“At one round table in the middle of the room sat a group of boys who seemed to exude a magnetic force… these young studs, all under 25 years old, decked out in Risky Business sunglasses and trendish sport jackets and designer T-shirts—they were the Main Event. This is the Hollywood Brat Pack. It is to the 1980s what the Rat Pack was to the 1960s—a roving band of famous young stars on the prowl for parties, women, and a good time. And just like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr., these guys work together, too—they’ve carried their friendships over from life into the movies. They make major movies with big directors and get fat contracts and limousines. They have top agents and protective P.R. people. They have legions of fans who write them letters, buy them drinks, follow them home. And, most important, they sell movie tickets.”
So went the 1985 New York magazine cover story that coined the term “Brat Pack”—a phrase that would become the era’s version of viral on steroids. It was not intended as a flattering article; in fact, upon re-reading it, the piece reads so below-the-belt level scathing, even for the media of today, it’s a wonder how the actors’ publicists didn’t torch the entire SOHO offices of New York Magazine, and Rupert Murdoch to boot. (The magazine itself likely wasn’t complaining; a quick google search of “New York Magazine, ‘80s” reveals it’s still considered its decade-defining story).
Yet the article helped launch stars Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Matthew Broderick, and even Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, and Nicolas Cage into the stratosphere. Andrew McCarthy himself was barely mentioned in that original hit piece, but over the years it was mostly himself, Lowe, Estevez, and Nelson (and not to mention—Molly Ringwald, Demi Moore, and Ally Sheedy??) which generations would most come to associate with the term.
35 years later, most of us who grew up on the films remember them fondly as time capsules of our youth; films wherein teenagers felt seen and heard, perhaps for the first time. At the center of all that nostalgia is McCarthy himself—star of St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero, Weekend at Bernie’s, Mannequin, and Heaven Help Us.
In person, the New Jersey native seems to genuinely and inherently lack the narcissist bone one would need for that level of attention and lifestyle. And so it goes, that at some point down the line, he chose to go a different way. A lot of different ways, in fact. Anyone wondering whatever happened to the teen heartthrob might be surprised to find he hasn’t exactly been sitting in his basement replaying his glory days. Editor-at-Large of National Geographic Traveler? Freelance writer for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal? Fiction novelist? Broadway star? TV director of some of today’s most popular shows—Orange is the New Black, The Blacklist, and Awkafina’s Nora From Queens.
With the hardcover edition of his popular memoir Brat: An ‘80s Story releasing this week, we spoke to the (Actor? Editor? Writer? Director? Wanderluster? Father of three?)… man himself about his career pivots, if you will; finding himself in travel, why he wouldn’t wish fame upon anyone under 30, and being “an avatar” of other people’s nostalgia. Just not his own.
LEO: Let’s start with your career trajectory as a writer. Did you have any idea back when you were a young actor that you could write? Did you always have that inclination?
ANDREW MCCARTHY: The short answer is no. I don’t think I wrote anything until I was 30. At least. 40 maybe, mid 30’s. I didn’t start writing until I started writing. I didn’t read anything in school. I didn’t write anything in school. And it just sort of happened on its own. It happened because of traveling. One day, I just started writing stuff down. I found that traveling sort of changed my place in the world and in me. So I just started writing stuff down, and then I realized that I found it to be a nice way to locate myself.
You’re such a bookworm now.
I didn’t read anything either until I was about 30, and then I just started picking up and reading a lot. I was late to the game on all of that.
All these years you’ve been writing, did you always know you would write a memoir at some point? Did you have a now or never moment–
Before I was dead? [Laughs]. People had asked me for years if I’d be interested in writing about the Brat Pack, and my answer was always—before the sentence was even out: “Are you interested in writing about the Brat Pack?” “No.”
And then one day, several years ago, Jonathan Karp of Simon & Schuster, said, “Would you be interested writing about the Brat Pack?” Instead of my habitual response of, “No,” I was like, “Huh, maybe.” And that actually just sort of stayed with me; I realized I was more open to it than I thought. And then I sort of sat on that for about six months.
Then I just started writing it, because I didn’t want to sell anything or pitch something. I wanted to see if I had anything actually to say about it first, and say what I wanted to say, as opposed to what people thought they might be expecting to hear from me.
Meanwhile, you had been directing a lot.
Yeah. That’s what I do the most. For, I guess the last 15 years, that’s been my day job.
Did directing change your perspective, looking back on yourself as an actor?
Completely. Just on a simple level, a director is much more objective, and you’re responsible for telling a whole story, whereas as an actor you’re not responsible for telling a story at all. You’re just subjectively, hopefully, inhabiting some sort of facet of the story. And you’re not really aware of that too well, when you’re a young actor. I wasn’t when I was a young actor. And you realize, once you start directing, that the actor is just one small part of the director’s concern, and that you’re not the center of the universe [laughs].
It was certainly very helpful to have been an actor first. I had been around and worked with a hundred directors, so I knew what a good one was, what a bad one did. And I knew how to talk to an actor and how not to talk to an actor. I certainly have every actor neurosis there is, so I knew what was going on with actors.
How did you go from being a young actor to Editor-at-Large at National Geographic Traveler?
Yeah. That’s kind of downwardly mobile, isn’t it?
No, not downward. I think it’s exciting.
No. Sideways mobile.
That’s a long drawn out story, which I will try and condense. When I was 15, I walked on stage as the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist in my high school play, and I went, “Oh, there I am.” I just felt like myself for the first time.
And then cut to 20 years later, I was walking across Spain on Camino de Santiago, the extension pilgrims route for 500 miles, and I had an experience there, where I had the similar sensation of like, “Oh, there I am,” in a way that I felt like myself. So I started traveling a lot, and I found travel sort of changed my life in a sense. It helped me reveal how much fear had been in my life, I suppose, and that’s when I started writing about it. I knew that people weren’t writing about it like that. When they wrote about travel, they were writing about the 10 best beaches and things like that.
Someone gave me a Paul Theroux book called The Old Patagonian Express, and it changed my life. The idea of ‘Go, go far, go alone, don’t come home for a long time.’ That made sense to me, particularly coming from being a young actor. I suddenly woke up at 30 and kind of said, “Well, what am I doing?” So I spent my 30s traveling, started writing about that, and then things made sense to me again. I had no goal to do anything with my writing. I just wrote to sort of ground myself as I was traveling, because I was often usually traveling alone. And then I had probably seven, eight, nine years of notebooks full of—not journals, but like stories, because as an actor I knew a story. And dialogue.
Then I met an editor at a party and said, “You should let me write for your magazine,” and he said, “You’re an actor, dude.” And I said, “Yeah, but I can tell a story, that’s what I do.” And anyway, one thing led to another, and I became successful at it quickly, for those two reasons. One is that I knew intuitively: tell me a story, don’t sell me a destination. And two, that travel matters, travel can change your life, and it changed mine. I never write about that, but that’s sort of underneath every travel story that I wrote. There was something more, perhaps, soulful than some ‘Best 10 Beaches’ in what I was writing.
I had no intention of becoming a travel writer in my life, but it took off, and I love doing it, and it just sort of took over my life for a decade.
It must have given you a much needed breather from Hollywood, I would imagine.
Yeah. It was certainly creatively revitalizing for me when my acting career was no longer an interest to me at that point. And I wasn’t doing particularly interesting projects. It certainly was a revitalization of my creative life, for sure.
Let’s go back to the book. I was curious, how did you jog your memory? Did you have to do a lot of digging around, looking at old photos, reading old diaries, talking to friends?
Well, I had a diary and I actively, consciously, decided not to talk to anyone, because what I was interested in was my own perspective of it and the cobbling together of what my experience was, because that’s what formed who I am.
You may have a different recollection of that night of the premiere of Pretty in Pink, and that would alter my perception of it. But my perception has been what’s fed me and fueled me all through my life. I’m the result of those recollections and perceptions, however accurate they may or may not be—like we all are. So I wasn’t interested in taking a straw poll and finding out ‘What was the general consensus? What was that evening like?’ I was only interested in what the evening was like from my perspective that led me to do this, to behave this way and to do that. So I actively didn’t ask anyone else.
But did you find that your memories came to you easily? I don’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday. I can’t imagine writing a book about 20 years ago.
Well, yesterday’s tougher [laughs].
I was surprised how much I… You start doing this stuff and it comes back. I started with this, and some photo, and I’m like, “Oh, right.” And then you realize you have this narrative you’ve strung together of your life. You look for evidence to support it in a certain way, and there’s certain things that you recall that support it or confirm it. I found out that once you start to open the lid, things start to come out.
Was writing the book an emotional experience for you?
It was only emotional to me when I was writing about my acting teacher. My career was of no emotion to me. But at the end of the book, when I write about my acting teacher, going back to see her the last time, that was quite emotional to me. In the first draft, it was literally the only footnote in the book—that I had happened to run into my acting teacher, and it was on like page 110 [laughs]. A friend said, “Well, what are you doing burying this… That’s a huge part of your story. Why are you burying it in the footnote?” And I was like, “Oh yeah. Right.”
Often, I think the case is we bury these things, or we just skim them the first time we go through them, and then we have to go back and look under that rock a little more. That’s what writing a memoir is. If you’re gonna bother to ask people for their time, you have to look under the rocks, right?
While writing it, how guarded did you feel like you needed to be? Because you’re also writing about other people at that time.
I was pretty actively trying not to… I mean, I don’t think there’s a lot of tale-telling. Or gossiping. It’s really just my perspective on my encounter with Rob Lowe, you know what I mean? It’s not really about Rob. Rob’s great. Rob’s fine. He was doing his thing.
Right, it’s not a tell-all.
I had no idea really what his thing was. I can only view it from my perspective. That’s why I wrote it first [before pitching it], because it’s not a book about telling tales. It’s a book about my experience of going through this time, and that’s why I very clearly wanted to go, “Here’s what the book is, and it’s not this other book.”
It’s a hopefully truthful look at my inner life while I was living this very outward public life. And the two may have not have been in-sync, and hopefully that’s of some interest, because often a lot of us feel like, ‘my internal experience does not match with the external perception of me’. And then if you can get people identifying and nodding their head reading, they suddenly have an experience that might be a little more richer than just, “Oh that was a cool story.”
Though hopefully there are a couple cool stories [laughs].
Did you receive any specific reactions to the book from former castmates or directors or anyone from that time that stood out to you or surprised you?
Well, for one, I’m not that in touch with the people from… My work life is sort of my work and then onward. It’s only in the movies, or only in the Brat Pack, that you make a movie and then 35 years later, people are like, “You don’t talk to them everyday?” [Laughs.] So no, not particularly.
Rob was gracious about the book and about his reaction to it. But I’m not aware of anyone else calling me up. I don’t think people read other people’s memoirs in Hollywood. I don’t think if you’re in Hollywood, you’re gonna go around reading a bunch Hollywood memoirs, you know what I mean?
Even if you’re in it?
Then you just read the page you’re on [laughs].
Speaking of Rob Lowe, I listened to him on a podcast where he said he never could have handled being young and famous nowadays, because it’s much harder to navigate with social media and cancel culture and just how different Hollywood is these days. How do you think you would have fared now?
Well, I mean, to look at some of the things Rob did back then, the democratic convention or whatever, way back when, and I’m like ‘whoa’. I’ve always said I wouldn’t wish Hollywood fame on anyone under 30, for one thing. I just think it changes you on a cellular level in many unique ways. And so until you have any idea who you are, it’s not a good definer of who you are.
But also, that’s an easy thing to say. “Thank God there weren’t cameras around when we were young.” At that time, we felt like we were very on the leading edge of what was happening. You always feel that way. So I’m not quite sure that [statement] is entirely true. There was no social media, and yet the Brat Pack name was in one magazine article and was instantly all over the country.
It went viral.
It was everywhere. Nowadays, there’s so much things on offer, it might have been one news cycle and gone. Who knows.
I was talking with my youngest son the other day about Elvis Presley, and he said, “Did everyone know who Elvis Presley was?” There was two TV channels and everyone on the planet knew who Elvis Presley was. So I’m not sure that [it would have been harder to be famous now]. Everyone’s looking in a different direction now.
Do your kids and their friends watch your old movies now?
No, why would they do that? [Laughs]
My son, he’s 20 now… I think when he was 15 and discovering pot, he watched Weekend at Bernie’s, and he said, “Dad, I say this with love. That’s the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen.” [Laughs] And I was like, “That’s the point, Sam.” And my daughter saw the trailer for Pretty in Pink because her friends were going, “You should watch Pretty in Pink, your dad was in that.” So she watched the trailer and saw me kissing Molly Ringwald and she was like, “I’m not watching that movie. I’m not watching him kiss some other woman, no.”
So no, my kids have never seen any of my movies. And why should they, it’s ancient history. Certainly to them. I mean, I’m their dad. That would be weird for me. And for them. They just have no interest. They know better.
You can never be cool enough in your own kids eyes unfortunately, especially teenagers.
My son did read the book though… well, he listened to the audio book.
Actually, the other day he said to his sister, “If you want to know who dad was when he was young, you should listen to his book.” He was quite sweet about it. He goes, “I learned a lot of things about you, Dad.” So that was sweet.
What do you miss most about that time? What are you most nostalgic about, looking back on it?
I’m not a particularly nostalgic person, at all. I can’t really think of anything I miss in my 20s [laughs]. What do I miss? I couldn’t even begin to… I’ve never thought of that. I never thought, “Oh, I miss something.”
Which is funny beause people are very nostalgic about you and that time.
Well, they’re nostalgic about themselves in that time. What I am is sort of this avatar of their youth; I talk about that in the book. When people see me, and they see the Brat Pack, they go, “Ah, the Brat Pack.” At the time, it was not an affectionate term, it was a very scathing term when it was first leveled. But the public, over time, has come to think of those movies in this kind of iconically affectionate way—to a certain demographic and a certain generation.
Yeah, certainly to mine.
We represent this moment in youth, when they were 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, when their life was just beginning. You know, your life is like a blank slate when you’re that age, and you’re just bursting with life, and there’s no better and more exciting—well, there are better times in life, in my experience, but no more exciting moment than when you’re just cusping and budding, blossoming. And we were the people that they latched on to. Like any generation does for those young actors when they look back.
My son’s generation has Timothee Chalamet, that’s super cool to him, right? And so, when people see me now and think about those movies, they’re not even thinking about the movie so much, they’re thinking about their own moment in youth, what they were at that moment. Life was all for them, and anything is possible, and I’ve come to represent that to people. And so I’m like this avatar of their youth, which is a wonderful thing. That’s a wonderful gift, to embody that for someone. Which took me a long time to realize.
So when they talk about Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, whatever, and they get that waxy look in their eye, they’re thinking of their own high school experience, not me.
People are just always nostalgic about every aspect of their youth. I’m like, “Oh, we went to Blockbuster, there was no streaming!”
Yeah, and going to Blockbuster and having a movie be out and having to wait for it to come back, it was not that great [laughs]. But that was what we did. And that’s another thing. It was right when VHS was coming out, and you could take movies home for the first time ever, and who’s renting movies but young people. And what movies were young people watching, but those movies. And so they could take us home, and watch us 10, 20 times, in a way that no other generation could ever do before. And so they really took ownership of us and that moment in their lives.
What’s better than sitting in the basement and watching a certain movie every Friday night for a while until you get sick of it? And sneaking beers from your parents’ refrigerator. You know, that’s just what we did. I’m not particularly nostalgic, but I know people wax for those moments in time. I just sort of nod and smile and realize, ‘Sure. It’s your basement and not mine.’
Do you have a favorite of your own films?
I think Heaven Help Us. Over that period, it’s probably the best movie that I was in. And I have great affection for Weekend at Bernie’s. I think Bernie’s was great in its own stupid way.
Was there an aspect of the book that you found hardest to write about?
In my life, in my 20s, when I was making those movies, there were three things that were happening. There was the movies, there was my drinking, and there was my father. And so writing about any two would be like a stool without the third leg, in a way, because those were the dominant factors of what was happening at that time, and they all influenced each other, and they were all throughout of each other.
And so I suppose I came around to writing about my father last, he’s not in there a ton, but it was there.
It was very impactful of my youth, and trying to become my own sort of man while reckoning with my own father’s thing, that I didn’t understand. So I suppose that part came last in a certain way, and it was like, ‘Well, what’s appropriate to write about?’ My father had since died, and I’d sort of come to peace with him before he did. So it felt fine. There is love there for him, which is what I felt when writing the book. In my youth, I didn’t particularly feel that way. I’d felt fear of him. I came to that last, and avoided it longer. So I suppose that was the most difficult part. But it didn’t feel difficult. I just avoided it until I realized I couldn’t avoid that anymore. There’s a piece of this puzzle of this fact missing and….This is what it is.
Is there another book in your future or are you done with memoirs?
[Laughs] Well, all me all the time.
I’m doing a combo kind of book. I’m back in my travel life. Last summer I walked across Spain again. As I mentioned earlier, I did it 25 years ago. I walked across Spain with my eldest son. I’m writing a book about that. So it’s sort of a father-son story, but it’s a travel book. I’m just finishing writing that now, and that should be out next year.
And you just got cast as a potentially series regular in The Resident. Are you the next McDreamy?
[Laughs] I think I’m a little old, and I shaved, so probably not.
The Brat Pack was named after The Rat Pack. Did any of those guys ever reach out like, ‘Listen kid, let me give you some advice. You’re gonna be okay...’
In the book I wrote about the night I went to Sammy Davis Jr’s house. Sammy did kind of say [laughs], “I got my eye on you guys. I’m loving you. I’m loving you.” I’m like, ‘Okay Sammy, cool.’ But no, Frank didn’t call.