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Interview: Alex Karpovsky Talks Girls, Politics, & Growing Up

The actor talks about the best and worst parts of being on a TV show like Girls.

Interview: Alex Karpovsky Talks Girls, Politics, & Growing Up
Photo: HBO

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…

Brooklyn?

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.

Terrifying. [smiles]

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.

Is Andrew Rannells’s character, Elijah, right when he said in a recent episode that Hermie’s death was the best thing that could have happened to Ray?

I think there’s some truth to that. I think Ray is so deep in the fog at the beginning of the season, just given up on politics, phoning it in at work, phoning it in with Marnie, that he needed some kind of an earthquake to really make pivots in his life. I don’t think encouraging words from Shoshanna would really be enough, at this point. Maybe in the past it would—actually, I know in the past it would have. But he needed something, unfortunately, pretty traumatic to happen to inject him with enough perspective to really make him reexamine things in a fundamental way.

Your parents are Russian-Jewish immigrants, and you came here when you were two. What do they think of the Russians’ interference with our election and the rise of anti-Semitism since the election?

I mean, they came from the Soviet Union. Being Jewish there is really, really bad. There’s a lot of anti-Semitism here too, but it’s a lot worse there. They grew up in a quota system, to some degree, being Jews. I don’t think they’re huge Donald Trump supporters, and it’s a bummer for them that we have to go through this as a country.

They’re not alarmed?

No. I thought they’d be more alarmed, because they grew up in a fascist regime. So, I was curious: Are they, like, PTSD people where the smallest thing would set them off? But actually, I’m much more freaked out than they are. They’re like, “It could be so much worse. I’ve seen it so much worse.” And I’m like, “But isn’t this how it starts?” And they’re like, “This country has too many safeguards. There’s too many checks and balances.” And I was like, “Didn’t Germany have checks and balances in the ‘30s?” And they’re like, “This whole Nazi comparison is just alarmist.” Maybe they’re right; maybe the deep state will control Trump. Or maybe…I can’t deny that democracy is receding worldwide, and there’s a surge of nationalism and populism that’s taking over the planet, certainly in Western Europe. And Jesus, that’s going to be a lot of safeguards and checks and balances [needed] to hold back this whole tide.

Your dad is a professor of computer science, but your mother introduced you to the loan shark who lent you $10,000 to make your first movie. So what’s their take on your career? Are they still hoping you’ll give up this showbiz nonsense and go back to school?

I think they had that feeling until I started supporting myself financially through this nonsense. And then they were like, “Oh, you can make a little bit of money off this? Fine, keep doing this for a while.” I think, coming from the Soviet Union—I’m sort of psychoanalyzing them a little bit—it’s just, like, survival. Whatever makes money and doesn’t really compromise your dignity, I think they’re totally supportive of.

Has being one of the boys on Girls, which is written so much from the female point of view, changed your thinking in any way about the other projects you want to be part of?

It doesn’t affect my thinking, but when you do a TV show for six years, I think it affects how people view you. I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of people don’t want to do TV. Even on our own show we had people that didn’t want to keep going because when you play the same character for a long time, it’s hard for people to see you differently. Ask any of the people on one of these crime shows. It’s really hard.

You played pretty similar characters to Ray even before Girls though.

To some degree, yeah. A lot of them are kind of different monsters from my own past, with different traits of my youth. I’m not one of these chameleons like Joaquin Phoenix or Daniel Day-Lewis who can slip into all these different types of people’s skins. I can just amplify different sets of things that are preexisting.

When you talk about your past, you seem to talk a lot about being on your own and being a kid who took a while to find your voice and your self-confidence.

Yeah. It was good times, but there was a lot of loneliness. I’m not only an only child, but I’m an immigrant, and my parents didn’t sort of culturally weave themselves into the new environment. I spent a lot of alone time, playing video games, throwing a ball against the wall, just thinking.

You also had a pretty impressive college education, including two years toward a PhD at Oxford, until you dropped out. Did anything you learned in academia help you as an actor or director?

I think it slightly refines your analytical faculties, and I think that’s helpful as a director, to be able to parse out elements that are helpful for the structure of a story or to progress a certain character arc. I think studying anthropology was really helpful, because sometimes you’re forced, in that field, to decode the cultural symbols and memes of a given group of people, and then you combine them to create some sort of argument. You do that when you write characters and create characters, breaking down the things that make them tick or make them engaging or vulnerable or whatever.

You studied anthropology and psychology, right?

Yeah. I enjoyed both of those things a lot. I didn’t drop out of school because those things were boring. I dropped out because other things became more interesting.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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