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Alex Karpovsky on His Two Tribeca Films, the Coen Brothers, and Girls

Alex Karpovsky
Alex Karpovsky. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Even if you don’t know Alex Karpovsky by name, chances are you’ve seen his work. He’s an insanely prolific actor who stars in two movies at Tribeca — one of which, Rubberneck, he wrote and directed — and can also be seen as the arrogant Ray Ploshansky on HBO’s Girls. He has also had parts both big and small in some of the most acclaimed work coming out of the young American independent cinema, including playing the self-centered couch surfer in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. In Rubberneck, his fourth film as a director and also probably his most ambitious, he plays a tormented scientist whose obsession with a co-worker leads him down a dangerously self-destructive path. In his other festival film, Supporting Characters, he plays an amiable film editor whose professional relationships begin to intrude on his personal life. Oh, and have we mentioned that he’s in the new Coen Brothers film? Karpovsky spoke with Vulture about the Girls backlash, and how such a busy guy goes about creating compelling performances.

How does it feel to be on something as huge as Girls?
It’s kind of like losing your virginity. You think it’s going to be this big thing, but then you’re still the same person afterwards, with the same problems. We showed it at SXSW, we had a premiere in New York, and there have been so many incremental facets of showing it to people that it just feels like it’s been building and building.

It’s funny, though, that even before it aired, it had a backlash, which in turn had its own backlash. I think it might be on its third backlash right now.
It’s pretty groovy that something is already getting meta-meta-meta critical responses to it. In a way, it’s a sign of HBO’s enthusiasm for the show that people have had the time to have these sentiments and counter-sentiments and counter-counter-sentiments. But also the show is set largely in a world where people are in their twenties, people tweet a lot, where the Internet is a huge part of their lives, and maybe that invites some of that response as well. I’m very proud to be a part of it. It’s a very unique, fresh, funny, moving show. Even though I have a small part in it.

You and Lena have worked on Tiny Furniture, and she has a cameo in Supporting Characters as well. Do you feel a kinship with her?
I feel an overlap with her, and a real ease with her. It was interesting to work with her on Tiny Furniture, which was a tiny film with just a few crew members, and then to go into this big machine of HBO, but she didn’t change at all in the way she works and deals with actors, which I think is a huge testament to her as a person. She’s only like 24 or 25. To have that maturity and that grace is pretty stunning.

The work you both do has a real confessional, intimate quality, but I’d argue that your films go to a much darker place.
I guess that’s because I’m older than her. And I didn’t start making movies until I was 28 or so [in 2005’s The Hole Story]. Maybe the darkness had a little time to settle. So she’s probably going to get really dark, really soon, don’t worry.

I’m intrigued by how you prepare as an actor. Your performances and characters are incredibly diverse, and yet there’s something still very you about each one. You don’t seem like a very “Method” guy.  
I’m not a Method guy, this is true. In terms of preparation, I feel I really need to understand what’s going on, fully and completely. I need to understand exactly what the motivations are in the scene and how it resonates into the bigger picture. These are things that could probably fall down on the priority scheme in favor of things like getting the right look, but for me this is the most important thing. These are obvious things, but I feel like people forget sometimes. If there’s any question, that’s what rehearsal should be dedicated to: figuring out if we’re on the same page. It’s also important to be able to listen to the other person you’re with. I find that the hardest thing for me is when I’m in a scene without anybody else, because then there’s nobody to listen to. 

And yet you gave yourself a lot of solitary scenes in Rubberneck. Was that a conscious decision?
I definitely wanted to do something different, because I was working in a different genre, and tonally it was different from my other films, so maybe subconsciously that manifested itself as my doing fewer scenes with other people. Also, it was obviously just the nature of that character. It’s definitely a character-driven film about a guy who’s very lonely.

It’s also interesting to hear you say that preparation is so important to you, because a lot of the films you’ve been in could be described by some by that misleading term mumblecore
This interview’s over. [Laughs.]

People like to think of these microbudget independent films by young directors as being very improvised, loosey-goosey, unformed, dashed off, and yet you’re telling me there’s a ton of preparation that goes into it. In a way, it’s ironic how hard one has to work to create that offhand quality.
I know what you mean by that, and I agree. That’s one of the things that frustrates me about the way people refer to a lot of these movies, as if they’re all shot off outlines, and they’re handheld, and they’re all improv-driven. Like they’re all cobbled together in the editing room or something. I’m sure there are directors like that out there, but I’ve never worked that way. The three films of Andrew Bujalski’s that have been out in the world were all shot on film; you can’t dick around too much when you’re shooting on film. Tiny Furniture was shot in a very compressed time frame, and it was very surgical. We all loved the script. We loved Lena’s writing in Tiny Furniture. Why would we want to change it, or improvise it? Tiny Furniture is a very ensemble-driven piece, but it’s very unified in terms of voice. If everybody was improvising all through it, that voice would be diluted and compromised. The same thing is applicable to the HBO show. There are four recurring characters, and they’re all expressions of Lena’s voice as the creator of the show. If we all went nuts and improvised, that voice would be compromised 

So, what’s it like being directed by the Coen Brothers?
It was incredible. I was only on the film for a few days, but seeing the way they communicate with their crew, particularly their cinematographer, was really illuminating. They’re like equal parts of this one cinema brain. There’s two of them, so they have to vocalize things to each other, so you’re really seeing inside the mind of a director. Like, when they’d communicate something in the tone of the delivery to an actor, Joel would sort of say, “I feel like it has to come out a little bit less angry, and more confused,” for example. And Ethan would elaborate on that in a way that was seamless, like an extension of that one thought. But if there’s a shot where they’re trying to figure out what angle to shoot from, an ordinary single director might internalize that thought, and just say, “Let’s put the camera here.” But because there are two of them, you hear them discuss the pros and cons of putting a camera somewhere. “It’ll save us a setup later,” that sort of thing. So it’s like you’re really inside their brain. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to film school. 

Alex Karpovsky on the Girls Backlash