Five Minutes with Alex Karpovsky

Alex Karpovsky, the actor best known for his role as the barista Ray Ploshansky on HBO's Girls


Alex Karpovsky, the actor best known for his role as the barista Ray Ploshansky on HBO’s Girls, is celebrating his very own Tribeca Film double header—the debut of two features he both directed and stars in. In the road-trip comedy Red Flag, he’s a bumbling caricature of himself; while in Rubberneck, a psychosexual thriller, he turns to the darkside. The films just might earn Karpovsky some real cred in the indie-auteur circle, where his friend and lady boss Lena Dunham holds court.

You went from pursuing a Ph.D. in visual ethnography at the University of Oxford to pursuing a career in stand-up comedy in New York. Was there some sort of eureka moment? No, it was a pretty slow burning process. I dropped out of the Ph.D. program, picked up a master’s on the way out the door, and moved to New York. I was working as a caterer on the side when one of my friends, who was also in the city working as an editor of infomercials and karaoke videos, said, “You know, editing is much more interesting than catering. It pays more, and at night, you can still do your wacky things.”

Do you have a favorite from all those infomercials and karaoke videos? You must have a signature karaoke song by now… Anything you work on, even if it isn’t the most creatively challenging thing, still feels like your baby. And even if you don’t love each baby equally, you should be a respectful father; it would be uncouth to choose favorites. But look, I really like Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man.”

Okay, so I won’t ask which one of these two films is your favorite, but what was the draw behind releasing them as a double feature? What was the first double feature you remember watching? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a double-header. I was a pretty hyper child; the notion of being able to sit through two movies was inconceivable. We thought it would be a fun idea to show two very different films from one director and filmmaker. It doesn’t happen that often.

Red Flag is very meta. What was it like to play a version of yourself? There was a movie called The Trip by Michael Winterbottom, where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play caricature versions of themselves. Stuff like that really makes me laugh. Woody Allen used to do this a lot in his early movies, of course, and that’s what I like: to amplify my own fears, neuroses, delusions and ambitions for comedic affect.

Can you share a few of your fears or neurosis? [Laughs.] I think a lot about death; a lot of my surface frustrations and angers are fundamentally rooted in the fear of my own mortality. So that is something I tried to apply both dramatically and creatively. There is also my commitment phobia. My character has this sort of epiphany moment in the middle of the film; that’s a real breakthrough moment of catharsis.

Does that mean you had a similar breakthrough moment in real life? Yes, I basically squished a bunch of life experiences and small light bulb episodes into one semi-spectacular, 40-second scene.

In Rubberneck, your character also deals with death and anxiety. Not to spoil anything for the audience, but you succeed in being sufficiently creepy. I think people who are used to seeing you in a comedic light will be surprised. Well, good! It was just a product of circumstance, though. We had originally cast someone else for that role, but the actor had a family emergency and dropped out of the film last minute, so I stepped into his shoes in order to finish the movie.

Directing versus acting, you must use different parts of the brain. Do you prefer one to the other? I think I would be really sad if I only did one or the other. If I only acted, I would not feel comfortable surrendering my fate to external powers. But I also love acting; it’s a stress-free way of being creative.

I’m glad you’re succeeding in doing both, especially with the popularity of Girls. What do you think about co-directing a few episodes of the show? Oh I don’t know, maybe. I think we’re in a good groove right now, so if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.

I watched your spot on Rookie’s “Ask a Grown Man.” You listed a few things you found attractive in the opposite sex: sincerity, confidence, a sense of humor, humility, style and the ability to dance. Anything you’d like to add or amend? Don’t you think that list is pretty comprehensive? I’m very happy with it.

Portrait: Adam Desiderio