Andrew McCarthy on Unpacking the Brat Pack Years

More than 35 years after being caught in a whirlwind of fame thanks to starring roles in iconic films including St. Elmo’s Fire and Pretty in Pink, Andrew McCarthy considers what he’s learned from revisiting those wild times in his memoir.

Words by Pete Samson

Andrew McCarthy has spent much of his life running from the Brat Pack label that was bestowed upon him in the early years of his career.

The term was coined in a New York Magazine cover story in 1985, referring to a group of young actors including Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, and Demi Moore who often starred together in the era-defining coming-of-age films of the 1980s and early 1990s.

According to folklore, Andrew was very much at the center of the group, having earned his stripes in movies including ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’, ‘Pretty in Pink’, and ‘Less Than Zero’ (although the reality was these young actors were not partying together off-camera as much as the media claimed or their young fans hoped).

Andrew never liked the Brat Pack tag, and spent decades trying to disassociate himself from it. But then, after confronting his youth to write his memoir more than three decades later, he finally warmed to the moniker, and even decided to call the book, ‘Brat: An ‘80s Story.’

As well as entertaining tales of starring in these classic films, including some helmed by the legendary writer and director John Hughes, Andrew also tackles his alcohol problems and difficult relationship with his father in the engaging and thoughtful book.

And now, as the memoir is released in paperback, he considers how spending time with his memories has helped him embrace his younger self.

Andrew McCarthy

I was intrigued by what you wrote about memories in the introduction to your book, and how we’re all unreliable narrators in our own lives to some degree. Please tell us about that process, of picking apart some of these incidents and details again, more than 30 years later.

I think that’s true. I think we concoct these scenarios and storylines in our lives that we mold and shape to fit into our narrative, and it might not necessarily have much to do with the truth. I mention this in the book in the context of where I was when John Lennon was killed; I could have sworn I learned about it one way, and in fact it was something very different. So beware of that subjective nature of our own recall. Going back over your memories, you start to uncover a little something, and then that reminds you of something else. Then the challenge is determining whether it is the truth, or just the narrative you are putting together looking for proof and confirmation.

Did you find it a productive process to unpack these memories and get a little closer to the truth of these incidents that occurred in this formative time of your life, and to let go of some of the unhelpful, and perhaps inaccurate, storylines you’d been carrying?

It was interesting. I found that there were three main things that were happening in my life during that period: the movies, the drinking, and my relationship with my father. When I wrote the first draft book, it was mostly all about the work part of it, and I realized important aspects were missing. I decided I wanted to actually tell this story so it was worth the reader’s investment on an emotional level, not just fun stories. So I put in more about the drinking, and my relationship with my father and the pressure that I felt from that, and I realized they were all interwoven, and affecting each other, and that was illuminating. I always say that I didn’t drink because I was successful and too young to handle it, I drunk because I had a propensity towards drinking. But I certainly found it pacifying when I was getting successful in a way I was uncomfortable with. And the more successful I got, the more it deteriorated the relationship with my father. So they were all intertwined, and unpacking all three of those things together helped me string together a more coherent narrative of my youth than I had done previously.

Did it help you move on? You’ve previously talked about how you wanted to run away from the Brat Pack label, but did it help you look at your youth a little more fondly?

Certainly, it did. I don’t think I would have been able to sit down and write this if I didn’t already have some distance from it, which is probably why it took me so long to start writing it. But it certainly helped me, because once you write something down it solidifies it in a certain way, and becomes truth. And I now have a lot more compassion for my younger self, so it did give me that.

I read you say something in a previous interview that rang true with me, that nobody would want to be judged on who they are at 22 for the rest of their life.

I think there’s a lot of truth in that. But what I’ve come to realize over time is that judgment is not a negative one, but an affectionate one. Because I became a sort of Avatar for a certain demographic’s youth, and they recall that with great fondness. So really, it isn’t such a stigma, but a blessing in a certain way, and writing this book helped me realize that.

Do you think experiencing such fame at such a young age stunts your emotional development?

I do think it changes people on a cellular level. It pours Miracle Grow on your character defects, that’s for sure. I think we can all stop maturing in certain ways for periods of time, when we think we’ve got it all worked out, then we slam into a wall and are forced to grow up again, and again, and again. And having people pacify you because you’re in some movies is certainly not helpful to your character development.

Brat: An ‘80s Story cover

I’m interested in whether you think it’s easier or harder for young people who get very famous now. Because while there’s more attention in some ways, with social media and round-the-clock entertainment news and whatever else, it’s also been diluted as there are so many more famous people these days.

The conventional wisdom at the moment seems to be that it’s so much harder now, as everything is chronicled, but I’m not so sure. The Brat Pack came from one article in a weekly magazine, and here we are talking about it 35 years later. Now, that may have been one news cycle and we’d have been done with it.

We’re interested in people’s journey with sobriety at Mr Feelgood, and while we don’t need to pick over the war stories from your drinking, I would like to hear about some of the positive things that came out of giving up.

We talked earlier about whether fame stops people growing up, but alcohol certainly freezes people’s emotional development, much more than fame. It exacerbates selfish, lying, and manipulative behavior. So giving up alcohol certainly helped me to grow up. I was 29 at the time, and it gave me a way of living with a responsibility for my own life that I didn’t acknowledge before. I came to realize my actions had consequences I would not previously accept, or was not aware of.

And so what about the other Brat Back guys? I know it was something of an imaginary construct even at the time, and you weren’t all best friends, but is there anyone from that group you still keep in touch with?

Not on a regular basis, but I did see Emilio [Estevez] last month for the first time in 30-odd years, and it was fantastic. I also recently ran into Demi Moore. And because we had this shared experience, we have an intimacy that is not consistent with the level we actually know each other. And I did Rob Lowe’s podcast a little while back, and it was so nice to reconnect. I found it surprisingly affectionate in ways I didn’t anticipate.

You’re a father now, and two of your three kids are already actors [his son Sam has starred in shows including Netflix’s ‘Dead to Me’, and his daughter Willow played Matilda on Broadway]. Did you try to talk them out of it?! And if not, what wisdom have you tried to impart on them as they set off on their path?

Well, tried is the operative word there! And although we joke about it being a cruel life, I didn’t try and talk them out of it as when I was 15, acting saved my life. And if young people feel a pull to do anything creative, I think they should move towards it, because I know so many people who wanted to do creative things when they were young, and then feel disappointed when they are older that they didn’t go for it. So go for it, then life will sort itself out. What I do talk to them about, and they have witnessed, is the demystification of it. It goes hot and cold, comes and goes, and it is what it is. There’s nothing magical about it. But you can’t really know about any job until you are actually doing it, it’s just words, so they need to try it and make up their own minds.

What about your new career as a director and also a travel writer, what do you enjoy about these things you’re doing now?

I do enjoy being on a film or TV set, and I find directing suits a lot of the things about my temperament that didn’t necessarily suit being in front of the camera. I like to keep my eye on the whole ball, as opposed to being the ball.

But if I could only do one thing, it would be the travel writing. I find travel a really profound and important thing. Traveling changes us on a deep, emotional, and spiritual level, in a way that’s really profound, and it’s not often understood or examined. I think travel goes a long way toward obliterating fears in life. And I think people are so overwhelmed by fear, without knowing it, that we make a lot of our decisions based on fear. Travel sheds a light on that and helps dissipate it. To take Mark Twain’s line, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness.” That’s underneath every story that I’m writing. And I intuitively know how to tell a story, instead of selling a destination. I am my most idealistic, open-minded, and open-hearted self when I am far from home. Vulnerability and fear can be perceived as weak words, but acknowledging fear and making ourselves vulnerable to the world are deeply spiritual acts and serve great dividends.

Buy ‘Brat: An ‘80s Story’ here.

Pete began his career on Fleet Street more than two decades ago, and has worked for some of the world’s biggest news, entertainment, and wellness companies as a writer, editor, and media executive. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to help demystify the world of personal development, and to encourage men to discuss and improve their mental health, by sharing the wisdom and lessons learned of inspiring artists and leaders.

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