Alex Karpovsky has a face that would look very much at home atop a black turtleneck. His appearance, unconventional for an American actor, may be one reason he is often described as his generation’s Woody Allen. Like Allen, he is a cinematic triple threat: director, screenwriter, and actor, often all at once. But although he shares Allen’s obvious intelligence, Karpovsky seems much more self-assured. In conversation, his speech is deliberate and at times academic: he’s endearingly intellectual and almost charming, although not as obviously funny as his interest in comedy would suggest. With five well received (although not widely seen) feature films under his belt and a host of dedicated fans, he sits on the cusp of established indie celebrity.
Karpovsky is a pinup for all the girls who dream of an older, cynical man to watch out for them if they accidentally smoke crack, thanks to his role as Ray Ploshansky in Girls. Ray initially seems to be awful, a diary-thieving misanthrope with a dark sense of humour who inexplicably hangs out with people much younger than him, but the writing and Karpovsky’s performance are nuanced, and by Season 2 Ray is one of the show’s most sympathetic characters. Although he’s a writer himself, Karpovsky leaves the development of Ray’s character up to the show’s creator and head writer, Lena Dunham, with whom he first worked in her 2010 feature Tiny Furniture. “I really love Lena’s voice,” he says, “and because I believe in that voice, I don’t really want anything to get in the way, including my own thoughts.” Ray’s complexity is part of what Karpovsky says is one of the things he likes most about the show: “how much it is grounded in authenticity and tethered to reality – or at least the reality that I remember from my twenties and that I still continue to see around me in Brooklyn today.”
While Karpovsky is tight-lipped on the plot of Season 3, to screen in early 2014, he hints that it will continue the work Season 2 started in explaining the characters’ histories. Ray in particular could use some context: Karpovsky refers to Ray’s “unresolved issues” which, paired with his girlfriend Shoshanna’s naiveté as the couple headed towards a “very, very scary place of deep intimacy,” led to their breakup at the end of Season 2. That episode also featured the jarringly rom-com-style reunion of two other couples, which, juxtaposed with their previous misery, suggested that the show’s women couldn’t survive on their own. Karpovsky argues that Ray and Shoshanna provided a counterpoint to that. “I think sometimes you can find fulfilment and satisfaction in relationships and sometimes you can’t,” he explains, “and the show kind of tried to depict both of those sides.” And has he learned anything about girls from the show? “They’re not so different from boys at the end of the day,” he says. “A lot of their inner desires and closeted demons are, in shape and form and size, not so different from our own. And that is somehow reassuring to me.”
Karpovsky’s casting in Girls followed his rise to celebrated indie filmmaker, but the way he tells it all of this is something of an accident. Instead of film school, he went to grad school: he studied social anthropology at Oxford, with an interest in ritual myth and the Amazon. He also pursued visual ethnography, which involves documenting cultures of the developing world with video capture. His education has indirectly influenced his work: “I made one documentary film which felt a little bit anthropological at times,” he tells me. Alongside his degree, he wrote plays and acted in small comedies, and when he moved to New York he got involved in stand-up comedy and made a few short films. He made a feature, The Hole Story, and “kind of by default” cast himself as the lead. “I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he says, “and I just thought I couldn’t rely on anyone else to stick around to make this film. Who else is not going to change their haircut for two years?” A few other filmmakers saw the film and then cast him in their own – “and that’s sort of how it started.”
After subletting and couch-surfing for his twenties – “I was very much a wandering Jew”, he says – Karpovsky finally got his own apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn this year. But it seems he won’t be settled down for long: he’d finished filming Season 3 of Girls the day before we spoke, and over the next few months he plans to go to Chicago, Philadelphia and then to Austin to work on some friends’ films, and then to make another film himself early next year, “if everything goes perfectly”. In a few months, Australian audiences will be able to see him as Marty Green, a professor of anthropology, in Inside Llewyn Davis, which is directed by two of his favourite living filmmakers, the Coen brothers. When I ask whether he’ll stay in films for the rest of his career, he sounds unsure. “I really don’t know,” he answers. For the moment, he says, switching back and forth between acting and directing keeps him fulfilled and engaged. And, he says, “I don’t see what else I could really do.”