The coffee shop in New York's Union Square might be packed on this cold afternoon, but scanning the crowded bar it's hard to miss Alex Karpovsky looming at the far end—even if you're not familiar with work. He's more than six feet tall, so he towers a bit, and his scowl can be intimidating. Fortunately, that's where the similarities end. More bluntly: He's not really a dick.
"I guess that's who I often end up playing," he admits.
Karpovsky has starred in more than 20 films—including three opening in the next six weeks, and, as if that's not enough, he's still playing series regular Ray Ploshansky on Lena Dunham's Girls. Karpovsky is often cast as the intimidating, fast-talking, self-aware jerk, a role he carries off with wit and charm. Dunham tells us: "He's got a unique, old-school quality. He can sell affable self-awareness while at the same time, he's very hard-edged. He makes every line better."
He's dressed like many of his Brooklynite characters: dark sweater with a collared shirt sticking out at the neck. But he speaks with much more care than the bellicose ranters he specializes in playing. Karpovsky takes in every question like he's working through a mathematical equation, absorbing it all and addressing every point succinctly.
One moment, talking to him, I thought I had unlocked a more intimate side. But just as he seemed poised to describe a telling conversation he had with another actor, Karpovsky paused and said, "No, that's too personal."
After that, he whipped out a smile and tried to go halves on lunch.
This nice guy with the bullying façade has fascinated festival audiences for a decade, as he's dicked it up in a parade of indies, including some of the five features he has written and directed himself, and Dunham's breakout Tiny Furniture in 2010. In Daniel Schechter's Supporting Characters, out this week in New York and available almost everywhere on demand, Karpovsky plays his first leading role. "I think he has a lot more range than people realize," says Schechter, who tracked down Karpovsky to play Nick, a film editor facing best-friend and girlfriend issues. The character is less of a prick than usual.
"It was appealing to do something with a little more heart and tenderness," Karpovsky says. "But I do love playing the ranting, two-dimensional jerk."
All this success was hardly part of a master plan.
"I had no desire or interest in filmmaking or acting," Karpovsky says of his childhood growing up outside of Boston to immigrant Russian Jewish parents. "It was scientists and the scientific method everywhere."
Focused on a career in academia—his father, a computer scientist, has taught at Boston University since 1985—Karpovsky studied graduate-level anthropology at Oxford. On a whim, he began doing theater. Within a year, he dropped out and moved to New York to do stand-up comedy. Well, sort of.
"I was writing monologues and playing characters without the audience immediately knowing that I was playing a character," he says. His models: Andy Kaufman and Spalding Gray. "That didn't really get off the ground."
He turned his energy to filmmaking, scraping enough money together to make the low-budget mockumentary The Hole Story. Karpovsky starred as a determined karaoke-video editor (also named Alex Karpovsky) who puts his life's savings into making a documentary TV pilot about a mysterious hole in a Minnesota lake—only to discover the hole has since closed up. But Alex continues to shoot townspeople and experts, hoping the hole will open again. The film hits a satiric peak when drunk Alex takes his camera into a bathroom stall and begins a rambling monologue about the need for mythology in America. Part confrontation and part self-deprecation, the experiments Karpovsky began in his stand-up were taking full form on screen.
Still not confident in his acting, he formed friendships on the festival circuit with other directors, who kept casting him. "I've never gone after a part in my life," Karpovsky says. "We're all doing low-budget movies, so they'd say, 'Be in mine for two to three days, and I'll come do work on yours.'"
Most of these films were rarely seen by audiences outside of festivals. But then he met Dunham at South by Southwest.
"I thought she was smart and really funny," Karpovsky recalls. "We hung out over the summer, and she told me she was writing a role for me for her next film, Tiny Furniture. When friends write roles for you, you show up. When I was done, I thought, 'That was fun. This will probably play at a festival and go away like the others.' I'm glad I was wrong."
The film became an indie hit, the most successful thing Karpovsky had ever been in—until Dunham wrote him into her HBO pilot.
In the coming months, it seems the guy who enjoys dropping into a movie and then calling it a day is ready to lean closer to the spotlight. Besides Supporting Characters, he's got two films he wrote, directed, and starred in opening in February: Rubberneck, a thriller in which he plays a scientist who has an obsessive infatuation with a co-worker, and Red Flag, a Larry David–like improvisational comedy that Karpovsky shot with friends. (Tribeca Film is releasing both.) He even landed a small role in the next Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis.
"This kind of fell in my lap in some ways," says Karpovsky of his career. "I feel incredibly fortunate to be in this position. I love directing, and I love acting. It's like the Cassavetes model: Make money as an actor and then use that to make movies."
He pauses to take a few bites of his Greek salad.
"I'm just not as talented as him."