The notorious moniker coupled with sudden fame in his early twenties, made McCarthy retreat and re-think his place in the world. Attempting to defy expectations, he went on to try his hand at comedy in quirky films like Mannequin opposite Kim Cattrall and the Weekend at Bernie’s movies with co-stars Jonathan Silverman and Terry Kiser who played the title role.
In his 2021 memoir, Brat: an ’80s Story, McCarthy revisits signpost moments from his childhood, through his early years in New York, the sensational movie stardom of the Brat Pack years, his journey to sobriety and complicated family dynamics; particularly with his father.
Allison Kugel: In the prologue of your new book, Walking with Sam: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain, you talk about your first time walking the Camino de Santiago Trail in Spain in your younger years and how it was sort of a spiritual re-balancing for you after living through the Brat Pack years of your career. You say that at the time you felt you hadn’t earned your accomplishments, meaning your early movie stardom. Why didn’t you earn your accomplishments?
Andrew McCarthy: Good question. I didn’t know it was a spiritual rebalancing [at the time]. I never phrased it like that, but I think that is actually what happened, and I was aware that I needed something, I guess. I’m not sure what it was. I’m not sure how I ended up at the Camino back then, but I guess I was young and I became very successful very quickly; and I felt what people now call “Imposter Syndrome,” or something like that.
Andrew McCarthy: Exactly. I guess I felt unprepared and I felt unseen. I was seen in a certain way, and I wasn’t sure that’s who I was. When you’re young, you’re not sure who you are yet, so to be seen and pegged in a certain way, I thought, “Wait, this isn’t quite accurate to who I am.” Once the Brat Pack stuff came about and I was lumped in with a group of people, I initially didn’t like it. I didn’t want to be labelled and stigmatized, or pigeonholed. I think when you are young and an actor you don’t want to be grouped into anything. You want to be an individual. In the decades since that time, it’s become an affectionate term, “The Brat Pack,” for a moment in pop culture in the ‘80s when I became this avatar for people’s youth for a certain generation. But when I was young, I think I felt like “What just happened? I don’t even have my feet under me yet.”
Allison Kugel: Yes, you hadn’t processed it yet. Ironically, “The Brat Pack” the young actors that were lumped into that group were all really, really talented people. I mean, you were all really talented young actors. I would take pride in that.
Andrew McCarthy: It has certainly become that over the decades, but at the time we did not view it that way. And there are a lot of talented people who are still, all these years later, still chugging away at it.
Allison Kugel: So, decades later, in the present day, you decide it’s time for a full circle moment, and you take your eldest son, Sam, to do the same walk across Spain that you initially did as a young man. How old were you when you took this first walk across the Camino de Santiago in Spain?
Andrew McCarthy: I actually wasn’t so young. I think I was in my very early 30s. I survived that early thing called fame and was not sure what I was looking for, really. Then I came across a book at a bookstore about the Camino de Santiago [trail], which I’d never previously heard of. The book was about the ancient pilgrimage route of Spain for 500 miles. There was something in that, that just spoke to me. I read the book, and a week later I said, “I’m going to Spain.” I wasn’t sure why, but I did find it to be a life-changing experience. I think in a way, and I mention it in the book, there was a moment about halfway through the walk where I was in a field of weeds, and I had this sobbing tantrum. I had a revelation of how much fear had been so dominant in my life in a way that I hadn’t realized before, and it was quite a liberating moment and changed my place in the world.
Allison Kugel: And in the book you chronicle your experience walking this same trail with your son, Sam, who was how old at the time?
Andrew McCarthy: He was 19 when we went, which was a year and a half ago.
Allison Kugel: I’m sure you’ve regaled him with stories over the years of when you did this walk for the first time decades ago…
Andrew McCarthy: I tried not to regale because there is nothing more boring than, as my daughter calls it, “Here comes a dad story.” They had known about it their whole lives. On occasion I mention the Camino, and they know how big of an experience it was. I’ve encouraged many people, through the years, to go do it, and everyone that has done it has also had a big life-changing experience from it. I would recommend it to anyone in a moment of transition in their life. My son was just becoming a man, and my relationship with my own father basically ended when I was 17-years-old and left that house. That was the end of our relationship and I didn’t want that to happen with my kids. I wanted to figure out a way to transition our relationship to two adults, as opposed to the dominant parent talking to the kid; to sort of be equals in the world. I thought this trip would be a way to begin the transition to that happening, and it was a big experience for both of us.
Allison Kugel: You said that your early fame “blew up your dynamic with your siblings, and it was never the same from that point on.” How does fame blow up family dynamics?
Andrew McCarthy: It depends on the family. Certainly, it can bring you closer together and you can go to family for security and council, and things like that, and it can be a place of solace. That was just not my experience. My dad was having a hard time in his life when I was getting famous, so my fortunes were rising and his were falling, and that was difficult for him. With my brothers, when we were growing up, I was never the star of the family. My older brother was the baseball star. The other one was the smart one, and I was the little sensitive kid. Then, I’m in movies and they are in their mid-twenties. They are trying to figure out their place in the world, and suddenly there goes me and I’m suddenly now American royalty. That is what movie stars were and have been; America’s royalty. I’m now this thing, and I don’t know that they ever really recovered from that.
Allison Kugel: I think it’s hard as human beings, in general, not to fall prey to the disease of comparison.
Andrew McCarthy: Yes, and drugs
Allison Kugel: Throughout this book, your son Sam is also very open with you about smoking cigarettes and about trying different substances. You, yourself struggled with substance abuse as a young man. And as you have explained, you were kind of using those things as a way to kind of emotionally regulate yourself in those days. What was going on there?
Andrew McCarthy: What was I thinking there? Of course, the first thing you feel as a parent is fear because drugs and alcohol almost destroyed me. Of course, you’re afraid for your children at that moment. Drugs and alcohol are a slippery slope that everyone has to navigate, and everyone will experiment with and try. To pretend it’s not going to happen is foolish and sticking your head in the sand. I have just been honest with my kids since the beginning. I said the only thing that can derail your life, and it derailed mine, is drugs and alcohol. I’m a broken record with that. “But,” I’ve said, “You are going to do it, and you have it in your family, so just know that.” But again, information will never keep anybody clean and sober. Information does not stop people from doing drugs and alcohol. I’m very grateful that he would share that with me and communicate. All you want to do with people you love is to be able to communicate and connect. When you can communicate, you connect, you create intimacy, and then you have a bond. I’ve expressed, “If that is what is going on and that is what you are thinking about, talk to me about it. Obviously, I’m going to respond, because I’ve had my own history, so I have a fearful reaction when you tell me that, but I hear you, and I did have some great fun when I did it.” Nobody can smell truth and lies like your kids and it’s for them to discover.
Allison Kugel: I don’t think a lot of people know that you were a director on Orange is The New Black. It’s the series that really catapulted Netflix into the original content space and into what it is today.
Andrew McCarthy: That was an interesting experience. A friend of mine was a producer on it, and they couldn’t get any directors, because at the time it was on this thing called Netflix that no one understood, like doesn’t Netflix mail you DVDs? Oh, they’re doing a show? I asked, “Where is the show going to be on?” They said, “Well, they are going to stream it.” I said, “Okay fine, but what channel is it going to be on?” No one could understand what was going on and they couldn’t get any actors for it, because who is going to see this thing? I said, “I’ll do it.” I directed a bunch of them, and I remember the day I was in the producer’s office and they said, “They are going to put them all out on the same day.” I remember being the wise one in the room and saying, “That is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.” And of course, they all come out and Netflix takes over the world. It was a wonderful and exciting moment to be part of something like that. It caught everyone, it certainly caught me and everyone I know who was involved in it, by total surprise that this happened. The first few years of Orange is The New Black were very exciting. I think it was a very good show until the end, but after seven years it kind of settles in to what it is, and kind of loses that electric spark. But for a time, it was certainly quite something.
Allison Kugel: What was your favourite part of directing many episodes of Orange is The New Black?
Andrew McCarthy: Working with the actors in that most of them were very raw and very green and new. They were just thrilled to be there. Helping to sculpt that and work with them was fun and exciting. There is a moment in acting, particularly when you are young and doing something for the first time; it’s that moment of discovery and that blossoming happens in real time in front of your eyes on the screen. I look back at some of my early movies and I can question some of the acting, but I certainly did have that in St Elmo’s Fire and in Pretty in Pink. The ladies in Orange is The New Black had those moments when we were doing show. You look back at James Dean in East of Eden or Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and you see that moment on screen. All actors experience it; this moment of blossoming is the only word I can think of.
Allison Kugel: You’ve made no secret about the fact that you and your father did not have the best relationship. You loved your father, but your father was, as you described him, a very angry man, often brooding with mood swings when you were growing up. Do you still carry the fear of being the “bad father” with your own kids?
Andrew McCarthy: You are right in all of that. My relationship with my dad healed when I went to go see him when he was dying. I sat with him for those few weeks. My wife was the one that said, “You need to go see your dad.” I went because I wanted to be a better parent to my kids. I went selfishly, and to sit there with my dad and tell him I loved him and I was sorry that I wasn’t the son he wanted. To just be there and to see the fear in him that he always masked with anger, because anger feels better than fear, right? With anger, you feel in control. Anger is always a mask of fear. Always. To see the fear in him was so liberating for me and to hold his hand while he was dying was a profound experience. We did not solve our past. We just dropped it and discarded it. Since he is gone, I’m very free to love him in a way that I wasn’t when he was alive, and I was so afraid of him. With my own kids, I think the Camino [trail] had a lot to do with it. Walking with Sam, both the book and the action, it freed me a lot from that. During our walk across Spain, I risked just being who I am in front of my son, as opposed to being the dad who’s got it all down. I had moments in front of him of not knowing and being a bit of a mess at times, being reactive at times and then apologizing and being vulnerable and saying, “This is who I am son.” To let him see me and I think he appreciated that, and I appreciated him perceiving me in that way, so it altered things. I feel less fear or anxiety about our relationship disintegrating the way mine did with my father. That was the whole intent of that journey, and then consequently the book. Has it completed the job? No, but it has begun to do it to a larger degree.
Allison Kugel: And lastly, what do you think you came into this life as Andrew McCarthy to learn, and what do you think you came here to teach?
Andrew McCarthy: The answer would be the same for both, and that is that fear is a phantom.
Andrew McCarthy’s new book, Walking with Sam: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain (Grand Central Publishing) is out now and available wherever books are sold. Follow Andrew McCarthy on Instagram.
Listen to or watch the extended interview on the Allison Interviews Podcast on Apple or Spotify and YouTube.
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