Throughout six years on Girls, a dozen years’ worth of indie films before that, and the run of sometimes higher-profile films—including two by the Coen brothers—that he’s starred in since the HBO series boosted his profile, actor-writer-director-producer Alex Karpovsky keeps ringing slightly less nebbishy variations on the kinds of men Dustin Hoffman played in his youth. A typical Karpovsky character is introverted but charismatic, handsome in an unflashy and distinctive way, maybe a little too smart for the room, and sometimes callow or neurotic but always essentially a mensch.
In our interview last week, Karpovsky told me that all of his characters are essentially “amplifications” of parts of himself. Sure enough, he comes off as articulate, wryly funny, and wary of self-aggrandizement in person as he does on screen. He talked about the best and worst parts of being on a television show that gets as much love and hate as Girls (which wraps up its final season on April 16), the death of his character’s mentor, Hermie (played by Colin Quinn), and what his Russian-Jewish parents think of the state of American politics.
Over the last six years, Girls has been one of most loved, hated, and talked-about shows on TV. What were the best and worst parts of being in the middle of all that?
I think the best thing is to be able to do something that’s woven into some sort of cultural conversation, and to keep the conversation going to some degree for six years, and hopefully be provocative and weave in certain topics that aren’t typically discussed, at least in the language of TV. I’m proud of what we were able to do, and I’m proud of this last season. I think the way it ends is pretty wonderful. I don’t really know what I’m disappointed about.
Not in terms of the series as a whole, but for you personally: Has there been any downside?
Well, at the risk of sounding arrogant, every now and then people stop me in the street and they talk to me, and most of the time I enjoy that, because most of the time they’re saying nice things, but there’s an anonymity that I miss. There’s something really kind of serene about [anonymity], especially in New York, where you’re bombarded with so many people at once, in being able to just kind of slip away into your mind. Seven years ago, when I was on the subway, the thought of more than one person looking at me would never cross my mind. But the thought that someone can be [looking at me], whether or not they are or not, is always somewhere in my mind now, and it frankly can be a little bit exhausting. If I’m in a bad mood, it can kind of deepen my frustration. That’s the only downside. But to be honest with you, it’s a very small thing compared to the upside.
Is there anything useful you’ve learned, as an actor or a director, from being part of this juggernaut?
When we started this show and I started to understand the tone with which [creator and star] Lena Dunham wanted the story told, I was skeptical that something so grounded and raw and personal could work outside of…
Really, outside of Lena’s life. I just thought, there’s no chance this could resonate on a mainstream platform. I was wrong about that. I learned that if you make something really personal and true to yourself—as cheesy as that sounds, it’s true—and authentic and honest in your own voice, that if that voice is smart and courageous and funny at times, then there’s a chance it could reach an audience that’s beyond your circle of friends.
One of the things Girls got blasted for, particularly early on, is its lack of diversity. Some critics seemed to assume that the people behind the series were as blindered as the characters, whereas I always thought the whiteness of the show was more of an artistic choice: Lena was making a show about the type of women who don’t have a diverse group of friends, so if they’d made the cast more diverse it would not have been realistic.
Totally. I think it was important for Lena to make a show that was centered on flawed people, people that were sheltered and myopic and cowards, to some degree, and immature. I know those type of people. So did she. She was interested in telling those stories. Those type of people sometimes don’t have friends that look different from them. And that’s a sign of being sheltered, and being a little narrow-minded, and that’s what the show, to some degree, was about, initially. So when people criticized the show for that, that type of criticism was slightly misguided, in my opinion, though I definitely knew where it was coming from.
But Lena and co-creator Jenni Konner didn’t just throw up their hands and reject that feedback. They took it seriously and seemed to learn from it.
They like to lean into controversies and make them into talking points. That’s something that fuels them creatively. So they tried to address it both in interviews and in the show. There’s this great scene with Donald Glover at the beginning, I think, of season two, where they talk about this.
People often seem to see your character, Ray, as the designated grownup or the moral center of Girls.
I wonder if that’s mainly just because he’s a decade or so older than the other characters, since he’s in many ways stuck in the same kind of extended adolescence as the younger characters, dating the wrong people, trying to figure out what to do with his life, and totally out of touch with his own emotions, especially at the beginning of the show. Do you see him as a voice of reason or just another confused character who likes to hand out unsolicited advice?
[laughs] I think it’s a little bit of both. I mean, he’s older. I think that sometimes when you’re around people who’re younger than you, you kind of slip into this role of advice-giver even if you don’t necessarily have that much advice to give, or even if the wisdom—quote, unquote—that you’re giving is tortured and also misguided. But also, beyond the age stuff, he’s more ethically, um, pure [laughs], for lack of a better word, than the other people. I think he has a little bit more righteousness and honesty woven into his DNA. But to say he’s the moral compass of the show—it’s not that hard, when these people are so messed up.