When I first saw filmmaker/writer/actor Alex Karpovsky’s fourth feature at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, the intense psychological thriller Rubberneck, I was blown away for two reasons. First of all, the film was brilliant, and stars Karpovsky as a jilted lab technician creepily obsessed with his co-worker and one-time one night stand, and only gets better from the first frame. Secondly, his performance is an absolute departure from the snarky, slightly abrasive character ofRay Ploshansky he plays on Lena Dunham’s zeitgeist-smashing HBO comedy, Girls.
Or his role as the film editor with a wandering eye in the upcoming indie comedy, Supporting Characters. Or his co-starring turn in Dunham’s first full-length feature, the highly praised Tiny Furniture. Not to mention the countless other indie films he has acted and participated in since 2003. He plays these characters to such great and unnerving effect that it was actually hard to imagine him any other way. It was rare and wonderful to be that surprised. When talking to Alex Karpovsky about creating his micro-budget films, the thrilling success of Girls, and the filmmakers he respects, there is a thoughtfulness and natural integrity that shine forth from the tall, engaging and sweetly sexy actor, especially when you realize that his calling arrived later in life.
“My dad teaches computers at Boston University,” he says, breezing into a sweet locavore café in Williamsburg in from the pouring rain. “He’s been there forever, since 1985. My mom is a retired dental assistant. I have no siblings. Only dogs! For a long time, I very much wanted to be an academic. I thought there was a lot of coziness to it, but also a very kind of pampered lifestyle that felt pleasant to me. You have your summers off, you know. Seemed like a nice way to live. I thought I’d teach at a nice, bucolic campus somewhere, ride my bicycle to work, and have that double lifestyle. For whatever reason, I took an exit off that highway.”
Karpovsky spent his junior year abroad during college in England, returning there for grad school to study visual ethnography at Oxford. He found a personal freedom there that had been sorely lacking in his adolescence. “When I was young, from the ages of, like, five until about 12, I was very, very boisterous and extroverted,” he says. “A real hooligan—a troublemaker, actually. Not in any dangerous way. But I was just very, hyper. I would always be joking around, and I would always be sent to the principal’s office. And I was doing practical jokes, and stuff like that. Then in junior high, I don’t really know why this happened, but everything turned very one-eighty. I just got very internal, insecure, and reflective. And that lasted until I was about 19 or 20, until I went to Oxford and started doing theater for the first time. I feel like that sort of brought back those feelings I had inside of me that had been lying dormant. That was extremely exciting and invigorating, to kind of resuscitate this part of me that I didn’t know was even still in me.”
After dropping out of Oxford, he moved to the Lower East Side of New York, working as a caterer and honing his stand-up techniques, which were modeled after his idol, Andy Kaufman. When the catering gigs stopped cutting it financially, a friend suggested that he go into video editing, a gig that paid much better. He started out his movie career cutting karaoke videos and infomercials throughout his twenties.
Asked about his stumbling into what one would now call a dream career, he gets a bit reflective. “It may be a romantic interpretation of a flaw, but sometimes people’s ideas, if they’re not exposed to a lot of stuff, can become more original,” he explains. “And less derivative, because there are less associations. But I do feel like if I had gotten into making movies earlier, I would be a better filmmaker today. On the other hand, I might have burnt out earlier. That’s something I see a lot of on the festival circuit. These kids finally make their movie, but they’re only 23, 24, or 25 years old, and you never hear about them again.”
He is enthusiastic to be shooting the second season of Girls, and clearly loves his cast, director Lena Dunham, and producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner. “It’s justso much fun,” he tells me, smiling. “I love going to work.” When asked if his snarky character of Ray Ploshansky is the moral center of Girls, Karpovsky hedges a bit. “Ahhh, maybe to some extent,” he replies. “I feel like one of the reasons that I really love the show is the fact that the humiliations of these girls are so funny and so real; the characters need to have a real lack of perspective, and a real naïveté, to stumble into these problems. I feel like if thereis a compass, or an injector of perspective and ‘wisdom,’ it has to be in the form of moral correction that is equally misguided, so they can stumble further into the humiliations and problems.” He smiles, eyes twinkling, clearly happy to play that instigating force on the show.
Politely declining to discuss the show’s backlash and subsequent anti-backlash surrounding the fact that the Girls characters are white and come from pretty privileged backgrounds, he professes a clear respect for Dunham’s overall vision. “These girls have problems; there’s a lot of ignorance on their part. But, there’s also a lot of drive, a lot of ambition, and alot of sincerity. And a lot of them are pretty open about what they don’t know. That provides a great forum for not only a lot of the comedic moments, but also the really dramatic moments, which are dotted throughout the first season. It gives the series a real dimension, and a depth, and that’s maybe why it gets the criticism that another series, you know, wouldn’t.”
On his character in his upcoming self-scripted and directed road trip film Red Flag (in competition at this summer’s Los Angeles Film Festival) being an indie filmmaker also named Alex Karpovsky, he demurs. “It’s not really that autobiographical. It’s an aggressively caricatured version of who I am. Two of the main influences on the tone of Red Flag are Curb Your Enthusiasm and Michael Winterbottom’s film The Trip. The framework is realistic, but everything else is sort of a narrative fancy.” He also has a role in the new Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, and is now too busy, he says, to even make time for a girlfriend. “It wouldn’t be fair,” he protests sweetly. “I have no time!”
Karpovsky seems to have the innate talent that Dunham and other filmmakers such as the Duplass Brothers have also achieved, which is the actual ability to do it their own way with some very nice results. “These movies are so easy to make, in the sense they cost nothing, and you don’t need to bend over for anybody to do it,” he tells me. “As opposed to other stuff, where you have the process of dealing with people you may not creatively respect, and having to negotiate, and feel like you’re compromising everything you think is cool (about a project), which is always the message I hear from my friends. It doesn’t sound terribly appealing.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Karpovsky harbors an unbridled love for wild-man filmmaker Vincent Gallo, a fact we both share in equal intensity. “Oh, he’s tremendously talented!” he says. “ He can do it all. He’s visionary, in many ways. Fiercely independent. Makes the movies he wants to make. He can bring in some really name actors, but he brings them in on his terms. I really respect that.”
He soon reveals his ultimate formula: “My sort of dream is the John Cassavetes model. Go out, and try to make some money, preferably doing acting, but whatever! And hopefully you can make that money in these short injections, so it’s not a full-time job. You go away for two months, get a little bit of money, and then pour that money back into your film. And that’s just what Cassavetes did. He’d go and act in stuff, then go back and make his movies, which he knew would not make any money. But that’s what he loved to do! It’s a great model, I think, and it has always been my fantasy. It’s a pretty difficult thing to do.”
He beams when I remind him that, yes, he is living his fantasy. “Yes,” he agrees. “In a way, it is like a dream on top of a dream. You have the Cassavetes model, yet you also are really proud of how you get the money to do what you love. That’s great! I feel incredibly fortunate about that.”