Photo by Wikimedia Commons user David Shankbone
You probably know Alex Karpovsky as Ray Ploshansky, the sardonic Greenpoint coffee shop manager in Lena Dunham's infamous HBO show, Girls. However, for the past decade, he's also played a supporting role in America's micro-budget independent film scene. He's written and directed several of his own films and acted in movies like Beeswax by Andrew Bujalski ("the Godfather of Mumblecore") and Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk with Me (a cult favorite).
Karpovsky often plays a meta-version of himself in his own features. In the buddy comedy Red Flag, he's on a modest movie tour, repping an older film of his called Woodpecker to under-packed art house theaters and stoned kids on college campuses. There's a nice moment in the film where he's introduced before one of his director's talks as one of Filmmaker Magazine's "25 New Faces of Independent Film" in 2006 and the voice behind several Russian gangsters in Grand Theft Auto IV. Both true, but his IRL bio also boasts a starring role in a new feature called Tired Moonlight, which was directed by Britni West and is premiering at Rotterdam Film Festival.
I gave Karpovsky a call to chat about his new film, acting and directing at the same time, and Lena Dunham's intelligence.
VICE: How did you get involved with Tired Moonlight_**?**
Alex Karpovsky: Britni and her boyfriend Stephen Gurewitz are old friends of mine. I met them both on a movie called _Incredibly Small four or five years ago, and since then we've worked on a bunch of projects together. Stephen made a feature length film called Marvin, Seth, and Stanley that Britni worked on as well. So they are just old friends of mine.
Britni is from Montana and she made a movie out there kind of about her upbringing and her childhood, incorporating all of these colorful and eccentric characters that she knows. So we made this really beautiful and lyrical tone poem, a journey through the backwoods of Montana, shot in 16mm two summer ago now.
I read that you're not just acting in this, but also working as an associate producer. Is that sort of doubling common in the context of these small indie films?
To say the very least, these low budget independent movies are incredibly collaborative endeavors. You need to rely on so many dependencies and favors just to make the whole project congeal. So if I can help in anyway, I try to do it. So in this movie, I tried to put on my very small and ill-fitting producer's cap in hopes that it might help a few things.
And is this the same context in which you've made a lot of your films?
There's a lot of backscratching involved. I do something on yours, you do something on my movie. And it can be anything. Last year, I helped me friend record sound. I boom-operated on his movie and in return I got him to act in one of my projects. So it's really whatever anybody can do.
In a lot of your movies, you play a version of yourself. But Rubberneck is very different. You're playing a lovesick suburban scientist. I was curious, did you write it with yourself in mind?
I wrote it with my friend Garth Donovan in hopes of finding someone a little bit older and with a little bit different energy than me. We did find someone after a long process that we were really excited about, but unfortunately three days into our shoot, he had a family emergency and had to drop out. We didn't have any one else lined up as a number two and we had to keep the train moving. So we re-shot the first three days with myself and that's how I ended up playing that role. It was absolutely not written for me.
I think I read that with John Cassavetes's Love Streams, he only ended up being in it because someone dropped out last minute.
Was he? That's really interesting. Do you know who was initially supposed to be in it?
It was Jon Voigt. Cassavetes is someone who is interesting to think about as maybe being a bit of a model for what you're doing. You're acting in bigger and bigger things and still trying to do your own smaller projects. But a lot of things have changed in independent film since Cassavetes's day.
The similarity remains that people want to make small, personal, intimate projects with a group of their friends. I think that has remained the same, but in terms of the practicality and the execution, a lot of things have changed, and I think a lot of things have changed for the better. With the advent of really good and cheap video cameras, the aesthetic boundaries between what someone does on their own in the basement and what we are presented from a studio have increasingly disintegrated. And for a lot of people, especially if they are watching it on their laptops, they can't even tell the difference. There are no longer these binary camps between us and them and between personal stories and other stories.
And another reverberation is it's a lot cheaper to tell these personal stories without any corporate or studio backing. You can now do it on these sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo and these crowd sourcing platforms. With these new DSLR cameras and these new web sites, it's much easier to tell these stories. I think that's fundamentally different from when Cassavetes was making his movies.
Cassavetes sometimes talked about his model being that he would go out and do something commercial and make some money in Hollywood and then go and use that money to fund his own stories with his friends. But in terms of that model, I am so lucky because I can go out and get some money from the show that I do and use that money to fund my own projects and the projects of my friends. But unlike Cassavetes, who felt he was selling out doing that kind of thing, I don't feel that way at all. I'm working on something that I'm really proud of and think is really interesting and engaging and I hope to get to do for a long time. So I feel like in many ways, I'm even luckier than Cassavetes even though I'm not nearly as talented—if that makes sense.
Absolutely. Also, in your case, with Girls, you weren't auditioning for some role with a big paycheck. You were in the same small indie world of acting in a friend's film when you were first in Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture, right?
Yeah, exactly. And in fact, I've only [gotten] one or two things in my life through auditions. The other 99 percent have all been through friends, acquaintances, and stuff like that.
What are you working on right now?
The Cohen brothers are making a new movie—I don't think it'll be out for another year—but I'm acting in that. And I'm also directing and producing a web series about internet dating in Los Angeles called Side Swiped that is really fun and weird and dark. And just acting in independent movies here and there. I'm writing another movie I hope to make in the fall. We'll see what happens.
On the topic of that web series, have you gotten into that show High Maintenance?
Yes that's a good reference for it. We're working in the same mold of a small video project, eight-to-ten minutes long, that explore some of the weird characters in our lives. High Maintenance is a huge influence for sure.
And are you a character in it?
No, I'm just directing and producing it.
Is that a relief sometimes to not have to do everything?
I just think it's fun to direct. It's just very pleasurable. And if I don't act, yes it's even more fun. But I also think I just do a better job when I'm not also trying to act. I can just focus on the images and the performances of the other people. I'm not as distracted. Some people can multi-task a lot better. Lena is an incredible multitasker in that sense. She can be totally present in a scene and be loose, flexible, and have great improvisational ability. But there's another core processor in her mind that is simultaneously making all these notes of all these adjustments that need to happen to the image and to performances and whatever else. And I can't do that as well. I'm not as smart as she is.
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