You may know Alex Karpovsky as Ray, the self-proclaimed loser who’s dating/living with Shoshanna on HBO’s Girls. But you probably don’t know that in real life he is far from a loser. Karpovsky is a triple threat: a writer-director-actor who wrote, directed, and stars in two movies (take that, Jessica Chastain!) that recently came out on the same day, both of which he made while shooting Girls. And they’re two very different movies: Rubberneck is a psychological thriller and Red Flag is an improvisational comedy. The Massachusetts-born, thirtysomething actor (he’d rather not reveal his exact age) will also appear in the next Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewelyn Davis.
He’s also rather self-reflective. Here, Karpovsky tells Co.Create about the math involved in his creative process, the recent butt plug scene on Girls, and what he calls his little Jewish engine of anxiety and guilt.
I don’t do too much acting outside of Girls. I don’t want to do too much acting outside of Girls, because I want to have free time to write and direct and sometimes act in my own movies. We only shoot Girls five months of the year so that leaves plenty of time to pursue my own thing.
I don’t think I’d be happy if I just acted or if I just directed. If I just acted, I’d feel I would not have enough personal creative expression; I would not be comfortable surrendering my future to other people’s whims and desires. And, quite frankly, if I only directed, life wouldn’t be as much fun. I enjoy stepping into other people’s shoes, getting away from myself; there’s a psychotherapeutic benefit to it. Quite honestly, the vain and narcissistic part of me loves acting: You do three percent of the work and you get 90 percent of the attention. It’s a great scam in some ways, but a scam I really love doing, especially when it’s for projects with my friends, like Girls. [Karpovsky became friends with Lena Dunham at South by Southwest in 2009. She cast him in Tiny Furniture the following year, and then Girls.]
I don’t feel like they’re different gears. I don’t feel like I’m taking one hat off and putting on another. They’re different stages of one creative cycle; I hope they’re coming from one creative voice.
Acting helps to exorcise the demons within. I think it’s healthy to get away from yourself on occasion. It allows you to distance yourself from your daily routines and thought patterns and give you perspective to be able to grow. I’m being somewhat playful. I’m not method. I’m not like Daniel Day-Lewis, who gets teleported to another planet [for a role], but I do like to dive into characters, especially on the day of shooting. I like to stay in that pocket, I like to develop backstories and underpinnings to a character that kind of creates a map for me to navigate when I improvise. I know this guy’s fears and how he’s trying to protect them, so you can improvise accordingly."
In the butt-plug scene in episode four [of the current season of Girls], Ray is trying to evade a host of questions that Shoshanna’s asking, spanning from where he lives to his feelings about devices in his anus. The way he skirts around all those issues is funny but I could only have confidence improvising that if I know his backstory. You have to change your thought process—you can’t be strictly analytical—you need to get in there and start thinking in a different way, in a character way. That’s therapeutic—it forces you to get outside of your own natural way of thinking, and for me that’s beneficial.
I have a lot of unresolved anger. Part of me is working on it and part of me doesn’t want it to change because it’s a boiling source of drive and energy that I want to spew onto these characters. One such example is Ray [on a recent episode of Girls] kind of going ballistic for no reason—I don’t want to say no reason, but for misguided reasons—at Grumpy’s. In my opinion, he’s kind of losing his cool because he has been forced to emotionally go into a space that’s scary for him, a love space, which is where we last saw him on the subway platform [with Shoshanna]. I think it’s fucking terrifying for him to admit he loves someone and the way he deals with it is by blowing his fuse on strangers, or near strangers. In Rubberneck, the anger is coming from a place that’s rooted in [the character’s] childhood.
If I don’t write every day or do things I feel are constructive’ or worthy, I feel worthless; I feel like I’m hovering in limbo. That’s predicated on anxiety and guilt. It motivates me to be productive. It’s sort of my little engine, my little Jewish engine. If it were to sputter out of control, I’d be a much less productive person.
It’s so easy to lose perspective in the editing room, especially with a comedy. If you see a joke two or three or four times, there’s no way it’s still going to be funny. So, as mathematical as it may sound, I write down on a scale of 1 to 5 how funny the joke is the first time I hear it played so I can remember that. I know the feeling will get muddy quickly. Scientific quanitification helps and so does editing with someone else. When you internalize things, things can get cloudy quickly, but having an editor who can vocalize is really helpful. It’s incredibly easy to lose perspective, but collaboration helps so much to maintain it.
Don’t just aspire. Do. A lot of people aspire, a lot of people fantasize and lose themselves in the theory of it. Only a few people actually do it, and then the few people who do it repeatedly are the ones who find some success. It’s an incredibly easy time to make the transition from aspiring filmmaker to filmmaker. There’s been a huge technology leap; new DSLR cameras make movies look very good for very little. Go to Best Buy and buy a camera, shoot the movie, and then return the camera to Best Buy and get your money back. Yes, I have done that. Surprisingly, Best Buy doesn’t keep records of your purchase and return history. You can get away with it several times. Then move on to Circuit City and B&H.