Andrew McCarthy: From Brat Pack to backpack

by Gazette Reporter
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They say that there are no second acts in American lives, but actor Andrew McCarthy has written his own second act. The Brat Pack star, who appeared in classic films including Pretty In Pink, St Elmo’s Fire and Less Than Zero in the 80s, has experienced something of a reinvention in recent years.

Andrew’s travelogues, have made him a sought-after journalist, with his work appearing in the New York Times and National Geographic, among other prestigious publications.

Although he remains a popular actor and acclaimed director on television and film, Andrew’s travel writing has won him several awards in recent years, with plaudits such as The Society of American Travel Writers Travel Journalist of the Year in 2010, and the 2011 Grand Award from the North American Travel Journalists Association.

Andrew will be at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire this weekend in conversation with Nadine O’Regan, austensibly to talk about his book, The Longest Way Home, a revealing and insightful memoir.

When the Gazette caught up with Andrew on a whistlestop jaunt across the USA, he was on his way to talk to a Dallas librarians’ group ahead of a trip to Denver, having come from New York the previous evening. We started by talking about a writing career that has taken him around the world, including a recent trip to Calcutta and Darjeeling.

“I never had any interest in reading or writing when I was in school,” said Andrew. “I didn’t come to writing until later in life. It started as a reaction to all the travelling I was doing.

“I was travelling alone, and wandering around places, and so I was untethered in the way you get when you travel alone. I thought that journalling might help, but it was silly, self-indulgent crap. And then one day I just started writing down what happened.

“The first time I did, I was in Saigon – a kid pulled up next to me on a motorbike as said: “Come on, I give you ride, I show you city”. I was resistant at first but eventually I got on this kids scooter, and he showed me his version of Saigon.

“We went to the graveyard where his father was buried, all kinds of crazy stuff, and at the end of the day, I went back to my hotel and wrote it down.

“Because I’m an actor, I know about character and dialogue and scenes, and so I wrote it down in that way, and it seemed to capture much more of my experience of myself in that place than my silly journalling did. I just wrote it as it happened, and I went on to do that every time I travelled for over the next ten years.

“Eventually, I thought I could try and do something with them. All the travel writing I was reading was not capturing the experiences I was having on the road. They were selling places as opposed to telling stories. I met an editor and I started to do that.

“That first story in Saigon, that was only published last year, 20 years later, in National Geographic Traveller magazine – they asked if I had an essay, and I pulled it out of my drawer – it was nice to give it a life, the first thing I had written.

“But the first story I [got published] was about Ireland, about the west of Clare.”

Andrew has a close connection to Ireland, something which started during his days as one of the Brat Pack, the group of young actors who defined a generation in the late 1980s, which included Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez and Molly Ringwald.

“ I met my wife [screenwriter Delores Rice] at the film fleadh in Galway. I have a house in Dublin, and we come three or four times a year to come back. When I’m here, I like to get us out to the west, but as my wife’s family are in Dublin, so we spend a lot of time here.

“I first came over to Ireland in 1986, and then I came over every year for about a decade, for a few weeks in the summer. I used to go out to Clare a lot, Doolin and Lahinch, and I’m a member of Lahinch golf club – I met the captain in a pub somewhere in the 80s and signed me up, and I became an overseas member.”

Having a famous face has its advantages, Andrew explained, and he spoke about being recognised around the world when he’s travelling.

“I do get recognised abroad, it’s helpful to me. I can go to some places and stay pretty insular. You can still have a great time, but it helps, in that [being recognised] opens doors for me. People abroad have an odd way of going ‘Are you..?’, ‘Are you in that…?’ and then it’s dropped pretty quickly, but it creates a familiarity and an intimacy that I wouldn’t get otherwise.”

This can lead to some odd situations as well.

“I had this rickshaw driver in Calcutta recognise me last week , but I always think that the most bizarre experience of being recognised was when I was in Berlin when the Wall come down. I was there at midnight, parties going on and people chipping at the wall, and this huge Eastern German guard pushing people back, and there I was, this young idiot in the middle of all of this.

“The guard stopped and pointed at me, and said ‘You!’  I was sure I was headed for prison. He said “Catholic Boys!” [McCarthy’s 1985 film with Donald Sutherland], and he grabbed me and pulled me out and put me in this special spot where I could watch everything that was going on.”

But that recognition can have a flip-side.

“It can be a double edged sword, in that some people think, ‘Oh, it’s the brat pack guy and now he thinks he’s a travel writer?’. [Being a travel writer and a famous actor] gets a curious attention at first, and there are people who bring in their own baggage. All you have is your voice when you’re writing, and it’s worth fighting for, and it means something to me. I want something to think at the end of an article, wow, I want to go there.”

Andrew went on to say that his writing is more of an expression of himself than his acting career ever was.

“I’m not hiding behind a character and dredging up pieces of me in service of a character. Writing is less removed because it’s more direct. Joan Didion said, I write to figure things out, and I find that very accurate.”

“The first article I wrote, I said to the editor after he gave me the assignment, ‘You know, I don’t really know how to write a travel article. He said, good – just write your thing. I’ve always just stuck to my voice.”

That voice has stayed true to that original intention, but it has led to some unexpected consequences. The book is a revealing insight into the processes that Andrew went through while travelling and reflecting on how his experiences while travelling allowed him to overcome his life-long fear of commitment in order to become the man, father, and husband he knew he could be.

“I didn’t approach [writing the book] from any kind of actorly or cathartic point of view, and I didn’t feel it was confessional in any way. I thought it was revealing in a humanistic kind of way. I hope the reader recognises the experiences.

“I did find promoting the book, I felt much more naked than I ever did talking about acting, which has been a big surprise, feeling very exposed. The writing of it was fine, the talking about it was very different. But if you’re going to go there in the book, you have to accept that you are going to have to talk about it.

“I found that I did that trick when I was writing, thinking ‘this part will never be in the book’, but when you read it back, you realise that that thing was the whole nub of the chapter, so you need to leave it in.”

Although he has been around the world many times at this stage and with an itinerary that includes heading to Costa Rica for a day to speak at a UN travel conference, and then to Seville and Honolulu for travel assignments, Andrew feels there are still an infinite number of places still left to go.

“There are tonnes of places I would really like to go – to Burmah, fast, before McDonalds gets there, to the deserts in Chile. It’s bottomless!”

Although travelling has become a significant part of his life, Andrew is still very much hard at work as an actor and director, having recently finished work on Orange Is The New Black, a series for Netflix created by Weeds creator, Jenji Kohan.

“It’s set in a woman’s prison. It’s very original and weird. I’ve been directing a bunch of episodes. There’s a lot of really good TV just now, and there are so many outlets. It’s a real opportunity.”

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