Andrew McCarthy Talks Teen Stardom, Travel and the Enduring Legacy of 'Weekend at Bernie's' (Q&A)

6:45 PM PST 10/12/2012 by Shirley Halperin
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

With the release of his first book, "The Longest Way Home," the actor best known for beloved coming-of-age flicks like "Pretty in Pink" and "St. Elmo's Fire" looks back at how far he's come.

You think you know Andrew McCarthy. When his name comes up, you can instantly picture the wide-eyed preppy heartthrob of your high school dreams, perfectly constructed by the teen-sensitive mind of director John Hughes in 1986’s Pretty in Pink. Or perhaps it’s the college version, St. Elmo’s Fire’s Kevin -- curmudgeonly and awkward yet adorable. Mannequin, Less Than Zero, The Joy Luck Club and the ever timeless Weekend at Bernie’s, the word count McCarthy has delivered as a movie actor could easily challenge that of his current occupation as a travel writer.

Then you talk to Andrew McCarthy, the person, and notice his thick New York accent (having spent most of his life within an hour’s drive of his native New Jersey), and suddenly it’s clear: a character, he is not, but the 49-year-old has been grappling with the one that’s been imagined of him for most of his adult life. In fact, it’s that search of self that set McCarthy on his way as a world wanderer -- first, from movie set to movie set, then as a nomadic explorer experiencing the most remote corners of the world.

The result of the hundreds of thousands of miles he’s traversed: The book The Longest Way Home (Free Press), which chronicles his travels to the Amazon, Costa Rica and Mt. Kilimanjaro, among other spots (McCarthy is a contributor to National Geographic, the New York Times and The Atlantic) and reveals a man’s yearning for intimacy even through chosen solitude (in August 2011, he married Dolores Rice). No doubt only the first act of his globe-trotting tale, where does someone who’s seen it all go from here? McCarthy, now also moonlighting in TV as a director on Gossip Girl and an occasional guest on shows like Law and Order, looks back at how far he's come. 

The Hollywood Reporter: These days, travel in foreign countries is easier than ever. Are you pro-GPS or is it strictly paper maps for you?

Andrew McCarthy: I am an old school map dude. I don't like relying on GPS, it takes my brainwaves out of the equation. It’s just, “Go left,” then you keep going until it says, "Go right" -- you totally abdicate responsibility for yourself and your journey. It has its place, but I don't get into my car and turn on the GPS. I find that drives me insane. And I think map-reading skills especially being able to read a topographical map, it's a great skill [to have].

THR: In this age of the celebrity memoir -- be it Keith Richards’ Life or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall -- you must have been approached by publishers to do one of your own. Did the idea of writing about your life in an autobiographical way turn you off?

McCarthy: No one approached me to do one, but I have no particular interest or intention of writing a sort of tell-all or an expose. And hopefully [The Longest Way Home] actually is a memoir and not a travel story. To me, it’s much more personal than an autobiography … I was interested in exploring and I had a dilemma that I was looking to solve. Writing was my way into a solution.

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THR: You certainly have a way with words, yet you're a college drop-out…

McCarthy: I got kicked out. I went for two years then was asked to leave.

THR: Were you a voracious reader growing up?

McCarthy: Not at all. I didn't write, I didn't read, I didn't do anything until I turned 30 and then I sort of woke up.

THR: Is there a book that changed your life?

McCarthy: Paul Theroux's travel books. They showed me a way of traveling that I hadn't considered before which was, basically: “Go. Go alone. Go far. Don't come back for a long time.” And ever since travel changed my life, I'm suddenly having this strange parallel career as a travel writer.

THR: Where is the most beautiful place on Earth?

McCarthy: Patagonia is stunning and I think the west of Ireland is pretty darn beautiful at times. Both places are remote -- there are few people there, it’s just the Earth. I like that feeling.

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THR: As you’ve reached the far corners of the world, undoubtedly so have your movies. How often are you recognized and are you amazed at the reach of a teen flick?

McCarthy: I'm recognized not necessarily by lots of people but certainly in curious places at curious times. American TV has a big reach too, but yeah, I never thought that Bernie would be global. Who would've thought, Bernie has aged very well.

THR: You struggled with alcoholism and eventually gave up drinking in 1992 but much of the public didn’t know about it. If the TMZs and the Perez Hiltons of the world existed during the Brat Pack era, would it have been more difficult to keep your party habits on the DL?

McCarthy: When I was doing all that craziness that people do when they are young and in the public eye, yes, I'm sure much more. You know I direct some of the show Gossip Girl and sometimes the kids ask me, “What was it like back in the day, man?” and I’ll go, “You guys must be having a ball!” But they say, “We can't! Everybody's got an iPhone, everybody's posting things and everybody knows everything instantly.” People didn't know what we were doing back then, so, yes things certainly would've been different. We thought it was a lot at the time, so it’s getting more insatiable as time goes on.
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THR: You’ve lived in New York for more than 30 years and the city has changed so much. What do and don’t miss about the old Manhattan?

McCarthy: I moved here in 1980 and it’s certainly more user friendly now. I miss the Ray's pizza that was on 11th Street and 6th Avenue. I remember as a college kid you could eat two slices of amazing pizza for $1.25. And that's what I did everyday. Now it’s like a public toilet. I remember buying joints from the Rastas in Washington Square Park. New York back then was a roaring place, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Do I miss it? No. I went to school in Hell's Kitchen and it was a scary place.

THR: In watching and reading many of your interviews, it seems you most often get paired with a female interviewer -- present company included. Is there a difference between the questions you get asked by guys versus girls?

McCarthy: I don't think so. I know there's a certain type of woman of a certain age that's going to interview me in a certain way and then there's a certain guy who maybe resented me because his girlfriend had my poster on her wall, so he's going to approach me from a very different point of view than someone who happens upon my travel writing and goes, “You know what? I dismissed you, but actually you’re okay.” It’s not whether it’s male or female, when you've been in the public eye for a long time, people approach you with whatever their baggage is. Everybody has their agenda that they're pursuing in the interview so it’s nice when the agenda is clear and not cluttered. I ask, I work around it. Because I interview people all the time for magazines, I know the deal.

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THR: How have your editors been?

McCarthy: Some very good, some, er, less good. When people approach me with, “Oh the actor from Pretty in Pink can write,” you know it’s their baggage and you need to get through it quickly. Or I just go to somebody else. I've been very protective. I'll go back and forth with [an editor] and rewrite 500 times until they’re completely happy. You can edit me but don't rewrite my words. I'll pull a story. This matters to me. I don't need your dollar a word. Like acting, I didn't do it for money. I’ve found that the better the publication, the less they will do that. The New York Times isn't rewriting. National Geographic isn't rewriting, they're editing me.

THR: Can you give us an example of an edit gone bad?

McCarthy: For one magazine, I wrote [a story that included the line], “I passed a sleeping dog.” And after we’d gotten through all the editing process and without consulting me, they changed it to, “I passed a slumbering dog.” And I called up the editor and said, “I'm sorry, what the f--- is that? You're just making pretentious, generic travel writing now. You're not changing the meaning, what is the reason you would change that to ‘slumbering dog?’ ” I was livid.

THR: What did the editor say?

McCarthy: “I'm sorry you're unhappy. When you write for us again, we'll be more careful.” Well, I won't be writing for you again! I don’t care. I think that’s outrageous.

THR: What's your next assignment?

McCarthy: I'm going to Darjeeling next month for National Geographic to write a story about finding the perfect cup of tea. That's going to be fun. Then I'm going down to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil to do a story. And those are the next few months.

THR: Do you have a frequent flyer card like the one George Clooney was trying to get in Up in the Air?

McCarthy: I don't, because I fly so many different airlines. I have, like, millions of miles spread all over. I think I'm in every frequent flyer program and I get nothing.

THR: When you’re flying and have to fill out a form for customs, do you write actor or author?

McCarthy: Good question. It depends on where I think I'll get the least hassle. Usually I write actor because writers, they may wonder, what are you going to be writing about? Whereas with an actor, they just know you’re unemployed.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin

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