Interview: Andrew McCarthy Is The Mastermind Behind 'White Collar'
You now know him as Vincent Adler, Neal Caffrey's mentor turned worst enemy, on USA's hit series White Collar. For many people, myself included, Andrew McCarthy helped shape our generation as the star of such films as Pretty In Pink, Mannequin, St. Elmo's Fire, Weekend at Bernie's, and my personal favorite, Year of the Gun. In recent years, McCarthy's moved behind the camera to direct several series, including a future episode Gossip Girl. The versatile veteran sat down with us Monday to talk about his new stint on White Collar, as well as his long career and a few things about him that you might not know.
It is beyond wonderful to see you back on television again. It also prompts the question of how you got involved with this show.
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. So I did. I’m going to actually direct an episode of White Collar next season, so that will be nice.
This isn't the first USA Network series you've appeared on; you also did guest spots on Monk and Royal Pains. Is there something about the network that you like?
They’re just very wise and asked me to work for them. The USA shows are interesting. They have an interesting formula that they work with. They’re just appealing to me in a certain way. They’re playful. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They usually have a very interesting visual style, which I’m attracted to. I think the tone of them is just of interest to me. I like the tone that they have.
When you work with anyone, you just build a relationship with people and you’re on somebody’s mind. And they go, "Hey, let’s do that." [And it's] "Okay, they were nice to work with. Yes, let’s work with them again." I think that accounts for more of people’s jobs than people actually realize. I think Hollywood works that way hugely and there isn’t as great a plan at work as many people would think. People would just go, "Yes, that works. Let’s do it again."
You've gotten a great role with White Collar - you're the "man behind the curtain." Knowing that, knowing that you're responsible for basically the entire series as we know it, how much preparation did you have to do for this role?
Once you start knocking down the dominoes, it’s like, "Okay, so I know this, but wait. I set into motion that and, oh, well, then I’m responsible for her, have that happening to her, then I know that and then I know that." It becomes sort of how long is a piece of string. I’d seen the show a number of times, but I didn’t know everything about the show. And so I’m asking questions. I go, "Wait, wait, how do I know this?" and then that would lead to another question, and another and another.
So I got quite an education quite quickly as to how fraught my history was. And it was fun because it just added a lot to every sort of little innuendo that I said. It all had a history and a meaning that made it fun and playful, so there’s a bit of a twinkle behind a lot of things, because there’s clues along the way. That was fun.
One of the best [things] when you’re acting is to be in a part that’s been talked about for a long time or alluded to for a long time, because ninety percent of your work is already done and people [have] projected all sorts of things onto you. When you show up, it’s like that last piece of the puzzle. It’s great to show up late in the game in a TV show because people want to see it and they want to know what it is. You don’t have to do all the exposition and all the leg work. You come in and just put the cherry on top and it’s a great luxury.
You're also playing the villain, which you don't often do. I think I recall an episode of Law & Order: SVU, then there were like two movies where I've ever seen you as a bad guy. What was that experience like?
I don’t know if there’s any difference between the bad guy, except the bad guy is more fun and gets better lines. 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.
I just think greed is a pretty universal concept, and people want power. Everybody wants power and wants to be in control. You can justify things. All of us can. And people like this are funny because they know that sociopathic quality where the rules that apply to you don’t apply to me, and there’s great freedom in that. I know people like that in my life. We’ve all read about them time and again and we’re shocked by it. But it’s not that far from who we are. They’re just doing things that we don’t do because we have a bit of conscience, and it’s not that much. It’s one or two little decisions and then that leads to another few little decisions and then that leads to another few more, and suddenly you’re way down the road. But I don’t ever think these people are that far from who we are.
I was walking down the street the other day and some guy was mumbling to himself and screaming in the middle of the street, walking down the street. I’m like "This guy is crazy." And then I realized I'd just been talking to myself walking down the street. It wasn’t that far from who I was, just a few bad choices and there you are. I think it’s similar, but especially in power, power gets to people and all that. It’s too much of an aphrodisiac.
Did you find anything about the role particularly challenging? It's certainly a huge role to sink your teeth into.
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 [it]. I thought it was just good fun and well written.
You mentioned your directorial career. Has being behind the camera changed how you work in front of the camera at all?
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, yes, that’s fine. I can do that. I understand particularly in television, where television is like, "Wham, we've 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."
I got interested in directing because I like the whole aspect of it and I like the whole story. I’ve gotten a little tired of just worrying what my hair looked [like]. I enjoy the camera and the different shots and the angles and that kind of thing. I mean, I love acting when I’m doing a good part. But I love thinking about the next thing, 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're 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 fourteen seconds. Trying to get very precise with it, and trying to actually achieve what you want to achieve in that little instant is quite satisfying. 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. 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. 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, "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. 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.
You're also a very accomplished writer, being a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. How did you get involved in that?
I used to travel a great deal before I had kids and I found travel changed my life. And I met the editor of National Geographic Traveler at a party. I said "You ought to let me write for your magazine. Most travel articles kind of suck," and he said, “Can you write?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know, you’ll tell me, but I can tell a story. That’s what I do for a living.” And he gave me an assignment for an article and it just went well and then it expanded and grew out of that.
It was a passion of mine, it was something that I wanted to do. I enjoy good travel literature. I think it’s a maligned form. I think of Paul Theroux and Joe Aaron, these kind of people who are interesting writers and really write about some interesting things in their travel. So I was interested in it, and I find it taps into sort of the same kind of creativity that when I’m acting well in an interesting project, it’s the same thing to me. I don’t see any difference between the two, frankly.
I’ve been traveling throughout my whole adult life, walking into situations without knowing anything and then beginning over, all the time. So it’s a similar dynamic and I certainly find it fuels my acting in a certain way.
My thanks to Andrew McCarthy for this amazing interview. If you missed his appearance on White Collar this week, check your local listings for reruns or catch it at the official site. Keep your eyes open - he may be back!