Andrew McCarthy Interview: From Brat Pack Fame to Renaissance Man, an Exceptional Life
Image attributed to Andrew McCarthy
Andrew McCarthy is an actor, director and award- winning travel writer. He made his professional debut at 19 in Class, appeared in dozens of films including The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Joy Luck Club, as well as such iconic movies as Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, Less Than Zero and cult favorites Weekend at Bernie’s and Mannequin.
McCarthy has starred on Broadway and television, appearing in Law & Order, Monk, Lipstick Jungle, Gossip Girl, Royal Pains and White Collar, to name a few. He is also a highly regarded television director, having worked on Orange is the New Black, The Blacklist, Turn and Alpha House, among others. McCarthy is an editor at large for National Geographic, and his travel memoir, The Longest Way Home, became a New York Times bestseller.
“I certainly went through that phase as an actor where you’re just waiting for somebody to give you a chance to do what you do. I’m glad to be done with that since I found things I can do myself, and I’m not giving that kind of power to other people. But I was thrilled to act again, and I look forward to doing more of it. I hope to do more of it again. I think having stepped away from it a bit, I have a lot more to offer since I’ve been back at it. It’s been nice.”
In ABC’s drama/thriller The Family, which premiered March 3, 2016, McCarthy portrays a convicted sex offender who spent 10 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The series revolves around the return of the mayor’s young son. The Family also stars Joan Allen, Rupert Graves, Alison Pill and Liam James and airs Sunday nights on ABC.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Andrew, I know you’ve been directing, but why did you take a break from acting for four years?
Andrew McCarthy: I didn’t consciously, at first. I started to direct more, and then I found I was really enjoying it. This interesting show came along, and I just sort of gravitated that way. Several years before that, I began to do a lot of travel writing.
The directing blew up, and I started doing some good shows like Orange is the New Black and The Blacklist. Then when this role in The Family came up, suddenly it had been several years since I’d acted. It was a nice way to jump back in.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you read the script for The Family with any specific part in mind? You have chemistry with Joan Allen, and you would’ve been great for the role of her husband. But then you make Hank appear to be a very creepy man (laughs).
Andrew McCarthy: He’s not creepy. He’s just complicated (laughs). Well, when I first read the script, they talked to me about that role of the husband because that would’ve been the more typical thing for me to play. Joan is amazing. That was the reason I wanted to read the script, because of Joan.
When I read it, I thought it was layered and complex and really liked the part of Hank because I had not seen him on television before. I thought he had a lot going on which was beyond what was being said about him or what he was saying. He’s largely a very silent guy. So yeah, initially, it was presented like, “What do you think of this character?” I said, “Yeah, he’s great. I like this one better.” So the conversation shifted to the other character.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The producers were surprised that Pretty in Pink’s Andrew McCarthy wanted to play a sexual predator?
Andrew McCarthy: I think they were (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did they want you to play Hank as a character with whom we could empathize?
Andrew McCarthy: We didn’t talk about it at all. I showed up doing that, and they said, “Oh, that’s really interesting.” I have great empathy for him. I think he’s a guy who exists very much in his own world, is very isolated and has a lot of self-loathing because of his sexual secrets. He’s full of contempt for himself. He’s not someone who’s blindly going around acting out in inappropriate sexual ways. He’s aware that these kind of proclivities he has are horrific.
He’s just full of self-loathing, so he’s trying to police himself. I thought that made for a very interesting conflict internally within him. I had empathy for someone struggling against their impulses. I thought that makes him a very sad person. People that are so isolated and so in their own head can be a real horror because you can justify anything to yourself. People that exist like that, so solitarily in the world, can be dangerous.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I felt some empathy for him in the scene where Hank takes muffins to the Warren family, and he runs off after Claire talks to him.
Andrew McCarthy: Well, he’s a lost soul sort of running around the world. He has no social skills, no people skills. Trying to do kind gestures of normality, he just finds excruciatingly painful. So yeah, I had empathy for him. He’s hopefully more complex than some sort of a straight monster. It’s certainly more interesting to play it that way and hopefully to watch as well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Can you offer any tidbits as to what might happen next?
Andrew McCarthy: (laughs) The obvious question would be, “Is this kid the kid?” What I found interesting about the show is that I thought the whole season would be wrapped around this question. But that question gets resolved fairly early in the season, and then it opens a whole can of worms about other questions. So the thing we’re dying to know becomes just a symbol of the things we really want to know and didn’t know we wanted to know until we found out the answer to what we thought we wanted to know (laughs). It just keeps evolving.
Like any bed of lies, it just keeps getting deeper and more complicated, and everyone has a different version and a different perception of the truth. Everyone’s fighting to keep their own versions. What’s interesting, too, is that Joan’s character is a very public figure, so there’s an out-front version of things and a behind-the-scenes version, which I think is really interesting. Even in the family itself, people are living this presentational aspect of themselves and inside they’re keeping their own secrets. I find all that complex and interesting. No one’s talked about what they’re actually thinking, which I think is fascinating. Much like life, you know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve directed yourself in a couple of episodes?
Andrew McCarthy: Yeah. I found myself as a very compliant and eager participant to listen to my director (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you prefer directing over acting these days?
Andrew McCarthy: Well, I’d found that I hadn’t missed acting really. But when I started doing it again, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. I had done it for so long, and I started when I was a 17-year-old kid. To go back to it after so long was like breathing to me. I just knew it instinctively. I had stepped away from it for such a period of time, and then to go back … I forgot how much I enjoyed it. That was a real surprise, a pleasant surprise.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You and James Spader were in the films Pretty in Pink, Mannequin and Less Than Zero together. Now you are directing him in The Blacklist.
Andrew McCarthy: I do, yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is he an easy guy to direct?
Andrew McCarthy: James is great. I think anybody who’s a really good actor and brings a lot to the table is an easy person to direct. The heavy lifting is with somebody who doesn’t bring a lot. James is really smart. He’s well prepared, and he has opinions. To me, the smarter the actor, the better. I love James. He’s very much himself and always has been. I adore him. He’s a very unique talent. When he has ideas, they’re usually spot on. It’s a pleasure for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It has been 30 years since the release of Pretty in Pink.
Andrew McCarthy: Yes! They just released it in the theaters again
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A couple of weeks ago on Twitter, you said, “Pretty in Pink came out 30 years ago today. If they knew we’d still be talking about it, maybe they would have gotten me a better wig.”
Andrew McCarthy: (laughs) That was funny.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wore a wig for the alternative ending in the film, which was changed so that your character, Blane, could end up with Andie (Molly Ringwald) instead of Andie and Duckie together?
Andrew McCarthy: Yes. I was doing a play in New York at the time and had a shaved head, so when they called me back to film the ending, they had to put a wig on me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why do you think we’re still talking about Pretty in Pink 30 years later?
Andrew McCarthy: Oh, I think all those movies touched something for a generation of people. They took young people’s problems seriously in a way I think movies hadn’t really done up to that point. It just touched people. It was also the 80s when VCRs were just coming onto the scene. You were able to take it home. Before that, a generation were never able to take their movie home.
The people who were renting movies then were 20-something kids. They were able to take home a movie and watch it 10 or 20 times as opposed to in the past when people would watch the movie once and maybe a year later when it came on TV. People could really take possession of them, and that was the first generation of movies where people could do that. In a way, they took real ownership of them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was the term “brat pack” just a horrible label the press invented in the 1980s?
Andrew McCarthy: Well, now it has become a very fond, affectionate moniker. It’s just something that is, you know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you want to become an actor, Andrew?
Andrew McCarthy: That’s an interesting question. My first part was when I was in high school, and I felt like myself when I did it for the first time. The first time I was on stage, I felt like, “There I am.” I felt like myself when I did it in a way that I hadn’t before. At that time, it was a very liberating feeling.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you get the role as Jonathan Ogner in Class (1983)?
Andrew McCarthy: I went to NYU studying drama. Then they kicked me out after two years. I read an ad in a trade newspaper. It was a call for a movie and said, “Wanted. 18, vulnerable and sensitive.” I thought, “Well, that’s me. I’m 18, vulnerable and sensitive.” I went to an open call with 500 other 18 vulnerable and sensitive kids, and 20 or 30 auditions later, I was in a movie. It was like winning the lottery.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Looking back now, was it a blessing?
Andrew McCarthy: Oh yeah. It gave me the opportunity to have the rest of my life. Absolutely.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe you are the first actor I’ve spoken with that had another completely different day job. Shall we call you a renaissance man?
Andrew McCarthy: (laughs) There you go.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you an actor that happens to be a writer, or a writer that happens to be an actor?
Andrew McCarthy: That’s a good question. It depends on what time of day you talk to me. This morning I was writing travel stories. Now I’m acting. It’s good for someone of my temperament. I’m glad I discovered writing later in life, and I don’t have to sit and wait to be called for acting jobs. Thank God. When I do act now, it’s pleasurable and an interesting experience like The Family. All the directing stuff and writing stuff fuels my acting.
I’m a much better actor because of all that. They’re all the same thing, really. They’re all a variation on storytelling. Acting is very subjective. You’re doing just one facet of the story. You’re the grownup in the room as a director, and you’re responsible for the whole story. When I’m doing my writing, it’s a combination of both. You get very subjective, and then you pull back and are responsible for the whole story. I think they all feed off each other in that way.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And why did you become interested in travel writing?
Andrew McCarthy: I guess I traveled a lot, and travel changed my life. Nothing I was reading about travel seemed to be what I experienced with travel, so I just started writing about it. I wrote for myself for about 10 years. I would not write in journals, but wrote stories of where I was traveling.
As an actor, I knew about characters, story and plot, so I started writing. One day, I decided that I wanted to do something more with it, so I met with an editor, wrote one story and then another story. It just took off.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In one of your articles, you were talking about Sudan. You had some hesitations and trepidations about going. Is it your sense of adventure that usually outweighs your fear on certain occasions?
Andrew McCarthy: I think fear dominated my life to a very large degree, and I think it dominates the majority of people’s lives. People make very bad decisions, and we make some of them based on fear. Travel is a way to obliterate fear. Traveling alone or independently forces you to confront numerous fears that we spend a lot of time jerry-rigging our lives at home to avoid. Travel’s a great way to step through fear.
Yes, I was going to Sudan, a place where everyone said, “Are you out of your mind going to Sudan?” I sort of accumulated all their fears on top of my own and had anxiety about it. But then, as always, when I put that back down and go, it was amazing. I suppose the real reason that I started writing about travel was all of that because it was fear. I started traveling the world alone to work through my own fear of my place in the world. Travel helped do that. It’s a hell of a lot of fun along the way, but I think the deeper reason was just that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Where to next?
Andrew McCarthy: I want to go lots of places (laughs). I’m supposed to go to Easter Island for a story soon, and I’ve always wanted to go there. I’d love to go to Burma, Cuba and Mongolia, just endless places. I’d like to go to Paris (laughs). I’m generally interested to pretty much go anywhere. If I’m not having an interesting experience someplace, it’s usually because I need a nap or a snack. I tend to enjoy that there’s something to be gained about going anywhere.
There are places I would choose to go. Other times, I take travel assignments for magazines or newspapers. I’d go to places I didn’t really have a desire to and say, “Wow! That was really interesting.” I just went to Death Valley and did a story for the Wall Street Journal. It was amazing. I had an amazing experience in Death Valley. Who would’ve thought?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Since you’ve jumped back in to acting, will you continue to do some projects here and there?
Andrew McCarthy: As anything, there’s absolutely no great plan in any of this (laughs). When things come up, I gravitate where they feel good or interesting. I just go in that direction. Luckily, I have other things to occupy myself instead of sitting and waiting for the phone to ring.
I certainly went through that phase as an actor where you’re just waiting for somebody to give you a chance to do what you do. I’m glad to be done with that since I found things I can do myself, and I’m not giving that kind of power to other people. But I was thrilled to act again, and I look forward to doing more of it. I hope to do more of it again. I think having stepped away from it a bit, I have a lot more to offer since I’ve been back at it. It’s been nice.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you had the highlight of your acting career, or do you feel it’s still to come?
Andrew McCarthy: One would always hope not. I suppose I probably have had the highlight of my success as an actor in the sense of all that “brat pack” stuff early on. But you never know. It also depends on how you define success, which is a very subjective definition. As far as public acclaim, I have no clue.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What can you tell me about your novel, Just Fly Away?
Andrew McCarthy: It’s a YA book. I was writing an adult book and struggling with it mightily for about 6 years. One of my favorite characters in it is a 15-year-old girl. One day, I just changed the prospective and started writing from the girl’s point of view. Soddenly, it all made sense. It’s a book about a girl who discovers she has a younger brother living across town that she never knew about. Her father had an affair years before, so she has this brother. It’s about what happens when she discovers that. Algonquin will publish it early next year.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any other projects?
Andrew McCarthy: No, just a couple of travel things, as I said. I’m directing The Blacklist starting next week, and I’m going to do Halt and Catch Fire. Just keepin’ on, you know (laughs).
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