Photo: Jesse Dittmar
Hollywood Actor Turned Bestselling Author Andrew McCarthy Journeys out of the Spotlight in ‘Walking with Sam’
With his teenage son in tow, McCarthy explores modern-day father-son relationships while walking Spain's Camino de Santiago / BY Shamim Chowdhury / May 12th, 2023
In the 1985 coming-of-age movie St Elmo’s Fire, Andrew McCarthy’s character, Kevin, is an angst-ridden young graduate who dreams of becoming a great writer. McCarthy plays his part with unfettered conviction, to the point where you get the sense that there is a blurring of lines where the fictional character begins and the man himself ends. It could be that some things transcend performance: lines delivered in a way that are just a bit too persuasive or subtle mannerisms that can never fully be disguised. Whatever it is, you can’t help but wonder if McCarthy is channelling an essence of himself onto Kevin throughout.
Perhaps that’s why, many years later, it comes as little surprise that McCarthy himself has become a writer — and a bestselling one at that. He has penned four books to date: three memoirs and a novel. His latest, Walking with Sam, is an account of his 800-kilometre trek with his eldest son across Spain’s Camino de Santiago, a five-week journey that takes them from the village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in southwest France, over the Pyrenees, into the Basque region of Spain, across the arduous Meseta plains, through the cities of Pamplona, Burgos and Leon and finally to the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela’s historic cathedral.
McCarthy first walked this path a quarter of a century ago, at a time when his acting career appeared to be waning and he was at a crossroads in life. He was also trying to come to terms with the ‘Brat Pack’ label — something of a reductive term assigned to a group of young, good-looking Hollywood actors of McCarthy’s generation that implied their success was unearned and undeserved.
This time round, McCarthy is a different man altogether.
“The first time I walked the Camino was a life-changing experience,” he tells me during a Zoom conversation from his home in New York. “It helped reveal to me how much fear had been a strong factor in my life. When those things are revealed, they don’t go away, necessarily, but they can never have that blind hold over you that they once did.”
Set against the backdrop of a Catholic pilgrim route dating back to the 8th century, Walking with Sam is an honest, deeply personal and often hilarious reflection on the multifaceted nature of modern-day father-son relationships.
“I’d always wanted to do it again, and as my son was coming of age and about to embark out in the world, I wanted to try to transform our relationship from being parent-child to one of two adults. It was an attempt to get to know him for who he is and let him see me for who I am.”
But, as they discover, McCarthy and Sam’s experiences of The Way, as the Camino is sometimes referred to, do not always converge. As McCarthy tells us, “everyone is walking his or her own Camino,” and, indeed, their individual burdens cast a shadow that shrinks and inflates as they move forward, one blistering step at a time.
The walk helps 19-year-old Sam work through the breakup of his first romantic relationship. The subject of the ‘The Ex’ takes centre stage during their early conversations as Sam hopes to make sense of his tumultuous emotions while trying to navigate his social media pages.
McCarthy’s ghosts, meanwhile, can be traced back to his own father, whose violent temper ultimately led to a permanent estrangement: “One of the biggest regrets of my life is that when I left home at 17,” he says. “I never looked back. I had no relationship with my father in my adult life. I didn’t want that to happen with my kids.”
In the book, these feelings are expressed in rather more unabridged language: “I’ve always harboured a dread that a similar parting between Sam and me was preordained,” he writes, adding. “For much of Sam’s early life, I harboured the not-so-secret fear that my son would one day wake up and hate me.”
This unabashed, baring-all writing style is evident not just in Walking with Sam, but also in McCarthy’s previous memoir, Brat, where he reflects on his life as one of the most successful actors of the ’80s, starring in string of hit movies including Pretty in Pink, Mannequin, Weekend at Bernie’s and many others. I ask, does he at any point take a step back before exposing his innermost thoughts and feelings to millions of readers?
“Writing is interesting because I’ll be more apt to disclose things on the page than I’d be in conversation,” he says. “It’s odd because you’re opening yourself up to strangers. But I do think if you’re going to ask readers for their time, you have to be honest on the page. What’s the point otherwise? You want people to start nodding in their heads when they read and say, ‘Yes, I know what that feels like.’ Then you have connection.”
But McCarthy’s storytelling is not confined to the internal workings of the mind. He is open about the fact that the Camino has in recent years become an industry, with hotel developments, souvenir shops, services and highways. For much of the route he can even access the internet on his phone. Nonetheless, he manages to convey what remains of the beauty and charm of the changing landscape and the towns and villages they pass through so vividly that you actually feel as though you are walking alongside him.
“I wanted to create both an internal and external journey that would work in harmony, interweaving all the time and feeding off each other,” he says. “So, the physical experience is very much a part of the storytelling. It’s the hook on which all the emotional stuff can happen.”
The memoir also comfortably embraces light and shade. The deeper, personal stories of father and son that touch on subjects including relationships, divorce and drugs are peppered with upbeat moments, including Sam repeatedly addressing McCarthy as ‘bro’ or ‘dude’, as well as his inexplicable tendency to slip into an Australian accent when the mood takes him.
There is also the added dimension of the colourful characters they meet along the way, including Taximan Roger, so-named for choosing to travel the entire Camino with a faster mode of transport than his feet, and the edgy, charged-up ‘Irish’ whose mood seems to change with the direction of the wind.
“That’s what happens along the way,” McCarthy explains. “You meet these characters and your levels of intimacy evolve. People tend to walk the Camino when they’re at some kind of crossroads in their life, whether they know it or not, so they’re at a point of exposing themselves. The Camino does that. It makes people very forthcoming for whatever reason, and you learn a lot about them.”
McCarthy, now 60, has enjoyed a long and prolific career as an award-winning writer, actor and director — and it doesn’t look as though he’s about to stop any time soon. He is currently working on turning Brat into a documentary — but he says age has brought with it a new perspective on success.
“The part of success I’m interested in is that it allows me to do what I want more easily. What I’ve come to realize is that the satisfaction is in the doing. Success only matters in so far as it is pleasant for my ego for an instant or disappointing for my ego for an instant. The work itself is always the reward.”
So, more than 35 years on from St Elmo’s Fire, what would Kevin make of all this?
“I have grown up to be Kevin,” McCarthy admits. “I think that role was closer to the bone to me than any role I ever played. I was very much that vulnerable, sensitive guy but with a protective cynical shell. Kevin was scared and wanting intimacy, even though he wanted to run away at the same time. All that was very like me. It’s the part I probably have the most affection for because I identify with Kevin so much.”
For those of us who were enchanted by Kevin from the start, it’s what we’ve known all along.