Alex Karpovsky is more than just Ray from HBO’s Girls. He’s a multi-talented filmmaker who can write, direct, produce and act. This week, he has two features hitting Video On Demand: Rubberneck and Red Flag. The former centers on a research scientist named Paul, who’s obsession with a co-worker leads him down a dark path. The latter is a comedy that follows a director cross-country as he promotes a film and gets pulled into a love triangle with an aggressive groupie. We recently spoke to Karpovsky about these very different projects, and whether or not he’s ready to embrace acting full-time.
Rubberneck and Red Flag are two drastically different films. Which one came first?
Alex Karpovsky: Well, we shot Rubberneck, the psychological thriller first. But before we really embarked on the edit of it, I went off and shot Red Flag. And then before I really embarked on the edit of Red Flag I went back and started editing Rubberneck. It’s very easy to lose perspective and enthusiasm for projects especially when you’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting yourself, so I wanted to do them at the same time so I could take a break from one idea.
You directed and co-wrote Rubberneck, why’d you decide to star in it as well?
Alex Karpovsky: I didn’t intend to. I wrote the film with my writing partner on that movie, Garth Donovan, and we wrote it for — we didn’t have a specific person in mind but we knew it wasn’t me that we were writing for. Then we finished the script. We had a very long, laborious casting process and we finally got someone we really loved up in Boston. He’s much older than I am, he’s got a completely different energy that’s much closer to the person that we wrote it for. He fit it perfectly actually. But on the fourth day of production he had a family crisis, a health crisis with his family and he couldn’t continue to work on our film. We didn’t have a number two, so I basically stepped into his shoes and tried to make it work. I wasn’t a premeditated notion to try and do something different as an actor. Quite frankly, it was a reaction to the circumstance.
Did my eyes deceive me or did the film’s opening say, “inspired by true events?”
Alex Karpovsky: Yeah. I guess I don’t want to convey the impression that it’s a direct reflection of what really happened. We simply took a lot of creative license and narrative [of real events] in the telling of the story and fictionalized them for dramatic effect. But yes, there was a certain workplace romance gone very very wrong up in Boston a few years ago.
There’s a notion of where you can have a one weekend affair with someone and you could be obsessed with that person. If that person wants nothing to do with you, it’ll hurt but you’ll probably — if you’re more or less mentally adjusted — you’ll get over it if you don’t see that person very often. But if you’re forced to see that person everyday for eight hours a day at work. It’s like Chinese water torture. A man could very quickly unravel especially if you have some emotional baggage coming into this equation. That’s the basic conceit that we drew from actual events.
Paul is a quiet yet sinister villain. Why did you go that route instead of the typical over the top bad guy?
Alex Karpovsky: I think we wanted to do something different. We didn’t just want to completely retread something we’ve seen a million times. We really wanted to have this character and his arc be grounded in believability… We might not all be as introverted and misanthropic as Paul and we may not be nurturing as much difficult childhood memories as he does. I feel like some of the actions he does we can relate to. They’re not spectacular and over the top. They’re not traditional villain behavior. Because Paul is the main character and the whole movie does ride on his shoulders we want to make sure the audience can sympathize with him and can engage with him. One of the main challenges was, how hard can we push this sympathy and this empathy? Can we still root for this person after he does a really heinous unspeakable act at the middle of the film? That was a real challenge and the driving force of enthusiasm for us as writers to see if we can pull that off.
Shifting gears, is it fair to say Red Flag is an exaggerated version of things you’ve personally experienced while promoting a film?
Alex Karpovsky: Well, I’ve never really had a groupie follow me, much to my chagrin [laughs]. It’s never happened to me. That’s completely fictionalized. I really made this movie, a movie within a movie. We really did go on a tour of the South. All the Q&A and audience, all the venues that are in the film, are the real venues that were on the tour. We were tethered to the itinerary of the tour during the production. All of that, of course was real. A lot of the fears that the main character is negotiating with are fears that I have. I have a fear of death. I have a huge death anxiety that I deal with all the time. I feel a lot of my day-to-day fears… are reverberations of this underlying death anxiety.
I really loved the realistic and random conversations you and your friend Henry (Onur Tukel) have. I specifically remember a talk about how all animal sex is rape. What made you put those gems in the script?
Alex Karpovsky: Well, I think you’ve answered the question. I think it’s because they’re authentic. I think they’re really funny. In terms of the reason why we put it at that point in the film, I wanted to show that these guys are starting to bond with each other. They’re starting to open up with each other. They’re forming comfort and familiarity and hopefully respect and trust for each other so that when things begin to fray there’s something at stake. There’s a friendship at stake. We needed to show a scene where they bond and get along. I thought animal rape [laughs] would be a fun scene to bring them together.
You currently have a recurring gig on HBO’s Girls and you’ll appear in the next Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. Even though you’re a director, is acting moving to the forefront?
Alex Karpovsky: I want to be able to do both if I can. I’ve been doing that for the past year. I think I’d get very anxious and bored if I just did one thing. If I only acted I’d feel like I didn’t have enough control over my own creative expression. I wouldn’t be getting enough of it. And I also, don’t feel comfortable relinquishing my future to other people. I can’t relinquish that control. It makes me anxious. But I’d like to do both if I can.
Are you surprised Ray is still on Girls? He was introduced as Charlie’s friend. And when he and Marnie broke up, we assumed Ray would disappear. But he’s still going strong. What’s the secret?
Alex Karpovsky: I don’t know. I don’t know what was going on inside her [creator Lena Dunham] mind. I also was kind of unsure whether or not he would stick around. He was sort of Charlie’s friend. I don’t know why they kept him around, but I’m so glad they did. You know Ray’s a little bit older than the other people on the show. I think he’s usually one of the first people to call out the other characters on their B.S. He kind of injects perspective into their situation. Even if it’s slightly off, and twisted and misguided and perverse — it is perspective.
Are you writing anything now? Do you have plans to shoot anything soon?
Alex Karpovsky: Yeah, I’m writing two films: a comedy and a drama. I like to write two films that are very different simultaneously because when I get bored or lose enthusiasm it really helps to go with something completely different. I feel recharged. I feel like I’ve gone on vacation when I go back to the other project. One of them I hope to make soon after we make season three of Girls, which will probably be in September or October.
Red Flag and Rubberneck are currently available nationwide on VOD. You can enjoy a theatrical double feature at the Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center starting February 22 in New York.
Image credits: Adam Ginsberg/Tribeca Film