Alex Karpovsky balances TV’s ‘Girls’ with filmmaking

Alex Karpovsky has two movies coming out that he wrote, directed, and stars in. One is called "Red Flag," and the other "Rubberneck."
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Alex Karpovsky plays one of the boys of “Girls,” which will gear up for Season 3 shooting a couple of weeks after Season 2 ends March 17. Karpovsky is also an independent filmmaker, and his two latest films, the comedy “Red Flag” and thriller “Rubberneck,” screened at New York’s Lincoln Center in late February and recently landed on VOD, Amazon and iTunes.

Why do you think “Girls” has resonated so much with audiences?

I don’t fully know, but I feel that part of it has to do with the fact that the show is so grounded in authenticity. It’s reflective of 20- and 30-year-olds in Brooklyn that I know and from what I remember from my 20s as well. And I think people find that refreshing.


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Tell me about your character, Ray, and his evolution.

In Season 1, we introduce his character with a lot of anger. He’s very cynical and judgmental and because of his age — he’s a little bit older than everyone else on the show — I feel there’s some obligation on his part to inject some perspective on relationships and their “plights.” Even if his advice is misguided or perverse or totally way off base, he feels it’s his role to provide it.

But we don’t really know what drives these feelings until we explore the underpinnings and all the issues that fuel his anger and cynicism and that also fuel his inability to connect with women and society in general. He’s a homeless man, he’s a bit of a misanthrope, and increasingly in his interactions with Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), we see a man who has a really hard time expressing his feelings.

So there’s a lot of perspective that he has to negotiate with, which will lead to a paradigm shift in his life, whether that means a better, healthy relationship or getting out of his Mitsubishi and into a real apartment or gets a job that leads to a legitimate career path.

I understand you didn’t audition for “Girls.” So did [“Girls” creator] Lena Dunham base Ray on you?


I don’t think so. We were friends at that point, we’d worked together in [Dunham’s breakout film] “Tiny Furniture.” I think they needed someone to be the agitator of the group, and she felt like I could do that.

How did you meet Lena?

I met her at South by Southwest (film festival) in 2009. She was there with her first film, “Creative Nonfiction,” and I was there with my third film, “Trust Us, This is All Made Up,” a documentary. We shared a ride in the car of a mutual friend for at most five minutes. But I liked her. She was really funny and effervescent and smart, perceptive. I was also intrigued — who was this 22- or 23-year-old kid with a feature film at a major festival? I was living in Austin at the time and she was living in New York, and we started to email each other and do DVD swaps. I moved to New York in 2009 and we started hanging out a little bit, and she told me she was writing a part for me for in a movie that she wanted to make in November of that year.

In two of your films, including “Red Flag,” you play a filmmaker named Alex Karpovsky. What’s the difference between you and the character you?

I think the difference is quantitative and not qualitative. I’m trying to emphasize my real fears and neuroses, insecurities, delusional ambition for comedic and dramatic effect. They’re not fabricated, they’re just exaggerated.

The character also is commitment-phobic and overly analytical, which he seems to use as a defense. Does that sound familiar?


Yeah, very much so. The only place he really feels confident is onstage when he’s answering questions [during a tour with his real-life film “Woodpecker”]. It’s not a real place, it’s almost like a hyperspace or an airport or a hotel. There’s no past and no future. As soon as he walks off the stage and is himself again, he hides behind sarcasm and over-articulation.

How low are your low budgets?

Extremely, extremely low. Under $10,000. I just used a little bit of savings here and there.

Both of your latest films are about romantic disappointment in very different ways. Why do you keep coming back to that?

I find it interesting, and I believe in the old adage, write what you know. And that’s an experience that’s easy for me to draw from, because I’ve gone through it several times. It wasn’t very funny when I did it. It was sad and dramatic. I was left extremely broken after, the last two anyway. So I can draw on that specific experience when I’m trying to express these experiences in a thriller or a non-comedy sense, and then if I’m trying to have a little bit of psychotherapeutic remove by it, I try to inject a little bit of humor and see if I can laugh at myself and see if there’s any comedic fodder in humility.

What is visual ethnography, your field of study when you were at Oxford?


It’s an avenue within anthropology. Specifically, it’s a way to explore cultural traits, patterns, symbologies with a video camera, basically making documentary films where the subject is a second- or third-world culture.

So do you think that has had an impact on your filmmaking?

I’m not sure, but they did train us to break down cultural patterns, traits, rituals, world views to elementary and manageable parts and break them down for quantitative analysis. I might be being a bit dramatic and pretentious here, but sometimes when I’m trying to understand a character as an actor or I’m trying to create a character as a writer, it is helpful to break things down to elementary or constituent parts and try to build from there.

So the Coen brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis” is next? Tell me about your role in that.

It’s the only role I’ve ever gotten in my life through an audition. Everything else has been, friends have asked me to be in their movies. I play Marty Green. Most of the movie takes place in the downtown New York folk music scene of 1961, and it’s full of music and red wine and young people. On the periphery is a small group of uptown folks, mostly academics, who are intrigued by the hip happenings downtown but don’t really get their fingers dirty, and I’m one such person. I play a professor, I think of anthropology actually, at Columbia.



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