The New Yorker Interview
Andrew McCarthy Revisits the Brat Pack
In a new memoir, the actor reflects on being typecast in his twenties, his struggles with addiction, and learning to like John Hughes movies.
May 9, 2021
Illustration by Claire Merchlinsky; Source photograph by Slaven Vlasic / Getty
When Andrew McCarthy was a teen acting student, at New York University, one of his teachers told him, “If you keep smiling like that, you’re going to charm us all, and it will be your downfall.” This was at the dawn of the nineteen-eighties, a decade that McCarthy stamped with his genial screen image in movies such as “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Less Than Zero,” and “Weekend at Bernie’s.” He was often cast as the sensitive heartthrob next to some cooler, bigger-haired guy played by Rob Lowe, James Spader, or Robert Downey, Jr. In “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985), about a circle of twentysomething friends, he was a jaded newspaper reporter who pined for Ally Sheedy. In “Pretty in Pink” (1986), written and co-produced by John Hughes, he was a rich kid who was pined for by Molly Ringwald. Both were part of a wave of ensemble films about the longings of young adults, which introduced a generation of actors who came to be called the Brat Pack, a term that has become synonymous with eighties nostalgia.
But it didn’t start out that way. The phrase was coined in a damning New York cover article
, which followed McCarthy’s male co-stars from “St. Elmo’s Fire” on a night out in Los Angeles and portrayed them as entitled fame seekers. McCarthy spent years trying to distance himself from the Brat Pack, even after his leading-man days were over. He continued to act, while finding second and third careers as a travel writer and a television director, with credits including “Orange Is the New Black.” He has written two books, but it took him until his third to revisit the decade that defined him, and that he helped to define. In “Brat: An ’80s Story
,” which comes out this week, he recalls his entry into acting and his rapid rise, the alcohol problem that nearly derailed his life, and coming to terms with the Brat Pack label. When we spoke, by Zoom, he was at his home in upstate New York, where he’s spent much of the pandemic. He’s also been directing episodes of the Awkwafina
sitcom “Nora from Queens” and the crime drama “The Blacklist,” starring his “Pretty in Pink” castmate James Spader. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You wrote a travel memoir and a young-adult novel before writing your Brat Pack book. Were you putting it off?
People have asked me over the years, “Do you want to write a Brat Pack book?” My answer was always a very quick no. Then, a few years ago, [the Simon & Schuster publisher] Jonathan Karp contacted me, and I went, “Huh. . .” I started writing it on my own, without telling him, to see if I had anything to say. The first book that I wrote was a travel book, but it was really about coming to terms with getting married: wanting to be alone and wanting to be intimate with somebody, and how do we reconcile those things? I learned a lot about my own habits of avoidance in that. I’d actively avoided the Brat Pack for a long time, and I wanted to see what I would learn from it.
What did you learn?
Well, I had some friends read a first draft, and one of them said, “You know what the name of this book is? ‘Brat.’ ” I said, “This book will never be called ‘Brat.’ ” And in that moment I realized, I guess I haven’t done my work, because that is what the book is about. I lived with his very wise note for several months, without touching anything. And then I went back and tried to reconcile how [the Brat Pack label] is pejorative on one hand and a blessing on the other. It’s weird—whatever you were doing at twenty-two, would you want that to be your legacy? It will be mine, to a generation of people. I’m an avatar of their youth, and, in a way, that’s a beautiful thing. It’s about people looking at their youth, when their whole life was a blank canvas—that excitement and that terror. And we were the people that that was projected on.
Have you felt a disconnect between what those movies meant to you and what they meant to the public?
I certainly did for years. I never understood the appeal of “Pretty in Pink.” I thought it was a silly movie about a girl making a dress and wanting to go to a dance. But John Hughes’s movies looked at young people’s struggles as valid and honorable and not to be dismissed by older folks. I look at my nineteen-year-old son, and he’s in love for the first time, and no one has ever been in love before, according to him. We may think the events are trivial as adults, but the emotions are exactly the same, except fully inflamed. So what better moment in life to honor? And teen movies hadn’t necessarily done that before.
It must have been strange to be so many people’s crush, during adolescence especially, when those feelings are extremely powerful.
Well, it’s not like I’m Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt.
No, you were the more accessible nice guy, so people probably felt even more intimacy.
I always say fame changes you on a cellular level. All those self-centered, grandiose thoughts we have as children are rewarded. That isn’t healthy for anyone. Was it weird? It was my life. I mean, it was weird going from being invisible to the opposite sex to suddenly being sprinkled with catnip. I’m not the most outgoing person, so it’s made certain things easier. On the other hand, it exacerbated that feeling of difference.
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I imagine that your feelings about the term Brat Pack have evolved over the years.
For sure. I went back and looked at the article again for the first time in thirty-odd years, and it was as incendiary as I remembered. It was a pretty scathing indictment. I think my elbow is on the cover. When I first looked, I went, Oh, man, they cut me out! Then I read the article and went, Oh, thank God they cut me out!
It was your three male co-stars from “St. Elmo’s Fire,” Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, and Judd Nelson, out at the Hard Rock Café in Hollywood. Why weren’t you invited?
I was back home in New York, and they all lived in L.A. I’ve always been a slightly solitary person. I liked the guys just fine when we were working together. It was after we’d finished the film, so we weren’t still hanging out.
The only mention of you in the article is this line: “And of Andrew McCarthy, one of the New York-based actors in St. Elmo’s Fire, a co-star says, ‘He plays all his roles with too much of the same intensity. I don’t think he’ll make it.’ ” Did you ever figure out who said this?
I’ve spent about zero time trying to figure that out. I was hurt that someone had said it, but it’s just name-calling. I do remember going, Wow, that’s a mean thing to say.
Do you have a guess? There are only three possibilities.
Your guess would be as good as mine.
You never asked Rob Lowe, “Are you the one who said I was intense?”
No. It didn’t occur to me. I think I was in therapy by then and knew enough to just let it go.
You write in the book that the Brat Pack “never really existed at all.” What do you mean by that?
It didn’t exist on a literal level, but it existed hugely in the ether. One of the ironies is that the minute that moniker was levelled, nobody wanted to be in something that could be accused of being a “Brat Pack project,” so suddenly those ensemble movies [disappeared]. That wasn’t the only reason, but that was a part of it. I mean, I’ve never even met some of my Brat Pack brethren.
I don’t know—who’s supposedly in the Brat Pack? Charlie Sheen, Anthony Michael Hall.
You’ve never met Anthony Michael Hall?
How is that even possible?
I guess I operate in a different world. I always lived in New York, and I didn’t particularly hang out with actors. I do a job for eight weeks with somebody, and life moves on.
It sounds like a nightmare, honestly. Here are these three guys out on the town, acting like jerks, and you’re not even there—you actually get dissed by one of them—and yet you become associated with this group for the rest of your life.
Well, it’s such a good turn of phrase that it took on a life of its own. Some people did very well at distancing themselves from it. I didn’t have the savvy to navigate it particularly well, so I just ignored it, which proved to be ineffective in escaping it. The process of it becoming, like, “Yeah, O.K.!” as opposed to “Oh, Jesus”—that took a minute. Or a decade. Or three.
Let’s talk about how you became an actor. You grew up in a family of jocks, one of four brothers. How did you wind up studying acting at N.Y.U.?
I did my first play—I was the Artful Dodger in “Oliver!”—and it was one of those white-light moments. I walked out onstage, and I was, like, Oh, there I am. And I had the wonderful gift of naïveté, of not knowing anything is impossible. N.Y.U. was the only school I got into. But my grades were so bad, because of all my pot-smoking, or because I just didn’t care.
What kind of actor did you envision yourself becoming? Were there certain actors you wanted to emulate?
I was obsessed with Montgomery Clift. I found his film acting beautiful. I just assumed I would be a theatre actor. There was, back then, the “New York actor” versus the “Hollywood actor,” and I very much wanted to be a New York actor. There was a great snobbery about that. The thing that upset me most in that article was that it talked about how those guys didn’t care about training, they cared about being famous. Because I had been studying—that’s part of what being a “New York actor” meant. I didn’t like being dismissed as something that wasn’t what I was.
You were cast in your first movie, “Class,” with Rob Lowe and Jacqueline Bisset, through an open call. What were your first days in Hollywood like, as a “New York actor” with no interest in such things?
Well, I didn’t have no
interest. I was scared of it, and so being a “New York actor” was something to hide behind. Al Pacino went and did movies; I in no way looked down on movies. I just never imagined I could aspire to them. But my first days in Hollywood were living in Jacqueline Bisset’s house, so it was wondrously bizarre. Rob was very savvy and knew how to be social and stuff. I never learned how to do that.
What was your dynamic with Rob Lowe? Was he a Hollywood old hand showing you the ropes?
Rob was and is super charming, super smart. He loved being part of the community. I just felt on the outside. We were both kids.
I looked you up in his memoir, and he remembered you as “aloof and observing—Holden Caulfield come to life.” Is that an accurate description?
Holden Caulfield, from my memory, is a little more troubled than I was. I’m certainly aloof, but my aloof presentation was simply a mask, a defense. People would say, “You can’t be so aloof—it just comes off as arrogant.” And I was, like, “O.K., I’ll try not to be?” I was so uncomfortable, and it was either that or don’t show up. Those are the two arrows in my quiver. Which do you want?
You’re kind of describing your character in “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
I was perfectly suited to that part. I don’t remember what it was like on the page, but it certainly became molded to my skin.
You write about how the offscreen dynamic of the cast mirrored that of the characters. If you were the aloof, jaded guy who’s secretly insecure, who was everyone else?
Demi [Moore] was fabulous and scared. Rob was confident and playful. Mare [Winningham] was open and lovely and tender-hearted. Judd was . . . [long pause] trying to be a man. Emilio was a jock. Decent guy.
I loved your description of the Method techniques you used in “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
I employed what I’d been taught. The character was presenting a certain rotten-before-he’s-ripe [attitude], but I knew that to make him interesting you have to tap into what makes people that way, what made me that way: you feel vulnerable.
And your solution was to pretend to caress your Teddy bear from childhood?
Method work is a cliché now, but the actual work is quite effective and unmysterious. I just found something that made me feel very vulnerable and alone, and something that I could constantly go back to, from my childhood, because that Teddy bear is not going to traumatize me now. If I felt that way about an event from a week ago, it might work wonderfully once, but another time you might shut down. My Teddy bear made me feel those things without going for emotion, because in acting you don’t want to go for emotion, which is what so many people do. Only in acting do you see people really trying to cry. My little son was crying, because he didn’t want to go to school this morning. And he was wiping tears off his cheek because he was trying to make a point. People don’t want to cry. That’s not acting.
It reminds me of Uta Hagen saying that to play drunk you have to play someone who’s trying to appear sober.
Certainly. Nobody tries to stumble around. You try not to stumble around.
Did you have a Method approach to “Pretty in Pink,” too?
I don’t know what I did for that movie. I was starting to become public in the world and getting attention because of “St. Elmo’s Fire.” I certainly wasn’t—although I will forever be thought of this way—someone who is blue blood, patrician, owns their place in the world. So I just stayed out of the way and let what was happening to me blossom. I mean, we’re overanalyzing this to death. None of that was conscious.
The end of “Pretty in Pink” was completely reshot. Can you explain what happened in the original ending?
I showed up at the prom, alone, and [Andie, Molly Ringwald’s character] hooked up with [Duckie, Jon Cryer’s character], and they were together. And I was just with some other rich girl on the other side of the room. The audience didn’t like that we didn’t get together when they did a test screening, so John rewrote it
so that I go up to Molly and tell her, basically, “You’re wonderful. I’m a jerk. I’m sorry. I love you.” And then we kiss in front of car headlights.
What was your feeling about the original ending? Did you think that Blane deserved to lose Andie?
I didn’t read the script until I was on the plane out to Los Angeles, and I was shocked that Blane turned out to be sort of spineless. When I landed, I called [my agent] and said, “You gotta get me out of this movie! This guy’s a jerk. He’s just, like, a wimpy loser.” And they said, “Honey, you read the script. You knew what it was.” And I was, like, “Um … yeah, O.K.” So when we reshot it, the audience seemed to agree that it was better if they got together. It was a fairy tale, so it has to end in a certain way.
At the same time, Duckie seems to have a lot of affection for her. What about him?
Dude, we’re talking about people called Duckie and Blane. C’mon! I leave that to others to quibble over.
Fair enough. It must have been an interesting dynamic with Molly Ringwald, because you were older than her, but she was the muse of the John Hughes universe.
As I said in the book, in a room of equals she was the most equal. It was obviously written for her. She was really interested in what her character would do. I hear actors say all the time, “My character would never do that.” I’m not a believer in that, because I do things I never thought I would do all the time. But Molly was very protective of having it be truthful. It was her movie, and we were just supporting her.
The New Yorker published an essay she wrote about revisiting her eighties movies post-#MeToo, and seeing things in them that unsettled her. Mostly, she’s talking about “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club”—in “The Breakfast Club,” for instance, a guy looks up her character’s skirt. But I was curious: revisiting this time in your life, have you had similar thoughts about how some of these movies play now?
Well, that’s our cultural challenge right now. I don’t particularly see the John Hughes aspect of it as huge. We have bigger fish to fry. What I did find interesting is that John came from the world of National Lampoon, and then for a few years he dove into openhearted, emotionally unguarded teen angst—and then retreated behind the crass jokes and silliness again, with “Home Alone” and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” and those kinds of movies. I find that interesting, that he wasn’t comfortable staying there very long. It’s not comfortable to stay vulnerable and exposed, because you’re poachable. But applying today’s standards to those things? I would ask that of bigger things than John Hughes movies.
It sounds like, to this day, Molly takes them more seriously than you do.
I take what they did for people seriously. Molly was certainly embedded much more in that world. Molly was very close with John. I did not know John at all, hardly. John and I never had a meal. I don’t recall having a personal conversation with John. He was lovely and very good to me. But I think that in general about any movie. Culturally, they serve a function, and people take hold of them, and it gives them solace, or it gives them identification. But they are what they are.
What do your kids say about your movies?
They’ve never seen them. My daughter, who’s fourteen, saw a trailer for “Pretty in Pink.” She saw me kissing Molly, and she said, “I’m not watching that.” And my son, years ago, watched “Weekend at Bernie’s,” and his response was, “Dad, I love you, but that’s the stupidest movie I ever saw.” So that’s the extent of my children watching my movies.
I want to ask you about being a young famous person in the eighties, because I picture it like those scenes in “Less Than Zero” of you and Robert Downey, Jr., cruising around Beverly Hills in a red Corvette. Is that what your life was like?
[Laughs.] Utterly, dude. The only thing I remember about the red Corvette is it was a stick shift, and I didn’t know how to drive a stick, so it was a fucking nightmare. That movie was about a real subculture of people, Beverly Hills kids, who are basically Hollywood studio bosses’ children. A good thirty or thirty-five per cent of it was reshot to try and water it down and make it “Just Say No,” because it was the era of Nancy Reagan. So there are scenes of flushing cocaine down toilets. My life was a little less glamorous. I was hanging around New York bars as opposed to Beverly Hills pool parties. The Corner Bistro, Barrow’s Pub.
What was your car in the eighties?
I bought a 1967 Camaro convertible, which I had for about a year and a half. Then I got totalled on the Harbor Freeway in it. But that was a great car. It was the only car I ever had, until just a year ago when I moved up here.
In “Pretty in Pink,” your character is notably uncool when it comes to music. What music was important to you then?
I’m from New Jersey, and that was the height of Bruce Springsteen. I followed Bruce around the country on the “Born in the U.S.A.” tour for a hundred shows, so that was my eighties music world.
And what about your eighties fashion? I love the description you mention a reporter using about your look, “studied casual,” when it was not actually studied.
It was so unsophisticated. I used to shop at the secondhand stores and thrift shops on Eighth Street around the East Village. All I wore was giant army fatigues. It’s so funny to see my kids now, because Billie Eilish is wearing these huge, baggy, oversized clothes again. That’s all I wore—clothes that were like a fucking tent. I had my managers saying, “You need to wear clothes that fit you.” For the fashion in “St. Elmo’s Fire,” the army fatigues and stuff, that was me bringing that in.
In the eighties, Old Hollywood was very much still around, and you write about meeting Jimmy Stewart at Paramount’s seventy-fifth anniversary. What were the most surreal encounters you had with Hollywood royalty?
The most surreal was the night I went to Sammy Davis, Jr.,’s house. Sammy was extraordinarily generous and funny, and Liza Minnelli was lovely, and everyone was very gracious and “welcome to the club.” And I was just, like, Huh? I look at that picture
from that Paramount day, and there’s Tom Cruise in the middle with his red sweater on, like, “Yeah! I belong with Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck!” And I’m in the corner, clinging to the edge of the riser, trying not to fall off. I marvel at his sense of belonging.
We have to talk about “Weekend at Bernie’s,” which I rewatched for the first time since it came out.
Were you stoned when you watched it?
O.K., then we can talk about it properly.
You were offered the Jonathan Silverman part, the more straightlaced guy, but you wanted to play the party boy. Why?
I don’t know if he’s a party boy—he’s just kind of a jerk. I didn’t want to have to be the nice guy with the girl. I was in a position of being successful in that moment, so they let me do that. I knew exactly what the guy would be like.
Where did the Hawaiian shirt come from?
It all came from my friend Eddie: the purple Keds, the baggy shorts, the Hawaiian shirts, the Lucky Strikes. He was a good guy, went to Columbia, was a teacher. But I just thought, If Eddie didn’t use his brain, that’s Larry.
Did Eddie recognize himself when he saw the movie?
I don’t think so. It’s like when Tennessee Williams’s mother saw “The Glass Menagerie” and someone asked, “What did you think of Amanda Wingfield?” And she said, “Oh, that poor woman with those terrible children!” She didn’t recognize the monster in herself at all. I sent him the material that I wrote about him, to make sure he was O.K. with it, and he was, like, “Dude, I didn’t know any of that!”
The prop comedy really drives that movie. What do you remember about the actual body?
We could do anything to him. “What if we staple a toupee on him?” “Yeah!” “What if we throw him over the balcony?” “Yeah!” “What if the tide comes up?” “Yeah, and he washes out!” The Monopoly
was probably my best idea. The way it was written, I’m sitting out there with Bernie and I lift his arm and wave to the girls, but I brought out a Monopoly board, because I was playing Monopoly the night before. And then someone said, “Yeah, and tie his arm so you can pull it up with the string and have it wave itself!” And Terry [Kiser, who played Bernie], said, “Yeah, do whatever the fuck you want.” Terry at a certain point hurt his back very badly, so the stuntman was doing tons of shit. We quickly came to realize that beating Bernie up was the best gag we had. It was a real guy ninety-five per cent of the time, either the stuntman or Terry. The only time it wasn’t was when we were dragging him around in the boat
, and he was hitting the buoys. That was a dummy.
Why do you think the movie still has a place in the cultural consciousness? It’s really endured.
It’s survived much better than Bernie. When they thought Kim Jong-un was dead, they had a meme
of me and Jonathan holding him up. Every politician who has a bad moment, there’s a meme of me and Jonathan holding them up. I don’t know why—it’s just funny.
It reminds me of “Groundhog Day”—the movie named a phenomenon that recurs in life.
It’s not as good a movie as “Groundhog Day,” but yeah. The beauty of “Bernie’s” is you can’t help but like it. We’re sitting here smiling, talking about Bernie. You know what I mean?
That movie came out toward the end of the eighties and the end of your heartthrob phase. Can you talk about how that chapter of your career ended and why?
Only in hindsight do you go, Yeah, that was the end of that time. I went off to Europe and did movies with Claude Chabrol, because a) it was Claude Chabrol, and b) I was happy to escape. Soon after that, my drinking began to dominate.
You write, “For years afterward I feared that if I were to become successful in a very public way again I might return to drinking.” Were you actively pulling away from your film career because you thought it was destroying you through alcohol?
The image that I carried was: if my career was a rock, alcohol was like this steel sheath that had been soldered to it. It took me decades away from drinking to look at my life and think, Oh, I didn’t drink because I was “successful too soon” or any of that. I drank because I drank. I drank better vodka because I happened to be making money, but it was its own thing. And yet it became wrapped up with my career.
Since this was the eighties, what was your relationship with cocaine?
If you had it, I did it. And it helped me drink more. I did it a little during “Less Than Zero,” and I rarely ever drank or did drugs during working days. I was anxious enough—I didn’t need to be adding cocaine.
Was there a turning point where you went into recovery?
That happened several years later, in the early nineties. I stopped drinking in ’92. I just went and got help. I was at a point where it was not something I could pretend wasn’t real. Some people can go on for years, like, “Oh, I manage myself pretty well.” I was not managing anything very well.
Was it hard to quit?
Nothing’s harder than drinking when you’re in the final phases of drinking, so it was easier than that.
How did you become a travel writer?
I was in Saigon, and I had an interesting day, where I met this kid and he took me around on his Vespa. I went home to my hotel and I wrote it down. I’d never written anything before. That was back when hotels still gave you stationery. And, the minute I wrote that, I had the exact same sensation as when I first started acting: Oh, my God, there
I am. So I started travelling extensively, and I took notebooks and started writing down little vignettes. Someone had given me a Paul Theroux
book, “The Old Patagonian Express,
” and that book changed my life. I knew inherently that underneath every story I wrote was: “Travel changed my life. It will change yours. It is a value. It is not something for the rich or the idle or a frivolous waste of time.” I knew intuitively that the point was to tell a story and not to sell a destination.
When you’re travelling, do you get recognized in unexpected places?
The most interesting was in ’89, when the Berlin Wall fell and I was there, and a guy recognized me.
That is the most eighties story I have ever heard.
And for this obscure movie! That was a crazy moment, because the wall was coming down, people were singing in German, and I grabbed this chunk of the wall. And somebody grabs my shoulder, and I was, like, “Sorry!” It was not clear at that point whether all this was O.K. It was the first day the wall was coming down. And he went, “You! ‘Catholic Boy’?” And I went, “Yeah, me! ‘Catholic Boy
When you’re recognized in these far-off places, does that spoil it in a way? Like, “I’ve gone all the way to Berlin and I’m the Brat Pack guy again”?
No. When you travel, the better part of yourself is usually at play. It’s only the defensive, cynical part of me that’s, like, “Yeah, yeah.” I’ve always enjoyed it when I’m away from home.
I imagine that this year has been difficult for someone who loves to travel. Now that things are starting to open up, where do you want to go?
Twenty-five years ago, I walked the Camino de Santiago, in Spain, and that trip changed my life. I’m going to go back there to walk across Spain with my son. I’m going to do a book about that.
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