Eric Winter on redefining himself through new experiences

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Eric Winter reflects on his time as a long-standing actor and model, discussing his character’s exponential development on The Rookie and how he navigates the role ahead of season seven. He also explains the inspiration behind founding his latest business venture, Palm Republic.

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Actor Eric Winter is best known for his portrayal of the prototypical ‘bad cop’ on ABC’s hit series The Rookie. Tim Bradford was introduced as a textbook professional, forged by an unbreakable code of honor and fixated on dutiful service as a police officer in a city with one of the highest crime rates in the country. Bradford is a character viewers have come to sympathize with over time, as the trauma he’s desperately seeking to move past begins to untangle on-screen. “It’s been really fun to play a character that people hated, and then truly loved,” Winter says. “It was a great thing to feel as an actor, getting that split reaction and the growth with the audience.”

But off-screen, Winter is a father of two and a husband with a celebrated sense of humor that close friends would describe as ‘goofy.’ He is guided by the prospect of broadening his horizons as an actor, producer, and businessman, spearheading a variety of projects behind the scenes, even if it requires stepping outside of his comfort zone.

A California native like his television counterpart (one of the few similarities the two share, along with blunt sarcasm and a passion for football), Winter grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from UCLA, originally enrolling as a psychobiology major on the pre-med track. Winter had never aspired to be an actor and planned to become a doctor after attending medical school, until he took a drama class as an elective that sparked his curiosity in the arts. 

As a student, Winter was already modeling part-time and starring in high-profile campaigns for brands like Tommy Hilfiger — all while balancing a demanding STEM course load. He also landed brief appearances on late ‘90s shows like Profiler and The Parkers. “I always told myself, as soon as things dried up, I would just stop entertainment,” he says. “I wouldn’t be a struggling actor. I wouldn’t be a struggling model. I wouldn’t wait. Not that I have anything against it, I just personally was like, ‘I’m not going to be a struggling artist.’ If it works, it works. And if I can’t support myself, I’m going to stop.”

Propelled by his instantaneous success in his college years, Winter’s modeling career seemed to be launched in perpetual motion with no signs of slowing down. He eventually switched to a less restrictive psychology degree to accommodate the excessive amount of traveling he was doing on a weekly basis, taking a brief hiatus from his studies during his junior year to do so. “I dropped out of school to start modeling, went back to school and graduated but changed my degree to psychology because it was a little easier to manage with all the travel I was doing. I realized that I couldn’t go pre-med, it was too many hours and too much work at that point.”

After graduating in 2000, Winter consistently booked gigs and runway shows across the globe, regularly taking international flights to destinations like Madrid and Paris. Modeling became his “bread and butter,” and Winter was fortunate enough to continue making a solid living into his early twenties. 

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However, the future of Winter’s career was suddenly obscured by a national tragedy in 2001. Following the 9/11 attacks in New York City, air travel became increasingly restricted across the country as the government enforced stronger security measures. “A lot of the trips I would take to Europe on a regular basis just got cut. They weren’t bringing as many American models over. I would go to Germany almost every two weeks, and all of that dried up.” 

Winter pivoted into an entirely different profession that would foreshadow his future role as a first responder on television, training to join the academy of the Los Angeles City Fire Department in the years succeeding his suspended career as a model. He also quit acting to pursue being a firefighter-paramedic, a decision he now regrets in retrospect. “One day, my old agent called me and said, ‘I really think you should come back out. You’ve been getting requested constantly for different movies, different things. And you’ve said no to everything,’” he says. 

The reason? His emphatic refusal to do soap operas, despite his looks and talents still being in demand from Hollywood producers. “Things had gotten slow on the modeling side and I was still down the road with the firefighter side, so I said ‘what the hell’ with it,” he explains. “I hadn’t acted for a couple of years, but I auditioned for two different soaps and got test offers on both. Ultimately, [I] got one of them and had to drop out of the process of going into the academy for the fire department. [I got into acting again] totally on a whim, and then fell back in love with it again, as I was continuing to work at that point.”

The soap in question was NBC’s long-running Days of Our Lives and more than 400 episodes later, Winter had established himself as series regular Rex Brady. “I kept the firefighter-paramedic thing at my side for a little while when I first started on the entertainment road again,” he says. “Once I started working on a regular basis and knew that I could make a living, then that fell by the wayside. I dove in and got myself passionate again and believed in myself and just kept studying, studying, studying, as far as the acting goes.”

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Conditioned by over 20 years of experience in the industry, Winter found himself in a repetitive cycle of roles after Days of Our Lives — rotating between the stereotypical rom-com leads with the same storylines. He was searching for something new. “I’ve played romantic comedies so many times. I played doctors and I played lawyers, and so many different roles, but I’m generally considered a nice guy. And if I’m a jerk, I’m a little bit more of a douche, if you would call it, like Harold and Kumar.”

When the producers of The Rookie began the casting process for Tim Bradford, they were openly skeptical about Winter auditioning. They were familiar with his previous performances, including as a mild-mannered lawyer on the short-lived series Viva Laughlin, and decided Winter was far “too nice” to personify the complexities of a character like Tim Bradford. “He was tough. He had a lot of baggage. He was a very broken individual,” Winter admits about Bradford, understanding that the majority did not like him upon first impression. “But people didn’t see all that right away, you had to learn that about him. In one of the scenes [for the audition], he was a real ass to Lucy. And in another scene, [he] was with his ex-wife where he was completely vulnerable.” 

Determined to demonstrate his versatility and ability as an actor, Winter was confronted with the challenge of bringing Bradford to life while proving himself. “At this stage, I like to find the more complicated characters for myself to continue to grow as an actor. I was often very early on typecast based on the way I looked — you’re going to play this type of role, you’re going to do that — and it was very hard to break out into an edgier role.”

Winter successfully secured the role and has been instrumental to Bradford’s evolution since the show’s premiere in 2018, “always exploring” his potential. After six years of stepping into his shoes and “[staying] true to who he is,” Bradford has become an important part of Winter — a part he’s now fiercely protective of. This connection crystallizes all the executive creative decisions Winter makes on behalf of his character. “It was a lot of character creation and development on my side —  looking at materials, looking at the script, looking at the sides, and creating who I thought he was.” 

Bradford’s hardened exterior reflects his mental fortitude and strength, with an expansive capacity for empathy and compassion for the people closest to him. He harbors emotional baggage from growing up in an abusive household and years in the army that threaten to corrupt his psyche, turning to the structure of law enforcement for control and purpose. “I’m always intrigued by the way Tim has overcome adversity through his upbringing, and how much he’s grown into the leadership role of who he was in the military, who he is now, and how loyal he is to the people close to him — to a fault,” Winter says. “He will actually go against the law in a sense, even when something’s to help the greater good.” 

This virtue charges Bradford’s relationships, for better or for worse, with characters like Lucy Chen — a fellow LAPD officer played by actress Melissa O’Neil with whom he later pursues a romance. “One of the biggest shifts we saw was when Lucy got kidnapped and put in a barrel,” Winter says, in reference to the season two episode Day of Death. “[That] was a massive moment and a character shift for Tim, where we really saw how much he cared and how loyal he was and how much at fault he felt in that situation and how hard he took it.”

“Chenford,” as fans have affectionately dubbed the pairing between Chen and Bradford, is arguably one of the most beloved couples on the show (yes, he’s seen the fanpages and edits on TikTok). Winter works closely with O’Neil to solidify their dynamic, especially in the wake of the couple’s unexpected break-up in season six. Given Bradford’s spiraling decision to split with Chen in episode six, Winter explains that he is inclined to improvising and reacting honestly as he would in the moment. “Everything starts to flow, then you’re bouncing off the other actor and the emotion starts to come out.” 

O’Neil’s approach is more intentional, opting to instead communicate any ideas she has about the scene before starting to film. The final product is a careful combination of the two techniques, and a fictional relationship with realistic highs and lows. “When we get very important scenes, we talk through some of the dialogue if it doesn’t roll off the tongue the right way, or feels like we need to have more to get to a place. That kind of happened with the breakup. The dialogue was great, [but] we also improvised a bit, and we added things and we tried to pull from some real thoughts about how we would feel in that situation.”

The consideration Winter invests into his character is encouraged by The Rookie’s director and showrunner Alexi Hawley, who generously extended support and freedom for the cast to do whatever feels right. Winter is able to drive his character forward without sacrificing any depth, and this momentum is part of what makes Bradford such an engaging character for fans — who Winter declares are “the best.” “I think he’s one of the most well-crafted characters on the show,” Winter says. “He’s really been consistently somebody put into a character evolution like I’ve never gotten to play. It’s been fun for me to see how much his journey and his arc has changed and flows over the seasons.”

Another lesson Winter shares from his personal experiences as an actor is that the craft often hinges on public perception. He’s learned that success in the industry is often dictated by someone else, which may be discouraging even to those who have reached elusive “superstar status,” as even the most talented artists may never be appreciated. “Any time you’re in something creative where your opinion or your hard work isn’t the final say on the product — because you’re basing it on consumers and other people’s opinions — it’s very tough to rely on.”

Regardless, Winter offers sincere words of wisdom he would have wanted to hear starting out over two decades ago. “Stay persistent, stay in it,” he says. “There are so many phenomenal actors out there that are unemployed, and there are so many horrible actors out there that are considered movie stars. It’s just the way it is, there’s no rhyme or reason because it’s everybody’s opinion. Some people might think this person is a great actor, somebody might not, and your whole future depends on that.”

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When he’s not acting, Winter also co-hosts the iHeartRadio podcast “He Said, Ella Dijo” with his wife Roselyn Sanchez, a Puerto-Rican singer and actress. The couple share the secrets to their lasting marriage with listeners, along with cameos from celebrity guests like Matthew McConaughey (“I wanted to just be his friend. He was so cool,” Winter mentioned earlier of the Interstellar actor). Sanchez also directly inspired one of Winter’s most recent projects launched in May, a handcrafted premium rum line influenced by her Puerto Rican heritage.

Winter first became acquainted with the drink when visiting Puerto Rico to meet Sanchez’s family 20 years ago, after relatives broke out an eight-year bottle of aged rum to celebrate. He discovered that the spirit equates as much cultural significance as bourbon or whiskey on the mainland. “I remember how much that moment meant to me, for the first time having that with the family and being part of their culture.”

“A few years ago, my wife and I started talking and I got really passionate about this idea, as there aren’t a lot of great rums that you can find in the US market,” he explains. “There’s stuff that’s imported overseas or in the Caribbean or South America, or just Latin America in general, but there’s not a ton here in the States.” Winter proceeded to visit several sugarcane fields and distilleries in Puerto Rico with his wife and business partner Brad Parkes, learning how the product takes on the distinctive properties of the soil it was harvested from. He also familiarized himself with the distilling techniques and tastes of different regions to concoct as diverse a drink as possible.

Alongside the efforts of Parkes and a master distiller, Winter formulated a unique blend that comprised parts Panamanian, US Virgin Islands, and Jamaican under the company name Palm Republic — a tribute to tropical, paradisiacal imagery of relaxing with friends and family on palm tree-bounded beaches. He intends to continue exploring the market, experimenting with new aged blends that lean more heavily on Puerto Rican and Caribbean elements. “It felt reflective of my life in a way,” he says. “I’m a part of blended family cultures that came together, and our rum is the same way. It’s a bunch of cultures coming together in one bottle. We always say there’s a story in every sip.”

Photography IRENE CHEN




Interview IRENE CHEN

Cover Design JUNG YOUN KIM



Photo Assistant PETE NGUYEN



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1 Comment

  • Deb

    This was a wonderful article on Eric Wright. He is truly an actor that can advance any show. I am obsessed with The Rookie. I would like to win the autographed magazine. Thanks

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