photos / Eric T. White
grooming / Cassie Kurtz
story / Erica Russell
Surprisingly, Alex Karpovsky hadn’t worked on TV before landing his role on Girls. Describing the transition to television as “a little scary,” the actor admits that making the shift from shooting small independent films to appearing on one of contemporary pop culture’s buzziest and most polarizing TV series wasn’t easy. “I was doing low-budget, independent stuff with friends, and this was new media for me, on a larger scale. For both of those reasons it was kind of scary,” he reveals. “Subconsciously, to make myself not feel so nervous, I told myself that a lot of pilots don’t get picked up, and that there was a great chance that no one would see this. That’s how I dealt with, that’s what it was like for me going into the first day. When the pilot got picked up, I told myself a new set of rationalizing thoughts, like, ‘Oh, well, I’ll probably have a small role,’ or, ‘It’ll probably go away after a season.’”
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Karpovsky was raised in Massachusetts before leaving to study ethnography at the University of Oxford, an endeavor that didn’t quite pan out—he left before finishing his PhD—yet provided the actor with the insights necessary to immerse oneself into the microculture of a cast. And as perpetually exasperated coffee shop manager Ray Ploshansky on Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series, Karpovsky gets to do just that: He gets to submerge himself into the foreign culture that is complex, complicated twenty-something-year-old women.
A fan-favorite, Ray often plays the straight man in the show, serving as the voice of reason (though often ignored) for Girls’ group of key players, and a character in which the audience can relate. In a hyper-real fantasy version of Brooklyn brimming with whimsical indie musician weddings and whirlwind job offers in Tokyo, lovable Ray remains a comforting constant. “Often times he embodies and expresses the view of most audience members,” Karpovsky muses. “The world of Girls is often crazy, obscured, and skewed. I think you need some type of anchor to relate it to the audience, and Ray is that person sometimes, especially morally. We see the girls do a lot of things that are confusing, ambiguous, and disorienting from a more ethical point of view. Having someone like Ray around that injects a little bit of perspective into that situation is helpful in the sense that it allows the audience to have a voice.”
Five seasons later, the actor—an accomplished director in his own right—is also finding his own voice, directing an episode of the series. Called “Love Stories,” episode nine of Season 5 will mark Karpovsky’s debut as a guest director on the hit show. And it’s something he’s quite proud of. “It was incredibly exciting. Being able to view the characters, storylines, and the full world of Girls from a point of view that can actually shape things in a much more assertive and creatively involved way was incredibly fun, fulfilling, and exciting.”
He adds that Dunham’s collaborative nature was significant to his creative process: “I think that one of the things important to Lena and the producers is that directors are afforded a good amount of creative freedom. I think by extension, a similar philosophy was given to Lena by HBO—they gave her a lot of leeway as an auteur to develop a vision for her show—so I think it’s important for her that she does the same…The characters are pretty much who they are at this moment and the tone, world, and aesthetics are established, so what I tried to focus on is the tone of the performances. I was lucky enough that my episode had an actress who is not part of our show, but was a guest. I was really able to shape her character and her storyline in a much more impactful way.”
In 2013, Karpovsky starred in the Academy Award-nominated drama Inside Llewyn Davis, and earlier this year the actor returned to somewhat familiar territory, appearing in yet another Coen Brothers’ film, the hilarious, George Clooney-starring comedy Hail, Caesar! Playing a communist who helps kidnap Clooney’s movie star character in the flick—he tells me that working with the “gracious, down-to-Earth” actor left a positive impression on him—Karpovsky calls the Coens some of his favorite filmmakers, maybe even his “all-time favorites.”
“I grew up worshipping their movies and quoting them at length,” he shares, earnestly. “Not only do they create a world for each individual movie, but across their whole body of work they’ve created this very unique, singular tonal experience. When someone says it’s a Coen Brothers movie, that actually means something. There is something very specific to the way they’ve been able to tell these visual stories over the years, and there are only a handful of people on the planet right now who are living and still making movies that you can say that about—maybe Tarantino, David Lynch, Charlie Kaufman, and Scorsese. To be able to work with people that have been able to do that and be a part of that world is pretty amazing. To be invited back to do it a second time is astronomically cool for me.”
As a filmmaker himself, however, Karpovsky isn’t necessarily interested in creating a singular aesthetic universe for his work. Or at least, he’s not sure if it’s for him. “I think that my ideas are more scattered, more all over the place tonally,” he explains. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. There are plenty of great directors that don’t necessarily work just within one specific genre or tone, like P.T. Anderson, who does weird things and takes crazy chances, which I respect… I feel like I like to play around in different areas—thriller, action, comedy, drama. The objective is being memorable. So I don’t necessarily know if my long-term dream is to be able to do what the Coen Brothers and Tarantino have done. Very few people could pull it off, anyway.”
And as far as the screenplays that land on his desk, he reveals that he looks for “stuff that’s original, non-derivative, and unfamiliar. But that being said, you don’t always get what you want, and sometimes you might find that the script is a little bit stale or a little bit familiar, but there are a lot of cool people attached. Maybe then we can find a way to bend it in the direction that will give it a sense of freshness or novelty. That’s also in the back of my mind: ‘Who’s involved, and can we make something interesting out of this?’ It may not necessarily be apparent on the page itself.”
In addition to a good script, Karpovsky is adamant about finding good characters to play. Whether it’s a down-on-his-luck coffee shop manager, a communist kidnapper, or a struggling comedian (like the kind he plays in the indie buddy comedy Folk Girl & Funny Guy), the actor is driven by telling the stories of interesting characters. So, what kind of character would he like to play next?
“You know, I haven’t done a lot of broad comedies,” he reveals, laughing. “I don’t know if I will regret saying this, but I have a real soft spot for some of these over the top, hammy comedies. I grew up loving that stuff, like Spies Like Us, Fletch, and the National Lampoon vacation movies. I feel like there’s a part of me that would enjoy doing that. I’ve never really played the archetype or the role of a family man. I’ve always played these dark, peripheral, oddball loners, and I really have a ball doing them. But it might be fun to try something different and play a guy who’s living in suburbia and has some kind of stability and support around him.”
As the rest of the year and beyond unfolds, stability probably won’t be in the cards for Karpovsky—but that’s a good thing. Things are looking bright for the actor-director, particularly thanks to a new digital project called The Spielbergs, of which Karpovsky is one half. Formed with his friend Teddy Blanks, the two directors have teamed up to direct a slew of music videos (Tanlines’ “Palace,” RAC’s “Back of the Car”) as well as a segment for The New Yorker Presents on Amazon. Yet with new beginnings come bittersweet endings—in its sixth season, Girls will come to an end, closing the chapter on Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna’s millennial misadventures. “It’s sad, I really love working on the show. You work on anything for five or six years and you get close to these people, they become your family. I’m sad to see it go; I really like the world and the people I live in it with.”
As for Ray, he’ll always hold a special place in Karpovsky’s heart. And if you’re wondering what he’ll miss most about the character, well, I couldn’t help but ask. “You know, I think I might miss his convictions,” he decides, pausing quietly. “Sometimes they’re misguided and tortured and twisted, but he really holds onto them pretty tightly and believes in them with such depth. He gets fired up about stuff and sometimes he guns at the wrong bullseye or he shoots blanks. But I do respect him for trying over and over again—I’m gonna miss that.”