A Conversation with Andrew McCarthy on Acting & How 500 Mile Walk Changed His Life.

A Conversation with Andrew McCarthy on Acting & How 500 Mile Walk Changed His Life.

Award-winning travel writer, director, and beloved Brat Pack actor, Andrew McCarthy has spent a lifetime mesmerizing audiences with his multifaceted talents. From his iconic performances in 1980s classics like “Pretty in Pink” and “St. Elmo’s Fire” to his critically acclaimed travel writing for esteemed publications like National Geographic, McCarthy continues to show us the world through his uniquely insightful lens. As he reinvents himself across diverse platforms, he continues to enthrall fans old and new with his deeply human and universally relatable narratives.

In his latest endeavor, “Walking with Sam,” McCarthy masterfully weaves an inspiring tale that takes us off the silver screen and into the raw realities of life. This profound narrative chronicles his journey along Spain’s famed Camino de Santiago with his young adult son, Sam. What was initially an attempt to reconnect with his son turned into a transformative odyssey of self-discovery, bonding, and revelation. Each step along the storied route holds a lesson, not just about the complexities of fatherhood, but also about the profound beauty found in the simplest acts of love and understanding. “Walking with Sam” is more than just a memoir – it’s a testament to the enduring power of shared journeys and the lasting legacies they forge.

In this interview, I speak to Andrew McCarthy on what acting can teach us about life, and what a 500 mile walk with his son taught him about fatherhood, and meaning.

Q: What did acting teach you about people?

[Andrew McCarthy]: In a way, it’s quite the opposite. Engaging in acting is somewhat akin to performing alchemy on your personality. You amplify certain traits, while diminishing others, fine-tuning the elements of your persona. The deeper your understanding and awareness of your own emotional spectrum, the more seamlessly you can infuse it into a character. Additionally, there are physical nuances that unfold through emotional reactions – often unexpected, but invariably intriguing. Therefore, as I delve deeper into self-understanding, it invariably enriches my grasp on my characters and their accessibility to me – if that articulates my perspective clearly.

At times, I find myself contemplating: why have I received this role now, why am I embodying this character at this juncture in my life? Interestingly enough, it often happens that the issues I’m presently wrestling with mirror precisely the dilemmas my character is experiencing. There’s something intriguing about the timing of it all. However, this correlation could also stem from the fact that I’m presently spotlighting these aspects in my personal life, which in turn enables me to perceive them within my character. It’s possible that there’s a bit of both at play, if that elucidates my viewpoint.

If you truly immerse yourself in a role, it’s akin to spontaneously adopting an accent – suddenly, you find yourself expressing thoughts that seem to emerge from an unexplored facet of your personality. You’re channeling a completely different persona, and sometimes, it can happen in the most whimsical ways – like slipping into a playful accent and behaving in a drastically different manner. This latent potential has always existed within us; it’s merely a matter of discovering the right key to unlock that particular aspect of ourselves. Engaging in such role-play, or ‘dramatic games’ if you will, can be quite a liberating experience, I believe.

Q: What does it take, to tell great stories? 

[Andrew McCarthy]: Indeed, it’s about identifying a start, a middle, and an end. What’s fascinating is that as an actor, you’re not charged with telling the whole story. Instead, your role is to authentically embody your specific portion of the narrative. However, when you step into the director’s shoes, you become the guiding figure in the room. Your responsibility now includes discerning the storyline of the entire show or film, understanding the essence of each scene, and justifying its inclusion. Amidst all these complexities, it’s easy to lose sight of the overarching narrative.

Storytelling involves constant transitioning between the micro and the macro – focusing meticulously on the details while periodically stepping back to perceive the entire panorama from a bird’s eye perspective. This balance can often elude us, particularly actors who may become engulfed in the subjective vastness of their roles, losing sight of the complete narrative that they are, in fact, part of telling. 

Q: How do you handle success?

[Andrew McCarthy]:  Well, my initial plunge into my chosen path was purely driven by passion. I believe success and fame, especially fame, can instigate fundamental shifts within us at a cellular level. The very nature of fame is peculiar; it’s akin to an insatiable flame that ceaselessly yearns for more, compelling you to endlessly seek something, despite its ultimate emptiness. Moreover, it has a tendency to stoke and indulge our major character flaws.

To set fame as an objective can be likened to voluntarily stepping into a fire, with the inevitable outcome of being consumed. Hence, I continually return to my work – that is the true constant. Success, fame, and all such ephemeral notions come and go, they wax and wane. Relying on them for validation is a recipe for a tumultuous journey. Shouldn’t the objective be to experience as smooth a ride as possible?

Q: How do you handle failure?

[Andrew McCarthy]: In a peculiar way, failure can sometimes be simpler to grapple with. You can simply resist it, dismiss it with a defiant ‘to hell with this, to hell with them’, and return to square one. Conversely, success can be considerably more subtle and insidious. While initially thrilling, relieving, and intoxicating, it can harbor a profound hollowness, which makes it more challenging and bewildering to confront.

Failure is straightforward – it brings disappointment, stirs up anger and resentment towards those who’ve criticized you. This wave of emotion typically subsides after a few tough days, and you can then progress. On the other hand, success proves to be a more treacherous terrain. Ego and vanity, two of our biggest life challenges, are greatly nourished by success. They feed on themselves, and soon, you might find yourself making decisions based on these rather than grounded judgment. This, indeed, presents a significant issue.

[Vikas: Perhaps this is where the vanity of social media doesn’t help?]

[Andrew McCarthy]: Indeed, the ubiquity of self-imagery in our present age is quite peculiar. My children have been accustomed to seeing themselves from a very tender age and are acutely aware of their presentation to the world. Contrastingly, I was largely oblivious to my own image until I began appearing in films. I’d glance at myself in the mirror a few times a day at most, while today’s generation is constantly viewing their own reflections on their phones and other devices. I can’t help but think that this might not be beneficial in the long run.

Q: How did becoming a father change you? 

[Andrew McCarthy]: Truth be told, fatherhood was never a role I envisioned for myself, never an ambition I pursued. Yet now, I consider it the most defining aspect of my identity and my place in the world. Upon learning of my wife’s pregnancy, an acquaintance once commented, ‘It’s good that you’re having kids; there comes a point in life when you should stop focusing solely on yourself.’ I’ve come to realize the profound truth in those words – parenthood instigates a major shift, redirecting much of your attention outwards rather than inwards, and I firmly believe this to be a positive transformation.

Q: How did your upbringing shape your approach to being a father?

[Andrew McCarthy]: Growing up, I harbored a profound fear for my father, a highly formidable man. I was adamant that my children should not endure a similar experience. My relationship with my father virtually ended when I left home at 17, only to be mended many years later. I was determined to avoid replicating that pattern. This motivation underpinned the decision to write my book. As my son transitioned into adulthood, I aspired to reconfigure our relationship, to evolve it from a parent-child dynamic into a bond between two adults. Lacking a personal reference for such a relationship, I made a conscious effort to remain attuned to this aim.

Q: What do you hope your son takes into adulthood from your life?

[Andrew McCarthy]: As an adult, I would urge him to prioritize presence, as I firmly believe that showing up constitutes 90% of the equation. Additionally, cultivating creativity and empathy, the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes, is crucial. It encourages us to treat one another with kindness. This, in turn, breeds self-respect, and when you respect yourself, you naturally extend that respect to others.

Q: What did you feel as the weight of responsibility as your son grew up?

[Andrew McCarthy]: While some may perceive a blank slate as burdensome, I find it can offer a refreshing sense of freedom. Regarding discipline in my household, it’s practically non-existent. We’ve set only two clear boundaries – no disrespectful behavior and no actions that could lead to harm. Beyond that, the guiding principle is to treat others with the decency and respect with which one wishes to be treated. It’s somewhat simplistic, yet comprehensive.

The best parenting advice I’ve ever received came from a friend’s father, a humble man from the American South. As he detected my apprehension upon learning of my impending fatherhood, he simply said, ‘Andy, you just love them and keep them dry.’ This advice, as understated as it may appear, proved to be the most profound parenting counsel I’ve ever received. Love them, ensure their emotional and physical comfort, especially during their younger years – and the rest will fall into place. I genuinely believe in the truth of this sentiment.

Q: What was your greatest learning from your journey, walking 500 miles with your son?

[Andrew McCarthy]: My primary intention was to truly ‘see’ my son – a sentiment that, I believe, resonates with most of us. We yearn for acknowledgment, for someone to truly hear us and see us for who we are. Thus, my aim was to establish an environment where my son could truly see me, and vice versa. As parents, we often see ourselves as guiding figures, and that’s acceptable to an extent. However, it’s equally beneficial for our children to see us as we truly are.

My son once remarked during our trip – a comment I believe I included in the book – that it takes an extended period, if not an eternity, for children to perceive their parents as real, complex individuals. I find the reverse to be just as accurate. My goal was to foster an environment where such mutual understanding could flourish.

[Vikas: And did you achieve that?] 

[Andrew McCarthy]: To illustrate, just the other day, my son Sam, who still resides at home (much to our amusement, we can’t seem to persuade him to leave), called me. He simply asked, ‘Hey Dad, do you have 7 minutes?’ I responded with an affirmative ‘Go’. The essence of this interaction lies in the realization that he sought to share his thoughts with me. One of the greatest luxuries I discovered during our walk was the gift of time with an adult child. I wasn’t obligated to solve his problems, rectify any errors, attend to his chores, or handle any of the perceived parental obligations. I was simply able to listen and walk beside him.

When he asked if I had 7 minutes, all he wanted was for me to lend an ear as he navigated through a particular issue. Such a call may never have occurred prior to our shared walk.

Q: How do you see your son, now? 

[Andrew McCarthy]: I’ve no interest in being his buddy or his pal, I’m his father so that’s what I will always be. I do see him differently in the sense that I think I see more aspects of him and that he’s okay out there in the world and he is a reasonable guy.

Q: How would you encourage others to go on a similar journey?

[Andrew McCarthy]: Honestly, I’m typically hesitant to offer advice. However, I was fortunate that my son agreed to accompany me on this journey. As soon as he consented, I immediately purchased two plane tickets from the other room. We embarked on our journey two days later because I was certain he would reconsider given enough time. I managed to catch him in a moment of weakness and posed the question, ‘Do you want to walk the Camina de Santiago?’ To which he responded affirmatively, and off we went.

In my experience, the key is to provide a listening ear. I believe that the more room we create for our children, the more they will gravitate towards us. After all, being pursued can instinctively trigger an urge to flee. Conversely, if we establish an inviting space that allows them to return home at their own pace, they tend to embrace the opportunity more willingly.

Q: What does legacy mean to you?

[Andrew McCarthy]: The simplest answer is that it’s not my concern. I find the concept of legacy, which often caters to ego and vanity, somewhat disconcerting. The notion of meticulously curating one’s legacy is especially troubling to me, and it’s a trend I’ve noticed frequently. It represents a significant missed opportunity, as our later years can be a remarkably creative period of our lives.

For instance, I remember visiting a museum exhibition of Willem de Kooning’s works, where paintings he created in his 80s were on display. These pieces were fantastic, markedly distinct, and considerably simpler than his earlier works, showing that he was profoundly engaged in the present moment of his life and his creativity during that period.

However, individuals overly focused on curating their legacy risk, at best, stunting such potential creativity, and at worst, they exude vanity, which I find frankly repellent. Ultimately, it’s not my concern. My philosophy is to simply show up, continue advancing, and let the chips fall where they may.

As we age, we have different offerings to bring to the world. Regrettably, our youth-centric culture often disregards the wisdom and experiences that older individuals can provide, largely due to an overemphasis on vanity. As physical attractiveness wanes with age, society may respond less positively, thereby undervaluing the offerings of older people. This, of course, is a regrettable loss.

That’s why I hold in high esteem those who persist in expressing themselves, regardless of whether their contributions are widely acknowledged or appreciated. They keep going, doing their thing, regardless of whether people are watching or interested. Eventually, their contributions will resonate with some individuals, demonstrating that their efforts are not in vain.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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