Travis Van Winkle has dedicated himself to service, and in particular mentorship, throughout his adult life.
He is a member of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America network, and began mentoring a young man named Lyric 13 years ago. Going above and beyond his required commitment, he even moved his mentee into his home for 18 months as a young adult after he aged out of the program. And Travis has twice taken Lyric to build schools in Senegal with the nonprofit buildOn, another charity which the actor has been deeply involved with for a decade.
Travis’ devotion to helping others mirrors the dedication he applies to all areas of his life. Two decades in Hollywood have seen him appear in movies including Michael Bay’s 2007 blockbuster ‘Transformers’, which grossed more than $700 million worldwide. And in recent years, having recently turned 40, he has landed some of his best roles to date. He starred as Cary Conrad in the third season of the Netflix hit ‘You’ in 2021. Next up, he will share the screen with Jake Gyllenhaal in the remake of the 1989 cult classic ‘Road House’. And he’s now shining as CIA secret agent Aldon in ‘FUBAR’, currently Netflix’s No1 show in the United States and around the world.
Travis’ co-star in ‘FUBAR’ is none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, perhaps the most iconic action movie star in history, making his debut as a television leading man at the age of 75. They say we reap what we sow, and now Travis — who like Arnie is known for his impressive physical fitness — has found his own mentor as he seeks to emulate the film legend’s longevity as he enters the next chapter of his own life.
You started as an Abercrombie and Fitch model before moving into acting. What did you learn from your modeling career, and how have those skills transferred?
I had a friend in high school that modeled for Abercrombie and Fitch. He was on the posters and all the girls loved him — and I wanted that! He introduced me to his agency in Atlanta, Georgia, where I grew up. I had a potbellied pig at the time, and I took a photo with the pig in one hand and a football in the other — shirtless. I sent that into the agency and that started my modeling journey. But I never liked modeling much, it was always awkward for me and I found it very stressful. It was only when I was working with a great photographer, who introduced a form of play, that I was able to let go and feel more comfortable. But it was work in front of the camera, and I learned a lot from that.
I was wildly insecure when I started modeling, I was only 17 years old, so I was putting on a show. But as we get older, we find that inner-acceptance and we can be more true and authentic. Then when I got into acting, that was very different from print — I felt alive. And I knew I wanted to act for the rest of my life.
So fast-forward 20 years, you’ve got this great role in ‘FUBAR’ on Netflix alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, which must be one of your most exciting projects to date.
It’s a moment, for sure. I don’t take anything for granted, I’ve been acting for 20 years and there are a lot of ups and downs that come with that. So when you get to be a part of something special like this, you savor the moment. Becoming a colleague and a friend of Arnold has been incredible. Arnold is an icon. He’s known on a first name basis around the globe. He’s been a positive light for a lot of people in this world, and is the paragon of self-belief, vision, and execution. He has created everything he’s wanted in his life, and that’s incredibly impressive. So to share space with this man was a dream come true.
When I first met him, I had to tell him everything that I respected about him so I could just get that out of the way. Then I could start actually building a relationship with him. He’s excellence personified and when you’re around him, you just want to be at your best, and everyone is at the top of their game.
Did Arnold share any specific wisdom about longevity, whether that’s in your career or personal fitness? He obviously is still very fit, active, and working hard at 75.
It has been proven that if you build muscle you’ll live longer and have better heart health. If you’re active every single day, you’re building more serotonin in your brain, more dopamine, and these are the happy chemicals. So if you stay physical throughout your days, you’re going to be a happier, more mindful person with a stronger mental fortitude. That’s just science.
Arnold talks about having a goal and a vision. If you can have a clear goal and a clear vision, then you can improvise your way to get to it. Life is full of surprises. You think you’re going to go one route, then life will throw a curveball at you and you have to redirect to navigate things as gracefully as possible. Sometimes we fall flat on our face, and that’s also part of the process. But having a clear goal and improvising your way to get it is a lesson that Arnold bestowed upon me.
We still exchange emails and texts, and he’s often sending me funny GIFs. He invited some of the cast and crew over for Christmas dinner, and said we’d become his second family, so that was very sweet. This is his first television series, and I’ve been very impressed with his full-blown attack on Netflix. He’s become their Chief Action Officer, has a documentary coming out, and every movie he’s ever done is being shown on the platform. He’s going to take over television at 75!
Tell me a little bit more about your physical and mental fitness regimen — you seem to be a guy with both of those things in good shape.
It has been a long process for me. The last 15 years has been a really conscious effort to navigate my internal workings. Our mental health is a focus that should take precedence over most things. We’re in a mental health crisis right now. Kids and people everywhere are struggling. It has a lot to do with social media and the access we have to screens. Everything is changing. So having a strong mental health regimen is important, and so is seeking out help.
There are so many avenues to get help nowadays. And as a man, it has always been hard for me to share the dark stuff that goes on, or the insecurities, or the moments where I feel weak. But I’ve learned to be able to share that, and to surround myself with friends that I can share that with, and to create an atmosphere where I can be vulnerable.
I have an incredible therapist who I work through my stuff with. As we get older, we become aware of a lot of psychological knots that were the result of societal pressure and ancestral trauma, and it’s our job to use the modalities that are available to untangle those knots. I’m an avid meditator. I’ve been getting into breathwork recently. I journal quite a bit. And when it comes to physical fitness, I work out four or five times a week. And I do some kind of physical activity every day, like getting on my bike or taking a hike. I want to continue to build mature muscle, and that means being consistent in the gym.
When we launched Mr Feelgood, a big motivation was the lack of access to mentors for men, and to try and offer some guidance in the form of conversations with interesting and successful folks like yourself. So I’m very interested in Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, a nonprofit that you are very involved in as a mentor to young people. Tell me about your work with them.
I think it’s our responsibility to pay it forward and to give back. It’s part of all of our design. And when we do it, we receive so much ourselves. Being a mentor is such an incredible process. You have to check yourself in a lot of ways and think: How am I showing up in my life? Am I walking the walk that I’m teaching? Am I living a life that can be looked up to? You end up holding yourself accountable in a different way.
The program Big Brother Big Sisters has been around for a long time, they’re in basically every major city in the United States. The kids come from all sorts of different social and economical backgrounds. Sometimes they have incarcerated parents or they’re living below the poverty line. These kids are in need of a new perspective in life, and just a helping hand. The kids are called littles the mentors are called bigs, and you basically commit to spending six to eight hours a month with your little for a year. It has a profound impact for both parties. Evidence has shown that kids that joined the program are better behaved at home, they have higher grade point average at school, and higher graduation rates. They are less likely to get involved with alcohol and drugs, and overall they have a higher level of confidence. That’s a significant impact right there, and that’s what it’s all about.
On my first outing with my little, who is called Lyric, we went skateboarding in Venice. On another outing, I took him to a guitar shop and I bought him a guitar, and he’s now become a musician. I took him on a drive to the Angeles National Forest and he touched snow for the first time. And I’ve taken him to go build two schools in Senegal. You can have small little hangs, or you can go as extravagant as you want.
I met Lyric when he was 11. He’s now 24 and he’s not so little anymore. He lived with me for a year-and-a-half at one point, and he’s about to get a new home with his sister, the first time ever having his own place. He’s a really special kid, and he’s taught me so much. I’m so impressed with how he’s able to share the stuff he’s going through in his life.
You mentioned building the schools in Senegal, tell me more about that nonprofit you’re involved in, BuildOn.
buildOn is an incredible organization that’s been around for 30 years. They are a two-fold nonprofit. They inspire youth around the United States in an after-school program to be of service in their community. They paint murals, they serve the homeless, they plant gardens. Then buildOn takes them across the world to developing countries and they build schools together and help change the lives of those that haven’t had access to education.
There’s also the international school building program, where you or I could get a group of friends together and raise some money to go build a school. I’ve been involved for over 10 years now, and I’ve been to Malawi three or four times, to Senegal twice, to Nicaragua, to Haiti. We live within the community for anywhere from nine to 12 days, usually sleeping under the same roof as the local families and celebrating their culture. You build the foundation of a school together, and it’s usually the first school that they’ve ever had access to. And every school also has an adult literacy program so the adults get a chance to learn to read and write for the first time. buildOn has this incredible policy where there is equal enrollment for boys and girls, and that’s such an important thing. It’s a really empowering program and it’s had such a profound impact, not only on me but also on the people who we have given access to education. That will have lasting effects for generations.
After ‘FUBAR’, what’s your next project we should look out for?
I have a part in ‘Road House’ and got work with Jake Gyllenhaal on that. And I met one of my biggest UFC heroes who is also part of that movie, Conor McGregor. I’m a really big UFC fan. A lot of people just think it’s two guys beat each other to jelly, but it’s so much more than that. It is poetry in motion. I’m very passionate about mixed martial arts — there’s a multidisciplinary skill set that these guys have to build. Conor is a legend and is very similar to Arnold in that they both have these big visions and enthusiasm for life. He has a passion and ambition that is really infectious.
Check out ‘FUBAR’ on Netflix