Andrew McCarthy, actor/director/writer
Andrew McCarthy is a man of many talents: actor, director, and writer. His travel stories appear in the world’s most respected publications, from National Geographic Traveler to the Atlantic. And his book, The Longest Way Home, has endeared him to critics in the same way that his films—Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Weekend at Bernie’s, to name a few—endeared him to fans across the globe. Check out his web site, or follow him on Twitter @AndrewTMcCarthy.
PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?
AM: I think I wanted to be an architect, probably because the father on “The Brady Bunch” was an architect. I would draw floor plans of houses. But that was when I was about ten. It wasn’t until I did a play when I was 15 that I was introduced to acting. In the tenth grade, I was cut from the varsity basketball team, and my mom suggested I try out for the school play. I had really wanted to be point guard, but I went to the Oliver! auditions and tried out to be the Artful Dodger. I was surprised how much I wanted that part once it all began. The last callback was me singing the song toe to toe with the other kids, and they had made it clear to me those kids had better voices. But I really, really wanted it. It was the first time I remember wanting something so badly. Perhaps I just didn’t want to be cut again.
So I got the part and was the artful dodger in the play, and that changed my life. I describe it as the Tennessee Williams line in A Streetcar Named Desire, when he says something like, “It was as if a room that had always been in the half shadow was suddenly in the light.” I was awake in a way I had never been before. I was great in the play. It was the best I ever was. There was such a birth to it—it was like watching a birth of my fuller self. I knew it was important because I told no one. That was very indicative of me. It was mine, I knew it. And once it happened, there was no discussion. It was done.
PPF: So what came next?
AM: Some community theater. I went to school. I had very bad grades, but NYU took me into their undergrad drama program. One guy, the guy I auditioned for, got me in. It was one of those cases. At NYU, I started to take acting more seriously—or maybe it took me more seriously. I did that for two years. And then they kicked me out. I didn’t go to class. I mean, I didn’t go to the regular school part of it, only the theater part of it.
And then a friend called me up and said there’s this thing called Backstage magazine, which is the unemployed actors’ magazine. There was an ad for an open call. They wanted 18 vulnerable and sensitive kids. I said, “That’s me.” So I went up to The Ansonia hotel and waited with 500 other vulnerable and sensitive kids and talked to a casting director. I’d only done one professional play for one weekend, and it had closed. But it was on my resume. So the casting director looked at my resume and said, “You spelled the author’s name wrong.” Still, ten auditions later, I got in the movie, which was a film called Class.
PPF: You must have been ecstatic. Were you nervous?
AM: This was fall of 1982, so video recorders were brand new. When I auditioned, I had all this tension in my eyes, which gave me a look of constant terror. The guy kept saying, “Relax your eyes,” and I had no idea what he meant. They went to look at the tape and wanted to fast forward it, but it was brand new technology and no one could figure out how. I was heart broken because I felt I’d blown it. But my roommate had an answering machine, and as it turns out, there was a message. I was cast in the movie.
They flew me out to L.A., put me up at the Chateau Marmont. The producer drove me up to meet Jacqueline Bisset. I remember this blonde Adonis opened the door, Alexander Godunov, the ballet star. They were a couple. I waited in Jacqueline’s living room for a very long time. I remember hearing a toilet flush—that made me laugh and relaxed me. She came into the room, and we chatted for five minutes, and she said, “He’s cheeky. I like him.” It was like winning the lottery.
PPF: Was it surreal?
AM: It was one of those things where it was a thrill to me, but it wasn’t very surprising to me. I knew I’d go to school and become an actor. It was in accordance with my plans. You know the way you can only be so certain of something you have no idea about? That’s what it was like.
PPF: So what happened when you finished “Class”?
AM: As we were finishing, Jackie said, “What are you doing after we finish the film?” She told me I could stay at her house. So I stayed. She’d drive me to my auditions in her Cadillac convertible. She had these wonderful dinner parties with fascinating people, like Candice Bergen. I should have stopped then. I was 19, and I was hanging out with these people. It was a wonderful time. I didn’t get a job for a year after that. Then I was the Pepsi boy in the Burger King ad with Elisabeth Shue. And then I got a movie called Heaven Help Us. And then I was in St. Elmo’s Fire.
PPF: St. Elmo’s Fire really catapulted you into a kind of super stardom, didn’t it? You suddenly were the object of every girl’s affection. Not to mention a part of the Brat Pack.
AM: Well, I hated the whole Brat Pack association. It was very pejorative at
the time. I was a loner. I didn’t want to be a part of a pack, much less called a brat. Besides, I didn’t really know any of them. I haven’t seen Emilio Estevez since the day we wrapped, and a lot of the Brat Pack I’ve never met. I was just a solitary person, and still am to a large degree. I know a lot of actors who are fairly introverted. I ran from that association. Now it has an iconic resonance, but at the time it was just a label that I thought pigeonholed me. I didn’t want to be limited creatively.
PPF: Were those movies—St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, Mannequin, Weekend at Bernie’s—the movies you really wanted to be in, creatively speaking?
AM: No. We wanted to be in Falcon and the Snowman, which now you’re like, “What?” Nobody knows that movie now. I didn’t want to be in a movie about a girl going to a dance, or a guy falling in love with a mannequin. The critics called St. Elmo’s Fire a “Big Chill wannabe.” The only one that was admired at all was Pretty in Pink. Molly got me that job because I’d done Less than Zero, which was a disaster and was maligned. There isn’t a word of the book in it. We had to water it down so much to appease studio executives. All of these movies became popular because it was the age of VHS. People who were renting movies were young people, and they’d watch these movies over and over again—ten, fifteen times. If they’d known how many times people would watch Pretty in Pink, if they’d known how much money that film would ultimately make, they’d have splurged on a better wig for me in the end.
PPF: That’s right, they reshot the final scene, didn’t they?
AM: They tested the ending with audiences, and the ending wasn’t well received. So they changed it so that Molly’s character and mine end up together. We had to reshoot it, but I’d already shaved my head for another part. So they gave me this terrible wig. It makes me look even more forlorn and sad than I already did. I looked like I had a rodent on my head.
PPF: Well it didn’t distract the ladies too much. I know a lot of girls who fell for you because of that scene.
AM: I know the look in the eye of a certain woman, of a certain age, when she sees me. They only know me as that 22-year-old.
(Side note: Our waitress at dinner is giving Andrew this exact look, as if she’s waiting to ask him if he’s Blane from Pretty in Pink).
PPF: So what was it like for you during that time period—when everything about your life changed so much?
AM: I had a push-pull response to success. I wanted it, but it frightened me. I didn’t know how to handle what was coming at me; I didn’t have any guidance. No hands were on the wheel. I was reacting to situations, taking the next job to come along. There was no plotting and thinking there, which would’ve been helpful. In those days, you weren’t really offered movies. I auditioned for every movie I ever did.
PPF: Do you think fame and success is a good thing for young people?
AM: I always say I wouldn’t waste success on anyone under 30. My wife is Irish, and I write about Ireland a lot. Neither people nor countries get rich quick gracefully. Ireland is wonderful to visit again now that they’re poor. When you’re in your 20s, you don’t have a sense of self yet, and a lot of money and/or fame doesn’t help you find yourself. That said, it was my story, and it was a wondrous time in many ways. I’m such an outgrowth of the success I had in my 20s. I wouldn’t trade it—the good or the bad. Times were different then. We had a little more room to make mistakes. I’ve directed this show called “Gossip Girls,” and some of the young actors ask me to tell them about what it was like then. They call it the “good old days.” They can’t go out and have fun because every single thing is documented on cell phones, put on Facebook, recorded for the world to see.
PPF: When did you get into directing?
AM: I got into directing ten years ago. Acting is very subjective. Directing, you’re looking at it much more detached, from up here. The older I get, the more I enjoy the whole story as opposed to worrying about what my hair looks like. I can be constrained by self-consciousness when I’m acting, but when I’m directing, I’m just applying skills I’ve learned from being on hundreds of sets. It’s a skill I’m applying. I know how to talk to an actor, because I have all the actors’ defenses. I understand a lot about the craft. There are little things about directing, good directing—moments that I feel pleased with, or proud of, that probably no one else would ever notice.
That said, I acted again recently in a television show, and I loved it. I hadn’t acted in about a year and a half. I found it to be a great experience. There’s that silly joke about two fish passing each other in the ocean, and one says, “Ain’t the water fine today?” And the other fish says, “What water?” I know sets better than I know anything in the world—the rhythm of sets, of changes, of filming. So I’m always at home acting.
PPF: Are you self-confident?
AM: No. I have certain beliefs in things that I want to do, and I don’t let my confidence or lack thereof prevent me from trying to do things. But I think that confidence changes everything, and I marvel at people who are wildly confident—not cocky people, but people who have belief in themselves. Everything is so much easier when you’ve got that. There is nothing quite as attractive as self-confidence.
PPF: Do you have an insecurity that you wish you didn’t have?
AM: Lots of them. I’m more introverted than would be useful to me, especially given the life that I’ve chosen. I’ve had so much fear in my life that I’m very aware of fear, and I made the decision that I was never going to let fear stop me. If I discovered that I wasn’t going to do something because I was afraid, I had to go and do it. On the other side of every fear is the gold. But fear is a cunning opponent. It comes and morphs and changes and masquerades as many things, like prudence and good sense, when it’s just plain old fear. That’s my whole soapbox on travel. Thirty percent of Americans have passports, and only half have used them. Americans don’t travel because they are afraid. People are fearful—we have this notion that the world is an unsafe place. Mark Twain said that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Travel obliterates the fear of people. I took my son to the Sahara, and everyone said I’d lost my mind. I went to Sudan, and everyone said I was crazy. But I found people so generous in both places.
PPF: Did you have wanderlust as a kid?
AM: Nope. We went to the Jersey Shore one week every summer; went to the Catskills one week every winter. I didn’t really travel. I started traveling for acting, traveling to locations, but that’s just going places—that’s not really traveling. I started traveling when I walked across the Camino Santiago in Spain, the ancient pilgrim journey. I read the book Off the Road by Jack Hitt. I said, “I’m going to go do that,” and two weeks later I was walking across Spain. I hated it. I was lonely. I had so many blisters. I felt isolated and insulated, which was strangely normal for me. I was 30, and I had a temper tantrum in a field of wheat. I was sobbing, screaming at God, “This isn’t fair, I need to be picked up and taken home. I’m misunderstood and unappreciated.” And I realized in that moment that something lifted off me. It was that sort of shroud of fear that I had always carried. It was the fear that had been so ever-present in my life. I wasn’t aware of its existence until that one moment of its absence. I finally—for the first time—felt like myself, the same way that I felt like myself when I acted for the first time. I continued to travel because I wanted that feeling. I would just go places alone, without a plan, and just show up.
PPF: And was the fear gone for good?
AM: I was often terrified upon arrival. I just read this beautiful line of poetry the other day: “We see the world only once as children, the rest is memory.” That is sad but very true. The closest you get to that “childlike state” is arriving somewhere new—that feeling of wonder and awe and discovery.
PPF: You have become known for your writing. Your travel pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and the Atlantic, among others. I have found myself looking for your byline in those publications, because your stories are so good. When did you start writing about your experiences traveling?
AM: When you travel alone for a long time, you’re not tethered. I tried to keep a journal, but I felt it was redundant. “I’m really lonely; the food is no good.” So one day, I was in Hanoi, Saigon, and this young kid on a scooter pulled up next to me, and he asked me if I wanted a ride. He showed me around Saigon for the day. When I went to my hotel that night, I wrote it all down as a scene. Because I was an actor, I knew about sense of place, dialogue, and character arc. It felt very personal, and yet it was just a story, an anecdote. So I did that just about every day, and it would ground me. They were just micro scenes and stories. I filled notebook after notebook for about 10 years.
I’d travel and write, then go home and act. Then I’d travel and write again as soon as we wrapped a project. I thought that the natural evolution would be to try to do something with the things I was writing. I wanted to make a passion into a profession. It took on a life of its own. For me, writing was so different from acting. Acting was more reactive for me. I knew that with writing, I needed to have my hands on the wheel of it and be conscious. I was only going to write for good magazines and not let myself be rewritten. I didn’t need to do it, so I had the luxury of being picky.
PPF: Was it strange to introduce yourself as a writer—being a well-known actor?
AM: Well, I didn’t want it to be like, “Wait the guy from Pretty in Pink thinks he’s a travel writer?” I wanted to be less dismissible by having some strong clips. I think I’ve built a body of interesting work, of good stories, over time. I was arrested in Ethiopia and that became the story. It ran in Afar magazine. I wrote for Maria at the Atlantic, and the New York Times, and became a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler. I won an award, and suddenly it was, “That guy from Pretty in Pink thinks he can write? Oh wait, he can.” And all of a sudden, people started returning my e-mails.
PPF: Tell me about the story process—do you typically get called on to write specific stories, or do you prefer to pitch specific ideas to editors?
AM: Both. I pitch a good bit, and they come to me with stories, too. I really prefer to pitch stories, though, because I like to do things I believe in. I am not great at taking the old assignment and banging it out. I don’t enjoy it as much. What makes me good at travel writing is that travel changed my life. I believe in travel; I believe in what it does for people. Behind every story I write is that thought. I never mention it, but that is the energy behind every single word. You will be different when you eat this Parma ham and sit in front of this cathedral. I like dialogue, and I like a good story. I come from a story background.
PPF: I used to write a lot of travel stories. I loved being alone. People couldn’t believe that I actually enjoyed the solitude, but I did.
AM: I feel more awake when I travel. There is no better feeling in the world than when nobody knows who I am.
PPF: Speaking of solitude: Your book, The Longest Way Home, came out a few months ago. It chronicles your solitary journey on a series of assignments, from Patagonia and the Peruvian Amazon to Tanzania and Costa Rica, in the months preceding your wedding. We follow along as you try to reconcile your intense desire to be alone and anonymous on the road with your desire to be connected with your future wife and your two children back at home. How did the idea for this book come about?
AM: The idea for the book came when we finally decided to get married. We’d been engaged for four years. The day I was leaving for Patagonia to do a magazine story—I was going to JFK, and I was really sad. I was weepy to be leaving, but at the same instant, I felt absolutely thrilled to be going and to be going alone. I thought something was so wrong with me. I couldn’t understand that dichotomy, or reconcile those two aspects of myself. It felt very familiar in many ways—that tension. I had wanted success, but at the same time, I backed away from it. I had seen how it had negatively affected my first marriage, and to an extent, my acting career.
I didn’t know I was pulling back when I was in the middle of it. So I thought, “Is this what I’m doing, by lining up all these trips? Am I pulling back?” I wondered if there was a bigger story to all these other stories. I was going to be traveling to the farthest corners of the world—and then to climb Kilimanjaro. By the time I was in Costa Rica, the book became clear to me, and I sat in a jungle lodge writing a book proposal. I knew the book would climax with us getting married. My thought was, “I love you, but I’ve got to go.” And I wanted to ultimately get to a place where I could say, “I love you, and I want to stay.” So that is what the book is really about. I felt an urgency to sell the book before the marriage happened. So I sold the book and then traveled the second half of the book.
PPF: The book is so well written. I’m curious—does writing come easily to you?
AM: I didn’t learn in school. I never read a single book that I was supposed to read. Once I escaped from school and got out, it took me 10 years to stop and have an interest in reading. I started writing not long after I discovered reading again. I was reading a lot of Paul Theroux.
That first story that I told you about Saigon—I actually just published that exact story in National Geographic Traveler this year. They asked me if I had any anecdotal travel tales, and I had one in my drawer. It was 18 years ago, and I changed hardly a word. Those stories had the exuberance of discovery. I was interested. And when you’re interested, you’re observant.
PPF: Tell me, what’s the most life-changing trip you’ve taken?
AM: That first trip in Spain. But to pick a trip–it’s a bit like lighting a candle in a room. The second candle doesn’t seem as bright as the first one, even though it is. The first candle illuminated complete darkness.
I took a trip to Southeast Asia, where it was like, “I’m going there without a plan, and I don’t know where I’m going.” I was in Angkor, in Cambodia. I stayed in someone’s living room and gave a kid a dollar to use his bike. Paddled to the temples, and there was nothing there. It was an unforgettable trip.
PPF: Is there someone who gave you a chance when no one else would?
AM: The only reason I’m writing anything is because of Keith Bellows. Certainly no one would have ever had me write a feature story for a magazine with no credit. He’s been a big supporter. He gave me a chance. The first thing Keith Bellows ever said was, “Don’t be a travel writer. You’re a writer who travels.”
Also, my first acting teacher. Terry Haden. I wouldn’t have been acting without her. She saw me. You just need one person to see you.
PPF: What do you think is your best story, writing-wise, so far?
AM: I wrote a story about taking my son to Marrakesh to go shopping. It’s a good travel story—called “The Art of the Deal.” It ran in Traveler. I have affection for that piece. It was a wonderful trip, and my son—he loved it. He loved what I didn’t write about, too—I took him to Sahara.
PPF: What do you think makes a good dad?
AM: I’m still working on that, but what I always wanted was the feeling that there was a backstop behind me—to use a baseball term. Someone who inhabited the sensation of, “I’ve got your back, now go out there into the world and do your thing.”
PPF: What do you think makes a strong, good marriage?
AM: Um, appreciation, interest, good sex—not necessarily in that order.
PPF: What makes a good travel story?
AM: An eye for telling detail, a personal investment, and a point of view.
PPF: What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
AM: In travel writing: “Tell me a story, don’t sell me a location.”
In life: “Don’t judge.”
PPF: What is your description of the perfect day?
AM: I’d wake up in Maui before dawn, kayak till the sun came up over Haleakala, swim in the ocean, then write for a few hours. I’d be teleported to the Absaroka mountains in Wyoming, hike the afternoon, make camp, light a fire, and after it’s dark, beam to New York City, go see a play on Broadway—or better yet, act in one.
PPF: Do you have a biggest regret?
AM: Yeah. The most candid one I’d say is that I had a drinking problem, and it took me several years to recognize it and several years to do something about it. I lost two valuable years, two or three, and I did a lot of damage in those years that I wish I could have changed. I regret that I did that. I don’t regret that I got over my head with it, because that is life, but once I was aware that it was leading me, and I was unable to do anything about it, or unwilling to do anything about it, I regret that.
PPF: What has been your lowest moment in your career?
AM: There have been some movies that I’ve done where I thought, “Never again.” But you buy the ticket, and you are on the train. You know on day one it isn’t going to be good.
PPF: What has been the highest career moment so far?
AM: There have been many. But it’s funny, I remember the first time I saw my name on a billboard, on a movie marquee, I looked at it and went, “Okay. Next.” And my book—I looked at the first copy of the book and thought, “That’s nice. Next.” What I really enjoy is the work itself. There are moments sometimes in acting or directing, small moments of success that are thrilling.
PPF: Who most inspires you and why?
AM: Luckily, I’ve outgrown any kind of blanket admiration of people. I very much believe in the idea of “Trust the art, not the artist.” I protect myself with that. But Maria’s friend, Paul Theroux, I’ve been very inspired by him.
PPF: When have you been most daring in your life?
AM: How do you define daring?
PPF: Would you say being daring is being brave? Or would you say being daring is taking chances others might not have taken?
AM: Well, to me, daring is proactive, while bravery is reactive.
PPF: That is true. There is a differentiation.
AM: I suppose writing my book was a bit daring. I hate to admit it. I feel very vulnerable when I admit that. I was interested in the reckoning, in wrangling it. That was what was of interest to me. But you have to have a resolution in the reading. There was some bravery in being an actor. Luckily you’re brave when you’re young because life force drives you through.
PPF: When have you been most afraid?
AM: I suppose I was most afraid when my son was being born, and I thought he might die. There have been too many times to count when I’ve been afraid.
PPF: What job could you never do?
PPF: What’s on your bedside table right now?
Quiet. It’s a book called Quiet. And Stoner by John Williams. It’s probably my favorite book that I’ve read in the last five years.
PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking one day?
Lots of them. The first place I ever wanted to go to was Easter Island. I think I’m going to take my son there. I have a big birthday coming up—I’m going to be 50, and I want to go there. I also want to go to Burma before McDonalds gets there.
PPF: Will you write about it? Do you ever not write when you travel?
AM: I don’t know. This summer, we took a trip to Wyoming, and I actively didn’t write about it. That’s the first time I haven’t written about a trip in a long time.
PPF: First concert you ever went to?
AM: I think it might have been Elton John and Kiki Dee.
PPF: Best concert you ever went to?
AM: One of the hundred and fifty Bruce Springsteen concerts I’ve been to.
PPF: What song would be the soundtrack of your life?
AM: I can’t think of just one. I’m from New Jersey, so I’m a Bruce Springsteen fan. It must be one of his. “Badlands,” I suppose. It has a bit of kick ass, that me-against-the-world feeling.
PPF: Best meal you ever had?
AM: I had a bowl of lemongrass soup in Luang Prabang in Laos that I’ve never forgotten. Then there was the pizza at Ray’s on 6th Avenue and 11th Street in New York. In 1980, it was the place to get pizza. I was in college, and I’d get two slices with gobs of cheese, and six paper plates to hold it up, for $1.50. Ray’s really captured something about New York, but it’s long gone.
PPF: What are you good at that would surprise a lot of people?
AM: I can pick up most sports fairly quickly. I’m quite agile and more athletic than is immediately apparent.
PPF: Who would you most like to hear answer these questions?
AM: Probably Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been greatly influenced by him and admire his imperfect belief in his message.
*Photo of Andrew by Chris Sanders