From Brat Pack to Backpack

Andrew McCarthy still acts and directs, but the Summit native has won new acclaim writing about his global travels.

Before the travel bug, Andrew McCarthy ran with the ’80s brat pack from the cast of St. Elmo’s Fire. From left, McCarthy, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Rob Lowe.
Photofest.

Andrew McCarthy is best known for appearing in such films as Weekend at Bernie’s, St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink, but here’s how the New Jersey native describes his occupation: “I spin plates for a living.”

That’s because, in addition to the work for which he’s famous, for the last several years he has juggled acting, directing, parenting and travel writing.

McCarthy, who was named 2010 travel journalist of the year by the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation, began writing professionally seven years ago for prestigious publications like National Geographic Traveler, Men’s Journal and Travel + Leisure. His first book, a travel memoir published by Free Press, is scheduled to be released in fall 2012.

Three decades of acting and reading scripts came in handy for the transition: “I know how to tell a story; that’s what I do for a living,” says McCarthy, 48, casually seated in a chair on the patio of the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Wearing jeans and a blazer, with perfectly scruffy, thick brown hair, he looks more like a hip college professor than an actor.

Introduced to Keith Bellows of National Geographic Traveler through mutual friends, McCarthy convinced the editor to give him a try.

“Your first instinct is to roll your eyes,” says Bellows, speaking of pitches from untrained writers.

“The second instinct is to listen. I started to listen to how [Andrew] was talking character, narrative and story arc, and he got it…. He picks up things very quickly and he can get under the surface. That’s a great quality in someone who is dropped into foreign environments.”

McCarthy’s travel writing has taken him all over the world, including Ethiopia, where last year he was escorted out of a church by a guard at gunpoint, an incident he plays down other than for the journalistic value. “What were they going to do? Shoot me for being in there without a ticket? I knew it was great copy while it was happening,” he says. “All the little kids were following us because he had his gun pointed at my back, and I’m like this little white guy being pushed up this hill.”

Although he hasn’t lived in the Garden State since he left for college, McCarthy tells the story with a still discernible New Jersey accent (he swears he doesn’t hear it). His voice rises and falls, depending upon how passionately he is making his point. He’s accommodating but slightly wary, believably self-deprecating and delightfully profane.

Born in Summit, McCarthy grew up in Westfield, the third of four boys. (After he was grown, his mother sold advertising for New Jersey Monthly.) Childhood meant all the typical trappings, including Little League baseball. “We won the championship when I was 10, no thanks to me. I was terrible,” he says. “My older brother was the star, so I was grandfathered onto the team. They stuck me in right field, but I liked that. That meant a lot to me as a kid.”

The family moved to Bernardsville when he was 14: “Apparently, it’s where Meryl Streep was from. I never saw her.” McCarthy attended the Pingry School, a prep academy then located in Hillside. “It was a perfectly fine suburban childhood,” he says. “I just felt sort of very lonely at school. I just didn’t feel like I belonged there.”

One very good thing came from Pingry: He played the Artful Dodger in Oliver, his first acting role. “At that moment, I knew what I was going to do. I knew it was important because I told no one. It was like that Tennessee Williams line: a room that has always been half in the dark was suddenly in the light. It was that feeling, I just knew.”

McCarthy enrolled in New York University’s undergraduate drama program but got kicked out after two years. “I didn’t really go [to class]. They just sort of said they’d struggle along without me,” he says wryly. Only a few weeks after he was unceremoniously asked to leave, he won his first movie role as Jonathan in 1983’s Class, in which he bedded his prep school roommate’s mother, played by Jacqueline Bisset. “Then [NYU] offered that I come back, pay the tuition and I could use [the movie] as independent study. I told them to go f*** themselves.”

His 20s were devoted to acting—and some heavy drinking. The travel bug hit around the time he turned 30, prompted by getting sober at 29 and reading travel literature by the likes of Paul Theroux.

A turning point came in 1995 (“I’d just quit smoking,” he recalls), when he took a month to walk the 600-mile Camino de Santiago in Spain. “I went to see if I could take care of myself, and I found out that I was taken care of,” he says. “Not in any religious way. Just sort of like Wow. This is okay. I’m alright here. It was life changing.”

He also found he liked who he was on the road. “I’m just a better version of myself when I’m traveling,” he says. “You’re more vulnerable, you’re present in the world, your ‘Spidey sense’ is up.”

These days McCarthy wedges the travel in between his acting and directing roles. This year he guested on USA Network’s White Collar, playing a swindler. “Bad people never think they’re bad. They always tend to be terribly charming, don’t they? There’s just one slight little thing that turns them into a sociopath…and then they justify it. You can justify anything. My God, the behavior I’ve justified,” he says, drifting off before catching himself. “Anyway, so they’re fun [to play] for that reason.”

In June, McCarthy directed an episode of White Collar. He’s also directed episodes of Gossip Girl and Lipstick Jungle, on which he was a series regular until the show’s cancellation in 2009.

But for women in their 40s, McCarthy forever remains Blane, the soulful, misunderstood preppy in John Hughes’s 1986 coming-of-age classic, Pretty in Pink, which seems to play on an inescapable television loop to this day.

McCarthy is gracious about what the iconic movie means to females of a certain age, even if he can’t quite understand the fuss. “It’s nice,” he says. “It’s their experience, but it doesn’t have a lot to do with me particularly at this point. I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for my past.”

In recent years, he’s focused more on independent films, such as The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best with Oscar winner Melissa Leo (a release date is pending). “Those are the movies I get asked to do that are of some interest. If I had a thriving movie career, I’d be doing other movies,” he says, with no trace of resentment. “You just sort of slip into movie jail for awhile and then you do TV. It’s a cycle when you’ve been around since 1982.”

When he’s not on the road or on location, McCarthy lives in Manhattan and Dublin with his Irish girlfriend, their 5-year-old daughter and his 9-year-old son from a previous marriage.

Luckily, this spinner of plates has acting and directing to fund his travel habit. “When I think about the energy and time of doing the research, doing the writing, doing the editing, it’s like I’ve made $2 an hour,” he says. “It’s like Jesus, I’m glad I love this because it’s f***ing killing me financially.
Spoken like a true writer.

Melinda Newman is the Hollywood correspondent for New Jersey Monthly.

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