CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Our next guest became an icon in the 1980s for movies like "Pretty in Pink," "St. Elmo's Fire" and "Less Than Zero." Andrew McCarthy was a teen movie heartthrob but moved on to a career in travel writing, and then used his experience in movies and on the road to do some soul-searching.
A few years ago, he decided to confront the fears that had followed him his entire life. While his fiancee made wedding plans, he ventured into the far-flung corners of the world to find the part of himself that kept saying no to commitment.
ANDREW MCCARTHY: I got successful in a certain way and famous in a certain way in my early 20s when my personality was still being formed, you know, so it became very much a part of who I was to become as a man, you know? So I had real awareness of myself. So as I grew and developed, it was implanted on me. You know, I've often said I wouldn't wish success on anyone under 30. And to me, it was a very mixed blessing. You know, it was a wondrous, untethered time. But it was also something that filled me with ambivalence.
HEADLEE: And fear to a certain extent. It's almost as though as soon as you achieve success you started to live with the fear that you'd lose it. And it was interesting to me, in the book, you had kind of an a-ha moment. You were walking from southern France through the Pyrenees, 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and you had a little bit of a transcendental moment. I was hoping you'd read about that for us from page 17.
(Reading) I looked off toward the horizon, the distant spire of a church indicating the next village was nowhere in sight. I swilled some water and then began to feel a tingling between my shoulder blades. And suddenly, I was smiling. It was the first time I remember smiling since I left New York. And then I knew what was missing, what I hadn't carried with that morning: fear.
Fear that had calcified between my shoulders was suddenly not there, fear that had been my center of gravity, fear that had been so ever present in my life that I was unaware of its existence until that moment of its first absence.
HEADLEE: So what was it about that walk, about walking through completely unfamiliar territory that banished the fear?
MCCARTHY: The Camino de Santiago is a very powerful, potent thing. And there's a reason why it was a religious pilgrimage for all those centuries, you know? And I think walking certainly wears one down. It was just one of those moments that happen, those glimpses that we get that happen. All we can do is sort of make ourselves ready for them in a certain way, and then they happen to us.
I mean, fear was such a dominant force in my life and then - without even knowing it, you know? So when that happened to me, everything changed after that, really.
HEADLEE: You recommend - I've heard you say that all Americans should travel more. And you feel like it would actually help us as a nation.
MCCARTHY: I think America is an extraordinary place. But I think America is incredibly fearful. And I think the main thing that travel does is obliterate fear. It did in my life. It does in many people's lives. Particularly - now, I'm not talking about vacation. I'm talking about going and interacting with the world. And that Mark Twain line: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness is absolutely true in my opinion.
I think if we traveled, we would be less fearful and discover that that guy with the towel around his head probably isn't trying to kill me. So my soapbox is really changing the world one trip at a time. And I do believe that very strongly. I think Americans don't travel primarily because of fear. They'll often say it's finances - and maybe that is true to some degree - but I think it's fear that stops us.
HEADLEE: I'm speaking with actor and author Andrew McCarthy. He has a new memoir out called "The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down." This book is, in many ways, about traveling - your literal travels over a period of time - but in more ways, it's about this kind of metaphorical journey that you had to take before you got married.
You kind of took off. And your fiancee, Dee, you call her in the book, she says, according to you: Well, I guess I'll see you at the altar. What propelled you out that door?
MCCARTHY: Yeah. That's an interesting question, isn't it? Look, I find answers to my questions when I travel. Some people go to therapy. Some people sit around and have coffee with their buddies. I find answers by traveling. You know, I'm illuminated to myself when I go.
I'd always had this ambivalence toward many important things in my life. To my early success as an actor, I really wanted this, and yet I pulled away to a very real degree. The same thing with certain intimacies I've had with people. I really want them and yet I pull away. And I think it's prevented me in a very real and substantial way and deep way of making the kind of progress in my life I'd like to make.
And I found myself about to enter into this relationship, and I said: Enough of it. You know, I was so excited to be finally getting married. We finally decided after four years, yes, let's get married, and then the next day, I was leaving on a trip for a magazine down to Patagonia. So I was sad to be going, but at the same instant, I was so excited to be leaving.
And I said: What is that, that paradox? How can I live with these two disparate qualities of myself? And I need to solve that. I know I'm going to get married. I'm going to show up on the day. I'm going to all the right things. But emotionally, I'd really like to get there. I got to try and bring home a better version of myself. And so that was what the quest of the whole sort of thing was.
HEADLEE: So you got to spend this time writing a book and sort of sorting through your feelings and your thoughts. And by the end of the book - I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that you kind of came to a sense of peace about it.
There's a moment near the end, it's after the public wedding ceremony in Ireland, and you're - you've just danced this feverish jig to the song "The Siege of Ennis," and you almost seem surprised at the amount of joy that you feel even in this crowd, in this noisy, crowded, sweaty place. What happened there?
MCCARTHY: My wife has given me the gift of learning how to love, you know? And it was just one of those - I was just wide open to that experience at that moment. And it was a joyous moment, you know? And it was, sort of the culmination to me. You captured the moment, you know, of the book, and in myself and like, because I'm not a dancer, you know?
So I - my wife loves to dance. Again, is always trying to drag me dancing, and I'm very self-conscious and drawn back. And I felt so at ease and so free and so fully inhabiting myself that it was a great relief and a joy, you know? And so, again, it's that moment of - a metaphorical moment, as well as a literal one of just sort of, wow, I've - I'm wide open here. Come and hurt me. Come and love me, you know? And that was - that's progress for me.
HEADLEE: That's actor, travel writer and now author Andrew McCarthy. His memoir is out now. It's called "The Longest Way Home." And Andrew was in our NPR studios in New York. Andrew McCarthy, thank you so much.
MCCARTHY: Thank you.