When Eric Winter decided to leave “Days of Our Lives” back in 2006 (after playing Rex DiMera since 2002), neither he nor I could have guessed where his career would take him in the four years since. While many might recognize him for playing Rob Lowe’s brother on “Brothers and Sisters” or Katherine Heigl’s “perfect man” love interest in the feature film “The Ugly Truth,” Eric is back on the small screen in a new role: Agent Craig O’Laughlin on the CBS hit drama series “The Mentalist.” When I got the chance to catch up with Eric recently, he filled me in on his days since “Days.”
Celebrity Extra: Last we spoke, CBS had just canceled the Hugh Jackman-produced nighttime drama “Viva Laughlin,” which I absolutely loved and was so sad to see go. But after that, you got an even bigger break when you were cast on “Brothers and Sisters.” Tell me about working on that show.
Eric Winter: That show was a lot of fun to work on. They were very welcoming. It was a great atmosphere there. And with that many heavy-hitters, you never know what you’re gonna get. And it was just really pleasant.
CE: What did you like best about the show and your character, Jason McCallister?
EW: I think with my character, it was a cool thing to explore. Here’s a guy who is openly gay but he’s a minister and fights for things he believes in. It was an interesting dynamic that his brother is a very conservative Republican (Robert McCallister, played by Rob Lowe) who’s running for office. There were a lot of good social, economic and cultural differences that were expressed through there.
CE: More important, is Rob Lowe just as dreamy in person as he is on TV?
EW: (Laughter) He’s a good-looking guy. Obviously, for me, I wouldn’t say dreamy, but he’s a very handsome guy. And just really, really cool. But yes, you probably would find him dreamy.
CE: After that, you were in “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay,” which is quite different from your role on “B and S.”
EW: I thought that this sequel — and not just because I was in it — was so damn funny, because it just pushes the envelope with so many things. It racially offended everybody. It was sexist … it was everything. They just got in everyone’s face, and it was so funny and so well written and well directed. That was just a blast. Very hard-core but funny.
CE: After that you were in “Moonlight,” which still has an incredible cult following. How was that show to work on?
EW: That was a fun show too. I would have loved to have the chance to do a lot of the vampire-type stuff and mess around with all the effects, but we never got to dive into that part of my character. That was something they were talking about doing the next season, and then the show got canceled. So, we never really know what would have happened to my character and ultimately what his motivation was. They were finding their groove. Again, another show (like “Viva Laughlin”) that was ahead of its time.
CE: Yes, it seems nowadays that networks aren’t giving shows that much of a chance to really develop, grow and build their audience …
EW: It might not have been a nice hit for the CBS audience, but the ones who loved it loved it, and I think CBS was ahead of its time on two shows in the same year — and that was “Viva Laughlin” and “Moonlight.”
CE: After “Moonlight” you scored a plum part in the feature film “The Ugly Truth.” You must have been thrilled to land that part.
EW: Absolutely. That was just a huge opportunity that (director) Robert Luketic and Lakeshore gave me. And it was really awesome, and I had such a blast working with those guys. And my relationship with Katie (Heigl) and Gerry (Butler) was a ton of fun. We just laughed a lot. It was another fun environment to be in. It was a huge opportunity. It was kind of a fun, vulgar romantic comedy — it changes up from the normal romantic-comedy pace that you’re used to.
CE: What can you tell me about your new role on CBS’ “The Mentalist” of Agent Craig O’Laughlin, and what fans can expect from his appearance?
EW: Well, I’m kind of learning myself to keep a lot of stuff under wraps. But what I do feel is there has to be something else there. I don’t think I’m just an FBI guy that came on and happened to find (Grace) Van Pelt attractive. I honestly don’t know. But I know that my character is an ex-football player who is in the FBI. I go back in a couple of weeks to shoot other episodes. And I have a few more episodes lined up for next year. My goal is to keep this character all business. He’s hot stuff, but he’s not a jerk. He’s not a jerk, in my mind, with Van Pelt. And he’s not doing anything wrong. She and Rigsby were broken up, so it’s sort of fair territory. It’s just a really funny, awkward situation.
CE: Were you worried coming in, because even though Van Pelt and Rigsby were broken up, there are bound to be fans who are upset?
EW: Yeah, you’re always going to get that. But hopefully with the way I treat her and the way I portray my character, people will see he’s not a bad guy. Maybe they will like him, too, and see he’s doing some good things for her. I want it to be a true triangle. But it’s a really tricky situation to be in.
CE: As an actor, I would think it would be fun to play an FBI agent — you get to be the man in charge, you learn how to handle firearms, how to take down suspects, etc.
EW: Oh yeah, it’s the best. It’s my first time playing something like this, and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s really fricking cool to learn the ins and outs — what the FBI does and the CBI does, and how they handle situations. We have on-set experts who walk us through stuff and help us keep it real. It’s been a very fun thing for me to explore.
CE: You said that you’re working on a couple of more episodes — should we start a campaign to make you a permanent cast member?
EW: Yes! You’ve got to start campaigning. From what I understand, they plan on doing a slow burn. Whatever happens between the two of us (O’Laughlin and Van Pelt) is definitely going to play its course. But there’s a lot to do with my character aside from that relationship. I’m not in the writing room, so I don’t know. But I know they have it well worked out, and they’ve been great with me so far.
CE: What’s the thing you like best about working on a weekly episodic show?
EW: Simon (Baker) works his butt off. He’s very, very busy on that show. But I think that with me it’s a lot of fun because I get to explore the character, but I have some time off so I can be looking for some other things as well, films and so forth. It’s a very fun, comfortable environment, and I have a great character to play, which keeps me very interested and motivated with that project. It’s comfortable and exciting at the same time.