Andrew McCarthy: ‘Brat: An ‘80s Story’

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Writer, director, and actor Andrew McCarthy. Photo courtesy of JFPR

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes writer, director and actor Andrew McCarthy, whose newest book, “Brat: An ‘80s Story” details his time as an ambivalent member of the infamous “Brat Pack,” a group of actors who starred in many of the decade’s most popular films. McCarthy is known for acting in many of them himself, including “Pretty in Pink” and “St. Elmo’s Fire,” but he has worked extensively as a television director and a travel writer. McCarthy discusses the freedom he is able to achieve as a writer that was rare for him to experience as an actor. He says he only writes for himself and not with the idea that anyone else will read his writing. And he looks back with affection at his role in “Weekend at Bernie’s.” 

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. What can you say about a man who's worked with people from John Hughes to Claude Chabrol? All I can say is I'm glad he's doing the show. His new book as writer is "Brat." I'm a big fan of his book, "The Longest Way Home." My guest is Andrew McCarthy. What I thought was really interesting about the position between "The Longest Way Home" and "Brat" is that it gets to that question about why you want to do this. In "Brat," you talked to Alec Baldwin, and he said, maybe you didn't want to be famous. But I wonder if it's the difference between being a writer and being an actor. As a travel writer, you want to get lost in the situation and be able to analyze it; as an actor, you want to be lost in a situation, and just let yourself go in the current.

Andrew McCarthy: Yeah, you want to embody it in a way without any kind of third eye analyzing of it when you're acting, and in writing, you absolutely want to have that critical eye. One of the things that got in the way eventually of my acting was I developed more and more of that critical eye of it, and I didn't lose myself in it as much as I did when I was younger. 

KCRW: In reading your work as a writer, I‘m fascinated by your ability to really distance yourself from something as it is happening to you. And I just wondered if you found it easier to get lost in material on stage than when you were making movies because of that connection with the audience with the actors and the audience at the same time.

McCarthy: I did always find it much easier to stay embedded in it when I was acting on stage for those reasons you're saying and I think, in the writing, because that's where I'm in my life. I'm in it; I'm out of it; I'm in it. And so that suits writing, whereas it doesn't suit acting as much. 

KCRW: This all comes down to a question of directing. And it's interesting reading your stuff about Chabrol, who's one of my favorite filmmakers. 

McCarthy: Chabrol is truly the only artist--it's not a term I generally like to use--but the only artist I've ever worked with. I found working with Chabrol such an exciting and just joyous time, and he loved cinema. And he loved making it, and he loved talking about it. It is one of the things that people who continue to be vital into old age have, which is that he remained constantly curious and interested outside of himself.  He was interested in everything other than himself and food.

I do find that critical eye and that distance and the ability to kind of be in it for a second and be out of it in the next is very helpful for directing. John Cleese gave a great speech about creativity, and it's in his lovely little book about creativity about being in what he calls the open and closed mode. When we're closed, we're deeply embedded in it, and there's no room for any outside input. And then we call cut, and you have to suddenly be open and critical and go, okay, what's working, what's not working, and to be able to switch between those two is essential, I think for a good director, whereas in acting, you just simply want to be in it and then be open for input. But you don't want to have that critical, judgmental eye.

KCRW: Chabrol seemed to be one of the few directors you worked with who legitimately loved actors, and he actually calls you out in the moment where he's offering you a piece of direction that you don't really want to follow. 

McCarthy: It's the best direction I ever got. He said, my dear boy, it's your part. I gave it to you; ruin it if you want. So I did what he asked. I used to go to the set when I wasn't working just to watch him film. And one day he was in a castle and he was filming just the castle on the different inserts and different shots of just the building itself. And I said, Chabrol, this is your dream: shots with no actors in them. He said, yes, it is my fantasy. He loved, loved actors, but he also just loved the camera and moving the camera and playing with the camera. 

One time I was in a shot, and he was on me, and then he panned down to look at a woman. And then the next thing we ended up in bed together, and during one take, I turned to look at the woman, and he went, cut! What are you doing? I said, I was motivating your camera to pan down to the woman. He said, you don't motivate my camera. I motivate my camera. And I thought it was a fantastic thing, and I've adopted it directing.

KCRW: You clearly have the same interest in people, too. You can see your interest in people in the way it comes out in the travel writing, but also going back and recounting your life in the book and just reading the way you talk about your father, charting his movement through life, and contrasting with your own. 

McCarthy; That's nice of you to say, but I think one of the challenges is I've had a great fear of people as well throughout my life for whatever reasons. And some of it may have to do with my father in that regard. But that interest has been at war at times with a certain fear of it. So that conflict is something I've always had, that sort of push/pull ambivalence about pretty much everything. But I do actively try and stay curious and interested because the people I admire, it's the one common trait I see among them.

KCRW: In the book you write when you stop self medicating, you're able to just really be in the moment with people. When you read "The Longest Way Home" and then read this, you can see your maturity coming into play. 

McCarthy: It was interesting to go back and look at that stuff because that period of my life that I talk about in "Brat" from when I was making those movies, is something I never looked at. Since I did stop drinking almost 30 years ago, I have tried to be very awake and present. And during a lot of making those movies, I was not in that state, so I was just reacting to situations. I often think that was just what happened to me in the 80s, those films, and I didn't have my hands on the wheel in a certain way, and I was just reacting. Whereas since then, I've tried to very actively participate in what befalls me.

So I did write those books backwards and it was interesting to go back and look at all the stuff that happened in the 80s, and all those movies really were just an outgrowth of whatever unconscious things I learned as a kid and was just trying to tread water as fast as I could. One of the things that stopping drinking did for me is I learned how to live, I guess, in a certain way. So it's one of the worst things that happened to me: my drinking problem. But really, in many ways, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, not getting sober and stopping drinking, but the fact that it existed in and of itself, may have been one of the great things that ever happened.

KCRW: Can you talk about that a little bit more?

McCarthy: I mean, we're the strength of our flaws, right? The fact that I was so addicted to alcohol, and that was my lot. I always put a disclaimer: it was not because I was successful in movies that I was too successful, too young and started drinking, I drank because I had a real affinity for alcohol. You know, people always talk about overcoming the obstacles, as a great thing, but then certainly the obstacle itself is the great thing. You know, not when you're stuck in it, but once you overcome it, it just becomes the nut from which the tree grows.

KCRW: You wrote about doing that scene in "St. Elmo's Fire" where you start to sing, and it's a moment of just kind of planting your foot and feeling the moment and being who that character is and finding that character. One of the things that interests me in your writing in those moments is you find a kind of freedom, and that's one of those moments.

McCarthy: Yes, it was a moment of freedom. You could draw a straight line from me being self conscious about singing and needing to get a solution, which is what I found with the bongo drums and doing all that gave me that which triggered the freedom. But because I was so self conscious about singing, that dates back to when I was in high school, and was told I was tone deaf, because I deliberately sang badly, and I harbored all this anxiety about it all those years. But the liberation from that in playing the bongo drums, that kind of freedom is something I rarely get. And it is delicious when you have it. And I think it's very attractive when you see it in other people. 

KCRW: Those moments where you get lost in something in your writing, it's the same sort of clarity, you find in these acting moments, these moments of expression that you write about in "Brat."

McCarthy: Well, I do think you're right, in that I feel most free when I'm writing stuff because I'm a fairly private person, and then the idea to write all these personal things, it seems contradictory in a certain way, but I find that very liberating. I enjoy the intimacy with myself when I'm writing and uncovering that stuff. While I'm writing it. I don't anticipate anyone reading it, or I would never write anything. I think that's true of most people.

KCRW: Wait, is that true for you, you don't anticipate anybody reading these things?

McCarthy: I never think about it. I couldn't write anything. I write it, I think, to the 15 year-old in myself. If I anticipated someone reading it, a grown up or a stranger, I don't think I would write it. I have played tricks with myself. You write something and you're like, I'm never gonna put this in the book, but I'm just going to write this to get it out of my system, so I can move on. And I'd write the whole paragraph, but there's no way it would be in the book. And then I read it back and I go, well, that's what the last 20 pages have been leading up to. If I don't put this in, there's no there there. So once I played that trick with myself and knew that I was going to keep those things in, I don't have to play with myself anymore. But I don't want to think about the reader while I'm writing because that's what got in the way of my acting to go back to what we were first talking about. That kind of self awareness or self consciousness, I guess. Self awareness is lovely; self consciousness and/or vanity, whether it's in the mirror or on the page is not helpful to creating something.

KCRW: So often you play characters who seem to be doomed by their sense of self awareness. 

McCarthy: One of the things I found about the “Brat Pack” was I felt I was so not what I was being labeled. I felt like I hadn't even come out of the gate yet, and I was boxed, and I didn't like that. But you know, I always had that looking at self, and I didn't feel the need to try and be a man, which I think a lot of my contemporaries did at a young age. Then that helped me find my niche of kind of a “sensitivity,” or detachment.

KCRW: These characters to some some extent knew who they were, and there's that weird tension in "Pretty in Pink" because this guy is sort of doomed by that. You mentioned Tennessee Williams a couple of times in your travel writing, and I just found that sense of those kinds of characters, be it Brick or somebody else, who are teetering between boyhood and adulthood, who know something about themselves and don't like it.

McCarthy: I just re-watched "A Place in the Sun," the Montgomery Clift movie, and "East of Eden" and they both had that quality so strongly. Their words are doing one thing, but inside they're just feeling something 180 degrees, and I just find that so compelling. 

You know, one of the things about "Pretty in Pink," maybe because I was so miscast: that part was written to be a football star, broad shouldered jock. And I was so not that, and my lead card, as it were, would be a kind of sensitivity or self awareness. It was so the opposite of the part, and it was so decided because Molly Ringwald liked me, for that part, that I got it. But why I almost didn't get the part was the exact reason I was successful in the part because of that kind of ambivalence and self awareness and not feeling like you fit into society in a certain way. That's a kid who grew up rich and yet, he didn't feel like he fit in. Molly's character didn't feel like she fit where she was, and that's where they met.

KCRW: You actually talk in really interesting terms about a performance of yours that I've always liked, and I'm glad you don't turn your nose up at it, which is "Weekend at Bernie's.” We're talking about freedom, and there's a lot of physical freedom in that character.

McCarthy: I love that guy. Bernie's aged very well. I was absolutely free in that movie, and I'm not sure why. It's much more close to my personality than many of the sensitive roles I've played. He has that silliness and that just dumb stuff, just the joy of life that, you know, I occasionally allow that I really appreciate in myself and wish I was free to let it run more. But I do love that movie. And I like that character a lot.

KCRW: Thinking about Ted Kotcheff and Chabrol,  I feel like these guys in some ways inform you as a director because you're prone to letting us see what the actors are doing. Especially something like "Orange is the New Black" there's so much going on; we really need to see how actors physically inhabit a frame, and that's something those guys did. They gave you space and freedom to move. And I feel that's one of your strengths as a director. 

McCarthy: I do think behavior should dictate everything and not dialogue. Most TV is run by writers who write dialogue, and TV is very dialogue heavy. Because I come from acting, the kind of acting I come from and that interests me is very behavior oriented. The one aspect I have where I start everything from directing-wise is blocking. And I've learned I have a nice visual sense, which is really helpful. And yes, I know how to talk to an actor. But the physical life of the actor is first and foremost to me, and so if I block well and I give the actor good behavior and good business to be doing that's truthful, you can never go wrong. And then suddenly, from my perspective, shots all fall into place and you build from that. 

KCRW: So much of TV, too, is basically like a medium close up even though there's an understanding now that people have bigger frames than they used to to watch at home. And you don't think like that. Clearly, your training as an actor and being in movies and working with directors, who have done a lot of master shots, has taught you something.

McCarthy: Well, I also think in television, like you say, you're going to end up in that mid-shot or the close-up. You're going to get there and you have to get there. But, say you have 40 to 50 scenes in a television show, what you're going to have then is 40 to 50 transition shots. And where TV directors make their mark, saying most scenes are going to end up in the close-up or the mid-shot are those transition shots. And so I will go super tight, and then super wide to make those transitions, and that's where directorial style in television shows will come in. 

KCRW: Again, it's interesting to read "Longest Way Home” and then to read "Brat" as you see this almost page by page evolution of you as an artist.

McCarthy: Well, I do give myself great freedom, like the writing I just do for me. I have to make a living as an actor and director. That's my job. The travel writing has always been for fun and for free. But even acting: I didn't know how to do anything else. I do them because I love to do them. 

You know, when I became a travel writer, that's not a very upwardly mobile thing from being a movie actor.  I love travel writing, and it's appealed to me on such a deep level that that's just where I went. I don't lie to myself very well. I don't do something well if I'm not enjoying it. I look at TV shows that I didn't want to direct and I just knocked them out, and those are very good episodes whereas other shows I really like I can do well.



Rebecca Mooney