Interview: Andrew McCarthy: “I acted when I was a kid because it was what I found that made me feel most like the way I wanted to feel”

If you grew up in the eighties, then Andrew McCarthy was probably key part of your weekend movie watching, with films like Pretty in Pink, Mannequin, St.Elmo’s Fire and Weekend at Bernie’s.

In recent years, he’s started directing (Gossip Girl) and writing travel columns but he’s never strayed far from acting. He’s now a recurring character on USA’s White Collar playing Victor Adler. This is one of the rare times he’s playing a bad guy and it’s great to watch!

I talked to Andrew on a conference call about his new character, what roles he regrets and how his directing has helped him in front of the camera.

White Collar airs Tuesdays at 10/9c

Is there a role that you regret doing or, and is there a role that you would not play in your career?

Andrew McCarthy: Yes, I’m sure there are tons of them.  Yes, there are some bad movies I wished I didn’t do.  I think there must have been roles I regret.  You know, they did a Mannequin 2 and they asked me to do it and I didn’t do it and I think I probably should have done it because it was nice fun, that movie.  It was a long time ago.

But I probably shouldn’t have done A Weekend at Bernie’s 2.  The first one was very funny. The second one was whatever it was.  I’m sure there are but I don’t really look back in that way or have much nostalgia either way for my—any aspect of my life, really.  So I don’t have a good answer.  I don’t have a juicy answer for that one.

What are the main differences between doing a movie role and a TV role from you viewpoint?

Andrew McCarthy: TV is faster, period, and sometimes that’s a good thing.  TV usually uses two cameras, so you will do, you can often do, which is from an acting point of view, great, because you can do the over the shoulder and the close-up at the same time.  So you don’t go, ah, I was better when we were maybe over the shoulder and the close-up is not as good.  So it’s faster from just with your time because in TV you have to shoot eight pages a day.  On movies, you can shoot from anywhere from two to four or five, depending on the budget.

I have to say, personally, I like just run and go, let’s shoot.  I enjoy the TV pace, like you’re always under the clock, but that’s not the actor’s problem.  It’s a director’s problem. So there’s no real difference.  The acting is the acting, and certain aspects of it, sometimes in TV, you have to shoot more standard obvious coverage.

Okay, now we have to do the master and over the shoulder. Now we have to get the close-up where in movies, you don’t have to do that sometimes.  You can just leave it in one.  Whereas in television, you’re very rarely allowed just do one wide take.  You have to cut to the close-up in television.  It’s just the way, the nature of the beast.  So sometimes the imagination of shots that you’re allowed in film I miss sometimes.

But the acting is the same, you’re acting.

How did you get involved with White Collar?

Andrew McCarthy: That was pretty easy.  They just called up and asked if I would like to jump in and I thought the part was fun. I’d seen the show.  I like the show.  I thought it was good fun and elegantly shot.  Yes, it was pretty simple.  They just called and asked if I wanted to jump in and I thought it was nice, a nice part, so I did.

So what was the most challenging part of playing this character?

Andrew McCarthy: That I was the old mentor.  I’m suddenly the old mentor and I’m like, huh, I used to play your part it seemed like five years ago and now I’m the old mentor.  You know I hate to say this, but it fit me like a glove this sort of part.  I eventually turned into being a bit of a bad guy as it were.  But, you try and find some things that are charming and likable about these people.  I didn’t find anything hard about them.  I thought it was just good fun and well written.

What’s it like for you playing the villain, because I know aside from like that one movie you did with Rutger Hauer, you don’t really play the bad guy often.

Andrew McCarthy: I don’t know if there’s any difference between the bad guy, except the bad guy is more fun and gets better lines.  And just finding something that’s—because no bad guy thinks they’re a bad guy.  It’s all completely justified and makes absolute sense.  And this is the only way that one could behave to serve one’s needs.  So I think there’s great freedom in playing the bad guy.  You don’t have the obligation to do all the morally right things.  It’s easy and fun.

Given all the great roles you’ve had in film, how do you think the perception of television has changed in terms of better options for actors?

Andrew McCarthy: Well, from when I started acting 100 years ago in the early ‘80s, you only did the television show if your movie career was over.  Now I’d say most of the best writing is on television.  And movies are a different beast entirely, there’s the big blockbusters and then occasionally, there’s some little interesting movies that come along that somehow get made and 12 people are in them.

But I think now television, there are all sorts of amazing roles for people on television and like I said, the best writing, I think, is on television, and there’s tons of it.  I mean I think it’s a real golden age for television for sure.

You’ve played so many incredible characters.  Can you talk about a couple that have meant the most to you?

Andrew McCarthy: I was in a film that was directed by Claude Chabrol, he’s a Frenchman that I played Henry Miller in a film called Quiet Days in Clichy a long time ago that I liked quite a lot.  I thought Heaven Help Us, that part I played and that was just a movie I did very early on in the mid ‘80s is my favorite movie I did of that period of time with all those, sort off, all those Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo’s Fire, and all that, I thought that movie was actually the one that was the most interesting to me.  Although I thought the part in St. Elmo’s Fire was a terrific part for me at that time.  It was a perfect match of me and part.

I’ve done some parts in the theatre that I really enjoyed doing.  Those probably stay with me longer because plays just live whereas movies are done.  You do it and it’s done.  They live with the viewer for a long time. People come up and quote movies to me.  “Dude, that line changed my life!”  And I’m like, yes, I don’t remember saying that.

So people quote movies to me all the time and not a day goes by when a truck at a red light doesn’t scream out a line from Weekend at Bernie’s to me.  They go, “Hey, where’s Bernie?” I loved doing Weekend at Bernie’s.  I thought that that was quite fun and stupid and that kind of comedy I really enjoy doing.  I was surprised no one asked me to do more of it afterwards, but maybe not if they saw it.

I liked a lot of the parts that I’ve played.  It’s the next one is your favorite one.  But that’s not always true.   I thought this part was quite fun.  It was just delicious and juicy and without any sort of responsibility, like I said before, setting the table.  I didn’t have to set the table.  I just came in and ate dessert, you know, so that was nice.  I don’t know if that’s an answer at all.

You spend a lot of time behind the camera now.  Do you find that your directing experience has added another dimension to your performance in front of the camera now?

Andrew McCarthy: I’m a much easier actor to work with now.  It’s absolutely true.  If a director wants me to go stand in the corner and stand on my head and face the other way, I’ll be, yes, that’s fine. I can do that.  I understand particularly in television, where television is like, wham, we got to do this now.  I understand you want to stand by the window, but I really need you to stand over here because of time.  And so, yes, frankly, I’m justa much more pliable actor, and I understand.

I mean, I love acting when I’m doing a good part. But I love doing, thinking about the next thing, what we’re doing next, what we’re doing next.  And, okay, you’re doing that, so we’re going to go over here and we’re going to shoot over here and then we’re going to do that.  So I find that aspect of it very engaging and I really enjoy it.  Sometimes it’s great to just act where you just like, okay, that was easy.

Although acting is a very funny little thing because it’s just an artificial thing, making a movie.  There’s a long time for all these people milling around and doing everything.  And then everything stops.  It’s all about that one tiny little thing that happened in front of the camera for 14 seconds right now.  And so trying to get very precise with it and trying to actually achieve what you want to achieve in that little instant is, when you actually do it, instead of just being fine, it’s quite satisfying.  Most of the time, we’re fine and you go through it.  No, yes, that was good.  It’s very workman like and it was fine.

But I find the directing is expansive in a way.  Whereas the acting is more precision and it’s the exact opposite sort of use of energy.  So if that makes any sense, so I enjoy them both.  One sort of influences the other.

I certainly am a better director because I’ve been an actor because I certainly understand every actor’s dilemma and resistance because I have them all.  And different difficulties actors have and why they don’t want to do things and that actors usually don’t know why they don’t want to do something.  But I kind of always go, well, why wouldn’t I want to do that.  Oh, that’s why, okay.  You know what?  You’re right.  Why don’t we go over here and do this?

It’s often they don’t know their lines. That’s usually the primary reason why they’ll get resistance from an actor just because they don’t know their lines.  And they don’t want to cop to that to themselves or anyone else.  So when you acknowledge that, you go, you know what?  I’m just going to do the first two lines from this angle.  It’s like, oh, great, do you want me over here?  Fine, no problem.

That’s a very obvious sort of thing, but there are other resistances and sort of difficulties that actors have that I just have them all.  I’m such a defensive, resistant actor at times, that I know.  I always just go why would I behave like that?  Oh, I know what to do for that.  What would I want someone to do?  So I’m certainly a better director because I’ve been an actor.  And like I said, I’m a more pliable actor because I’ve had to deal with actors from a director’s side.

With all the activities and cool things that you’ve been doing, you seem to be completely enjoying your life.  If someone offered you a series regular role, would you take it?

Andrew McCarthy: Yes, I do get to do at the moment in the last several days, I built my life to do as I have other interests that I really enjoy the directing and I enjoy very much the travel writing and.  So I like having different outlets for my advice, but, yeah, I guess the simple answer would be yes, absolutely.  If I found the right thing and there’s good people involved and preferably in New York because I live in New York and my kids are in school and all that stuff, but yea, sure.  Because I think nowadays you can really create something over a period of time in television that I would find interesting.

I was on Lipstick Jungle for a couple of years while that was on, and I really enjoyed doing that.  I just enjoyed the character.  I always thought you’d get sort of bored with a character, but I found that very, I liked that character a lot.  And if you have the right part and with the right people, I think it could be a really nice way to spend several years, yes, for sure.

What’s your advice to actors?

Andrew McCarthy: I don’t know. I’m not the one to give advice.  I wouldn’t give advice to people. If people act because they have to act, you know, and I acted when I was a kid because it was what I found that made me feel most like the way I wanted to feel.  So it was a way out or a way in for me and so, it saved my life in certain ways and changed my life, certainly, and gave a form and structure to my life.

Acting is a funny racket and it’s been very good for me in certain ways and then heartbreaking in other ways.  And it’s a long road to sort of trudge in any, any when you’re at it for a while.  But I don’t really have advice.  I mean, if you have to act, then you act.  If you don’t, you can do something else you can do that you really enjoy doing, go for it.

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