Arts & Culture
Spotlight on Alex Karpovsky: Actor, Writer, Director, and Producer
Talking to the ‘Girls’ star about Lena Dunham, his crying habit, and speaking Russian with his mom Read More
I met Alex Karpovsky outside of a cafe in Williamsburg, exactly where you would picture his character Ray Ploshansky from the hit show Girls hanging out. Clad in a bright green Lacoste tee and Nike sneakers, Karpovsky explained that while he somewhat identifies with Ray, he definitely wears more hats— in real life he’s an actor, writer, producer, and director.
Inside, he ordered a papaya salad, and when asked by a waitress if he’d like an alcoholic beverage, declined. He drinks, but not during the day—he has to set some limits for himself, he explained.
Unlike his character, Karpovsky doesn’t waste time. Over the past year he’s filmed six feature films, in between shooting the hit HBO show, Girls. Two of the films he wrote, directed, and starred in were released in March—the first, Rubberneck, chronicles the life of socially awkward scientist who becomes fanatically obsessed with a coworker after a random weekend tryst, while the second, Red Flag, is more of a caricature of the real Karpovsky, following a self-involved filmmaker on a journey to promote his independent film.
I read in an article that you like to go back to your parents’ house in Newton, MA every now and then for a good cry and to write. True?
Used to. I’m very happy now. But I used to cry a lot in my parents place, it’s true.
Is it true your mother doesn’t speak English?
She speaks a few words, but she doesn’t speak well. I end up speaking to her more in Russian than in English, but my Russian isn’t very good. It’s probably first or second-grade level Russian, so we can’t communicate very well, which is unfortunate because she’s a sweet lady. Otherwise we’re very close.
Did you go to Hebrew School?
I went for a year or two when I was really young, I think first grade. I love how people always just assume I’m Jewish, they don’t even ask anymore. Especially on the show it’s clearly stated that I’m Greek. People are like ‘So when did you go to Hebrew school?’ I’m like ‘Yeah I am Jewish, and I did go to Hebrew school for about a year or two.’
Has Judaism or religion affected your attitude towards your life and art at all?
I act in a lot of my own movies and generally I play a character who is neurotic, guilt-ridden, and full of anxiety. You can definitely make an argument that those are characteristics woven into our understanding of American Judaism, but that’s probably the extent of it. Otherwise I don’t feel like Judaism has defined the way that I view myself or carry myself.
What’s your favorite part about playing Ray on Girls and what is the part you dislike about it the most?
That’s an interesting question. There are a lot of things I like about playing Ray. I like the fact that he and I have some characteristics in common and I’m really glad that I’m not like him in real life. I take certain aspects of myself and amplify them to communicate the dramatic effect. I don’t feel like I’m inventing a lot, I feel like I’m just sort of exaggerating things that are already in place, to some extent. And that’s fun for me to do. I think he’s sort of cynical and judgmental and angry and all of the things that drive those characteristics are things that I relate to a lot. Being able to play around in those waters with other great actors is fulfilling to me.
What’s it like working with Lena Dunham?
It’s great. She knows exactly what she wants and she knows how to communicate it to the other actors and crew members in a way that’s efficient, coherent, and engaging. Also she does it in a way that leaves a little bit of room for us to kind of play around with our roles. The writing is so good that I don’t feel that drawn to improv too much on set, but there’s a bit of room, and that keeps me invested and interactive with the creative process.
Even just as a person she’s so effervescent, accessible, friendly, smart, and present. More recently in addition to all of her success she’s very helpful and has remained very down to earth. I love working with her for all of those reasons, and I have tremendous pride for Girls, I really love working on it. I have so much faith in the show and she’s the leader.
You directed and wrote Red Flag and Rubberneck. Did you find it difficult to direct yourself?
I don’t think it’s that hard for me to direct myself. When somebody directs me I feel like my main responsibility is to understand what he or she wants to convey in the most comprehensive way possible. It’s important to understand the exact motivations and objectives in play and how the scene relates to the big picture of the whole movie. If I’m present in that comprehensive sense then I will do the best job I can do, I can’t do better.
But when directing myself I’m trying to do all of that in addition to making sure everyone else is acting in my movie, correctly. Specifically my main responsibility when I’m acting and directing is making sure everyone is in the right tone. With comedy especially, things change, and people can improv a lot and go a little hammy. So the main difference is that you have more responsibility.
One of the incredible characteristics of Lena, although I’ve already mentioned 46, the 47th one would be that she’s really good at being an actor and director. She’s totally engaged in the scene and simultaneously able to improvise and be loose while taking notes on everything else that’s going on around her technically and performance wise. She’s completely engaged in a scene and then as soon as it cuts she immediately delivers very concise and relative notes to the actors and members of the crew. That takes a real multitasking mind that I don’t have. I have to watch playback and talk to people. That’s why we are able to shoot a Girls season very quickly. We just started shooting last week.
In Red Flag there’s a line that says, “I’m ready to die which means I’m ready to live.” Does that quote resonate with you at all?
That quote definitely resonates with me but I don’t feel I’ve overcome anything necessarily, it’s still an expression that I’m negotiating with. A lot of Red Flag is autobiographical and a caricature of who I really am. I definitely think about death a lot and I feel like one of the ways I can try to ease the anxiety is by making fun of myself.
So when the character says, ‘I’m ready to die, I’m ready to live,’ he’s having all of these issues and problems in life and he has this epiphany moment where he thinks they’re all rooted in his fear of death. Once he realized that he thinks it will trigger a catharsis and a lot of his problems will go away. He’s basically accepting the fact that he’s got a death anxiety and it reverberates to all of these other issues.
What are the common threads in your film choices?
I think I’m interested in stories that are character driven rather than plot driven. I’m interested in characters that are highly flawed, and protagonists that aren’t necessarily likeable, also that are insecure and neurotic. I play exaggerated versions of myself, and I feel to an extent these characters are a reflection of who I used to be. I mean you need to have a little bit of confidence to make these movies.
Of course you do. It’s a love hate relationship in a way. But as you grow older it turns more into love, or so they say…
Or so they say! Lets hope they’re right.
How did you get into acting?
When I was in graduate school at Oxford I did a lot of student theater. Most of it was sketch comedy and stand up theater. That was the first time I ever really acted in anything, and I was 21. I did a little bit of acting after I dropped out of grad school and moved to New York, but really bullshit theater, off, off, Broadway experimental stuff.
I never grew up wanting to be an actor. I wanted to be a scientist; my dad’s a scientist. I started undergrad and wanted to be a psychologist or study neuroscience and I did that for a bit. Then I got interested in doing student plays, and moved to New York City and got into theater more, and tried to write plays which didn’t work out so well. I got a job editing infomercials and corporate videos, that’s what my first movie, The Hole Story is about. I edited videos for five years and that was sort of my film school because I got to learn how to tell a story. I acted in my first movie in New York, and because of that this director named Andrew Bajulski asked me to act in his movie and he’s got a lot of indie credibility. People see his movies, not so much mine. Then I ended up getting a few smaller roles and that opened doors. So I acted in five or 10 movies before I met Lena.
You’re playing Marty Green in the new Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. How was it working with the Coen Brothers?
I shot it last year and I can’t wait to see it. Adam Driver [Karpovsky's Girls costar] is in it too and he saw it and said it was good, so that was nice to hear because I trust his opinion. It was fun working with them and was nice to be asked.
Are you interested in doing high budget films or would it ruin your ‘indie street cred’?
I don’t know how much indie cred I have, but I’d love to, sure. I want to try doing different things. There’s of course the terror of compromising your creative integrity but there are many people I know that have gone on to do medium, high budget, and even studio films while still preserving their own sensibility and aesthetic. It is possible, and if I think there’s a 50/50 chance of pulling it off, I would definitely do that.
It’s been said that you’re somewhat of a commitment-phobe with apartments and relationships. What are you so scared of?
There’s a fear that it may be difficult to get out of the relationship. I’ve definitely been in relationships for way too long because I didn’t want to hurt the other person, and there’s the fear of dependence. I also sometimes feel like I’d really disappoint the person or hurt them. There’s the potential of regret that you would make a mistake. I’ve definitely experienced that before as well, but I’m getting better at it. And when I say I’m a commitment-phobe I’m exaggerating a little bit, but whatever is there I’m getting better at. After we meet I’m looking at an apartment on the corner, which involves a 12-month lease, baby steps to independence!
Have you tried yoga or meditation to deal with anxiety or depression?
I meditate pretty much everyday and if I didn’t do it, things would be a lot worse. I’d be running around like a chicken without his head cut off, frazzled, anxious, and disoriented. So yeah I do it for 20 minutes everyday after breakfast and it’s a good thing for me.
Tell me five living Jews you’d like to have at your dinner table?
Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Philip Roth, Jonathan Ames, and David Remnick. I’m assuming David is Jewish but I’m not sure.
What are some of your next projects?
Well we just released Red Flag and Rubberneck last month and Girls is just beginning filming Season 3, so that will take five or six months. I’m also writing one comedy, one drama, and playing with a TV idea. So, I hope one of them solidifies and we can go into production soon after we wrap Season 3 of Girls. In September, October I hope one of my projects gains traction.
Are you friends with everyone on the show?
Yeah we’re friends but we don’t hang out that much. We see plenty of each other. I think Lena’s done a great job of creating a really friendly and easygoing vibe on set. There’s no pressure, everyone seems to genuinely get along and are supportive of each other. Lena has gone out of her way to create a safe place for us and we can be ourselves and are encouraged to take risks. I think that reverberates with how you interact with the other actors. Because of the way Lena holds her set and because of how much admiration I have for their acting skills, it’s very easy to get along with them.
Do you have hope for Shoshanna and Ray’s relationship?
I have hope, but I think they are both going to have to do a lot of work to nurture a sustaining relationship that has any hope of longevity. They need to both do some soul searching and walk the earth in their own ways.
(Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)