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Pretty in Ink: Andrew McCarthy

The popular member of Hollywood's Brat Pack reminisces about the decadent 1980s in a new memoir

Andrew McCarthy and his memoir, "Brat: An '80s Story."
Grand Central Publishing; Jesse Dittmar

Forever emblematic of the decade that spawned his celebrity, Andrew McCarthy shot to fame as part of the so-called Brat Pack in the 1980s, along with rising young actors Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Demi Moore, James Spader, Molly Ringwald and Rob Lowe. In hits such as St. Elmo's Fire (dubbed “the Gen X Big Chill") and Pretty in Pink, they spoke to — and of — a generation with a force that endures nearly 40 years later. With his new memoir — Brat: An ‘80s Story — hitting the New York Times best seller list, the actor, director and writer talks with AARP about skinny ties and why travel keeps him young.

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What was it like to be branded in 1985 as a member of “the Brat Pack"?

(Left to right) Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Mare Winningham and Andrew McCarthy in a cast photo for "St. Elmo's Fire."
The cast of "St. Elmo's Fire." (Left to right) Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Mare Winningham and Andrew McCarthy.
Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

It was such a good turn of phrase that it just took on a life of its own. Nobody likes to be labeled or put in a box, so the actors kind of ran from it. The point of my book is how it transformed itself, so to that generation 30-odd years later, it represents their own youth — a touchstone of that exciting moment when their life was a blank canvas in front of them to be painted on. I represent that moment, a wistful memory of their youth.

Do you have any keepsakes of your Brat Pack days?

I have some of the skinny ties and that deconstructed straw-colored blazer I wore in Pretty in Pink.

Writer, author, director and actor Andrew McCarthy talks about his new adult fiction novel "Just Fly Away" at Build Series, at Build Studio on March 27, 2017 in New York City.
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

The McCarthy File

Age: 58

Hometown: Westfield, New Jersey

Greatest hits: Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, Less Than Zero, Weekend at Bernie’s

Directing hits: The Blacklist, Condor, Orange Is the New Black, Good Girls

Books: Just Fly Away, The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down, Journeys Home: Inspiring Stories, Plus Tips and Strategies to Find Your Family History

Children: Rowan, 7, Willow, 14 (title star of the Broadway musical Matilda), Sam, 19 (costar of Netflix’s Dead to Me).

You're still an actor, lately playing a hit man on Good Girls. But mostly you're a TV director now. When you direct James Spader in The Blacklist, do you use the Brat Pack secret handshake?

Last week I said something to him and I didn't finish my sentence, and he just raised his eyebrows and he knew exactly what we were talking about. We have a complete shorthand. My day job is TV directing.

You owe your career to a VCR malfunction. How did that happen?

I taped a terrible audition in 1982 [to play Jacqueline Bisset's lover and fellow Brat Packer Rob Lowe's schoolmate in the film Class]. The director said, “Oh, skip this guy; he's terrible.” But videotaping auditions was so new, they couldn't figure out how to fast-forward the VCR. So they had to just wait for me to be done. And the producer, Marty Ransohoff [The Beverly Hillbillies], said, “That guy's weird. I like him. Who is he?” It never would have happened without that VCR mistake.

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So suddenly, you were a movie star, living in Bisset's Hollywood Hills house, partying with Liza Minnelli, getting chased around a pool by one of the Go-Gos. And then, what was your next crucial, unlikely break, in 1986?

I was cast in Pretty in Pink — by the skin of my teeth. Molly Ringwald got me the part. She just said, “That's the guy you should hire.” The filmmakers were like, “You kidding me?” Molly's guy was supposed to be a hunky quarterback type, but she said, “That's the guy I would fall for.” John Hughes said, “That wimpy guy?” “He's sensitive, poetic,” she said.

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Was your sensitivity your strength as an actor?

I was certainly oversensitive and very wary, elusive. A combination of being open and yearning and then, in the next breath, pulling back, being scared and defensive.

What was Pretty in Pink director John Hughes like?

Jon Cryer, Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy on the set of "Pretty in Pink."
Jon Cryer, Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy on the set of "Pretty in Pink."
Paramount/Getty Images

Wary. I responded to his wariness with my wariness. John was so worried. He was exposing his own youth and vulnerabilities in all those Brat Pack movies. Then he retreated behind his facile comedies, like Home Alone, to stay safe. But those Brat Pack movies were very openhearted, in a way that none of his other work was. What people are remembered for is when they show their heart.

Why do people in their 40s and 50s still relate to old Brat Pack movies?

John gave young people credit for having emotions that are valid and true and important, and not to be dismissed. Nobody feels anything with more passion than a 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kid. My son is 19, and it is Romeo and Juliet — he's the first person to have ever been in love. And that's as it should be. There's not any kind of buffer between you and your emotions. John honored that. I thought Pretty in Pink was a kind of silly movie about a girl who makes a dress and wants to go to a dance. But it was about so much more than that, which is what resonates with people still. It wasn't about beach blanket bingo.

What do you know that your young self didn't?

The one thing I would have told myself is, You can afford to believe in yourself a little bit more. And I was probably less patient or trusting than I might have been.

Do you think Hollywood is wise to fear aging and dump talents after they turn 50?

Our whole culture worships young people. If you lose that appeal, what do you have to offer? And that's a scary place. And so most people want to cling on to youth as long as possible. It's taken me years, well past my youth, to give up trying to be youthful. Writing the book helped me release a lot of that baggage of whatever disappointment or judgment I had about my own career in my youth. So it was kind of liberating. To dismiss older people is as stupid as dismissing young people. I directed Jane Fonda, and I marveled at how intensely curious she was — just fantastic, remarkable and smart.

Besides acting and directing, you're a travel writer and were an editor at large for National Geographic Traveler. Is that your true vocation?

Unfortunately, travel writing doesn't really put three kids through private school, but you know, if it did, it certainly is a fantastic job. I drank the Kool-Aid on travel. Travel changes your life; I believe it is a transformative experience.

Is travel an antidote to aging because it makes everything seem new and fresh?

Yeah. I think it gives you that sort of sense of awe and wonder again, if you allow it. I defy you to go to Rome's Trevi Fountain or a pyramid or the Patagonian steppe and say all jaded, “Eh, yeah, kinda nice.” You're gonna go, “Wow!” And then you're going to turn to your wife or husband and see the same one you fell in love with 40 years ago. Travel is the easiest, fastest way to have that sense of wonder and excitement and connection with someone else.

So what are you in the end? An actor? A director? A writer?

Travel, writing, acting, directing — like, they're all the same. I just feel like me when I do them.

Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.