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Alex Karpovsky: Not Just That Guy From ‘Girls’

The actor talks writing, directing, and why he loves listening to books on tape

Alexander Aciman
October 24, 2014
Alex Karpovsky reading at Selected Shorts at the Ace Hotel in New York City on October 22, 2013. (Rahav Segev)
Alex Karpovsky reading at Selected Shorts at the Ace Hotel in New York City on October 22, 2013. (Rahav Segev)

A small crowd filed downstairs into the Liberty Hall at Manhattan’s Ace hotel Wednesday for the latest Selected Shorts pop-up reading. The event, organized as a celebration of the New York reading series’ 30th anniversary, would feature three short stories, Aimee Bender’s ‘Fruit and Words’ read by Heather Burns (Bored to Death), Dolan Morgan’s ‘Interior Design’ by Dave Hill (Tasteful Nudes), and Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Who am I This Time?’, read by by Alex Karpovsky (Girls). Of the three, the Vonnegut felt decidedly out of place. That could be because Vonnegut’s story had a decidedly level-headed charm beside the contemporary fiction, but it could also perhaps have been because Karpovsky himself is not simply an actor on the rabidly popular HBO series, but a writer who spends half his time working on projects of his own.

The event at the Ace was Karpovsky’s third reading for Selected Shorts: his first was Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Sixty-Nine Cents’, and the second was Etgar Keret’s story ‘Creative Writing.’ The Vonnegut passage involved an extended imitation of a character invoking Marlon Brando for a performance of Streetcar, which Karpovsky nailed. By now Karpovsky has gotten into a groove: “I spent a lot of time listening to books on tape growing up, and when you have a story read to you that way there’s no visual context.”

As a performer, he explains, one inevitably begins to gesticulate and act in a way that is entirely different from the “head-voice” one develops on one’s own reading a text silently. “I try to fuse these two voices, to convey this to people listening, to give them something exciting. It’s a sensory synesthesia,” he explains. It’s a difficult craft, and one that Karpovsky recently spent perfecting on a road trip listening to Jeremy Irons’ reading of Lolita.

For the last few years Karpovsky, who plays Ray Ploshansky on HBO’s Girls, has dedicated six months of his year to shooting the show, and the other half to his own work. “Once in a blue moon,” he tells me after the reading, “I’ll direct a film by another writer.” Every few years, he’ll spend a month directing a film, and has agreed to, in the next few weeks, direct online shorts as part of an online series.

But for a writer who has become something of a Selected Shorts mainstay, Karpovsky, like most New Yorkers, also struggles to find time to read; in part, this is because any free time for reading is dedicated to reading scripts for work (which he does for an hour before bed, or on the toilet), but also because anything not script-related is research for projects of his own. This past year he’s made room for a few books, among them Stephen King’s On Writing, and he has just started working through Karl Ove Knausgård’s three volume novel, My Struggle (Karpovsky asked me to clarify that he was reading the work of the Norwegian writer, and not Hitler’s similarly titled autobiography.)

As a writer, Karpovsky’s ambitions are strangely straightforward: “I haven’t written a book, and I don’t know that I ever will, but I want to keep making movies that excite me, that are in some way honest because I have been honest with myself while working on them, or because they are about fears I really do nurture.”

Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.