'Girls' Star Proves He’s the Next Jewish Boy Wonder

Alex Karpovsky is now making it big on the silver screen, too; just don’t call him another Woody Allen.

SAN FRANCISCO – Actor Alex Karpovsky is still getting used to fame in the movie industry with his role in the Coen brothers’ new film, his own independent films, and especially his role as Ray Ploshansky in the HBO series “Girls.” But instead of reveling in his success, he sometimes gets defensive, a reaction he’s been working to shed.

“I want to stay who I am, keep the same friends and the same routine of my life,” he says, adding that he sometimes has trouble forming new friendships, fearing that other people’s ulterior motives are at work.

“I don’t even go to Cafe Grumpy anymore – that was the cafe that was filmed in ‘Girls’ and I play its manager – even though it’s in my neighborhood and I used to sit there. Now it’s just weird.”

Until two years ago, Karpovsky, 37, was an unknown director and scriptwriter specializing in low-budget, limited-release films. He’s now “the next Woody Allen” due to his similar comic style, the fact he often plays the lead in his films, and yes, he’s Jewish. But Karpovsky wasn’t too thrilled to discover that he was compared to Allen in the program of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

“I don’t connect with that,” he says. “Believe me, I’m very different from him. It’s a compliment and he’s definitely one of the people who’s influenced me, but when you want to do something creative that engages people, you have to have an element of originality. When people compare you to someone all the time, you compromise on your originality and your individuality – that’s how I feel. I want to be allowed to do my own thing, with my own point of view and my own interpretation.”

He certainly doesn’t lack career opportunities. And he knows he owes them to a chance meeting with filmmaker and actress Lena Dunham four years ago at a Texas film festival where one of his films was shown. At the end of the festival, he suggested that he and Dunham share a cab. They became good friends and Dunham cast him in a leading role in her first film, “Tiny Furniture.”

Two years ago she offered Karpovsky his role of Ray in “Girls.” He also helps Shoshanna Shapiro, played by Zosia Mamet, lose her virginity at the end of the first season.

Karpovsky is now busy filming the third season of “Girls,” which will air in the United States beginning in January. Ray is due to get a more prominent role after he becomes the owner of his own business.

“The third season is going to go into some very dark, funny and surprising places. There will be a lot of crazy people. There will be blood, basketball, broken hearts.”

How will Ray’s character develop?

“What I liked about the second season is that there was an opportunity to reveal the backstories and what’s hidden underneath the character, and we’re keeping on with that during this season, too. Ray will keep trying to figure himself out. He has a tough layer of shield around his heart and soul, and this season we’ll start to understand the motivation behind it. Beyond that, he keeps looking for meaning and love in all the wrong places.”

To what extent is Ray’s character based on you? You’re also full of defense mechanisms.

“There are some similarities between Ray and me, but I hope there are also fundamental big differences. Ray reminds me of who I used to be five or 10 years ago. I was more cynical, more judgmental and really full of … unresolved issues. I’m still not on the mountaintop when it comes to revealing myself, but I believe that I’m in a much better place than I was 10 years ago. I look at him as someone I once was …. Lena knows me pretty well, and she likes to write from an autobiographical place, so it’s not coincidental.”

Next year in Tel Aviv

Karpovsky, who visited Israel a few years ago, was surprised to hear that “Girls” has attracted a following around the country.

“Really? People are watching it there? That really surprises me,” he says. “Of course, it makes me happy, but it’s also surprising. All the success of the series surprises me.”

He says he had a lot of faith in Dunham but thought the show would be too realistic for many people. He thought viewers were looking for more of an escapist experience and that the series might only appeal to hipster girls from Brooklyn.

“Fortunately, I was mistaken, and lots of people find it refreshing and interesting. It seems that the problems of people in their 20s really are universal if even people over there are connecting with it,” he says. “I’ll suggest to Lena that maybe the next season will be in Tel Aviv. Lena visited Israel a few years ago, before she became famous. I think you should invite both of us. We’ll be glad to come, and come back.”

The Coen brothers’ new film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which won the Grand Prix Award at the Cannes Film Festival, opens in the United States in December. The plot centers around a failed folksinger in early-’60s New York. Karpovsky plays an academic who helps us understand the period.

“That’s not a large role, but I’m a big admirer of the Coen brothers,” he says. “I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the reviews have been good. It was an enlightening experience to see them work, to see how they give feedback to the actors, producers and directors, and see the cooperation between them. I don’t know whether I learned anything real from them, since unfortunately I didn’t spend enough time around them, but it was an experience.”

Along with his work on “Girls,” he’s promoting his latest independent movie, “Red Flag,” which is being shown at film festivals around the world. It has also become popular on the Netflix streaming site. Karpovsky not only directed but wrote, produced and played the leading role. It’s a comedy with clearly autobiographical elements – a film creator launches a promotional campaign that turns into an effort to find himself.

“I’m glad to hear that it doesn’t look like a movie that had a $20,000 budget because the truth is that it was done on much less, something like $6,000. I’ve already made a few movies with budgets like that and I make it work. I don’t pay the stars and that saves a lot of money. There’s an advantage to making a film that’s entirely out-of-pocket and nobody interferes or limits you.”

Do you intend to try bigger projects?

“I want to. I’d also like to direct for television. If I have the opportunity to make a big-budget movie, I won’t turn it down. I can always go back to low-budget ones. Now I’m working on two independent movies of my own at the same time – a drama and a comedy. I’ll play the main character in the comedy, but I’ll only direct the drama because there are actors who are better at it than I am and there’s no character in the film who’s really myself.”

Are you confident in where you are now?

“I’ve come to the realization that I have no other skills in this world, and I’d be grateful if things kept on the way they are. I try not to take it for granted. Until two months ago I had no credit card. Now I have one, and I feel that I’m slowly getting financially mature. My mother, who is very much a Jewish mother, is pleased with what’s happening. Of course, she’d like me to get married already, but she doesn’t pressure me too much about it. Fortunately, I’m a man, so I can put it off until I’m older.”

Jessica Miglio
Jessica Miglio