Alex Karpovsky on acting versus directing, having no credit, and starring in ‘Girls’

Alex Karpovsky. ()
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Over a recent dinner, Alex Karpovsky had a near-near-death experience with his kabob.

The actor, writer, and director was gamely attempting both to answer my questions and eat when a piece of chicken lodged itself in his throat. He did not appear distressed, but he stepped away from the table in order to address the situation more privately.

“This happens,” he explained upon his return. “For the past year and a half or two years, I think something happened to my body.” About once a week his esophagus grabs onto a piece of food and won’t let go. “I think it’s a stress thing,” he said. This had been only a mild episode, he explained.

“Every two months, there’s a moment when that does happen where I feel like I might die,” Karpovsky said. “I knew I’d survive this one. The last time I felt like I might die—I remember it very clearly. I was working on this movie Sleepwalk With Me, and we were having lunch, and a carrot got stuck in there, and I was absolutely convinced I was going to die.” Sleepwalk With Me, an Ira-Glass-produced film by the comedian Mike Birbiglia, came out earlier this year.

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“I felt—it was a feeling of embarrassment,” Karpovsky remembers. “I don’t know why. It was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to die in front of all these people… here, at lunch, with these people. Not that these are bad people to die with, but I don’t want these people to see me die.’ Such a vain thought.” Also, fortunately, unwarranted. “I totally survived, no problem. But it was in there for, like, a good ten minutes.”

Over the past couple years, Karpovsky has not only survived esophageal close calls, he’s established himself as a multitalented indie film fixture—writing, directing, and acting—most notably in mumblecore stalwart Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax and in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. Currently he’s promoting Red Flag, his own most recent film, as well as Stephen Gurewitz’s Marvin Seth and Stanley, in which he stars. Over the past two years alone he’s been in 13 features, including two that he also wrote and directed (the other was this year’s Rubberneck). Later this year he will appear in the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis

Yet despite starring in a host of films, he’s become best known as Ray Ploshansky, the increasingly likable jerk he plays on HBO’s Girls. Karpovsky met Lena Dunham at the South by Southwest Film Conference & Festival in 2009, and she wrote him a role in Tiny Furniture before bringing him along to premium cable. Jed and Ray, his Dunham characters, share an abrasive charisma—they are the guys who commandeer your dinner party, insult a few of your friends, and still get invited back. Sometimes new acquaintances will venture to note a similarity between Karpovsky and Ray.

“I kind of see where it’s coming from, but I hope it’s not that true,” he said. The show’s second season, which airs in January, promises to clarify the distinction: “A lot of the underpinnings regarding Ray’s anger are explored.”

The easy knock on Girls is that it’s an over-privileged nepotism-fest. Karpovsky’s own circumstances, however, remain modest.

“I’ve never got a credit card,” he said. “I never was given permission to get a credit card. I applied a month ago for a credit card and I was denied. I was very angry about it.” Because he has no credit card, he has no credit, and because he has no credit he’s never managed to sign a lease: He has been subletting since he first came to New York, in 1999.

“I can’t get a real apartment,” he said. “So I’m living in a place where I can’t control the furniture.” He’s moved around, but currently lives in Williamsburg.

Karpovsky grew up in Newton, Mass. His parents were Russian immigrants, and his dad taught computer science at Boston University. Though in elementary school he was “a flaming extrovert,” Karpovsky said his personality retreated in adolescence.

“As [novelist and n+1 editor] Keith Gessen can attest to, I was probably one of the shyest kids in my high school,” Karpovsky said.

(Gessen—a fellow child of Newtonian Russian Jews—was a family friend, childhood baseball teammate, and companion on summer vacations.)

Karpovsky reclaimed extroversion as a deliberate experiment during his junior year abroad at Oxford: he immersed himself in theater and stand-up comedy before returning for his senior year at Boston University. Then he went back to Oxford for an anthropology Ph.D. program, where he studied for a year before taking a leave of absence that became permanent.

“I loved, and still do love, anthropology,” he said. He once felt confident he’d end up in academia, and he’s still not positive he won’t. “I’m not totally 100 percent married to everything that I’m doing now,” he said. “I like it a lot, but I’m under no presumption that it’s going to last forever.”

Still, at least temporarily, he has abandoned the “comfy” world of academia: Instead of researching visual ethnography in Amazonia, he moved to New York and worked catering jobs while trying to do stand-up.

“I did a lot of sort of Andy-Kauffman-inspired stuff,” Karpovsky said. “It involved a lot of props and schlepping of gear.” Movies came later, when an Oxford friend brought him into the editing business as a better-paid alternative to catering. He “fell in love” with the process, and made his first film, The Hole Story, in 2005.

“The movie took a real, strange small-town thing”—a mysteriously unfrozen Minnesota lake—“and it sculpted a fictitious narrative around it,” Karpovsky explained. “It was basically a much more quiet and passive and reflective Borat.” As he did in Red Flag, his fifth movie, he both directed and starred as a version of himself, playing a hapless filmmaker named Alex Karpovsky.

“I’m very good at over-thinking things to their detriment in all aspects of my life, to the point that it’s paralyzing,” he said. “In acting I feel like it’s one of the things where I have at least limited short-term success in not over-thinking things.” Karpovsky says he tries not to think like a director (“to distance myself from any sort of directorial constellation of neurons”) when he’s on set as an actor. But working as an actor has taught him about how to direct.

"Increasingly I’m understanding how much actors need to be coddled,” he said. “Because I need to be.”

When we met, he had just finished his first day of shooting for “Law & Order: SVU.” He has a guest role in the show’s 300th episode, playing a police officer “who’s misunderstood” in a plot that involves kidnapping.

“It’s a rite of passage as a New York actor,” Karpovsky said of the show. “It’s like getting arrested or something.” And, like getting arrested, it can be scary.

“I’m playing a cop,” he said. “I’ve never played a cop before. I don’t look like a cop. So I don’t know how I’m doing. I think it’s OK, but I don’t know if they’re laughing at me between breaks.”

He’s seen Girls guest stars in this position: nervous about walking into someone else’s workplace and eager for any reassurance. Girls is the first time Karpovsky has been part of project that’s become an ongoing job, and among the questions it raises (Do you read your reviews? Do you socialize with your castmates? Not really, he’s decided in both cases) is that of how to include newcomers. Now, taking his turn at the New York actor’s quintessential gig, he was the outsider.

“But then, you know, Richard Belzer winked at me,” Karpovsky recalled. “And he said, ‘Great job.’”