The actor-director recounts how and why he got into travel writing and shares stories from his new memoir, The Longest Way Home.
Actor-writer Andrew McCarthy
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Andrew McCarthy to this program. The star of so many notable films, including, of course, “Pretty in Pink,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and “Less than Zero” is now an award-winning travel writer who serves as editor-at-large for “National Geographic Traveler.” His critically acclaimed new book is called “The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down.” Andrew, nice to have you on this program.
Andrew McCarthy: Thanks. Nice to be here.
Tavis: I would assume that you must be tickled about the reception this book is receiving.
McCarthy: I am. It’s also a huge relief, because it’s a complicated thing. It’s a bit of wait, this actor’s brought out this kind of – so it’s a relief when it’s received in a nice way, so that it can stand on its own, rise and fall on its own, as opposed to some weird baggage that it gets from being my history.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Were there doubts? Was there trepidation about putting a book out that is wrapped around travel, or put another way, travel is at the epicenter of it, but it really is about your life in so many respects. Any fear about being so transparent?
McCarthy: No, I guess is the short answer. I think the book turned out much more personal than I thought it would be when I began it, but I knew I didn’t want to write a travel book, per se. But travel is the form that I’ve been writing about for the last 10 years, so it was a platform that I understood and I used travel in a personal way to sort of solve dilemmas and answer questions that I have in life.
So I had a question that I needed answered, so I really just, I traveled it. Some people go to therapy, some people have tea with the girls, I travel a problem. (Laughter)
So I traveled this dilemma that I had, and so it’s a sort of internal thing that plays out in 3D on Kilimanjaro and down the Amazon and stuff. So it had to be personal if it was going to be anything, otherwise it just would have been some random, strung-together travel, which didn’t interest me.
Tavis: And the dilemma that you had, the question you were trying to answer was?
McCarthy: Well, I had been engaged for a number of years and yet I found myself unable, in a certain way, to get married. I thought – I suffered from that “I love you, I’ve got to go” syndrome. I have that paradox of where I really want to be here and yet part of me just yearns to be on my own. So it’s reconciling, I think, the need for community, commitment, intimacy, with the need for solitude, and it was a problem I haven’t seen wrestled with very much.
So I didn’t have any sort of precedent for it, so I just started trying to solve that question in myself.
Tavis: This conversation is going to get me in some trouble. I was reluctant to even have this conversation with you. (Laughter) Because it brings up my own personal drama.
McCarthy: Well, you know what I mean? Once you start talking about this stuff you realize that a lot of people have this kind of issue.
McCarthy: But this whole notion that we should be together all the time and we’re not – it’s crazy in a certain way. So I find it a very common sort of ailment, and yet it’s part of the human – I suppose in days long ago men would go off to the hunt and be gone for a long time and then come back. So I need – my wife is one who likes – we have us and then I can go have me.
I’m like, I need me, and then I can have us. So we approach the same thing from polar opposites.
Tavis: How do you – and there’s a whole book, of course, where you do this, but in short, how – and there’s a passage I want to read here – but how would you explain – and I ask this, again, I was joking a moment ago; well, actually not joking, about the fact that my personal life came to me when I got a chance to read your own book.
I’ve had the most difficult time as a single man. I am not married as yet, but I’ve dated, of course, in my life, and I have never found success trying to explain to a girlfriend why it is, literally why it is that I need some time alone to travel. If I get a couple of weeks off from this TV show, then you are expected to spend that time with your girlfriend because they don’t see you enough as it is because you’re working all the time.
But to explain, okay, I’ve got three weeks off, I’m going to spend a week and a half of that with you, but I need a week and a half to just be by myself, to think, to have some solitude. That’s the most difficult thing for guys to explain to companions sometimes. How did you go about explaining that?
McCarthy: How did I sell that one at home?
Tavis: Yeah, how’d you do that? (Laughter)
McCarthy: Well, I think my wife has sort of her own vital life, and so she’s not waiting for me to have – for us. She’s living her own life, and she understands that it’s – I come back a better person for having been off doing my thing, so she wants that person.
So it’s not particularly an issue. Often when I come back she’s like, “What are you doing here? We’re just getting a rhythm without you.” (Laughter)
McCarthy: So, I don’t really – men travel for work all the time. I’m traveling to write magazine articles. It happens that I’m going to exotic, fantastic places, or acting on a movie set or something. So I think it’s a natural rhythm of a relationship.
Tavis: But Andrew, in fairness, though, you weren’t just traveling for your job. That is a part of what you do. But you said in this conversation and argue in the book, of course, or lay bare in the book that for you, there is a need to be alone.
Tavis: It’s not just for work. You need to get alone, traveling by yourself, traveling solo allows you to find answers, allows you to – so it’s not just – so again I’m coming back to this because I know there are a lot of guys watching who feel the same way – who – that private solitude, that space is important to be with oneself for a while, and I’ve never begrudged a girlfriend doing that.
Tavis: Take a week, take two weeks, I’m okay with that, but it doesn’t always seem to work the same way in reverse.
McCarthy: Then you’ve got to find another woman.
Tavis: Okay, got it. (Laughter) All right, enough said.
McCarthy: I just think if I –
Tavis: Answered that question.
McCarthy: – if I’ve got nothing to bring to you, then I’ve got nothing to bring to you.
McCarthy: So I’ve got to go – so I don’t know.
Tavis: So how did traveling on your own, how did getting out there, even in these exotic places, help you find the answer to your question, to your dilemma?
McCarthy: Well, I’d have to back up. Travel for me started, as a young actor I went to many places. I would get in the car and I’d go to a location; I’d come back and I’d sort of see things through the window.
Then I took a trip, I walked along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, that sort of old pilgrim route for 500 miles across the north of Spain, and I read a book about that once. So I suddenly found myself a week later, I said, “I’m going to do that.” I had no idea why I did that.
I’d never backpacked, I’d never hiked, I’d never done anything, but I wanted to do that, so I found myself walking across Spain, and it was miserable. I had a terrible experience. I was lonely, I had blisters, it was a terrible sort of time.
Then I had one of those moments that people talk about where it got so bad – I had a breakdown. I had a tantrum, basically, in the middle of a field of wheat, where I just sort of was on my knees suddenly, sobbing, screaming up to the heavens, “This is horrible. This isn’t fair. Why am I not appreciated? What’s going on in my life? Where’s my limousine to pick me up and take me home?”
It was a real transformative moment for me, because I had a sudden awareness, sitting there sobbing in a field of wheat, that fear which had so dominated my life up to that point, in a way that I was never even aware of its existence until that sort of moment of its first absence, suddenly was lifted from me, and I suddenly had much more space around me and in myself, because I was relieved of this kind of fear.
So I started traveling. I said, “I want more of that feeling,” so I started traveling and doing more of it, and through traveling I sort of grew up. I was a young guy doing all these kind of movies in my twenties, so there’s a certain kind of stunted something that happens, or I’m just doing that, and so the traveling allowed me to be separate from that and have my own sort of experiences. It helped me really step through fear, is the simple answer.
Tavis: What were you afraid of? Success?
McCarthy: Well, I certainly had – I’ve had a real struggle, I think, in my whole life with ambivalence. I wanted success and yet on the other hand I would pull away from it. I wanted to be intimate with you and yet I’ve got to go. So it was a constant sort of push-pull and wrangling of the two, and trying to figure that out, just – because I found that internal constant struggle is exhausting and you can’t really make substantial progress in anything if you’re like that.
But I found myself fearful of people, fearful of success, fearful of – fear just becomes a habit, and fear masquerades as many, many things. It masquerades as common sense, it masquerades as exhaustion, as anything – I’m afraid of flying. So it helped me to sort of dissolve that to a large degree in my life, or to the degree where I was not going to be ruled by it.
So I became very aware of its presence. I think – it’s one of my big soapboxes. I think America’s an amazing country, and yet I think America is a very, very fearful place, and I think we make many, many decisions based on fear, particularly political decisions.
We make them on fear without proper information. I think if Americans traveled, they would see the world differently. Mark Twain has that great line, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” I think that’s absolutely true. I think if Americans traveled, they’d be less fearful.
They’d realize that guy with a towel around his head is not trying to kill him, probably, and we would make less fearful decisions. So if we traveled, the world would be a much safer place, I think. My soapbox is that I’d like to change the world one trip at a time.
Tavis: I don’t disagree with you on that, and I’ve made that point any number of times on this show, citing repeatedly the statistic, how the overwhelming number of Americans do not even own a passport.
McCarthy: Yeah, I think it’s about 30 percent or something.
Tavis: Exactly, that’s the number. Doesn’t even own a passport. 70 percent of us do not own a passport, 70 percent.
McCarthy: And I think half of those have used them.
Tavis: Yeah, half of the – yeah. So the question for you, because I agree with your sentiment, why is it that we don’t? Is it arrogance, is it hubris, is it narcissism, is it nationalism? Why don’t we travel the world more?
McCarthy: Well, what’s arrogance but fear just turned on its head, and bravado? So I just think it’s fearful thinking. We’ve got everything in America, we have all these different kinds of – we’ve got everything. You can go to Hawaii, you can go to the Grand Canyon, why go anywhere else? But I think the reason to travel is for the people and the cultures and see how people are doing things differently, not to be – so I just think it’s fear.
Then people really rail against me when I say this. They go, “No, it’s money, it’s not fear.” I’m like, “Wow, that’s a really aggressive stance.” People will defend; they’ll fight for their fears full-on. I don’t think it’s money. I’ve sort of proved to friends of mine who say that, I show them I spend less money on the road than I do at home.
One of the biggest travel best sellers right now is a book called “The Kindness of Strangers,” about a guy who traveled around without a penny. So I just think it’s Americans stay home.
Tavis: How did your travel ultimately inform, impact, your acting, or your development as an actor?
McCarthy: Well, it helped me as a person, so anything that helps develop you sort of and get out of yourself as a person is going to help your acting. It helped me grow up in that way, like I say, and it helped me have more compassion and more curiosity.
As an actor you’re always interested in detail and behavior and things, so watching people, it’s fascinating. I do a lot of directing now too, so it’s interesting. In acting, you’re very subjective from the point of view. I’m just worried about the story from my perspective.
In directing, you’re much more interested in, of course, in telling the whole thing, so you’ve got a much more bird’s-eye point of view. Then the writing, it’s kind of a combination of the two. I would want to immerse myself in the story and then pull back and tell the story. So they all kind of feed each other.
I suppose that also has given me a different creative outlet so I’m not dependent on acting in a creative way. I feel like I have to be creative, for lack of a better word, every day to find myself, to locate myself. It doesn’t have to be particularly good. I just have to be in the sort of state of creating, because that’s what I do for my life. That’s how I make my living.
So in acting you’re always waiting for somebody to give you a chance to do that, and in the writing I can just do it myself and I can sort of place myself much easier. So I think they all feed.
Tavis: I want to read this passage, but I want to come right back to this point you’re making now about the freedom – that’s my word, not yours – but this freedom that you have found by not having to be tied to waiting for somebody to give you a job.
That’s an important issue I want to come back to, but I was talking about this, how your travel influenced your acting, and I found this passage fascinating in your book. It’s the new book from Andrew McCarthy called “The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down.”
I found this fascinating: “I have often wondered why certain acting jobs come my way when they do. What’s the lesson to be learned, aside from the obvious challenge of the work? Why, for example, am I cast as a widower while I’m in the process of getting divorced, or in a silly comedy while I’m going through a particularly tough stretch personally? With travel writing, it has been the same.”
McCarthy: Yeah. Well, I love that. I love that my life is constantly reflected in my work. I’m so grateful that I have jobs that are seamless in my life. It’s not something that I go do and it’s totally divorced from who I am. I’m really grateful that I’m sort of a part of my work, and my work is a part of me and influencing me and illuminating things about myself to me.
That’s fascinating to me. I’m glad I’m not, I’m so grateful that I don’t have to just do Sprockets a hundred times, a thousand times a day. I don’t know, I would go insane. I can imagine there’s a certain freedom in that too. It’s just a detachment, I do it, it’s done, whereas mine is it’s always at work or at play in itself. But that’s how I’ve always lived, and so that’s how I feel comfortable.
Tavis: Since we’re on this subject, I’ve always believed, at least for my own life, I can’t speak for others, I’ve always believed that for my own life, freedom is really about the right to choose, and in this business so much of what happens, as you said earlier, is not about your right to choose but about being chosen by somebody else for the part, for the role, for the opportunity.
So it’s kind of like the inverse. How has this freedom to choose, to choose to act, to choose to write, to choose to travel, to choose, et cetera, to direct, how has that freedom enhanced – my word, not yours – I assume it’s enhanced your life in myriad ways?
McCarthy: Yeah, well, I resent people having power over me in any regard. So it just gave me a chance to sort of take myself back, in a certain way, and it was a huge relief when I found writing. I came to writing fairly late in life, and so in college and in school I never read, I didn’t write.
So when I found it, it was a big relief because I’m also a fairly solitary person, so it was something I could just do. I didn’t need you to bounce it off of. It didn’t exist, and then suddenly I wrote it, and now it exists, whereas acting is much more of an interpretive thing.
So it’s given me a sense of power in the good way of not power of assertion but power of self-possession that always ultimately makes me more generous and makes me a better version of myself, because if I own myself, my own power, then I’m sort of open to you as opposed to trying – if I’m desperate and need this acting job, it’s much more, I’m much more closed off to you.
Why I travel and why I sort of write, all this stuff is to try and open that and have some sort of connection with you, ultimately. So acting was the first time I found that, where I would sort of connect to something and sort of try and communicate that connection, but that’s always what I’m sort of after.
The paradox for me is that someone who’s very much a loner and keeps myself separate, ultimately, what I’m after is connection with you. Then, of course, I want to flee it, which is the whole paradox of the book. How does a loner find – so it’s a constant sort of struggle in life for – it’s a balance, and it’s sort of you’re going one direction, then I’m going the other.
So if that makes any sense, I’ve found it to be an interesting – the writing’s helped me in that regard. It’s freed me.
Tavis: I guess this doesn’t surprise me, given that nothing Hollywood does surprises me, (laughter) but it is fascinating to think, Andrew, about the way you were sold to us. You were packaged and sold to us as part of a Brat Pack. You were not sold to us as a loner, as a solitary individual, which you now confess to being.
When you look back, then, on those Brat Pack years, what do you make – were we sold a false bill of goods where you are concerned?
McCarthy: Well, it was certainly an odd thing, because in reality, of course, nothing like that ever existed. But it doesn’t matter, because it became a very zippy saying, and it’s attached. I could land on Mars now and it will say Andrew “Brat Pack” McCarthy lands on Mars. (Laughter)
That’s going to be with me my whole life, and it’s absolutely fine now. Because now it’s become this sort of iconic, friendly kind of – it’s a warm and fuzzy thing, whereas when it first started I think it was a very pejorative term that was – and the last thing as an actor you want is to be sort of lumped together and all that kind of stuff, and I found it – anything like that’s limiting.
So I hated it when I was young and I thought it was really – I ran from it. But you can’t outrun something like that. You never can. So you just – and those movies now are, I look at them, I never watched them, but I’ve been doing publicity so I see them pop up in the interviews as pieces, and I look at them and I look at myself and I think, well, the acting’s not that great in some of them, but there’s a certain look in my eye that’s very – so full of that youthful thrill of being we’re right here, this is so great. We’re here together, doing – you know what I mean?
That only youth has, so I had a certain appeal that’s very evident to me when I see it now from this distance. That whole group of movies and actors, it was interesting, because at the time they weren’t well-respected films in any way. I think “Less than Zero” was a huge bomb, didn’t make any money, it was terribly reviewed.
I think “St. Elmo’s Fire” was, one review summed it up, it said, “It’s an imitation ‘Big Chill’ a day late and a dollar short.” (Laughter) None of these movies were well-regarded films. They were just – but now they’ve taken on this kind of stature, and I think one of the reasons they did is because this was the mid-’80s, I guess, when VCR had just sort of come into people’s homes in a powerful way, and so the people that were renting movies were kids. They were going to those movies.
So suddenly instead of seeing a movie once, maybe twice, you could take us home and watch it 10, 15 times with your friends, and they took ownership of us in a way that defined their youth. So I think it was a shock to everybody in those movies that they became so iconic.
Tavis: You said when you look at these films now, when you’re forced to look at them, you see in your eyes a youthful something. Just the eyes are the window to the soul – when you look back at yourself in that time period now, were you unhappy then? You were running from the success, you were intimidated by the success, but were you unhappy?
McCarthy: No, not at all.
McCarthy: I was very – I was doing what I wanted to do. I was thrilled. Yet I found it, I wasn’t a Kennedy, I wasn’t bred for success. I didn’t really know how to handle it or negotiate it. There was no sort of career planning going on with me. It wasn’t like I did a movie about a mannequin, now let me do one about drug addicts.
There was no – it was whatever came next, sort of, and I was frightened by it, I suppose, to a degree, because I didn’t feel that I would be able to – that a lot was being heaped on me that I didn’t know was really appropriate or valid or who I was.
So it was just a peculiar time. (Laughter) But it so defined who I became as a man, and I’ve often wished – well, not often, but lately, when people ask me about it, I’ve thought it’d be interesting to have had a parallel life where none of that happened to see how it’s changed, how different I am because of that happening.
It’s just been my life, and so it was an interesting thing. It probably helped propel me and to travel more, (unintelligible) sort of flee and bounce away from that, and that’s been a good thing. But it also gave me a way in the world. I had no idea what I would have done had I not become an actor, and a successful actor very young.
I was kicked out of college, I wasn’t good in school, I wasn’t interested in school. I didn’t have any – I had just sort of some feeling that I wanted to do something, and it gelled very quickly. So it’s just my sort of path.
Tavis: How’s the “NatGeo” work coming along?
McCarthy: Yeah, it’s great. (Laughter) It’s an interesting thing, because in travel, that magazine, that brand, is so respected, so it was wonderful for me because when I was starting to do it, people were like, “You write for ‘National Geographic?'” It was instant respect in a way that wait, the guy from “Pretty in Pink” thinks he’s a travel writer? Oh, great. (Laughter)
So it helped eliminate that to some degree, and it helped me sort of spread out and do what I wanted to do. But I also was good – I could tell stories, which is what I brought to it.
Tavis: How did you become such – I wanted to ask that, so I’m glad you raised it – how did you become such a good storyteller?
McCarthy: Well, I don’t know that I am, except that I’ve been telling stories all the time my whole life as an actor, and I know good dialogue. I’ve said so much bad dialogue I know good dialogue when I hear it. (Laughter) So I know a good quote, and I know sort of story arc.
I just know that. That’s how I live, that’s my whole life, has been in storytelling in one form or another, so that’s what I like. My kids are like, “Dad, tell us,” my kids can’t sit still at the dinner table. It’s like, “Dad, tell us a story.” If I tell them a story, they sit and eat their food, you know what I mean?
So I just, I like stories. That’s forever, forever in the world, that’s how people communicate, is through story, and so I find it interesting.
Tavis: He is a great storyteller, whether he’s acting, whether he’s directing, or now writing a book. He’s been doing the travel stuff for a while, but now there is a book, and it’s called “The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down.” Everybody’s talking about it.
The acclaim on this book is beyond critical. You might want to add it to your collection. Written by Andrew McCarthy. Andrew, good to have you on the program, and congrats on the book.
McCarthy: Thank you.
Tavis: Glad to have you here. That’s our show tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes app store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.