Travis Van Winkle spends his hiatus from The Last Ship serving as an ambassador for the nonprofit buildOn.
His character on The Last Ship is trying to save humanity, but in real life Travis Van Winkle is doing much the same—one school at a time.
Travis Van Winkle’s golden-boy looks and considerable charm have landed him parts on shows as diverse as The O.C. and Malcolm in the Middle. But as the 32-year-old comes into his own with more mature assignments—including his current role as Lt. Danny Green in the post-apocalyptic drama TheLast Ship on TNT—he has discovered something within himself: a zeal for service work.
“I didn’t grow up doing service,” says Van Winkle. “It was more about me, me, me.” The blue-eyed, towheaded actor spent much of his young adulthood focused on building his career. But a few years ago, after seeing friends find fulfillment in charity work, Van Winkle decided to try volunteering himself. “It became something that was healing me, and then it sustained me, and now it’s something that drives me,” he says. “Even the Dalai Lama said, ‘The more that we serve others, the more we serve ourselves.’”
Van Winkle’s charity of choice is buildOn, which constructs schools in some of the world’s poorest countries. “I had a wonderful friend ask me if I wanted to go build a school two years ago,” he says of his first experience with the organization. That trip, to Malawi, was the first of five that Van Winkle has taken. “The format that buildOn has come up with for this type of service blew my mind,” he says. “You live with the families under the same roof. You eat their foods, and you get to understand their culture. You build this school side by side with them.”
Van Winkle dressed to the nines and in a scene from the last Ship (inset).
Van Winkle’s passion for buildOn has inspired a side project: this fall he and best friend Justin Baldoni are shooting a documentary called Groundwork, about their service trips. “We’re filming the process of us fundraising and building the school in Malawi,” Van Winkle says. “I put together this amazing crew called Team Hollywood. The whole idea is ‘Can we ever really fix all of the problems in the world?’ No, I don’t think so, but if we take action together, we can definitely make progress.” As if that weren’t enough to keep him busy, the actor will travel to Nepal later this year to help with another buildOn project.
Of course, all of this work must occur while he is on hiatus from shooting The Last Ship. Filming takes place in part on an actual navy vessel, and “the navy put on a big screening for our pilot episode in DC,” Van Winkle says. “They had a huge party for us, which was a lot of fun.” But his favorite part of the District has a decidedly less Hollywood feel. “Anytime I’m in DC, I go to all the museums. Natural History is my favorite—it covers everything!”