what am I doing?” And moments of euphoria where I was moved to tears by being in that silence and feeling like I got to know myself for the first time.
There were so many moments of reverence. There were also moments of boredom like, “What the fuck, I don’t know what I’m doing. This is horrible.”
[Laughs.] So what’s really great is that you asked me a question about silence and I just gave you a 30-minute answer.
I think that a lot of people would be afraid to try something like that because I think a lot of people maybe don’t want to spend that much time with themselves.
I’m telling you man, it is difficult and during that process my dreams were so vivid. And you have nowhere to hide. You just have to be with yourself. Yes, it can get very uncomfortable in that way, but I feel like the purpose of human life is to understand who you are as an individual and the only way to do that is to face yourself head on. I’m a big believer in doing whatever it takes to get to know who you are.
You need to see the Baha’i Temple in Evanston. It’s pretty impressive.
I’ve actually been there. It’s amazing. And you know what’s great is that it’s all about unity. The Baha’i faith is all about unity and inclusiveness. There’s no exclusivity. It’s not about converting people. It’s literally about bringing people together to celebrate life, to celebrate love and to just connect and to remove all division. And I think it’s such a beautiful faith. So I’m glad that I got to mention it.
Thank you very much for the time and good luck in Malawi.
I really appreciate that and look out for “Ground Work,” the documentary, in 2016.