Before he was Girls’ Ray, or “the guy who sleeps next to Lena Dunham” in Tiny Furniture, Alex Karpovsky was writing, directing, and acting in independent films all his own. This week, Tribeca Films releases two of Karpovsky’s most recent works: Red Flag, a road-trip comedy starring Karpovsky as himself, and Rubberneck, a psycho-drama starring Karpovsky as an emotionally stunted scientist who seeks revenge on a former lover. Vulture spoke with Karpovsky about both films, playing himself onscreen, and whether or not Ray learned anything in Staten Island on last night’s Girls.
Rubberneck seems like a departure for you — or at least something audiences won’t expect to see you in. What inspired you to make a dark psycho-thriller?
Well, one, I love those types of movies. Slow-burning, character-driven, psychosexual thrillers are probably my favorite genre as a viewer. They’re hard to pull off; there’s a challenge there. I’d always fantasized about doing one. The other reason is I wanted to try something different as a writer-director. As an actor, it was a never a preconceived idea — in fact, we didn’t write this role for me, we wrote it for someone, we had a very long and laborious casting process, we found someone, and on the fourth day he had to drop out because of a family crisis. So I stepped in and tried to do my best.
The first title card says “Inspired by a true story.” What happened in real life?
There was basically a story of unreciprocated desire in a workplace in Boston. It stemmed from a tryst that didn’t last very long; one person wanted to keep it going and the other person didn’t. The woman started seeing a new person, and the scorned lover began to engage in a systematic process of sabotage to undermine the new budding romance. So all of that did happen, in Boston, but everything else we made our own. We made the workplace very different from the real events, and we also made the childhood trauma elements — we created that, for dramatic effect. And we have a climax that is pretty intense, and that’s not exactly how it played out in real life. There was a criminal element to that story, but our ending was definitely amplified.
This movie is much further from your life than Red Flag, in that if Red Flag is not totally autobiographical, you’re at least playing yourself and using elements of your life. Do you prefer the personal or impersonal approach to filmmaking?
I hope this doesn’t sound a like a cop-out, but I don’t think I’d be happy if I couldn’t do both. If I could only do one thing, I’d get very anxious and feel shackled. I love to write what I know, and I love to express caricatured versions of myself. A lot of people that I really love as filmmakers — Woody Allen, Larry David, Louis C.K. does it, there’s a movie by Michael Winterbottom called The Trip — I get off on that. I think it’s really fun. And I feel like I’m okay enough with myself to amplify my delusions and insecurities for comedic effect. I also love playing characters that I have to completely create. It’s very fun and liberating and exciting for me to play someone that I have nothing in common with.
It does seem like you’re drawn to projects that have elements of yourself, and also to projects (Tiny Furniture, Girls) that revolve around autobiography. Do you and Lena ever talk about that approach?
I’ve never really talked to Lena about that. I don’t know if autobiographical is the right word regarding Girls and Lena; I think she draws a lot from the past. She takes certain elements of her past that have contributed to her understanding of her relationship with herself, her parents, and she’s very good at that.
Your Girls character was originally going to be called Karpovsky, right?
That’s true. When she first sent me the script for the pilot, the character’s name was Karpovsky, and the only note I had was to change his name. Other than that, I liked it.
Is the rest of Ray based on you?
Very little. I feel like I’m drawing very little from my life and applying it to Ray. I think Ray is in his own weird place, and I don’t feel like any of it relates to me and my backstory.
After this last episode, that seems like a good thing. I feel very sad for Ray!
[Laughs.] He’s having a tough time of it, at that point in the season. That’s for sure.
What’s a good outcome for Ray?
Ray and Shoshanna both enter this relationship, and it’s full of uncertainty and anxiety for both of them — for Shoshanna because of her inexperience, and for Ray because of these issues which are largely unresolved. I think we start exploring the underpinnings for these issues, the emotional firewalls he has in his life, and in the Staten Island episode, they begin to dig into this stuff. Why is he nurturing these fears? What are the contours for these fears? I feel like Adam injects him with a lot of perspective, and Ray’s values are actually kind of bankrupt. The end of that episode is kind of a reflection of that. So going back to your question about the outcome, I hope he continues to explore these things, and from there I hope he can make significant, concrete adjustments to the point that he can maybe harbor a healthy relationship. Maybe with someone who has a little more in common with him. Maybe he can get out of his Mitsubishi and into a real place.
It sounds like you don’t think Shoshanna is the right relationship for Ray.
I’m not saying that. It’s not necessarily a perfect relationship. The road to love between Ray and Shoshanna isn’t necessarily paved with roses, and there are lots of surprises that might be difficult for them both to negotiate. I’m not saying it’s doomed, and I don’t want to be fatalistic about it, but they are different people. They are different ages. They have different worldviews. It’s very much uncertain whether they’ll find a graceful way to compromise, and learn to love each other’s differences, or if, to quote Joy Division, love will tear them apart.
This is a random question, but you have a great pig speech in Girls, and in Rubberneck, you have a major guinea pig scene. Is that a coincidence?
I never, ever made that connection until just now. I have to chalk it up to coincidence rather than a grand, premeditated strategy.
So you don’t have a pet pig farm somewhere?
No, I don’t.