Alex Karpovsky is no stranger to a film festival. In the past year alone, he has had movies premiere at South by Southwest (Fits and Starts), Sundance (Sidney Hall), TIFF (My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea) and Tribeca (Folk Hero & Funny Guy, in which Karpovsky plays a struggling stand-up comedian who gets roped into opening for his more successful singer-songwriter friend on tour). Yet, when Karpovsky phoned ET to discuss Folk Hero & Funny Guy, out now, he said that he’s the least busy he’s been in years, despite having also had a prominent role as Ray Ploshansky in the sixth and finale season of HBO’s Girls.
“I feel like there are guys working a lot harder than I am,” Karpovsky laughed, explaining that he started acting in his early 30s when he and his friends would act in one another’s independent movies. “I tried not to [turn friends down] as much as possible, just because I believe you should say yes to your friends. I would like to think that they would have done it if the roles were reversed.”
ET: Clicking through your IMDb, I noticed that most of your projects are with writer-directors. Jeff Grace wrote and makes his directorial debut on Folk Hero & Funny Guy, as does Laura Terruso on Fits and Starts, going all the way back to Lena Dunham with Tiny Furniture. Is that a conscious choice?
Alex Karpovsky: That’s definitely a conscious choice, yeah. Look, there are millions of exceptions to what I’m about to say, but I think a voice has a possibility of being expressed in a much stronger and purer form if it’s represented from as many different sides of filmmaking as possible — writing, producing, directing, acting. I think once you start parsing that out, there’s a potential — just a potential, sometimes — to be diluted and you start to get this mosaic of voices. And sometimes that’s a wonderful thing. But I think more often than not, it becomes sort of a jumble-jamble mess.
I think one of the things that I’m really proud about with Girls is that we got such a pure expression of Lena’s voice in the show. And that’s because she wore so many hats — as a writer, creator, director, producer, star. It was so much of Lena in the show; it was undiluted by the fact that she was only doing one or two things and giving the other responsibilities to other people. I try to find that in movies as well. Auteurs.
Do you find that the scale of a movie isn’t as important as having that singular vision? You advocate for indie sensibilities, but you’ve done bigger productions, as well. The Coen brothers’ films [Inside Llewyn Davis and Hail, Caesar!] aren’t Marvel movies, but they are certainly sizable.
Absolutely. A single vision, and ideally a single vision that has something new to say, are the two biggest draws for me when coming on to a new project. And I have worked on a few sort of studio movies, but it’s the Coen brothers. It’s people who I think are amazing writer-directors with a very specific and original vision. I mean, right now I’m doing — well, that’s all I should say. I was going to get into financial stuff, but there’s no need. In 10 years, if I’m completely destitute and a Marvel movie possibility opens up, I think I’d be much more open to it. I’ll put it that way.
Ray on Girls has become perhaps your most recognizable role. As you move on from that character, have you found you are intentionally choosing the roles that are quite different from Ray, that allow you to show different sides of yourself?
Certainly. I think if you do a show for six years and you haven’t done too many high-profile things before or since, then people view your acting and your persona to some degree as that character. For that reason alone, I would like to start differentiating the type of characters that I play. Because I may not have the biggest range in the world, but I can play people besides Ray Ploshansky, and it would be fun to show that in other projects. A lot of the independent films that I’d done before Girls had more sort of dramatic elements. I acted in a few movies that are straight-up dramas. I acted in movies that had more subtle comedic components than what we do on Girls. I think it would be fun, if not necessary as a professional — hopefully professional — working actor to show those different sides. Otherwise, no one will ever give you a chance to play anything else. But listen, if a great director like the Coen brothers or whoever says, “Hey, give me more of that Ray Ploshansky feel,” then I would not hesitate to give a great director more Ploshansky. [Laughs]
You were directing before you ever started acting and you’ve said you are acting less these days in order to focus on writing and directing your own material. Do you have plans to ever give up acting completely or keep doing both?
The latter. I would hope to keep doing both as long as I want. I like hopping back and forth between the two. It keeps me sane and fulfilled. I think if I only directed, then the narcissist in me would not be getting enough attention. [Laughs] There’s just something really fun about the performative aspect of being wacky and goofy and collaborative with friends. I feel like it’s just — I dunno — a good time. So, I wouldn’t want the good time to go away. And if I only acted, I would be unfulfilled because not enough of my “creative voice” is being expressed in the world. Also, as an actor, there’s something very difficult for me, personally, about surrendering my fate to an external power. I think that’s very sort of existentially disempowering, and I don’t think living full-time in that type of world would keep me sane. I would like to get to a point where I feel more confident in my directorial abilities that I would be able to act in my own stuff. But there are some things that I feel like I can’t do as an actor or I’m not interested in doing as an actor, but I am interested in exploring as a writer or director.
What are the things you think, as an actor, that you can’t do?
Period pieces. I love watching them as an audience member, but I just don’t understand how to do it as an actor. I mean, maybe I could go back five years to, like, 2012 or something. I wasn’t trained as an actor. I don’t know techniques. And maybe some of this is covered in the manual for actors, I don’t know. But what I try to do often is try to reflect the reality that’s around me and talk the way someone would talk in the world that I inhabit. Once you start going back more than five or 10 years, I start not feeling nearly as confident about what people were like, what insecurities and fears and motivations and desires and fantasies that they might have had. So I don’t feel like that comfortable inhabiting their skin or certainly not improving with their mouths. If I was to dive into an 1870s movie, I guess I could maybe try to do some research and try to figure out what the people were like then, but no one’s ever asked me to play a non-contemporary piece. It’s just something that I’d be very nervous about, I think.
In regards to the other half of that, what are the things that you wouldn’t want to do as an actor, but you would be interested in exploring in your writing and directing?
Well, I really like thrillers. Taut psychological thrillers are very fun — a lot of slow-moving, tension-building, character-driven stuff. I’m really into The Handmaid’s Tale. I just started watching that last week and I think that’s really well done. I don’t ever see myself acting in a show like that, but I would love to write something like that. And I have tried and will continue to try to write tension-filled stuff, as that is. But I just don’t feel terribly confident acting in that world. I just don’t know how I would take myself seriously, so I can’t expect an audience to take me seriously.
I want to ask you a bit about Girls, now that it has officially ended. You weren’t in the series finale, but what was that Sunday like for you? Seeing the last episode and then seeing everyone’s reactions to it.
You know what? I haven’t seen [it]. I’m on episode four of season six, and I haven’t seen the last, I guess, five or six episodes. And I kind of know what happens, because I’ve been doing interviews and I talk to people who assume that I know and then they say stuff. But I don’t really know. We did have a table read, but a lot of our stuff changes from table read to shoot to actual edit, so I actually don’t know what happens in the finale. And I have been watching the show over the years — I watch it when it airs — but I think I stopped watching it this year because I’m not ready to say goodbye in my own little way. I feel like I want to hang on to the memory of the show for just a beat longer. But I’m planning to watch. I’m planning to binge watch the last six episodes in the next few weeks.
Binging the final half of the season sounds like it will be an emotional experience.
It probably will be. Maybe I’ll just go to Mexico with a bunch of morphine and just watch the last chunk of the show.
What was your first reaction when you read the script for your last episode [“What Will We Do This Time About Adam?”] and saw how they wrapped up Ray’s story?
You know what, I think I didn’t know it was the last thing for Ray when I read it. Because we have table reads where we read two or three or four scripts at once and — I could be making this up, I think this is true — we read up until episode eight, but we didn’t have the scripts for nine and 10 yet. So, when I read eight, I didn’t know that I was not going to be in nine and 10, so I didn’t know when I read it that it was my last scene.
How did you feel about Ray ending up with Aidy Bryant’s character, Abigail?
I really liked that storyline! I think it’s nice for Ray to have somewhat of a happy ending and to send him into the twilight with someone that he actually does connect with and there is a sliver of hope with. I really like that part. And I didn’t see episode eight yet, but I remember kind of the vibe between Ray and Abigail just kind of, like, feeling good. They were not only having fun and [being] goofy, but also connecting on an emotional level. They have a lot in common, in their own way. After six sometimes difficult — oftentimes difficult — years with Ray, it was nice to give him a nice ending. And, from what I’m gleaning, it might be one of the few happy endings that these principal characters get on this show. So, that feels nice too.
I’m about to become one of those people giving you spoilers…but I know some fans were disappointed that Ray and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) did not end up together and that Ray, as far as we know, wasn’t even at her engagement party. Did you ever think those two might come back around and get back together?
Yeah, I certainly thought that it was a possibility. But I’m glad the way things ended with Ray.