If you've watched more than a handful of indie films in the past few years, there's a great chance you already know Alex Karpovsky. He's starred in well over 20 low-budget to no-budget films going as far back as 2003, usually playing some twenty-something dude navigating his way through the trials and tribulations of complex romantic relationships. Some of these films found distribution, others have not, but Karpovsky is passionate and dedicated enough to continue forging ahead, collaborating with friends on personal visions while maxing out credit cards and scraping together whatever money they can to keep the moviemaking dream alive.
And that non-stop drive (Karpovsky has had a hand in over 15 films since 2009 alone!) looks like it's about to pay off big time, as Karpovsky has a pivotal role in HBO's new show Girls, as well as two films at this year's Tribeca Film Festival (one of which he co-wrote and directed) and a part in the Coen Bros. next movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. If this is Karpovsky's "big moment," he's certainly not counting his chickens before they hatch.
"I have a lot of things going on at one time, and it's exciting and exhausting," Karpovsky told us amidst a very brief break from his hectic Tribeca Fest schedule. "I don't know if it's 'the moment,' I mean who knows. The first time I acted in a movie that got into Sundance narrative competition, I thought maybe this is the moment. The first time I had a movie get into SXSW, I thought that. I don't feel those types of feelings anymore as much. They don't resonate as viscerally inside me as they once did, but it's definitely incredibly exciting to have all these things happen at once. But I also know in two to three weeks, some things will become semi-forgotten and that's just the way things go. You have to manage your expectations to some extent."
Karpovsky stars in two films at this year's Tribeca Film Festival that will hopefully not be forgotten. He co-wrote, directed and stars in Rubberneck, a tense, slow-burn psychosexual thriller about an introverted lab scientist who obsesses over a one-time weekend fling he had with a co-worker several months prior. In Supporting Characters, he plays one half of an editing duo forced to balance their evolving and complicated romantic relationships while fighting to save the indie film they're working on from completely falling apart.
The films are two of the strongest playing Tribeca, and they further prove that Karpovsky is quickly becoming a wicked force within the independent film community. With Rubberneck, Karpovsky goes a very different route than we've seen from him previously, choosing to channel themes of loneliness, despair and acceptance through a character whose obsessions lead him on a progressively darker journey, forcing him to confront a past that continually haunts him both mentally and physically.
"We've all be in this situation where we've had a tryst with someone and your desires are unreciprocated. If you don't see that person very often, it's quite easy to allow that wound to heal, slowly, over time. If you're forced to see this person every day, as Paul (Karpovsky) is, that makes it much more difficult. The wound is basically ripped open by nine o'clock every morning. That, combined with some personal baggage issues from his childhood that he deals with as well, is going to potentially make for an unsavory conclusion. So that workplace obsession -- with unsavory consequences -- was the sort of catalyst here."
Choosing the job of introverted scientist for his main character worked extremely well in understanding many of his motivations, and Karpovsky, who grew up with a father who's a scientist, tapped into a lot of what he already knew while crafting the character of Paul. "I think I did need some sort of familiarity to explore something quite different," he told us. "Growing up with [scientists], looking at them -- I had no brothers or sisters, and we moved a lot, so my circle of friends was small and in a constant state of transition. There was a lot of time to reflect, take in your surroundings and examine your parents. I don't think I would've had as much courage or confidence to do something totally different having no familiarity with it."
Having familiarity with the world not only helped in creating the characters, but also fueled their understanding of them too. "We wanted to make a slow-burning, muted psychological thriller, and we felt the nature of scientists -- the nature of their work and the scientific method -- would lend itself to this very sort of imperfect, introverted, reflective and meditative mindset that we could explore in that landscape," Karpovsky said.
Perhaps Rubberneck's greatest strength is its ability to get you to relate to and root for its main character even though his actions may be so far removed from anything you'd ever do in real life. For Karpovsky, getting that balance right was one of his biggest tasks. "In terms of the character, that was our number one objective," he said. "To create a character where, after he creates a heinous act -- the most heinous act -- you are still hopefully able to nurture and emphasize with his struggle, and even root for him. It was challenging, but it was also the most exciting part of developing this character."
Even though he's one of the busiest indie actors working today, Karpovsky is still struggling to catch up, financially, after investing so much in what he's most passionate about. Rubberneck is currently on Kickstarter in an effort to "crawl out of this financial hole that we've found ourselves in," Karpovsky told us. "I'm a very impatient person. I can't wait around asking for money. This is a movie we made without any pressures or anyone over our shoulders in the edit room. We put in our money, we borrowed money, we put a lot on credit cards, deferred payments, and when all that added up we were kinda screwed financially. I'm definitely going to need help to get out of his jam, and that's the purpose of the Kickstarter."
Perhaps his other film at Tribeca, Supporting Characters, will further push Karpovsky in the right direction, both financially and by building more awareness of his excellent range as an actor. For this film, again he tackled something he's never done before: A straight-up bromance dramedy about two editors trying hard to balance their friendship with their professional and personal hardships.
"I haven't really done any bromances at all. The bulk of my scenes in these independent movies are with a girl or I'm a lone wolf trying to figure stuff out on my own. And so it was incredibly fun because it was so unfamiliar for me. It was different, fun and surprising for me, and the actor I was working off of, Tarik Lowe, is incredible. He has incredible comedic timing and a lot of emotional versatility as well. To have that kind of multi-package while being a handsome little devil is pretty damn impressive, so it was really fun working with him."
Like with Rubberneck, Karpovsky tapped into what was familiar to him in order to breathe some realistic, accessible life into a world we normally don't see on screen. "Before I acted or made my movies or did anything in the cinematic sense, I was an editor. I worked as a karaoke video editor and as an industrial and music video editor. I never went to film school; that was sort of my little film school, ya know, by putting together images into some sort of story, hopefully."
While we wait for films like Rubberneck and Supporting Characters to find distribution homes, Karpovsky forges on. Believe it or not, but he's premiering another new film he's really proud of, Marvin Seth and Stanley, at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival later this week, and he's really fond of the time he spent on set working with the Coen Bros. on their next film, Inside Llewyn Davis. "I play Marty Greene, who is an extremely Jewish-looking man, which was the character's description in the screenplay. It's set in 1961 New York City, and [my character] is basically a square who lives on the outskirts of a very hip downtown folk scene. I'm probably the uncoolest guy in the whole movie, but it was extremely fun to work on. I'm a big fan of those guys; I've seen every one of their movies. It was both rewarding and illuminating to watch them communicate with each other, the crew, and the actors -- it was incredible."
But even though his future may involve bigger Hollywood films and TV shows, Karpovsky is still very much a part of today's independent film scene, and fortunate for us that doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon. "I think [indie film] is in a great place, I genually do. It seems like more and more films that do well on the indie circuit are finding mainstream audiences, or wider audiences. I also think, on a much more technical note, that there's been a tremendous upgrade in the picture quality [of these films] with really low-end and affordable digital cameras. That's made it very accessible for filmmakers who may not otherwise get a shot, who want to tell stories that are much more personal. They don't have to bend over for larger powers. They're funding it themselves, or with people who they share a similar sensibility with. I think it also allows for much more interesting, honest and less formulaic filmmaking."
Interesting, honest and less formulaic filmmaking just about sums up both of these Karpovsky films premiering at Tribeca this week, and it's voices like his that will hopefully help bridge the gap between mainstream and indie, opening up our minds and hearts to a different kind of filmmaking; one that's more personal, passionate and exciting. Karpovsky and his friends are already leading the way -- all you have to do is start paying more attention.
For more info and screening times for Rubberneck and Supporting Characters, check out their respective Tribeca Film Festival pages by clicking on each title.