"It was a life changer for me": Andrew McCarthy on his Brat Pack origins and a recent 500-mile walk

"Who wants to be called a brat? Who wants to be stuck in a pack?" the actor asks Salon

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 16, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Andrew McCarthy (Jesse Dittmar)
Andrew McCarthy (Jesse Dittmar)

"Look, it is a life changer," says actor and director Andrew McCarthy. "It really is." For centuries, pilgrims of all stripes have been drawn to the 500-mile Spanish route known as Camino de Santiago, a trail that has over time come to symbolize everything from a medieval religious quest and a modern tourist experience. But the man so synonymous with a certain '80s-era shorthand (he named his last memoir "Brat") told me during a recent "Salon Talks" conversation that for him, the trek represented something uniquely precious — a chance to spend a few uninterrupted weeks with his 19-year-old son. 

As McCarthy writes in "Walking with Sam: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain," forging an adult relationship with your newly grown-up kid ("Dead to Me" actor Sam McCarthy) can be its own rough road. But as the two men — one nursing his first real heartbreak and the other retracing a journey he'd made a quarter of a century before — journey across Spain, they find a new way to relate to each other, one step at a time. 

Coincidentally, the transformative power of the Camino de Santiago also gets an endorsement from another "St. Elmo's Fire" star, Emilio Estevez, whose recently rereleased film "The Way" is set along the route. Speaking to Salon's Alli Joseph earlier this month, Estevez said, "You are inspired not just by your own journey, but you're inspired by those who came before you and who did this walk. It's impossible to not walk in that history when you're on this ancient trail." 

For McCarthy, he says that the walk represented a chance to enjoy "the great luxury that you have with adult children occasionally, which was time," even if he did admittedly have "a lot of meltdowns" along the way. He also shared details of the Brat Pack documentary he's making, why his teen daughter doesn't want to watch old movies with him kissing Molly Ringwald, and how a little Meat Loaf helps make the journey more fun. And for anyone considering following in his footsteps, he encourages just taking a deep breath and hitting the road. "If you're in a moment of transition or crisis," he says, "go walk the Camino." Watch Andrew McCarthy on "Salon Talks" here, or read our conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

This is the second time in your life you walked the Camino de Santiago. Talk to me about the first time you did this 500-mile walk.

Back in the early '90s, I read a book by a fellow named Jack Hitt called "Off the Road." I'd never heard of the Camino de Santiago, which is an ancient pilgrimage route that's in the north of Spain. Back in the day, in the eighth century, they said that the bones of the Apostle St. James had been discovered in the farther westernmost reaches of Spain. Anybody who walked there would get half their time in purgatory knocked off, which is a good deal, right? Really, it was about real estate in the sense that Islam had taken over the Iberian Peninsula and the Catholic Church wanted it back. They said, "As you're marching across Spain to get your almighty soul purged, kick out those Moors." It led to the Crusades and all that stuff. So, it's a religious route or was and still is, but I think it largely came about because of real estate.

I walked in the early '90s and I found it a real life-changing experience. In a word, it revealed how much fear that I carried in the world and walked through the world with. That was liberating to me in a way that I had no idea. I didn't even know fear was a part of my life until that moment of its first absence.

I had a sobbing fit in a field of wheat in the middle of Spain and I just had a temper tantrum, which is, as people say, a white light experience. I was revealed to myself in a way that was such a relief. I felt like me, in a way that I really hadn't before. It was a profound experience. That led to me continuing traveling and everything beyond that, and slowly evolved into being a travel writer. That moment, that instant walking the Camino, really changed my life.

It was a pivotal moment in your career where you were feeling in the depths about where you were going with your acting. 

"I didn't even know fear was a part of my life until that moment of its first absence."

Yeah, it was after all the Brat Pack and all the success of being 22, 23. I had abused a lot of alcohol for a number of years during that time. It was after that and without even knowing I was looking for anything, when I picked up Jack Hitt's book. I read it on a plane and I said, "I'm doing that."

It's funny because back then there was no internet to look it up. I'd never heard of the Camino de Santiago. In the back of the book it said [Hitt] worked for Harper's Magazine, and so I called up Harper's and I said, "Can I talk to Jack Hitt?" They went, "Yeah, hold on." This was back when people used to go to the office and work, I guess. He got on the phone and I said, "Hey Jack, you don't know me, but I read your book." He was like, "You read my book?" He was thrilled. He was very gracious, and I said, "What do I do? How do I do it?" He told me, and off I went to Spain.

It's a generation later, and you have a 19-year-old son. What is it about this time in his life that you say, "We've got to grab this moment now?" 

I left home at 17 and never looked back, and my relationship with my father basically ended at that moment. I didn't want to have that happen with my kids. I think I've harbored a not-so-unconscious fear that one day he would leave, and that'd be the end of it, be over. He'd be gone, and that would just be recreated, that cycle. I really didn't want that. I had no template for how you have a relationship with an adult child. You're used to the parent-child dynamic, but that no longer applied because he's either not listening to me or not interested in what I have to say in disciplining him or that kind of thing. So I'm like, "Well, where do we go? What do we do?"

Because that first walk of mine has been so transformative and so embedded me in myself in a way that I had never been up to that moment, I thought if I could get him to go with me, we could at least see each other. I think that's one of the things we do with family members and with kids and parents and kids with their parents, we don't see them. We see our projection of them and we project ourselves onto them, particularly when they're like us. My son is like me in some way, so I just project, he must be feeling all the things I feel. And he's not, newsflash. It was an opportunity to see each other as adults. I'll always be his father and I'm not interested in being his pal, but I wanted to know, how do we relate going forward? And he was game to do that.

Which is extraordinary.

That was rare. I never would've done it with my father had he asked. That was an amazing gift he gave me, by saying yes. He was also at a moment of sort of crisis in his life. I've always said to many people, if you're in a moment of transition or crisis, go walk the Camino. I've had friends who lose jobs and I say, "Go walk the Camino." They're like, "I need to get a job. I'm not going walking again." I'm like, "No, you need to go walk." The few that actually listened to me all come back and go, "That was the best thing I ever did."

"If you're in a moment of transition or crisis, go walk the Camino."

He was at a moment in his life when he was vulnerable, and I said, "Any desire to go walk Spain?" He, in his despair, said, "Yeah, fine." At that instant, literally, I went to the other room, I bought two plane tickets. Two days later we were in Spain because I knew, in a couple days he'd bounce back and would think better of this and not want to do this. We were on the ground walking before he knew what hit him.

There are so few guidelines for how to parent an adult, especially when you have not had that template with your own parents. This book is about, how do I have an adult relationship with my adult child?

I had no idea what I'm doing. I just came to the realization, I'll share myself with him, warts and vulnerabilities and frailties and insecurities and all, and let him see me. When you're a parent of a smaller child, you're this figure in their lives and they don't see you, they see this figure. I don't know about other people, but I would encourage, in a certain way, that feeling of, "I'm the parent." It serves our ego.

You've got to let that go when they're adults because they see through it, they're not interested in that, and you don't have anything to offer them in that way. What I say now is I'm advocating for Sam now to Sam. He may not agree with what I'm advocating for him, but that's all I'm giving it to him. This is what I think, Sam, do whatever the hell you want.

There's so much in this book about Sam explaining social media to you. We did not have to grow up with Instagram or Raya with so much of our lives documented. But you were a young person very much in the public eye, and Sam knows the young version of you in a way that a lot of people his age don't know their parents.

I wrote a book several years ago about my time in the Brat Pack. He listened to the audiobook of it a couple times, and he said, "Wow, I had no idea." He said to his sister, who's 16, "If you want to know who Dad was when he was young, you need to read his book." 

"I'll just share myself with him, warts and vulnerabilities and frailties and insecurities and all, and just let him see me."

It is a weird and interesting thing. They can look and see this young person that was me, their father, long before they were born. My daughter's friends told her she had to watch "Pretty in Pink," and so she watched the trailer and saw me kissing Molly Ringwald. She's like, "I'm not watching a movie [of you] kissing some person. No, I'm not watching that." I think she's right.

Sam is so generous in letting you depict him the way that he is in this vulnerable, messy moment in his life. He even does his own narration on the audio version.

Yeah, in the audiobook we did together, he read off his own dialogue. 

How did you work together with him in that collaborative way? 

The audiobook was sort of like the walk: fights, frustration, deep breaths, some laughs and in the end it seemed to work out.

This is a big leap of faith for a now 21-year-old to do.

In fairness, he hasn't read it. I gave it to him. I said, "Sam, you might want to read this before I turn it in." He's not a big reader, so he read some pages and then he's like, "Yeah, no." Hopefully someday he might, and we'll see if he's still talking to me then.

But also, it's about him, but it's largely about me and my perspective and perception and parenting. He's a foil in a certain way to me and my own idiocy.

And you have a lot of meltdowns in this.

I do have a lot of meltdowns. I really do.

It's also about memory and revisiting our own past selves. There's so much in this book that is about re-walking these exact steps and having this very, very different experience. You saw that a lot changed.

Also, memory's so unreliable. We think we know exactly what happened, and it just is not accurate. So many times in my experience, I think I know exactly what a place is like, and it's just not like that. There are places I went to that I knew I was before and I had no recollection, it looked nothing like what I said. It was a real shock to me to walk in the footsteps of 25 years ago. Yes, more buildings get put up and stuff like that, but a lot of it, what an unreliable narrator I am in my own life. That was interesting for me to discover.

As are we all, though.

Absolutely. We tell ourselves things we have to, to get through the day and to justify behaviors, and so that was interesting to come to see.

In the book you talk about meeting up with someone who had gone on the same trip at the same time. Looking at photographs, even the photos were different.

"This moment in time, particularly with my son, this is over and it will never come again."

After the first trip, a friend I'd met on the trip had another friend in town who was on the trip. We were walking the same day, the same trail. It was like we were on different planets, the photos he took and the stories he told. But that's all of us. Whatever cheap metaphor you want to use, we're all walking a different path, even though we're walking the same thing.

Sam walked a very different Camino than I did, and that's as it should be in a certain way. We also tend to project our experience, other people must be feeling the same. And they're not. That's a great thing to realize because then there's space for him and space for me, and then we can come together in the middle there where there's space. Because if you're just projecting onto it, it's so solidified in a certain way. And so to just back off a little bit, if it makes any sense.

Especially, I think when it comes to those family dynamics, because there's always going to be that part of you that sees that child as a child.

Totally. My family, it's the same thing. My brother, a million years ago, called the Fire Department and called in a false alarm and that's still how we see him. Pete's the guy that called in the Fire Department. To this day he denies it, 40, 50 years later. But that's how we see him and we're not seeing him really, we're seeing that. 

What does the pilgrimage look like now, especially post-COVID?

It's much more crowded than when I walked 27 years ago, and there's much more infrastructure to support people. They realized it's an industry now, because it's gotten so much more popular than it was when I walked it years ago. But you still need to walk. You're still walking step after step for 500 miles. So it, in essence, hasn't changed at all and hasn't since the eighth century. You still have to walk the walk. Things change and there are more and nicer places to sleep if you want, but you've still got to get up and get there.

And some people take cabs.

There is always the guy who's going to take the cab and hop out of the cab and act like he didn't.

You wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the ways in which we connect with ourselves, our memories, our creativity, our paths, literally through walking. Yet we live in a country that actively discourages that and builds cities that you can't even walk in. Andrew, for those of us who can't do 500 miles in Spain, how do you think we can connect with that?

We were created to think and move at a walking pace. There's something about the rhythm of walking that releases the rhythm of thinking. It releases tension, it fuels creativity. Like you said, and all the abundant documentation of famous writers saying really witty and smart quotes about what walking does for them. I think it's also an attitude of, instead of seeing walking as the slowest way to get somewhere, which is how I always viewed it, to be walking into yourself, walking home to yourself. That's how I view walking now. Luckily I have a dog, so I have to walk her every day and I walk in Central Park. A lot of it is attitude too of just walking into myself, as opposed to, "I can't get a cab, so I've got to walk."

In the book too, you also talk about, do I put in my earbuds? 

"I also turn 60 this year, which is sort of shocking to me."

That's a thing with all the pilgrims. Some are very precious about how [they walk]. My life's not that precious. I've just got to get there. And today, if I need a little Bob Marley, I'm going to plug it in. It'll help me get there.

Get a little "Bat Out of Hell."

Meat Loaf always comes in handy.

You said at the end of the book you would never do it again.

Did I?

You do.

My son was ready to do it again. He was ready to walk a whole other one.

He was like, "I'm ready to go right now. I could turn around." Would you do it again?

Yeah, sure, I'd do it again today. But it's one of those things that was such a big experience. You have such mixed feelings when it's over, you're so relieved to be there and so thrilled and proud, and there's a joy in it but there's also such melancholy that that's over. This moment in time, particularly with my son, this is over and it will never come again. I knew that the whole time. I had the great luxury that you have with adult children occasionally, which was time, which you never get with adults. I had that with him.

Maybe we'd walk it again, but it'll never be like it was. So there was a great melancholic, bittersweet feeling at the end of it. Because it was such a big experience, I wouldn't want to walk it again too soon. When I did it the first time, I had the same feeling. I go, "I'll do that again within about 10 years." Took me 25, but you know? My son, when we finished it, goes, "We'll do it in 25 years, Dad." I'm like, "We've got to do it a little sooner than 25."

But yeah, I would go again. If one of my other kids bought in too, which I'm sure they won't. My daughter was like, "Can we just go to Paris, Dad?" But look, it is a life changer. It really is.

You have been acting more in the past few years. You've been doing other kinds of projects. Do you see a connection between this and the work that you've been doing just in the past couple of years?

Well, it's just brought me home. It just brings you home to yourself. I also turn 60 this year, which is sort of shocking to me. I never once blinked about age 40, 50, never even thought about it. But 60 kind of struck me as, "Wow, that's the beginning of being old."

You say in the book, you spent your whole career being young. 

I was young and I was famous for being young. I was famous when I was young, and then I was famous for having been young. To suddenly be sort of the beginning of being old, I somehow missed the middle.

I'm just finishing a documentary about the Brat Pack. After that book I wrote, it occurred to me, I've never talked to any of the old gang about it. It was a very life-changing event for me, the Brat Pack. It changed who I would become and my place in the world. Thirty-five years later, when I'm introduced, that's going to be in the introduction. And who would've thunk that at the time? 

"Who wants to be called a brat? Who wants to be stuck in a pack?"

I went back and dug up a bunch of the guys from back then. I hadn't seen Rob Lowe in 30 years, Emilio Estevez in 35 years. Demi Moore, and Ally Sheedy, I hadn't seen them in so long. I went to each of them and said, "Hey, will you talk to me about this? Because we were members of a club that we didn't ask to join that no one else was. We're the only ones that know what it was like."

It was a life changer for me. It's taken me decades to come to terms with it and see it as a beautiful thing. I'm the avatar of a certain generation's youth, as are the other actors. But initially, the Brat Pack was really an albatross for a lot of us career-wise and we hated it. Who wants to be called a brat? Who wants to be stuck in a pack? We found it really adversely affected our careers when we were young. So to have this thing stay with you for so long, it ultimately transforms into this beautiful kind of thing. People look at me, they come up to me and go, "Oh my God, the Brat Pack, those movies." Their eyes glaze over, and suddenly they're talking about themselves really, their own youth, and I represent that to them. That moment in life when your life is a blank slate to be written upon and you're just cusping into the world, like my son was in this book.

It's a beautiful, attractive phase. It's a moment and it doesn't last long. To represent that for people, I've come to realize that's a real gift. But that took me years to acknowledge and to understand. I went back and chatted with everybody, to find I had so much affection for everyone when I didn't particularly at the time. We were young and competitive and scared and insecure. To go back and see everybody and just have so much affection. Rob, when I saw him, I'm like, "Wow." He was the first one I ever was in a movie with at 19 years old in 1982. I think everyone was wonderfully surprised by it, not only affection for each other, but then for our own youth. That was very, dare I not say healing, but it was a nice experience to have.

It's all about just going back on the same road again.

I know. What had Joseph Conrad said? He spent his first half of his life at sea, and the second half of his life writing about the first half of his life? The Brat Pack is just the same.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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